Petite Mort, A Masterclass

It was Tamara Rojo’s vision to bring internationally-renowned choreographers to English National Ballet. And as she introduced last night’s Petite Mort masterclass, she said “it doesn’t get better than Jiří Kylián.”

Photography by Patrick Baldwin

Kylián’s choreography is very different in style to English National Ballet’s other repertoire. Dancers Erina Takahashi, Bridgett Zehr, Francisco Bosch and Nathan Young performed three extracts which showed beautifully striking and angular poses and incredible athleticism. With bare feet and legs, you can see every muscle working and coach Ken Ossola described how dancers will feel naked onstage, wearing only minimal flesh-coloured costumes.

Petite Mort was created in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. It uses the composer’s beautiful slow movements as accompaniment for very modern choreography, and whilst having no narrative, is open to differing interpretations by audiences. “Kylián gives lots of detail about his ballets but every dancer has to bring their own experiences to his work.”

Former Nederlands Dans Theater performer Ossola travels the world teaching Kylián’s ballets. For him, Petite Mort should appear effortless: “It looks like nothing happens but it really is a lot of work. You don’t see the difficulty from the auditorium – it seems flawless.”

Is it harder than a classic like Swan Lake? Ossola replied: “I can’t really answer because I never danced Swan Lake, but this is certainly very demanding on the body and requires real stamina.” Of course, the joy of a masterclass is that audiences get to see the dancers up close and experience some of the exertion that goes into what looks so effortless onstage.

Company archivist Jane Pritchard described the ballet as “a dance for six couples, six foils and six dresses”. The foils (bendable swords) are cleverly manipulated by men in silence as the ballet opens, whilst six old-fashioned and restrictive dresses are in the shadows at the back of the stage.

Ossola explained the objects’ significance: “The dresses are symbolic of women, their place in society and the way they are expected to behave, as well as representing death. The foils demonstrate men’s power and strength as well as the male’s role in going to war, and are again a symbol of death. Kylián’s belief about life was that death is the only certain partner we have.”

Interestingly, the ballet’s title, meaning ‘little death’, is a “poetic way of describing the ecstasy of sexual intercourse”, according to Ossola. “The ballet’s choreography has no sexual content, but it is sensual. Kylián was very good at suggesting but not showing.”

With this ecstatic notion as well as the many morbid symbols, Petite Mort seems an ideal ballet for the company’s upcoming Ecstacy and Death triple bill at the London Coliseum.

Laura Dodge