Ballet in the Post-Structuralist Period

Post-Structuralism is a late 20th Century movement in philosophy and literary criticism, which is difficult to summarize but which generally defines itself in its opposition to the popular Structuralism movement which preceded it in 1950s and 1960s France. It is closely related to Post-Modernism, although the two concepts are not synonymous.

Contemporary dance practice began in the early part of the 20th Century and its development coincided with Structuralist thought and Post-Modern movements in art and architecture from the 1960s particularly. As a reactionary movement against the formal rigidity of ballet and modern dance theatre, new technique grew from the natural alignment of the body and its choreographic themes borrowed from a larger pool of multi-media stimuli. Compelled to expand the communicative scope of the art and to open up social, political, and even sexual discourse, contemporary choreography echoed the rhythms of most other emerging creative practices catalyzed by modern industrialization and its links with Structuralism became apparent in the thought behind the new movement languages created. These motifs and patterns tend to arise from the study of or response to very specific “moments” or “conditions.” Referring to Saussure’s principle of la langue governing la parole, we can see that Post-Structuralist choreographers emphasize the need for governing structure by creating one of their own for each dance piece; the piece is an exhibition of a syntactic analysis of movement as opposed to the semantics of narrative. Contemporary dance has established itself as a body-mind practice, and research organizations today such as The Choreographic Lab “provide a forum in which choreographic issues, creative methodologies, and individual goals can be examined, explored and experienced” with a counter-Cartesian sense of holism. Directors Dr. Jane Bacon and Dr. Vida Midgelow in their performative lecture, “Closer to the Body, the Aftermath of Dance Writing?”  discussed the semantics of choreographic approaches and articulation strategies which lead to “authentic movement…an iterative process which allows the movement to reveal itself without presupposing language.”

Building off the freedom of movement in Modern ballet and the lack of structure in Neoclassical ballet, Post-Structuralist ballets explore abstract concepts like aggression or sexuality. Post-Structural ballets use both classical and contemporary music and can incorporate other stage elements like lyrics, text, lighting, props, live instrumentation, live or recorded audio, visual art, and film clips

Petite Mort

Jiří Kylián choreographed Petite Mort to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major (adagio) and Piano Concerto in C Major (andante), the slower parts of two of Mozart’s most popular concertos, for the bicentennial of the Mozart’s death. The name Petite Mort means “little death” in French, a euphemism for orgasm in French and Arabic. The six men in the piece dance with foils (practice swords) as unruly companions and the six women have black dresses on moving scaffolds that seem like armor, all creating a visual symbolism exploring the piece’s themes: aggression, sexuality, energy, silence, cultivated senselessness, and vulnerability. It was first performed by The Nederlands Dans Theater in the Kleines Festpielhaus for the Salzburg Festival in Austria on August 23, 1991.


Petite Mort was first performed in the Kleines Festpielhaus for the Salzburg Festival in Austria on August 23, 1991, for the bicentennial of Mozart’s death. It was performed by The Nederlands Dans Theater and choreographed by Jiří Kylián. This reproduction was performed by The Nederlands Dans Theatre at Lucent Danstheater in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1996, It used the choreography from Kylián, was directed by Hans Hulscher, and was produced by Georg Van Breemen. The choreographer made the following statement at the ballet’s premiere:
Petite Mort is a poetic, and strangely significant way of describing the ecstasy of a sexual intercourse. In French, and in some other languages, this sensation is described as “small death.”
And it maybe so, that in the moment of pleasure (or in the moment of potentially creating a new life) we are reminded of the fact that our lives are of a relatively short duration, and that death is never too far from us.
In my work, I have based my choreography on two slow movements from the two most famous piano concertos by Mozart. I have cut them away from the fast movements, leaving them as mutilated torsos, lying helplessly in front of the listener and beholder.
They lie there, just like some ancient torso’s, without arms and legs, unable to walk or embrace.
There is no doubt, that it is perverse to do such a thing. But yet we do. And I am no exception. We live in a world in which nothing is sacred.
Since the time in which Mozart’s music was created, and today, many wars were fought and much blood had to flow under the “Bridge of Time.” And, it was mostly men swaying swords in show of their potency and power.
And it is always a “Mort,” which accompanies our lives, sometimes it is “Petite,” sometimes it is “Grand,” but it is the most faithful companion we have, from the dawn of our existence till the end.  Jirí Kylián – Den Haag September 23, 2007

The New York Scene:

America’s Century Continues

The ballets of Anthony Tudor spurred a new generation of artists eager to make ballets about serious themes: war, sex, violence, alienation. Like him, many worked for (or passed through) American Ballet Theatre. But his patrimony, however keenly felt, turned out to be false: their work broke decisively with his example. He was a modernist and neoclassi­cist: his language depended on physical and emotional control, on structure and constraint. Theirs did not. Consider, for example, the Czech-born choreographer Jiří Kylián (born 1947), among the most tal­ented choreographers of his generation and an artist Tudor admired and actively encouraged. Tudor even asked Kylian to take control of his own ballets after his death. Kylian declined, but in 1980 he paid tribute to the older choreographer in Overgrown Path, to music by Janacek: the ballet was dedicated to Tudor, and at first glance, we can see why. Like Dark Elegies and Leaves Are Fading, it is about grief and memory in an earthy central European community, and it uses a vocabulary fused from ballet and modern dance.

But the similarities end there. Rather than distilling and concen­trating muscular tension, Kylian releases the body into easy, flowing movements and phrases; rather than concealing, he tells all and thrives on rushes of emotion, fully expressed. Dancing his ballets re­ quires none of the intense muscular and psychological control de­ manded by Tudor: to the contrary, the movement feels natural and freeing. Tudor tightened ballet technique;  Kylian loosened it.

Thus, although Neoclassicism may have appeared to stand at the beginning of a new kind of twentieth-century psycholog­ical and story ballet tradition, it did not. That end came long before Kylian entered the scene. If those ballets look like empty shells today-structurally solid but emotionally flat-we should hardly be surprised. Even when they were first created, dances such as Lilac Garden and Pillar of Fire looked back to a dying European world; Echoes of Trumpets laid that world in its grave. Today’s dancers can hardly be blamed for their inability to understand or re-create the elusive mem­ories and fleeting emotions that once animated these dances. Tudor’s intensity and the way he worked with his dancers, moreover, is not something that can ever be reproduced; it too was of its time. Yet ap­proaching his ballets as period pieces-what other choice do today’s dancers have?-makes them appear earnest and quaint.

The Plot of Petite Mort

Jiří Kylián created this ballet especially for the Salzburg Festival on the second centenary of Mozart’s death. For his work he chose the slow parts of two of Mozart’s most beautiful and popular piano concertos.

“This deliberate choice should not be seen as a provocation or thoughtlessness — rather as my way to acknowledge the fact that I am living and working as part of a world where nothing is sacred, where brutality and arbitrariness are commonplace. It should convey the idea of two antique torsos, heads and limbs cut off — evidence of intended mutilation. This doesn’t destroy their beauty but reflects the spiritual power of their creator.”

The choreography includes six men, six women and six foils. The foils have the function to be actual dance partners and at times seem more unruly and obstinate than a partner of flesh and blood. They visualize a symbolism which is more present than a storyline. Aggression, sexuality, energy, silence, cultivated senselessness and vulnerability — they all play a significant part. Petite mort, literally meaning “small death,” serves as a paraphrase for orgasm in French and Arabic.

The Meaning of Petite Mort

Jiří Kylián created Petite Mort for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1991, and it’s been popular ever since. Petite mort, translated from French, means “little death”, and is generally used as a euphemism for orgasm. Kylián’s Petite Mort plays on this meaning with subtle sexual symbolism.

The term la petite mort has quite a history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it referred to a temporary and brief loss of consciousness, such as one may experience from fainting or dizziness. But the term has always been linked in some way with sexual release.

During medieval times, physicians believed that too much sex was bad for your health, sometimes leading to death because the act of sexual climax resulted in the “life force” being drained from the body. The term la petite mort became aligned with this medical belief, which persisted well into the Renaissance era and beyond.

There are many allusions to la petite mort in our most famous literature. In Chaucer’s more bawdy moments in The Canterbury Tales, he humorously mentions the ills of too-frequent sex, linking it to death. Shakespeare also referenced la petite mort in many of his plays. Lines such as “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes” from Much Ado About Nothing and “I will die bravely, like a smug bridegroom” from King Lear were not simply romantic declarations, they were bold references to orgasm.

The Romantics took la petite mort to the flowery extreme in their poetry, with images of wild seas crashing into rocks and toppling mountains representing the “death” of orgasm, which Shelley called “the death which lovers love” in his poem “The Boat on the Serchio” (1824). Thomas Hardy, on the other hand, explicitly used la petite mort in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) to describe his heroine’s reaction to meeting her future rapist, predicting her loss of innocence: “She felt the petite mort at this unexpectedly gruesome information, and left the solitary man behind her”. Here, Hardy reveals another meaning for la petite mort, often used by philosophers.

For modern philosophers, la petite mort is about more than just the physical act of sexual climax, it’s also about psychological loss. Some philosophers have theorized that la petite mort is about the spiritual release that comes with orgasm. This spiritual release, they argue, makes you temporarily “lose” yourself. Some scientists have linked this feeling to the release of oxytocin in the brain after an orgasm. For a philosopher like Roland Barthes, it’s a feeling that we can find beyond the bedroom.

Barthes used the concept of la petite mort, which he called jouissance (translated as “bliss”), to describe how we should feel about reading certain books in his well-known work The Pleasure of the Text (1973). A book that inspires feelings of jouissance, he theorized, will cause readers to momentarily lose themselves in the work. We’re all familiar with the expression of “losing yourself in a good book”, but how many of us know that this concept was originally theorized in relation to a euphemism for orgasm?

More recently, romance novels and erotica such as Fifty Shades of Grey tend to use the idea of “blacking out” or entering another state of consciousness through sexual orgasm. These are our own modern uses of la petite mort, a concept that remains seductive in our popular imagination. In Kylián’s Petite Mort, it’s a concept that he explores with characteristic humor, wit, and eroticism.







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