Leave it to the French to have a name for that specific moment in the atmosphere of Paris when night is nearly finished but day hasn’t quite arrived – not dawn or twilight (they have other words for those), but l’heure bleue, the blue hour.
It was on a trip to guest-perform with the Paris Opera Ballet that Czech dancer and choreographer Jiří Bubeníček experienced the blue hour. He was walking back to his apartment in Montmartre, the famous hill in Paris that allows a panoramic view of the city, when he noticed the color of the morning light, a blue atmosphere that made such an impact on him he immediately went hunting for its name.
“L’Heure bleue” became the inspiration and title for Bubeníček’s new ballet for the North Carolina Dance Theatre. “That’s the feeling I want to give this piece – light and elegant, contemporary but also classical, a little bit funny but also serious,” says Jirí whose identical twin brother Otto, also a dancer, is designing the set for the piece. “So it’s always between, everything between the night and day.”
The company will perform the world premiere of “L’Heure bleue” as part of Contemporary Fusion, the final production of the NCDT season April 25-27 at the Knight Theater. It will be the second Bubeníček piece that the company has performed, the first being the U.S. premiere of “Le soufflé de l’esprit” in 2011, which made NCDT the first American ballet company after the New York City Ballet to work with Jiří.
Performance runs in the Bubeníček family. Jiří and Otto, 39, come from a family of circus acrobats and spent their childhood traveling around Europe until they began training at the Prague Dance Conservatory at age 10. Together they won awards at the international competition Prix de Lausanne before starting their professional careers in Germany with the Hamburg Ballet where Jiří danced for 13 years, most of those as a principal, and where Otto continues to dance as a principal. Jiří joined the Dresden Semperoper Ballet as principal in 2006. Since creating his first ballet in 1999, Jiří has choreographed for the New York City Ballet and the China National Ballet, as well as ballets in Zurich, Hamburg and Dresden.
In Otto, Jiří has an ideal creative partner. Whereas Jiří is the choreographer, Otto gravitates toward design. He has created a number of short films and designed costumes and sets for many of Jiří’s works, including the set for “L’Heure bleue.” He also composes music and has created compositions for several of Jiří’s ballets. “We are a good team,” says Jiří.
In early rehearsals at NCDT last week, the Bubeníček twins worked together with an easy, efficient dynamic. Jiří develops and perfects the movement while Otto offers dramaturgical advice. Later Jiří says, “[The work] is not just steps and dance, but some kind of feeling.” Otto continues, “In our country, we love fairy tales. The whole country, they love [them]. So we were educated that everything has to have some meaning, some story. Sometimes when you choreograph for a long time, you need another eye to see it fresh and say something more about dramaturgy or the story. That’s more my role.”
On day three of rehearsals, the dancers were getting deeper into the choreography. Some roles had been cast, and others were still to be determined. All the dancers, whether expecting to perform the parts or not, learn the choreography, trying on the movements for size. The ballet begins with a neoclassical section for several of the company’s male dancers. The men worked through Jiří’s movement iteratively: finding the classical positions between fluid transitions and directional changes; the curved lines articulated by the body during short, contemporary-trumping-classical bursts; the variations in speed that require the dancer to relax into the movement or be damned.
The details of Jiří’s ballets fall into place as he works with the dancers. “I prepare in my head with the music, with the ideas, but the piece is leading itself,” says Jiří. “I just have to puzzle it together now. In the end, if the picture on the puzzle is different than I planned, then it’s different. With any creation, you have to let it happen by itself.”
Based on the style and quality of movement, it’s no surprise that Jiří’s choreography caught the eye of Peter Martins, the man that legendary choreographer George Balanchine selected to guide the New York City Ballet after his passing. As Martins was quoted in The New York Times, “There was something that rang true in the work. He created images and moments that stopped me.”
After rehearsal, several of the dancers could be overheard saying how good the choreography feels, like something their body “wants to do.” First-season company dancer Gregory Taylor says he’s impressed by how thorough the brothers are, taking the time early in the process to explain not only the steps but also port de bras (the movement of the upper body and arms), the timing and the feeling of the piece – details that often get left until the end. Those details make every movement integral to the larger story that “L’Heure bleue” tells.
In addition to the Bubeníček ballet, the Contemporary Fusion program will include an encore of “Rhapsodic Dances,” a classical ballet chock-full of fast, challenging technique by one of NCDT’s own dancer-turned-choreographers, Sasha Janes. Rounding out the program is Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section,” which is essential 1980s Tharp – energetic, rhythmic and fiercely independent.
The Bubeníček brothers will stay in Charlotte and rehearse the dancers until the premiere on April 25, then Jiří heads to Germany to create another work to Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale.” “It’s a totally different atmosphere,” says Jiří. “I always try to do very different types of work. For New York City Ballet, I did a neoclassical work. For Zurich and Hamburg, I did more contemporary work. Here, I’m doing something different still. I don’t want to just speak one language. I want to be more global.”