For twenty years Smuin Ballet has provided its audience with daring, different and dazzling contemporary ballet works. To celebrate this milestone, Smuin Ballet kicks off its XXtremes program in early October, which includes a Northern California premiere that has the studio buzzing – Jiří Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land.
The world renowned Czech choreographer has been described as “remarkably deep and original” by The New York Times, and Kylián’s impact upon the modern dance world is undeniable. Kylián’s 1975 work Return to a Strange Land is one of his most popular and challenging works and Smuin Ballet is ecstatic to add it their extensive repertoire.
Smuin Ballet is no stranger to Kylián’s work. In 2010 Smuin performed Petite Mort to rave reviews with the SF Gate describing it as, “applauded by critics and audiences alike”. Although this time round, the mood is much more somber. Return to a Strange Land is a ballet that explores the devastation of loss and how one’s world is changed after the death of a loved one.
The piece was first performed by the Stuttgart Ballet in 1975 in memory of its founder and choreographer John Cranko, who died unexpectedly. Cranko was a great mentor to Kylián and he credits Cranko for allowing him to grow as an artist. One of Kylián’s favorite memories of his mentor was when Cranko was asked in a documentary if Kylián will become the new Cranko and he responded, “No, I hope that he will become Kylián.”
Smuin Ballet understands the devastation of losing a mentor, having lost their own company founder Michael Smuin in 2007 in their San Francisco studio. More than five years later, Smuin Ballet honors Michael’s memory by continuing to present works that push the boundaries of traditional ballet. This parallel between Smuin Ballet and Return to a Strange Land will only deepen what is already a moving ballet that explores the universal emotion of grief.
Return to a Strange Land was originally created as a pas de trois for Stuttgart Ballet and was later expanded to include a series of duos and trios. The work displays sculptural like poses and a stunning partnership between the choreography and music by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, two elements that have become Kylián’s trademark. It is also one of the few Kylián pieces performed en pointe. Kylián describes that to “return to a strange land” is to return to the land of one’s origin. The use of pointe work could be interpreted as Kylián returning to his origin of classical ballet. On the other hand, the use of pointe work could simply be paying homage to Cranko and his previous works. Kylián’s pieces are always multifaceted and layered with meaning and Return to a Strange Land is no exception.
The preparations for the piece are well under way with the dancers being taught the choreography by Arlette van Boven. Arlett was a former artist at Nederlands Dans Theater, the same company that Kylián directed for twenty four years and where he created some of his world famous masterpieces, including Petite Mort.
Terez Dean has danced with Smuin ballet for five seasons and was in the cast of Kylián’s Petite Mort in 2010. Terez expressed that working with Arlette on Return to a Strange Land has been inspiring. “Arlette brought out the importance of detail, not only with the steps, but the feeling. She described how in the hand, each fingertip is a family member and how they should always be aware of each other.” Terez also describes how organic partner work is of paramount importance to the choreography, another characteristic of Kylián’s works. But most importantly Return to a Strange Land requires a dancer to connect with themselves. “No movement should be neglected,” Terez explains, “every touch, look and movement must be fully realized so that the audience can live in the place beyond the simple physical movement.”
Kylián’s choreography is an experience within itself. As one of the pioneers of modern dance, Kylián has an astounding ability to engage his audience with choreography that is aesthetically pleasing, yet emotionally stimulating. It’s a performance not to be missed and we hope you can join us for the launch of our 20th Anniversary Season.
Return to a Strange Land will be performed as part of Smuin Ballet’s XXtremes program which is being performed at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, October 4th through 12th. For tickets please visit our website or call us on (415) 912-1899.
*Written by Rebecca Sneddon