I think it’s time to share my experiences- Jiří Kylián
— Unanswered Questions: Motion Portraits of Jiří Kylián and Elizabeth Streb
“I think it’s time to share my experiences,” says Jiří Kylián, the near-legendary Czech choreographer and an epochal leader of the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), in one of the opening scenes of Jiří Kylián: Forgotten Memories. “I’d like to share it with somebody and it’s up to this somebody to either accept it, absorb it, or just throw it away. And this, is, by the way, the reason why I’m making this film…thrown away it can be at any time.”
Kylián has stayed out of the spotlight for many years, so the openness with which he discusses his life in this 2011 biographical documentary, directed by Don Kent and Christian Dumais-Lvowski, comes as a welcome surprise. Revelatory insights slip from him as the most casual, offhand remarks.
His earnest contention that his experiences are perhaps not worth documenting and could be “thrown away at any time” isn’t idle provocation or false modesty. Here is a man who has given his life to dance, an art that vanishes before our eyes, whose beauty is predicated on its disappearance. Kylián seems to regard and disclose his memories and thoughts with this same clear-eyed awareness of their disposability. Take them or leave them; brilliant or not, they will fade.
Though largely composed of candid interviews with Kylián and, just as importantly, Sabine Kupferberg, his partner of nearly forty years, Forgotten Memories also offers a rare look at Kylián’s interactions with dancers. For all the formal rigor and exacting detail of his choreography, Kylián comes across as a calm, patient and assuring presence in the studio. It is a particular pleasure to see him working with the two offshoots of NDT that he personally created—NDT2, for dancers between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, and NDT3, which, as he wryly puts it, is a company of dancers “between forty and death.”
A look back at his origins hints at the clash of cultures that formed Kylián as a young artist. He began his life in dance as a ballet student in occupied Prague, but, transplanted on a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, found himself a wide-eyed spectator of the ecstatic chaos that was London, 1968.
He reminisces about the dreamlike Prague of his childhood, a city forever torn between order and disorder, haunted in equal measure by the “unbelievably spiritual, heaven-like” music of Mozart and the disquieting questions of its native son, Franz Kafka, a “Prince of Darkness, the man who questioned the very existence of our souls.” Kylián’s choreography, of which we see many tantalizing excerpts, thrives on such seismic tensions—consummate musicality and classical rigor battling an urge toward wildness and decay, animalistic ferocity at one moment and distanced serenity in the next.
His works speak for themselves, and largely he refrains from dampening their mystery with explanation, but the few morsels he provides hint at a mind grappling with the most fundamental, often disturbing questions of life. Behind the formidable, well-known monuments of contemporary dance for which Kylián has become known, the film implies, is a man of disarming warmth, determined not simply to provoke his audience but to communicate. When asked why his work features so many duets, whether they are between a man and a woman or two men or two women, Kylián replies: “I always think that if you have some kind of knowledge or some kind of belief, something that you carry inside you, it’s worthless unless you share it with somebody.”
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, a very different documentary portrait also on display at Dance on Camera this year, profiles another game-changing figure in contemporary dance. Elizabeth Streb’s “extreme action,” which blurs the lines between concert dance, acrobatics, slam dancing and stuntwork, isn’t just pyrotechnics and daredevilry. Her choreography, in a very direct and exciting way, explores scientific principles of motion—the body travelling through time and space. “I think my original belief and desire is to see a human being fly,” Streb explains in the film’s opening moments. “It’s an age old human quest: can we fly?”
Streb’s path to choreography was as atypical as her choreography itself. She recounts one telling incident from her childhood that she considers a kind of early training for the brinksmanship of “extreme action.” Her adopted father, a bricklayer, once left her holding up a ceiling for about forty minutes while he went to get supplies. In complete agony, she held on.
This stubborn determination in the face of pain and the threat of grievous physical harm is the driving principle of her work. “You go beyond your comfort zone,” Streb says, “you don’t just give up, you don’t give yourself a reason to stop.” Her choreography asks that her performers—which, for many years, included her—overcome their basic survival instincts in visionary, mind-boggling, sometimes transcendent feats of daring.
The film, directed by Catherine Gund, gives us unprecedented access to Streb and her dancers, hurling us in the midst of the action. Hearing the conceptual back-story and witnessing the disciplined training that goes into the action doesn’t make it any less jaw dropping or nerve-jangling. One watches the company prepare for their high-flying exploits with a mixture of awe and panic.
Moments before the first event of One Extraordinary Day, a series of public, outdoor “actions” before the 2012 London Olympics, Streb and her crew realize that the measurements of the Millennium Bridge are not what they used for rehearsal, so theoretically the performers, who are about to leap from the bridge on bungee cords, could bounce right back up and smack into the concrete overhang. Of course, they don’t—the “action” goes spectacularly and One Extraordinary Day truly lives up to its name—but the point is, the dancers faced that uncertainty—and jumped anyway.
Like Forgotten Memories, Born to Fly shows us the human beings behind the spectacle, and the moments the film spends with Streb at home, discussing subjects ostensibly unrelated to her work, are some of the most fascinating. We witness her planning a dinner party with her partner of more than twenty years, journalist Laura Flanders, carefully choosing where her guests will sit so as to stimulate the most all-inclusive conversation. She explains the exacting mechanics of one of her first jobs as a young woman in San Francisco: making donuts.
She seems, at all times, urged to action by the questions that drive her work. What would it look like for the human body to fall up? What constitutes evidence that time has passed? She attempts to explore, if not ever fully answer these questions through a movement practice some might not even consider dance. “Why does dance have to be so facile and gentle?” Streb asked herself as a rebellious young artist, and has continued to ask us ever since.
Jiří Kylián, too, sees himself as an asker of questions, and perhaps, both Born to Fly and Forgotten Memories suggest, the singular visions of both these artists arise from their perpetual uncertainty, their continual confrontations with the mystery of the world as it is. “I’m not really interested in answers,” Kylián tells us. “I’m interested in asking questions as precisely as I can.”