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.