David Mead talks to the choreographer’s assistant, Cora Bos-Kroese, ahead of the company’s first ever staging of a Kylián work.
Jiří Kylián once said that “every work I’ve ever made is about love and death,” by which he meant that which makes us human. Within that, a common theme is the cycle of life, the idea that past, present and future are connected, that while we may be in the here and now, we cannot help but look back at the memories we carry.
That is all very much to the fore in Forgotten Land, which evolved from Kylián’s connection with Stuttgart Ballet, John Cranko having met and then hired the young Czech dancer while he was at the Royal Ballet School. Many years later, Marcia Haydée would ask the now noted artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater to return to create a work for the company. Premiered in 1981, the ballet is a largely sombre work for three main couples, one for each movement of Benjamin Britten’s Sinfona da Requiem to which it is danced, and six supporting dancers.
“They are a wonderful bunch of dancers but to get the style and deepen the quality of the movement that Jiří asks for in a piece like this does take time,” Bos-Kroese admits. “There is a certain aesthetic to his work. You have to grow into it, and it is a big ask for them to change from what they are used to.”
Certain works, like Forgotten Land, which is quite classical in terms of lines and form, are easier on classical companies, she concedes. But to dance other works, especially the more recent ones, dancers should have a connection to his previous choreography to know where it comes from, she believes.
Taking an arabesque as an example, she explains that Kylián’s style is about a lot more than external shape. “He’s interested in the reach of the body, the pulling back. The softening of the chest, something classical dancers tend to hold. Plus, he wants the extra motion that comes from within. The arms aren’t just decorative but come from out of the body. So, they move as the body moves. It’s like breathing the music.”
She emphasises that it’s totally about intent. “Every time you teach a step, you also teach the intent. What are you trying to say with this step? If you give that during the process of teaching, then it falls together, and with the music and the partnering. You have to have trust in your partner, not only to do the movement but to give weight, not hold yourself; to release. He wants the dancers to be real people on stage; living, breathing people with humility and something to say.”
Watching Yaoqian Shang and Lachlan Monaghan rehearsing one of the pas de deux, that idea of the breath being absolutely inherent in everything, of reach and of giving weight, almost surrendering to the music and emotion of the moment, was already plain to see.
Believing fully in the dance is so important, Bos-Kroese says. She adds that among Kylián’s many pieces of advice for dancers is that, “Your moment is now. So, do it now. Give it your total conviction of being in the moment at that moment because, tomorrow, you might not be there. That fatalistic. The importance of doing something and doing it wholeheartedly and with full conviction. That’s what you have to give the audience. If you don’t give it. if you are holding back, it’s not interesting to watch. It’s more interesting to watch someone struggle and fight for something fully that not struggle at all. That’s what Jiří says.”
Kylián’s two main inspirations for the ballet were Britten’s music and Norwegian, artist Edvard Munch’s 1899 painting, The Dance of Life, both a lament for lost lives. Although commissioned to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of its ruling dynasty by the government of Japan, the Sinfona da Requiem comes with a clear anti-war message (at the time, Japan was involved in a brutal invasion of China and the composer was a committed pacifist). Kylián sees the music as more personal rather than political, however.
The Munch painting, which depicts one woman in three stages of her life, was a huge influence, says Bos-Kroese. “The white represents the beginning of your love and relationship. The red is the fieriness and the fullness of life. The black is the mature couple who have already gone through a lot of things, struggles and fights, but who are getting closer to the end. It’s different relationships in different periods of your life and reflecting on that using the Britten.”
The ocean is also central to the work. Danced in front of John McFarlane’s almost mystical semi-abstract seascape, its ebb and flow act as a metaphor for the comings and goings of life and the three main couple’s relationships.
Although Forgotten Land is the first Kylián work to be danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet, his creations have long been performed by companies worldwide. Their enduring appeal comes partly from the fact the themes they tend to explore are timeless. “They don’t age,” says Bos-Kroese.
“When they watch his work, people can read their own personal stories into it. He tries to put the dancers on stage as humans, to open up the human touch, the human trust between people. The relationships, the fights, the struggle, the holding onto something, the letting it go; people can refer to all these elements as part of their own relationships or what turmoil they are going through. And that’s why they live on.”
Then there’s the music that carries them. “He brings the music alive. That’s something exceptional in all his works, his musicality. You listen to the music and see the piece. It’s a real marriage.”