National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; February 22, 2014

David Mead

Jiří Kylián's 14'20, danced here by the Royal Ballet of Flanders (Koninklijk Ballet van Vlaanderen). Photo courtesy Kylian Productions BV, © Joris Jan Bos

Jiří Kylián’s 14’20”, danced here by the Royal Ballet of Flanders (Koninklijk Ballet van Vlaanderen).
Photo courtesy Kylian Productions BV

Kylworks is a new concept by Jiří Kylián in which he presents an evening of his recent works. The Taiwan International Festival programme also included the premiere of “Fortune Cookies”, co-produced by the National Chiang-Kai Shek Cultural Centre. All were danced by five of his long-standing ex-Nederlands Dans Theater colleagues, including his wife Sabine Kupferberg, and American dancer/choreographer and regular collaborator, Michael Schumacher, which as Kylián emphasised in the programme, represents strongly his belief that “All ages dance!”

“Fortune Cookies” is maddeningly enigmatic. The title, of course, is a reference to the crispy dessert cookie that contains a piece of paper with some saying or vague prophecy, served after a Chinese meal; a nibble, by the way, that is a wholly American invention that you will struggle to find in Asia.

Fortune cookie sayings are often unclear or uncertain and it’s uncertainty is at the heart of Kylián’s choreography too, and what is more uncertain than life? At its heart are the notions that, while we are essentially all the same, we didn’t ask to come into the world, but we still came; that while no-one asks us if we want to leave, one day we have to go anyway; and that while here, we suffer lots of different things. In dealing with that, Kylián draws on imagery and possible interpretations of Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 painting, “The Ambassadors”, a work packed with intentional contradictions and inconsistencies, and the meaning of which, and especially of the many meticulously placed objects, remains a subject of debate.

The objects in the painting are often considered to represent the heavens, the living world and death, and all three are evident in Kylián’s choreography, which opens with the dancers appearing one by one from the blackness into a single pool of light, where each performs a short solo before disappearing again into the murk. The quality is evident immediately. Reflecting the painting, the first impressions are of harmony, but while always having an underlying fluidity, their dance always has a tension, sometimes even becoming quite contorted. The sense of anxiety is heightened by distorted passages of music; a reference to the lute in the painting, which has a broken string, maybe.

As the dance becomes structurally more complex, so other references appear. In a reminder of mortality and in a direct reference to the anamorphic object at the bottom of Holbein’s painting and that can only be seen clearly from almost right to the side, a skull is produced that most of the cast get to dance with at some point. Above the live action, a rather beautiful film of a golden eagle in flight plays. But even this has a sense of menace. It’s not a huge leap to imagine it swooping and taking one of the dancers. Other references, such as the three men appearing in silver wigs are more obtuse.

As with the other pieces on the programme, “Fortune Cookies” is devilishly detailed, with much of it packed with highly-detailed gesture; so much, in fact, that I suspect it needs multiple viewings to take it all in.

Sabine Kupferberg and Cora Bos-Kroese in Jiří Kylián's 'Anonymous'.  Photo courtesy NTCH, © Joris Jan Bos

Sabine Kupferberg and Cora Bos-Kroese in Jiří Kylián’s ‘Anonymous’.
Photo courtesy Kylian Productions BV, © Joris Jan Bos

As well as being detailed, Kylián’s dance also tends to be very precise. That’s certainly the case in “Anonymous”, commissioned for the opening of the Korzo Theatre in The Hague in 2011. The two dancers (here Kupferberg and Cora Bos Kroese) remain in the spot throughout. Swathed in a sea of gold, their unison movement is highly gestural. It is a rich and beautiful scene, matched perfectly by the sonorous sounds of Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras. The image is increasingly disturbed, though, as the dance is ever longer interrupted by an innovative video that appears above the dancers and soundscape by Jason Akira Somma, whose screeching and car crash noises contradict and contrast violently with the magnificence below.

Audience views on “Fortune Cookies” and “Anonymous” were mixed, but everyone loved “14’20″”, the duet from “27’52″” made for Nederlands Dans Theater 2 in 2002. And why not? It’s a real crowd pleaser – and very chic.

Aurélie Cayla and Lukáš Timulák were immaculate, dancing with great precision and strength. Although it mellows towards the end, the dance is often fraught and full of sharp twists and turns that match Dirk Haubrich’s unnerving and somewhat twitchy Mahler-inspired music that blends fragments of German and French text. Although there appears to be a relationship of sorts, it is quite a cold one, even in the more fluid sections. When Cayla strips off her T-shirt, to match the bare-chested Timulák, it is a plain and simple gesture to show they are the same. It’s far from submissive and certainly not gratuitous. It closes with the pair on opposite sides of the stage, each ‘dying’ and being buried by the dance floor. It’s utterly captivating.

Jiří Kylián's 'Birth-Day', danced here by Sabine Kupferberg and Gérard Lemaitre when with NDT3. Photo courtesy Kylian Productions BV, © Joris Jan Bos

Jiří Kylián’s ‘Birth-Day’, danced here by Sabine Kupferberg and Gérard Lemaitre when with NDT3.
Photo courtesy Kylian Productions BV, © Joris Jan Bos

Another crowd-pleaser rounded off the evening, the 2001 romp, “Birth-Day”, originally made for NDT 3. To a selection of Mozart, it features five dancers in Baroque finery, complete with rumpled wigs, sat at a long table as they celebrate one of their number’s birthday. Although there is a dark side (every birthday is one more nearer death), it’s the comedy that’s to the fore.

There’s some singing of “Happy Birthday” and some rather clever seated dance with their fans, but other than that, the dancers at the table don’t actually do much. Mind you, they do not doing much with great style. Still, it’s when some of them get up and walk behind the video screen, as if disappearing to other rooms in their country house, that the fun really begins.

Reappearing on screen everything (except the music) is at double-speed, an effect created by filming them to slowed down versions of the music, before returning the now on-film music to full speed. There’s a crazy chase round a bedroom that finishes up with hilariously desperate sex, mad swordplay that references some of the fencing choreography from “Petit Mort”, and a manic baking session featuring a man and a woman, but both in dresses and fake moustaches, who get increasingly abusive towards each other and that finishes up with flour everywhere. The video does have its darker moments too as we see Kupferberg (who appears only on the film, the rest seemingly having been reshot with the present dancers) contemplating her age in a mirrored room.

It could all be desperately unfunny, but it’s done with such a deft touch that it’s complete hoot from start to finish.