In the ballets of Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián, provocative movement is only the beginning. Consider the fantastical sets. In Boston Ballet’s upcoming “All Kylián” program of three of his works, “Wings of Wax” features the dancers underneath a giant bare tree, dangling upside down from the rafters. For “Symphony of Psalms,” the dancers are framed by 40 red-toned Oriental carpets, which transform the stage into a kind of sacred space.
The most recent work, the 2006 “Tar and Feathers,” requires shiny black and white floors that dancers not only dance on but slide across in sock-clad feet. In rehearsal, splits seem to magically sink and rise, and there is the occasional noisy squeak when the flesh of bare hands meets glossy vinyl. The work’s central figure, ballerina Kathleen Breen Combes, likens the black floor metaphorically to “a sea of tar.” She says, “All the lifts melt into the floor and you can look through to your own reflection to see yourself dancing. It’s really cool.”
The quirkiest work on the program, running Thursday through March 17 at the Boston Opera House, is “Tar and Feathers,” which includes improvised music on prepared piano, played live by Tomoko Mukaiyama. The twist is that the piano is atop 10-foot-high “stilts,” adding yet another element to the set. The dance is partly improvised as well, anchored by a taped Mozart piano concerto interspersed with sound samplings (including dancer-cued electronic growls that the performers refer to as Oscar the Dog).
Kylián set “Wings of Wax” (1997), a work about shifting relationships, to compositions from Bach and Biber to Cage and Glass. “He uses music in a way that’s always a surprise,” says Roslyn Anderson, a former dancer with Kylián’s Nederlands Dans Theater who has been staging the choreographer’s works on companies around the world for more than three decades. “He combines different pieces of music, even different centuries, and somehow it works.”
In contrast, the 1978 “Symphony of Psalms” is a large ensemble piece set to a 20th-century masterwork, the eponymous score by Stravinsky, which will be performed live by the ballet orchestra and the New World Chorale. “The music was a commission in the 1930s by the [Boston Symphony Orchestra], so bringing it back here with this ballet is like completing a little circle,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen.
‘I’m so happy that [Kylián] trusts us with his work, including work that he hasn’t let out to other companies.’
The ballet, Anderson explains, “is extremely emotional, an expression of life and life’s passages that demands a certain maturity from the dancers. I’m really curious to see these three ballets together, which has never been done before. It’s very exciting.”
And for audiences, Anderson adds, “Jirí has never been one for writing a synopsis. He doesn’t believe audiences should be told what to see or think. He loves that one person sitting next to another can see something totally different in the same work.”
With these three additions, Boston Ballet now has nine of Kylián’s works in the repertoire, including the five ballets of “Black and White” and the fanciful “Bella Figura,” an exploration of gender identity that had male and female performers dancing topless in long red skirts. That’s more than any other American company and helps solidify a profile Nissinen has sought for the troupe since the beginning.
“This is part of my vision for the company,” Nissinen says. “Kylián is one of the foremost contemporary choreographers, and I’m so happy that he trusts us with his work, including work that he hasn’t let out to other companies.”
Nissinen has been enamored of Kylián’s work since he saw a 1976 performance in Finland by Nederlands Dans Theater, the company Kylián has been associated with as artistic director and choreographer since 1975. It was Kylián’s choreography that started to put that troupe on the international map. “His works have such a heart-to-heart communication that speaks to you at such a profound level, this emotional tidal wave that is so powerful,” Nissinen says. “We all in dance believe in the transformative power of this art form, and he exemplifies that.”
Kylián suffers from a fear of flying and has never seen Boston Ballet live. For him to entrust the company with his choreography meant he had to send someone to Boston to check it out. After 2005 presentations of Kylián’s “Sarabande” and “Falling Angels,” which apparently met the stagers’ expectations of quality and stylistic authenticity, Boston Ballet became the first besides Nederlands Dans Theater to do the full-evening “Black and White,” in 2009. It was so successful that it was programmed in back-to-back subscription seasons. In 2011, Boston Ballet became the first American company to perform the flamboyant “Bella Figura,” which was another Kylián hit for the company.
Kylián’s highly detailed work is tricky for any ballet company. And unlike the classical vocabulary, it demands a super-flexible torso as well as the willingness to sink significant weight into the floor, often off-balance, at high speeds, and in constant motion. Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo, who danced 20 Kylián ballets during his 14 years with Nederlands Dans Theater, says the choreographer always encourages dancers to “do more, take a risk, take it so far you are on the edge of falling off.”
Danced well, Kylián’s choreography flows with a seamless, organic quality, and Breen Combes, who has danced in six Kylián works with Boston Ballet, says it has been instrumental in laying the foundation for the company’s competency in all contemporary work. For her, it also adds a vital component to the troupe’s wide-ranging repertoire, and that repertoire “is really one of the main reasons I’m here,” she says. “In the dance world, people are extremely jealous. The fact that we do a whole Kylián program the week before opening ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is unheard of.”
She calls “Tar and Feathers” the most “far-out” Kylián ballet she has performed, a work about grappling with one’s inner demons and struggling to express something that just won’t come out or comes out wrong. “This is more confrontational, aggressive, making the audience view dance from their own perspective rather than sitting passively. It’s meant to shock and make people think about things in their own life.”
One of the more challenging aspects of the ballet for Breen Combes has been the improvisation. “At first, it’s very frightening when someone gives you six minutes to do whatever you want. It’s so far outside our comfort zone. As classically trained dancers, you are taught to be upright, place steps just so, project a certain way. This is more internal. It’s about you as a human trying to be yourself and work through all these emotions. It’s liberating in a way.”
“And it builds you as a dancer,” she adds. “It’s a rare ballet that lets you grow as a person.”