Who is Jiří Kylián?

Black and white photograph of Jiří Kylián by Anton Corbijn

Jiří Kylián

Photo credit: Anton Corbijn

Get to know Jiří Kylián, the man behind several audience favorites including Bella Figura, Petite Mort, and Wings of Wax.

Sarah Wroth and Paul Craig in Kylián's Bella Figura

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

Viktorina Kapitonova and Lasha Khozashvili in Kylián's Wings of Wax

Photo credit: Laurent Philippe

Sarah Wroth and Paul Craig in Kylián's Bella Figura

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

Viktorina Kapitonova and Lasha Khozashvili in Kylián's Wings of Wax

Photo credit: Laurent Philippe

A Flexible Path to Ballet: Kylián’s first love was the circus. He spent his early childhood training to become an acrobat. When his acrobatic school closed, Kylián’s mother, a successful dancer herself, took him to the ballet. Kylián immediately fell in love with the art form and enrolled in the School of the National Ballet in Prague at the age of nine. He was eventually accepted to the Prague Conservatory, where he trained under the acclaimed Czech ballerina Zora Šemberová. In 1967, he received a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London.
Making His Mark: After graduating from the Royal Ballet School, Kylián signed a contract with Artistic Director John Cranko to dance at the Stuttgart Ballet. It was here that he began to choreograph under Cranko’s encouragement, crafting pieces including Kommen und Gehen and Return to a Strange Land. After the Soviet invasion of Czechloslovkia in 1968 and Cranko’s untimely death in 1973, Kylián took the opportunity to escape Prague in 1975 to become the Artistic Director of the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). Just three years later, he established his name in the US with Sinfonietta at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. This romantic ballet, performed to Leos Janáček’s score, has become a seminal piece of contemporary choreography.

During his long tenure with NDT, he pushed choreographic boundaries and created upwards of 75 new works on the company, including Sinfonietta, Petite Mort, and Bella Figura. Speaking to The New York Times in 2010, he described his collaborative process. “I very much like the dancers to participate in the creation. It not only enriches the vocabulary and the spiritual layers of the work, but it also gives the dancers more possibility to use their own creativity.” While leading the company, he also founded the second company of the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT2), followed by the third (NDT3) ten years later. The latter enabled five “seniors” over the age of 40, including his wife, Sabine Kupferbuerg, to continue dancing.
His Wife and Muse: Sabine Kupferberg has inspired many of Kylián’s pieces in the 40-plus years they have been a couple. The two met at Stuttgart Ballet, where she was dancing under Cranko at the time. They then moved to NDT together in 1975, Kylián as Artistic Director (age 28) and Kupferberg as a dancer (age 24). For half a century, Sabine has enjoyed a fulfilling career, dancing with leading choreographers including her husband and William Forsythe. She and Kylián have also made five short films together, as both of their careers continue to mature and flourish.

Pavel Gurevich and Heather Myers in Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort by Gene Schiavone

Pavel Gurevich and Heather Myers in Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone

Veteran Choreographer: Kylián has choreographed and premiered over 100 ballets. His work has been featured across the world at companies including Boston Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, Ballett Zürich, Norwegian National Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Paris Opera Ballet. He has also made original works specifically for NDT, Paris Opera Ballet, Swedish Television, Munich Baterusches Staatsballett, and Tokyo Ballet.

Honored and Celebrated: Kylián has been recognized world-wide for his choreographic talents. He holds an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School, three Nijinsky Awards, an honorary medal from the President of the Czech Republic, and a cultural award for Art and Science from the Queen of the Netherlands, among many others. Earlier this year, he was elected into the prestigious French Académie des Beaux-Arts.

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