Jiří Kylián created Petite Mort for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1991 in honor of the Salzburg Festival on the second centenary of Mozart’s death, and it has captured audiences with its thrilling physicality and emotional depth ever since. Sexuality, contained energy, aggression, charged silence, and open vulnerability all play significant roles in this work, which combines classical elegance and technical aptitude with bold, contemporary expression. Pennsylvania Ballet’s premiere of Petite Mort was on February 6, 2014 at the Merriam Theater.
Petite Mort, which means “small death,” serves as a euphemism for orgasm in French and Arabic. Kylián’s Petite Mort incorporates subtle sexual imagery, exploring the concept with characteristic wit, humor, and eroticism. Petite Mort is danced to slow segments of two of Mozart’s most beautiful and adored piano concertos, Nos. 21 and 23, which function as a counterpoint to the thrilling, dynamic movements onstage. Kylián explained, “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.”
The choreography includes the use of foils, which often have the function of dance partners themselves. The foils, manipulated by the dancers, repeatedly show themselves to be as willful and indomitable as living partners. Kylián also playfully incorporates black silk baroque dresses. Like the fencing foils, the dresses transition between the roles of prop and partner as they are alternately worn, danced around, and hidden behind.