NC Dance gives master choreographer Jiri Kylian his turn

Even in Greek mythology, there’s no creature with the face of a human, the wings of a swan and the lower torso of a lion. But if there were, you might be looking at it onstage in Jiri Kylian’s “Forgotten Land.”

N.C. Dance Theatre has never done a piece by the Czech-born choreographer. So the dancers have had to learn a new physical vocabulary to master this work about nostalgia, loss and longing: eyes that convey emotions, arms that soar aloft, body planted weightily upon the Earth.

The headliner this week at Knight Theater is “Othello,” Dwight Rhoden’s 2009 piece updating Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy to the music industry. But “Land” has set the troupe buzzing.

“We usually give an easier work to a company that hasn’t done Kylian,” says Cora Bos-Kroese, who came from Europe to set it on NCDT for the choreographer. “It’s quite tough technically, but it’s classically based. You need beautiful lines and attractive bodies with strong cores.

“You can only work with dancers who are musical, because he’s so precise: He fits the steps to the music (Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem) so perfectly. You start at A and end at B, but you have to know exactly where B is before you get there.”

NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has wanted to import Kylian for a long time. He was a guest instructor at Nederlands Dans Theater, Kylian’s home company, and fell in love with the combination of lyricism and power in “Forgotten Land.”

“The first time people started to talk about ‘organic’ movement in dance, Kylian is what they meant,” he says. “The movement goes with your breathing. For a dancer, there’s nothing better.” (He also says the company is lucky to have Bos-Kroese, who has never set this piece before, assigned to it: “She was my favorite dancer there. She’s so powerful; she has wings for arms.”)

Jamie Dee, who calls Kylian her favorite choreographer, says she has “been waiting my whole career to dance one of his pieces. It immediately felt natural on my body. It’s a piece about community, so it’s a group effort, and you feel everything together with the group.

“My dancer brain usually thinks about pictures: How do I position my arm or leg to make the right picture onstage? But Kylian’s work is pure and unaffected; you have to feel it. Dancers who have certain tricks or affectations have to wipe the slate clean and start over.”

Jordan Leeper likes Kylian’s exactness: “Dwight Rhoden will let you extend a moment. He’ll say, ‘Make it your own.’ But this is very precise: You have to get it into your muscle memory.

“It’s been challenging to combine the stomping feet with the fluidity of the upper body. It’s relatively new to me – I’ve done some of these movements before, but not in this way – yet it feels natural. It’s kind of what my body wants to do.”

“Forgotten Land” may be precise physically, but it’s open to interpretation emotionally. Kylian doesn’t discuss it on his philosophic website ( jirikylian.com), but it’s generally described as an exploration of memory. Experiences slip away from us, and we vainly try to recover or understand them.

Bos-Kroese likes to use non-dance metaphors to explain the way Kylian wants dancers to think: “He likes Japanese calligraphy, where the artist sits all day and then picks up a brush and finishes the piece with one big stroke. The artist sees all of it before he acts.

“Dancers are used to doing dynamic things all the time. Jiri doesn’t ask for that. He’s fond of cats, who can be really soft and calm and then boom! They know all along what they’re going to do, but you don’t see it until they explode.”