Love, death, and the forgotten lands of our dreams, as told by Jiri Kylian

This article was first published by the Australian Ballet in the program for the company’s 2016 triple bill, Vitesse.

Jiri Kylian has choreographed more than a hundred works with the titles often referring to dreams, sleep or silence.

Yet each of them could be subtitled Love and Death.

In a recent, and rare, interview, Kylian said “every work I’ve ever made is about love and death”. But by love he didn’t just mean romantic or erotic love but “love for anything. Love for dance, theatre, art, nature, what makes us be an alive human being”.

Within the bookends of love and death Kylian’s narratives encompass the cycle of life, vulnerability, the universal search for belonging, communities, our connection with landscapes and the places where we were born.

In his time as the artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater, Kylian told his dancers to focus on the here and now, not to miss a beat, or miss a heartbeat, as they moved in unison, often walking upstage towards the horizon or into darkness.

Forgotten Land begins with the dancers turning their backs away from the audience. To the sound of wind and slow, ominous drumbeats, they appear to be watching the approach of a storm or moving to the ebb and flow of the sea. Kylian himself plays a part in Forgotten Land as the noise of the ‘wind’ is created by his own breath.

Roslyn Anderson, who has staged the work on many companies around the world, always tells the dancers that “Jiri is with them for each performance” as the sound they hear is Kylian breathing into a microphone.

The ocean is the central element of Forgotten Land, a metaphor for the rhythm of life, for time past, memories and regrets. The ballet is danced in front of an immense seascape, painted by the designer, John Macfarlane. The glistening waves in the painting seem to rise and fall as the dancers express their sorrow, passion and love.

Kylian believes that the everlasting presence of the ocean can be either “a life giving or life taking force”. His two main inspirations for the ballet, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and the paintings by the Norwegian, artist, Edvard Munch, are united in the way they are both a lament for lost lives.

Kylian also links Britten’s requiem with the erosion of land at the composer’s birthplace in East Anglia, where the coastline is crumbling away as it is slowly submerged by the sea.

Kylian’s decision to choreograph a ballet to music by Britten was unusual. While the works of Bach, Debussy, Webern, Mozart, Takemitsu and Janacek were frequently the basis for his ballets, he chose Britten only twice, the first for Forgotten Land, the second as one of the 10 composers whose music was patch-worked together to form the score of his One of a Kind.

Kylian had an indirect link to the British composer through their mutual friend and collaborator, the choreographer, John Cranko. In the late 1950s Cranko commissioned Britten to write a score for his ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, staged in England and later revised by Kenneth MacMillan. Cranko first met Kylian in London, where he was training at the Royal Ballet School and subsequently offered him a contract to dance with the Stuttgart Ballet, the company Cranko led when he left England.

Forgotten Land evolved from those connections. The Stuttgart Ballet commissioned the ballet and, two months after its premiere, in April 1981, it entered the repertoire of Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague, where Kylian was then the artistic director.

The Australian-born dancer, Roslyn Anderson, a first cast dancer in the NDT premiere, recalls the first rehearsals and the powerful influence on the ballet of Munch’s paintings.

“Jiri didn’t give us a lot of explanation, but we learned more as the work evolved. He showed us many works by Munch, with women who were usually dressed in black, red and white”.

Although Munch is best known for his painting, The Scream, in which a man holds his hands to the side of his face in agony as the sky appears to be screaming in unison, the artist frequently placed a man, a woman, or both, in the foreground of his paintings with a seashore or waves in the background.

His 1896 lithograph, On the Waves of Love, shows the calm face of a woman adrift in the sea, her hair rippling outwards into the water, and a man nuzzling her neck as they float together. Munch described the couple as lovers “rocked in the embrace of life’s waves, and the woman’s smile is a smile in death”.

In 1899 Munch painted The Dance of Life, depicting one woman in three stages of her life, a naïve girl in white, a woman in red, held in the passionate embrace of a man in black, and an older woman, dressed in black, alone and watching her younger self.

The Dance of Life was the basis for both the set and costume designs of Forgotten Land in which three main couples mirror the painting.

Their pas de deux are danced to the three movements of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Lacrimosa (weeping), Dies Irae (God’s wrath) and Requiem Aeternum (eternal rest).

“They are all very difficult pas de deux”, Anderson says, but when she is casting “I look for something that speaks to me about their experience. For the first couple, “I’m looking for maturity, some wisdom and experience in life, in dance, in everything. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the oldest dancers but a maturity that comes across to me”.

For the dancers in the second pas de deux, “I’m looking for somebody who is explosive in character”. For Anderson, that couple “represents explosive power. Then the white couple were more immature, just falling in love, finding out what life’s all about”.

The Dance of Life, she said, “was literally a starting point, not necessarily the end result.

“Jiri delved much further into the relationships he saw in this painting and he explored them more with secondary couples who relate to the younger version or the other side of the main couple”.

The alter egos are “just another element of their personalities and the evolvement of their relationships, because the ballet is all about their relationships, obviously”.

Kylian’s research into Munch’s work and his fascination with The Dance of Life brought the artist’s own words to life. When Munch reached a turning point in his life, rejecting realism for expressionism, he wrote: “No longer shall I paint interiors, and people reading, and women knitting. I shall paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love”.

Forgotten Land is a lasting legacy of Munch’s decision.

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull, Forgotten Land, Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud

Rudy Hawkes and Lana Jones, Forgotten Land, Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud

Edward Munch, The Dance of Life