Life is a masquerade

22 May 2014 | By Valerie Lawson

Valerie Lawson interviews long-time Kylián collaborator Roslyn Anderson about the master’s creative process.

Fun and frivolity go hand in hand with sadness and the macabre in the choreography of Jiří Kylián. If his life was filmed, the soundtrack for this contrast between light and dark might be the music of Mozart.

The bittersweet contradiction of Mozart’s ebullient compositions and the tragedy of his very brief lifespan is a thread that runs through Kylián’s works, especially his Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, two ballets performed by The Australian Ballet this year. Both are witty, both are melancholy. Each represents the Rococo, the costumes and mannerisms of Mozart’s era, and each expresses Kylián’s belief that life is a masquerade – a façade for the deeper understanding that every birthday brings us closer to the end.

Roslyn Anderson was there at the creation of both works. A former dancer with The Australian Ballet, she joined Nederland Dans Theater when Kylián was artistic director, then became his assistant and continues to stage many of Kylián’s works around the world. Petite Mort, she says, “was a smooth, calm development of two adagio movements of the Mozart concertos, and created to show sensuality, eroticism and passion”. Yes, Petite Mort (French for orgasm) is about ecstasy “but it’s also about death and the futility of life. We are all facing death at some stage and he [Kylián] is super conscious of that. For me, it has that depth – it seems a superficial piece but it has this under-layer of darkness. This is where we’re all heading, this is where life is taking us. There’s a dark and light side to everything. Mort accompanies our lives, petite and grand.”

The ballet begins with the swish and swoosh of rapiers manipulated by six men. From the start, there’s tension and muscularity. There are spider-like poses with men and women equally balanced, and the surprise appearance of disembodied crinolines.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photography Jess Bialek

Petite Mort, choreographed in 1991 for the Salzburg Festival, was the last creation in a sextet that became known as Kylián’s “Black and White” ballets. First created as individual works, the six merged together in Salzburg where they took on aspects of one another, including the crinolines, powdered wigs and swordplay.

Anderson recalled: “We were on the plane flying to Salzburg and I said to [Kylián] ‘how are you going to link these works?’ – colour wise they were all in black-and-white tones. The link came through the parts of Petite Mort, the crinolines and the foils … he put the six pieces together and it took a life of its own. This was the first time that the six ballets, which then became the Black and White program, took form. The works were connected with the different elements in each work, the crinolines and foils from Petite Mort, the apples from Sweet Dreams and the wigs from Sechs Tänze.

“We laughed so much during the creation of Sechs Tänze. Jiří referred to it one day as ‘choreographing doodling’. The transitions between each movement, which were initially different from as you now see them, created a more sombre atmosphere. There were dancers in dark everyday clothing, interrelating, embracing, doing everyday movements, in total contrast to the craziness of the Mozart music. However, once the dance was created, and we moved to the stage, it took on a different life. All these elements were added, the wigs, the powder, the soap bubbles: everything was created spontaneously once we got to the stage.  It evolved in its own way and the bubbles were part of the silliness of Mozart’s character. He was totally crazy, and that’s what Jiří has brought into the piece. Jiří called the costumes ‘Mozartian underwear’.  Yet there is still a dark undertone to the piece.”

Mitchell Raynor and Drew Hedditch in Jiří Kylián’s Sechs Tänze. Photography Jess Bialek

Anderson believes that dancers “love to dance Kylián” because his choreography has “an innate musicality, the constant flow of movement, the organic quality of the partnering, the ebb and flow of emotion throughout each and every piece”.

Then there’s the pleasure of his wit. “I don’t know if it’s a Czech thing or just Jiří’s sense of humour, but his sense of humour has a dark side”. Wit, she acknowledges, “is difficult to express across the footlights for many choreographers.”

One element in Sechs Tänze, when a man’s head appears to be sliced off with a foil, definitely expresses Kylián’s humour because it’s so clearly a silly, pantomime moment; but for the dancers, working those foils and other props is an art form in itself.

“The men in Petite Mort have the hardest challenge”, Anderson said. “They have to make the foils ‘dance’ along with the music, and also in silence, and in unison – all at the same time. Props have a life of their own, so often, and are difficult to manage. The crinolines in Petite Mort are another challenge. While they glide smoothly across the stage, they are heavy for the ladies to manipulate and maintain the image that they are totally in control”.

Anderson thinks the easiest props to manage are the green apples in Sweet Dreams, one of the six Black and White ballets. All the dancers have to do is carry them tenderly, balance them on their feet and place them into their mouths. Actually, it doesn’t sound that easy at all, but for a dancer, the trickiness of the props doesn’t lessen the pleasure of dancing in a Kylián work. As Anderson says, it just “feels great on the body!”

See these remarkable Kylián ballets as part of our Chroma program – sold out in Sydney, opening in Melbourne on 6 June.