Kylian's Choreography Reaches Ever Upward

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BOSTON — A few months ago, I reviewed a Paul Klee exhibition at Boston College. One of many takeaways from the show was the Swiss modern artist’s evolution — from the mystically inspired, busy little ink-and-watercolors for which he is best known to sketches made in his final days consisting of little more than an especially expressive line or two.

The show came to mind during opening night of the Boston Ballet’s “All Kylián” program (at the Opera House, through March 17), featuring three works by the Czech-born contemporary choreographer Jiří Kylián. Of the three — dating from, in order of appearance, 1997, 2006, and 1978 — the latest is radically more avant-garde and minimalist than the others, but watching them together, one can see Kylián taking the first steps of that departure as far back as the 70s.

The program opens with "Wings of Wax,” a 1997 work first performed by the Nederlands Dans Theater, where Kylián was artistic director from 1976 to 1999, and chief choreographer and artistic advisor until 2004. As throughout the program, the set and lighting take almost starring roles here, the black-box stage dominated by a lifesize bare tree, with roots, suspended upside-down. A spotlight orbits the tree as a star around the sun, creating ever-moving shadows and a haunting feeling of inevitability. The score, including prerecorded performances of Heinrich von Biber, John Cage, Philip Glass, and Johann Sebastian Bach, contributes.

Paulo Arrais and Lia Cirio in Kylian's "Wings of Wax." (Rosalie O'Connor)
Paulo Arrais and Lia Cirio in Kylian's "Wings of Wax." (Rosalie O'Connor)

The title clearly refers to the myth of Daedalus, who flew too near the sun with his homemade wings, sending himself careening to the ground. But with stark spotlights and the dancers continuously returning to static vigil along the space’s edge, I thought also of dance class and auditions, and even “A Chorus Line.”

The dancers, particularly the women, appear jubilantly free from the corsets of traditional ballet, like marionettes released from their ceaselessly upward-pulling strings. Limbs jut out, hips sway, and the fine female dancers, clad in sleek black bodysuits, exhibit a voluptuousness uncommon in classical dance. Sensual but not necessarily sexual, the choreography, flits from luxurious full-body stretches to almost neurotic little flicks of a hand or foot, with Kathleen Breen Combes, in particular, evoking the wide temperamental range of an imperious housecat. “Tar and Feathers,” the evening’s newest work and a U.S. premiere, opened with a shirtless male dancer sitting on the lip of the stage while Combes, in a very short black dress, performed a spastic, tormented solo behind a glowing white mass of bubble wrap to the disconcerting sound of a snarling dog. Oh my! The floor was covered with shiny black vinyl, and on the left of the stage was a gleaming black piano raised ten 10 feet off the ground on stilts.

Kylián’s innovative sets receive much praise and attention — perhaps too much here, as the mise-en-scene threatened to overpower the dancing. Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama appeared regal atop her perch, with jaunty graying hair, a long, heavy black dress with a keyhole on the back, and swinging earrings. She and the piano were so striking, in fact, that one viewer told me she could hardly pay attention to the dance, while my companion and I could hardly remember the three male dancers’ contributions afterwards.

John Lam and Lia Cirio with pianist Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama in Kylian's "Tar and Feathers."  (Rosalie O'Connor)
John Lam and Lia Cirio with pianist Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama in Kylian's "Tar and Feathers." (Rosalie O'Connor)

Their most affecting movement was an arms-only crawl, their legs dragging lifeless behind them, as one might have seen a paraplegic war vet do after falling out of his wheelchair in a movie like “Born on the Fourth of July.” It’s clear that Kylián wants his dancers uncomfortable, that he’s pushing the limits of their physical abilities, of grace, of aesthetic pleasure: putting classically trained dancers on vinyl, in unattractive socks; taking away their legs; rendering Combes apoplectic. In the end, the dancers return after a long solo by Combes in tutus made of bubble wrap and masks evoking wooden dolls, to perform creepily in unison, and Combes walks off popping bubble wrap. It’s funny when David Parker does it, but is it funny here, among the torturedness? The Thursday night audience didn’t seem to think so. And yet the piece is certainly unforgettable.

In contrast, “Symphony of Psalms” came on like a balm. The curtain, bearing an image something like rain or a night of shooting stars, elicited gasps, and the set itself, with a stories-high backdrop of overlapping prayer rugs, in rich, glowing red hues, actual verbal exaltation.

The 16 dancers, in contrast, were dressed in rather homely grays and beiges, the women in tea-length dresses, the men in henleys that suggested the Amish or Hasidic Jews, or maybe just farm life.

For all the Near-Eastern implications of the set, the Stravinsky score, performed live by the Boston Ballet Orchestra and the 58-member New World Chorale, tucked away in the orchestra pit, skewed resolutely Christian, with texts in Latin and an overwhelming churchy feel.

Anchored by rows of simple wooden chairs along the back and right-hand side of the stage, to which the dancers repeatedly return, the dance itself was lively and celebratory. Though far more traditional than the later pieces, it’s still “All Kylián,” with headlong movement, awkward angles, and unexpected partnering often resulting in breathtaking tableaux.

After the dancers departed, the chairs remained, spotlit from above, as if the dancers had ascended to heaven. The program made a Kylián convert out of me. If there’s more Kylián to come in town, I’m there. Kris Wilton is an arts writer and editor whose writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Art+Auction, ARTnews, Photo District News, Art New England, Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Village Voice, among other publications.

This program aired on March 8, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.