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Arts: Dreams of leaving

Jiri Kylian steps down this year as Director of the Nederland Dans Theater. He tells John Percival about his quarter-century there
We're all amateurs, really," Jiri Kylian said to me. "There is no school to learn choreography or how to direct a dance company, except by doing it." We were discussing how he came to be artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater, which is a story that goes back a long way. Kylian is one of the best and most influential directors around, yet it is not a job he altogether likes. He has been trying for years to extricate himself from it, and has now more or less succeeded - or has he? Time alone can tell how free he will be after this summer; meanwhile, the company's visit to Sadler's Wells, starting on Monday, is being taken as a celebration of his almost quarter-century in charge.

NDT used to be Britain's most frequent overseas dance visitor, coming every year or two through the Sixties. But when last in London, in 1975, things did not go well. The company was between directors, and the programmes were dominated by incoherent American avant-garde dance dramas. Big mistake: the reviews were fierce and audiences dwindled. Just one person won praise on all sides, a previously unknown young Czech choreographer named Jiri Kylian. Soon after that, he was offered the vacant post of director on a sharing basis with one of the American avant-gardists, Jennifer Muller. His reply? "Over my dead body." Nothing against Muller, but their approaches were so different and, inexperienced as he was, he knew that divided power would mean trouble. So the board had to choose, and they picked him.

Why did you want the job, I asked, and why have you tried so much since to give it away? "I always wanted to lead a group of people," Kylian admitted, but then a little later he added: "I dislike being a public figure." Gradually, he has got those contradictory attitudes sorted out.

Ambition was never lacking. While still at the Prague Conservatoire, he made his first choreography, a ballet to jazz music. Already he was one of a group of students who toured their own programmes in the holidays, dancing in Italy, Sweden, Greece. On graduation Kylian won a British Council scholarship for a year in London at the Royal Ballet School. The outcome: two leading roles at Covent Garden, and a contract with John Cranko's Stuttgart Ballet.

Alarming now to think that he went home first to see his family, and might easily have been trapped when Russian tanks rolled in to quell the peaceful revolution of the "Prague Spring". Thanks to having his visa and contract already, he got out just before the border was closed. Otherwise dance history might have been very different.

Stuttgart was the ideal place for him to start, because there were regular workshop performances for would-be choreographers and "I was bored - I didn't have much to do at that moment - so I made a little duet for my then girlfriend and myself". He wrote and recorded the music, too. Cranko liked it, and had it repeated at a gala; Margot Fonteyn liked it, and fixed a London showing. New commissions began to roll in (but not, lamentably, from London).

Although Kylian is thankful for Cranko's encouragement, he looks almost shocked when I ask whether he modelled his policies as director at all on Cranko's. "No, he wanted to treat the company as his family, and I don't think you can do that." Rather than close relations with a tight group of principals, Kylian's style is to explain himself at company meetings ("It's necessary, but I do not like it"), but otherwise keep a certain distance except when working on his ballets - and then he does try to give opportunities to all the dancers, not just a chosen few.

Surprisingly, Kylian did not need to introduce any drastic changes of policy for NDT. His first aims were to ensure the highest possible standards of performance, every dancer a soloist, and to increase the numbers until every work could have two casts: very important for covering illness or injury. This, alas, was one reason why London could neither afford nor accommodate NDT for years. Famously, he has added two extra groups, for younger and older dancers respectively, called NDT2 and NDT3.

Since its foundation in 1959, NDT always puts on an average of 10 or more premieres a year, by a wide variety of choreographers. Kylian continued that and lately has even increased the number of creations. His mark on the repertoire has been mainly through his own ballets, and the only safe generalisation about them is that you cannot generalise. Some themes reappear, including: the influence of native Australian dances, which bowled him over; a love of Czech music and of Mozart; sex (always); aggression (very often); and humour, too. But he always wants to experiment, find something new. And the outside choreographers he likes to invite are those who can surprise him, William Forsythe and Mats Ek being the prominent ones among them.

He has his close circle of good friends to rely on, but he also likes to introduce "at least one unknown face every year" to stimulate the dancers. Some of these he finds within the company through annual workshops, and he beams when he tells how many of the dancers try their hand, and how high the standard is. A talent for choreography, he says, "has to be natural, but has to be fostered, too. This is the most major task of any director".

Choosing a single programme to bring to London after two decades was a problem. Characteristically, Kylian solved it by looking for pieces "that seem especially good for our two wonderful English performers in the company", Fiona Lummis and Paul Lightfoot. The latter is a choreographer, too, already known in Britain through works for NDT2.

And after this season, Kylian steps down as director, handing over to a former NDT dancer, Marian Sarstadt, who comes from directing the professional school of The Hague's Royal Dance Conservatory. But Kylian will still be around both as choreographer and artistic adviser, so of how much change will we be aware? Meanwhile, Kylian perhaps lets slip the secret of his own success when trying to define what we ought to look for in an artistic director. "We need spiritual leaders, in dance as in life. Those with something to say not only about dance, but about humanity." Couldn't we all learn something from that thought?

Exclusive Independent Offer for the first night of Nederlands Dans Theater at Sadler's Wells Theatre: Save up to pounds 17.50. Best available seats for pounds 15 on the first night (14 June). Call Ticket Office on 0171-863 8000 and quote Independent offer