The Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián has created an empire with the Nederlands Dans Theater in the course of his 24-year leadership. (He relinquishes his administrative duties this year but will remain active on the artistic side.) NDT now comprises three companies – the main one; a junior division in which careers are launched; and a chamber group of charismatic performers over 40, dancing material tailored to their particular abilities. The repertories of NDT I, II, and III are largely of Kylián’s creation; indeed, NDT can be thought of as his instrument, as the New York City Ballet was Balanchine’s and the Royal Danish Ballet Bournonville’s. Kylián’s achievement has an enthusiastic following in the Hague, NDT’s home base, and in Europe as a whole, where the choreographer’s brand of picturesque angst fits perfectly into the dance norm. What’s more unusual (given the difference between old-world and new-world taste in dance), he’s admired in the States as well, as attested by the standing ovations NDT received during its recent stint at the New York State Theater.
My overall reaction of doubt, dismay, and terminal boredom, then – though I enjoy occasional Kylián works – is clearly a minority report. For this engagement, a Lincoln Center Festival event, NDT brought Kylián’s evening-length One of a Kind (an homage to the worth of the individual, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Dutch Constitution) and a mixed bag of shorter pieces, including a gross-humored one by company member Paul Lightfoot. My problem with Kylián’s dances begins with their pretentiousness. Essentially abstract, they lay claim to meanings way beyond the scope of the movement and the patterns in space the viewer actually sees. I’m deeply suspicious of program notes that declare, “The whole piece should not make any logical sense, it is too intuitive and abstract for that,” or “When you go home after seeing this piece you should have some existential thoughts,” or, with its amorphous punctuation, “A journey in time – light and space, addressing the ambiguity of aesthetics – performances and dreams.” I also distrust the general air onstage of High Significance, which owes far too much to the handsome chiaroscuro of the lighting and the future-chic costumes. If the feeling embedded in the choreography were deep and genuine, it seems to me, things wouldn’t look so sleek.
My other big problem with Kylián is his signature vocabulary. It blends selected elements of classical ballet with Grahamesque modern dance and the postmodern strategy of co-opting actions from an eclectic variety of sources. Neither classical nor modern dance is employed in its full, challenging range, and neither genre evolves through Kylián’s use of it. Kylián’s mix – the house blend, if you will – is essentially uninventive, though I must say his dancers look terrific performing it. Still, is this what we want dance reduced to – looking terrific?