Since 1978, the Netherlands Dance Theater -- which had its first full appearance in the Washington area at Wolf Trap last night -- has become the projection of a single creative figure, the prodigiously gifted 34-year-old Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, who became the troupe's artistic directer last year.
Kylian's domination of the splendid NDT company, which has its parallel in the careers of Balanchine, Feld and Bejart among others, is understandable, and so is the acclaim which has greeted the phenomenon both here and abroad. We're lucky to see the emergence of a talent like Kylian's once in a decade, and when it happens we're inevitably eager to make much of it. But perhaps too much, too soon. From what we've seen thus far of Kylian's work, his ascent to the pantheon may take a bit longer than some of his admirers seem to imagine.
This is not to deny his originality, or his incontrovertible impact on audiences. Nor is there anything synthetic about Kylian's achievements -- he's clearly a man who sees, hears, thinks and feels in the language of dance movement. He's already given us a markedly personal dialect of his own, an instantly recognizable style -- compounded of elements drawn from Graham, from Tudor, from classical dance, but fused anew into an entirely individual idiom. Its most conspicuous feature is swirling, propulsive sweep. Kylian choreographs in masses; even his solos and duets seem emblematic rather than intimate -- the multitude reduced to a single (or double) illustrative case.
Kylian's modus operandi, however, has its dangers. The very strong imagery which gives his dances such clear identity also threatens to dissipate its own effects through repetition. He will have to take care not to become entrapped in his own trademarks. A second hazard is more serious -- Kylian chooses to deal often with "heavy" subject matter, saddling his choreography with emotional burdens it isn't invariably equal to. His attempts to connect dance with profound human experience is sympathetic and admirable, and he's never manipulative about it. Yet he doesn't always make the grade.
This is the case, I think, with the recent "Soldier's Mass," to a Martinu score commemorating the slaughter of a Czech battalion during World War I. The stylized trudging, charging, ferocity and anguish, the twisting falls, the cringings and the crucifixion lifts are all abstractly appropriate, but somehow they don't gather into a compelling statement, and the sameness begins to pall. A similar shortfall occurs in the earlier, lighter "Symphony in D," a ballet spoof set to Haydn which as a fair share of amusement but also misses fire a lot and works the same gag too many times.
The Symphony of Psalms," however, with its powerful Stravinsky score and impressive prayer-rug backdrop by William Katz, shows what levels of intensity and engagement Kylian can achieve when everything comes together for him. The eight couples traverse the stage space in careening currents, dispersing and realigning in tides of movement that convert the inner dynamics of the music into tangible, visible embodiments. The final, dirge-like retreat into darkness is a masterstroke. Here Kylian realizes his promise in full, and it's indeed impressive to witness.