Choreographer Jiri Kylian, for many years artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theatre, used to make dances with an elemental sweep and a resonant humanism at their core. In the Boston Ballet’s “All Kylian” program, which presented three of his works spanning 28 years, that generosity of spirit — along with a hard-earned tenderness — shone through, but not without a detour along the way.
The oldest work on the program, “Symphony of Psalms” (1978), remains the most compelling. Set to Igor Stravinsky’s score of the same name, the dance, for 16, is at once a celebration and a requiem.
The words, sung with passion by the New World Chorale, bounce off the backdrop hung with heavy Persian carpets and the chairs that line the back and side wall. The action comes in canons and waves, bodies dropping out of groups like rain and arms that rebound into cruciforms. This is a community of like-minded souls, and their support for one another is emotional and physical. A common refrain in the duets: a man leans into a woman as she sinks to a crouch, gently lowering him, belly first, to the ground.
Kylian enables you to see not just the individual phrases but the architecture of the whole — his bone-by-bone building of the choreographic structure, and then its deconstruction, as the dancers, alone and in groups, exit through the back scrim. You exult, and then accept, as the singers intone: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord./ Alleluja.”
Whereas “Symphony of Psalms” reflects our coming into the light and then fading, “Wings of Wax” (1997) concentrates on the risks we take in the interim. A dance for eight set to music by Heinrich von Biber, John Cage, Philip Glass, and Johann Sebastian Bach, it is an exercise in coupling, both its dangers, and joys: Now a man spins a woman on his back, now four women, running in slow motion, are “partnered” by a single man who zigs, zags, and slides among them.
The Boston Ballet dancers slip with ease from Kylian’s languid classicism to his flex-footed, gnarly-armed modernity. The rigorous, stolid movement reflects the dramatic set: a thick tree hanging upside down, its roots a mere shadow of it craggy branches. A large light strung from the rafters circles the tree slowly, marking time, showing the passage from night to day.
The echoing “Tar and Feathers” (2006) appears to be Kylian’s walk on the modern dance experimental side — and suffers because of it. A compendium of distorted mouths and craggy limbs, turned-in feet, and jittering hands, it’s a distraught cry in the wilderness, complete with menacing growls and popping bubble wrap.
A large ice “boulder” of the wrap offsets the domineering image: a piano raised on nine-foot stilts, on which Tomoko Mukaiyama improvises live as the six dancers contort, spasm, and jitter below.
The sound is a pastiche: music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, text by Samuel Beckett from the poem “What Is the Word,” and additional composition by Dirk Haubrich.
The dancers, in particular, Kathleen Breen Combes, give it their all — rummaging through the darkness with vigor and bracing intent. But even they can’t override the contrivances of the action.