A Celebration of Older Dancers

Obscure Temptations, one of Jiri Kylián’s creations for NDTIII  

World-renown Czechoslovak-born dance choreographer Jiri Kylián will be celebrating his artistic creation for dancers over 40 during the Kylián Festival at the brand-new Korzo Theatre under the theme “All Ages Dance.” The festival runs from May 22 to 31, 2014.

The company, Nederlands Dans Theater III, was founded by Kylián in the early 1990s to incorporate dancers over 40—who are typically considered past their “prime.” Going against the grain, Kylián believes that we should all be able to dance “from the womb to the tomb”:

Through my long-time experience as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, and through my encounters with East Asian cultures and the Australian aboriginal people, I have learned that we possess the ability to dance throughout our entire life and that it should be treasured and respected – Yes, we are able to dance “From the womb to the tomb”….!

What a refreshing and heart-warming message for older dancers like me, even though I am just an amateur.

Despite this encouraging development in the professional dance community, it still irks me that there are no over-40 professional dance company that showcases classical ballet—in a way that does not highlight the virtuosity of technique and great extension but emphasizes the grace and musicality of movements that are suitable for the dancer’s age and physical ability. Sure, there are individual ballet dancers who continue to dance professionally after 40. But is there a professional classical ballet company with dancers over 40 exclusively? Please enlighten me if there is!

Perhaps it is a laughable idea. The demand of classical ballet requires so much of dancers that one of the main reasons dancers retire after 40+ is that their bodies can no longer take it anymore. But what if choreographers adapt their works to suit older dancers? It’s not a matter of watering down movements, but showcasing what the dancers can express by whatever physical facility they have?

Choreographers may consider emulating what Sir Frederick Ashton had done for Margot Fonteyn toward the end of her career. He created the ballet Salut d’Amour for her to perform on her 60th birthday. It would be unfair to judge her dancing with the same kind of technique and extension expected of a 20-year-old. Yet, look at her! How expressive! What grace! What beauty!

Related articles:

Jiri Kylián on All Ages Dance

Jiri Kylian Starts a Company for Dancers Young at Heart

Here is the Kylián Festival program

4 thoughts on “A Celebration of Older Dancers

  1. So inspiring. Who said dancers need to be young? Experiences make many dancers priceless. There’s a saying in Thai, “The older the gingers, the hotter they are.”

    • Yes, I think life experiences really make older dancers more interesting to watch! There is a depth of emotions that younger dancers aren’t able to express (yet!). We have the same saying in Chinese. 薑越老越辣!

  2. As someone who has just crossed the border of 30 and, while not a professional ballet dancer, did dance with professional pick-up ballet companies…One of the trickiest parts about dancing for a ballet company is the mentality. It’s much easier when you’re a teen, willing to go with the group, eager to please, etc. As you get older and accumulate more experience, you no longer just accept the word of your teachers, choreographers, and directors as gospel. Most people start to want freedom, start wondering why they are sacrificing so much just to get 2 minutes onstage dancing or stay in a pose doing nothing for 12 minutes. When your peers are starting to enjoy the “good life” of being able to afford a nice dinner and relax on Saturday while you’re in the theater for hours on end right after Thanksgiving, sometimes not even sure what you’re dancing until the last minute (for too many reasons to count), you start to question your sanity. Being in the ballet world means dealing with a lot of attitude, drama, stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and very little appreciation – before you even get to the aches and pains. So if you think about your typical 40+ year old adult, who probably wishes to be treated with the respect deserving to an adult, in an environment that demands a hierarchy in order to maintain order, you can see why it is tricky to have an older dancer company. My personal experience is that when I choreograph for teens and young adults, they generally just do what I ask. With older adults, I do get a lovelier quality, but there is so much coaxing, wheedling, and accommodation involved. And I recall a group of amateur dancers who were all much older than me that I loved very much but were oh so stubborn towards our choreographer (who we adored) on so many matters. From a personnel perspective, unless you happen to get lucky and get a group with the right temperament, having a ballet company of older adults is really tricky. Modern/contemporary seems to encourage a different culture but ballet doesn’t seem conducive to that kind of open collaboration.

    (At the end of the day, though, an older body really just can’t adapt to some of the things that an adolescent one can. Reality. My body aches just thinking about hops on pointe.)

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