Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian thinks about death — a lot. The trick is managing to keep his morbid fascination fresh and intriguing without creeping out audiences. Humor helps.
Icons of death were key elements of the first piece of the Kylworks program at the National Theater last weekend as part of the Taiwan International Festival of Arts. Saturday night’s show opened with the specially commissioned Fortune Cookies, which had its world premiere the night before. It as dark and confusing a piece as the amalgamation of elements that inspired it.
The title comes from the cookies that are a tradition at Chinese restaurants in the US. Kylian says he was also inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors of two men posed next to tables laden with symbols of science, religion and the arts, with a distorted skull floating in front of them.
Fortune Cookies begins by introducing the six dancers — Sabine Kupferberg, Cora Bos-Kroese, Aurelie Cayla, Lukas Timulak, David Kruger and Michael Schumacher — each emerging from darkness into a dim circle of light for a solo before retreating into the void. Their movements are tightly constrained spirals and curves, with sharply articulated elbows and arms. Given the blackness of the lighting and the dark navy blue of the costumes, if was often difficult to make out what the dancers were doing, which made me wonder what people in the upper tier must have thought.
The piece lightens up as it progresses, literally and figuratively, mixing ensemble dancing with pairings and solos. One man, arms pressed tightly behind his back, contorts himself into a deep plie until he appears to give birth to the skull he had been holding behind him. The skull spends the rest of the piece being passed from dancer to another, sometimes resting upon an uplifted chest so that it looks as if the skull is atop a moving body.
There is a confusing scene toward the end where the dancers play air guitars — the men wearing silver, shoulder-length wigs — that seems to be from another dance entirely. Meanwhile, a beautiful slow-motion film of a golden eagle flying toward the audience, talons extended, appears at intervals above the dancers. Death on the wing perhaps?
Fortune Cookies proved to be as confusing as life itself, but well worth watching.
After the first intermission, the audience returned to their seats to find Kupferberg and Bos-Kroese seated center stage, encased up to their armpits in a massive, crinkly expanse of gold material, quietly moving their arms, hands and fingers in unison. Anonymous, which premiered in 2011, is labeled a “dance project/installation” and that pretty much sums it up. The women remain seated, moving only the parts of their bodies that can be seen — hands, arms, shoulders, necks and heads — with the exception of a brief half-rise or two. When the house lights go down, the music — Montserrat Figueras’ Anonymous — begins and the women pick up their pace. A video clip is intermittently projected above them and each time the dancers freeze mid-move. The clips are of a distorted image of Kupferberg that becomes clearer with each segment until the film ends with her twisted on the ground like an accident victim.
The woman next to me appeared to believe a performance is not taking place unless the house lights are completely off, playing Candy Crush on her smartphone for several minutes into Anonymous, and inspiring me to think of crushing deaths for the rest of the piece.