"The Jiri Kylián ballets are not banal stories of 'I love you, why don't you love me?' They're beautiful paintings in lighting, costumes and music," says Gradimir Pankov, artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal.
And this weekend, the Detroit Opera House hosts the biggest dose of Kylián choreography to be seen in this city, thanks to Pankov and Les Grands Ballets.
Kylián is to European ballet and the Netherlands Dance Theatre (where he was the director) what Jerome Robbins was to American dance and New York City Ballet: a leader who uniquely combined classical movement and contemporary dance the likes of Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun" and "West Side Story." The Czech choreographer has carved out a niche for the last 30 years at the Nederlands Dans Theatre.
Pankov is a bit touchy about the difference between modern dance and classical ballet. "Yes, the dancer must have perfect classical technique, but it is not classical ballet; it's contemporary." Clearly he wants to distance his company from the classical companies with repertory in the 19th century story ballets. In fact, when he came to the Grands Ballets he is now in his sixth year his first goal was a change in repertory.
Maybe it sounds like out with the old and in with the new, but that's not necessarily the case. There are two dances performed in pointe shoes and one in soft shoes, and 32 dancers altogether. "Of course we do 'The Nutcracker,'" he says, noting that it brings in $1.5 million. But Pankov says that the Prague-born Kylián is the hallmark of the company's redefined repertoire.
Two of the three Kylián dances performed this weekend "Six Dances" and "Bella Figura" are revivals from the 2004 season in Montreal. Along with "Forgotten Land," a Kylián piece from 1981, they form a trio of very different performances. But according to Pankov, "They're similar because they're expressive of human desire."
"'Forgotten Land' is inspired by the English coast, where strong waves erode the beach, and by a Munch painting," Pankov says. The piece, regarded as perhaps Kylián's most beautiful ballet, is "expressive of the desire to be unified with nature." Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, which accompanies the dance, was inspired by East Anglia on the English coastline, where the composer was born.
With costumes, makeup and stage design of Mozart's era, the artistic director explains "Six Dances" is about the desire to forget about bad things. When Mozart composed the music, it was wartime and the purpose was to give pleasure, a desire to find a peaceful moment in a time of war.
And about "Bella Figura," he raves, "When the public sees it once they want to see it a second time." The dance has a wonderful Renaissance touch, with music by composers as diverse as Mozart, Vivaldi and Webern, but it also offers some comedy. In one scene, a male dancer performs a series of classical steps, leaping into the air and falling into a heap. Once you breathe a sigh of relief and realize it's not an accident, it's a laughable moment.
And about "Figura," the last of the trio, Pankov waxes poetic: "It is the age of dream and reality, the images are very human and it creates a very special atmosphere: Someone said, 'Jiri Kylián ventures into the twilight zone and the human soul.'" Pankov seems satisfied with that.
The warning light seems to flash for Pankov, however, when the conversation about costuming comes up. In "Figura," both men and women wear full, floor-length skirts and no tops. "They are topless because the piece is pure innocence," he says, his voice an octave or two higher. "It has a beautiful lighting design. You can hardly see who are the men and the women."
This is just another sign that what you are seeing is not conservative ballet. In many ways, over the past two decades, contemporary dance, whether modern or classical, has eroded the differentiation between male and female in performance. This is the only dance program in southeastern Michigan this season to feature pure contemporary classical dance; that it's a full program by one of the international choreographic stars in a newly revitalized young company is a bonus.
An Evening of Choreography by Jiri Kylián is at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 7, and Saturday, April 8, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; call 313-273-SING for tickets.Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org