Choreographer keeps ballet on its toes

Company showcases seven innovative ballets of Czech choreographer Jir

Katie Wilber

You’d have as much luck asking a dance company to improvise an entire ballet as you would trying to get the rights to a Jirí Kylián piece.

The neoclassical choreographer has been sought after since the 1970s. He’s become his generation’s leading choreographer in international dance circles. He is, in short, in high demand.

So it was more than luck when Kylián himself allowed the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal to add seven of his dances to its repertoire.

The ballet company stops Tuesday at the University’s Northrop Auditorium to present its “Jirí Kylián Evening.” The production sold out in its Montreal debut last week before heading south.

First soloist Jeremy Raia has been with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens since 1998. Kylián’s choreography pushes dancers, including Raia, in ways classical choreography doesn’t.

“There’s some quirky choreography that might look weird on its own, but it makes sense when the music is added,” Raia said.

Most audience members consider ballet to be along the classical lines of “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake.” Kylián’s choreography, though, twists and tweaks that classical ballet technique. His partnering is risky and daring. Often the women lift the men.

“People aren’t going to say, ‘Oh my God, this is so bizarre and different,’ ” Raia said, “because it’s so beautiful and musical. It’s some of the most musical choreography I’ve ever done.”

Raia counts George Balanchine and Martha Graham among Kylián’s influences, and he believes Kylián is himself an influential choreographer because he, like Balanchine and Graham, changed how things were done.

“He used music that people hadn’t used before, and he invented a signature type of partnering,” Raia said. “He took his influences and went from there and built on those.”

The only thing the three ballets on the Northrop program have in common is the choreographer. Though that’s a big thing, the music colors the mood of each.

With music by Benjamin Britten, “Forgotten Land” is a very fast and technical piece – Raia said getting through it often is a challenge – while “Six Dances,” set to a piece by Mozart, is more comedic. The third one, “Bella Figura,” is what Raia calls “atmospherically incredible.”

“We’re in a different world when we’re on stage,” he said.

Despite the differences between classical ballet and Kylián’s neoclassical style, his works still elicit a response from people not familiar with his style.

“Someone came to the ballet for the first time last night and was completely floored,” Raia said. “These works are for everyone and anyone.”