Genius or purveyor of Eurotrash, Jiri Kylian has, for 20 years, enjoyed unbridled esteem all over Europe. But when his company, the Nederlands Dans Theater, came to the Edinburgh Festival last year, it was mauled by most of our dance press. Audiences, meanwhile, loved it, as did non- dance critics, who voted it a special award.
Another Kylian company, NDT2, begins its third British tour tomorrow. When last in London, in 1995, the critics agreed on the flawlessness of the dancers, then sharpened their quills to demolish the choreographers, who included Kylian and his equally celebrated senior, Hans van Manen. "Flat classicism and fallow modernism," said this paper; "dancers who promise more than their material can offer," said The Daily Telegraph.
What is it about national taste? Are critics abroad so vulgar, so lacking in intellect, that they can't make reliable assessments? Kylian wisely refuses to be drawn into the verbal fray; but he does think that the world map of dance has altered. "After the war, Europe seemed to be limping behind America, where there was such a powerful collection of minds - Graham, Tudor, Robbins, Balanchine. But now the centre of dance has shifted and I think it is an exciting time to be in Europe."
It would be convenient to write that there is a European or NDT style. But Kylian drops the portcullis on that notion. "There is no such thing, I'm proud to say. As far as I'm concerned, I think I'm a very eclectic choreographer. And if you think of the almost 60 choreographers whom I have invited to NDT during my directorship - William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Nacho Duato, Christopher Bruce - it's clear there is great diversity and that I like diversity."
Yet it seems to me that NDT's ballet-trained dancers do contribute a certain look, and that the company's choreographers do draw from those physiques to elaborate their modern idioms. Likewise, there is an aesthetic that originates from NDT's two official dance-makers - Kylian (for all his eclecticism) and Van Manen - whose work pervasively threads through all three companies that make up NDT, influencing in turn the younger in-house creators.
NDT is a conglomerate - an NDT Inc - with its own theatre (the Lucent Danstheater in The Hague) and one company for each phase of a dancer's career. NDT1, the main company (established 1959), is for dancers in their prime; NDT2 (est 1978) is for young dancers, and has evolved into a touring troupe with a repertoire all its own; NDT3 (est 1991) is for dancers over 40.
So why have an NDT2 when other companies mix dancers of all ages? "NDT2 didn't come into being just as a nice idea," says Kylian, "but out of a natural necessity. We realised that schools, no matter how good, cannot possibly supply a dancer immediately capable of standing alone on stage, for we regard NDT as a company of soloists who perform together. NDT2 is therefore a bridge between school and a dancer's professional life."
This brings an additional benefit. "You can observe those dancers over a period, find out what their capabilities are, who they are and how much they can offer. So now at least 85 per cent of dancers in the main company come from NDT2 because we know that recruiting them is not just a shot in the dark."
You must be between 17 and 21 to audition for NDT2. "And," explains NDT2's artistic director Gerald Tibbs (each company has its own director, with Kylian straddling all three), "the rule is that you stay two or three years, but there is no guarantee at the end that you will be accepted into NDT1." Even so, those who don't make the first company have had a tremendous apprenticeship that will help them to find jobs elsewhere. "The work is intense, they have a lot of responsibility, and because of that they develop as artists and people at great speed."
NDT is today an overwhelmingly international corporation: Hans van Manen is one of only a handful of native Dutch members. Kylian comes from Prague, Tibbs is American, while NDT2's 14 dancers are from Japan, South America, Australia and beyond. Yet they form a wonderfully integrated, glossy dance machine. They are mercilessly selected: in the last annual audition, five dancers were hired out of 280 applicants. What do the directors search for? "Musicality is very important for Jiri," says Tibbs. "He looks for it with a magnifying glass. There is also technique, expressiveness - and personality. In a small group you must be able to get on with people."
NDT2 appeals to audiences of all ages, but it also consciously tries to single out younger adults. "We want young people to come and see NDT2 to provide a future audience for the other two companies," says Tibbs, "and for dance, opera and theatre in general. The idea is to get them in the habit of going to performances. And I think it's easier for NDT2 to reach that part of the public."
The NDT2 repertoire mixes established choreographers with younger in- house ones and aims to perform five or six new pieces a year. The programmes for the UK tour will mirror these strands with works, mostly unseen here, by Van Manen, Kylian and their proteges. The London programme will not be repeated intact elsewhere. Van Manen's beautifully fluent Solo, made for NDT2 last January, is certainly a solo, but is performed here in relay by three men. Sammanfall, also new, is only Johan Inger's second piece, but it paints incisive dance images while evoking the disintegration of a relationship. A giant eye scrutinises the action and makes you think of outsiders spying on a private drama. Skew-whiff, by the English choreographer and dancer Paul Lightfoot, revels in the off-kilter, but also derives its atmosphere from the story behind the music's composition - Rossini's overture to The Thieving Magpie. "Because Rossini had not written the overture by the time the opera was due to open," says Lightfoot, "the desperate directorate locked him in a room and told him he wasn't leaving until he'd finished it. And as he composed each page, he'd throw it out of the window to the copyists who were waiting below to write it out for the orchestra. I loved that story, because I had a similar problem while making my piece. I was performing on tour with NDT1 and having to take the plane backwards and forwards to choreograph in The Hague. This last- minute frenzy was reflected in the dancers, who are like moths - they have all this activity for a few days and then they die."
Lightfoot, who arrived from the Royal Ballet School 12 years ago and has just finished his 13th piece, has no regrets about not trying to get into the Royal Ballet. "The general policy of NDT is that creations are the future, and the enthusiasm and encouragement you get is wonderful. Carel Birnie, our late managing director, would say, 'We'll do 12 ballets a year.' He was tough with money, he never threw it around. But he would say, 'I'll get you the money. Ten of the pieces will be terrible, but two might be good and those two will be there for the years to come.' "
As a dancer, Lightfoot has also had more opportunities than he ever could in the Royal Ballet. "I've danced and danced and danced. In a big company it's very difficult to be given your moment. But in a tight group, everyone gets a chance. Of course there are big and small parts, but no one is just carrying a spear or being one of the prince's friends. Everybody is vital, and from that comes unity and power in the performances"n
NDT2 on tour: tomorrow to Sat, Peacock Theatre, London (0171-314 8800); 12-13 May, Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 328488); then touring to 2 June