March 21, 2009
The Swiss Heinz Spoerli receives the German Dance Prize 2009 at the Essen Aalto Music Theatre.
In addition Marijn Rademaker, Principal Dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet, is the recipient of the German Dance Price ´Future´
by Horst Koegler
copyright @2009 by Horst Koegler
It is a bit like the General Meeting of the United Nations in New York. The place, however, is not Manhattan, but Essen, capital of the German Rhine-Ruhr industrial district (and home of the famous Folkwang School of Arts, established some eighty years ago under the directorship of the legendary Kurt Jooss, creator of the “Green Table”).
Once a year the German, Austrian and Swiss dance congregation, with many a guest from abroad, assembles at Essen´s Aalto Music Theatre, definitely the most beautiful theatre building erected after World War Two in Germany. The occasion is the award presenting ceremony of the German Dance Price. Distributed in 2009 for the 26th time, it went this year to Heinz Spoerli, artistic director and chief choreographer of the Zurich Ballet – simultaneously the German Dance Price “Future 2009” was awarded to Marijn Rademaker, Principal Dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet. who has recently guested as protagonist in Spoerli´s latest full-length production of “Peer Gynt” in Zurich. It was truly a remarkable event and its auditory of 1125 was filled to the brim with dance people from all over the continent, among them most of the directors of the local companies.
Only once before, in 1997, had the Prize been awarded to a citizen of Switzerland, and that was Philip Braunschweig, instigator of the famous Lausanne Competition of Dancers. So Spoerli is the first creative Swiss artist to be thus honoured. Born in 1940 in Basle and educated at the theatre´s ballet school he had his first professional engagement as a dancer at the local company, then led by Wazlav Orlikowsky, one of the indefatigable Russians who had fled the country after the October Revolution. But soon he left Basle for the brighter pastures of Cologne, where he became a favourite of Todd Bolender and had his first encounter with Balanchine, who became the strongest artistic influence of his life. Bolender recommended him to Arnold Spohr of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and so Spoerli went to Manitoba country, soon, however. transferring to the Grand Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, where his most popular role was the dumb Tommy in the Rock opera of The Who. From Montreal he seized every occasion to visit New York to explore not only its cultural scene but established many personal friendships which have stood the test of times. Actually New York is his favourite city, and there hasn´t been a single year passed during recent decades that he has not found an occasion to pay it one of his turbo stints.
His next station was Geneve of Switzerland, which at that time was directed by Patricia Neary, modeled upon the New York City Ballet. As a soloist, he spread his wings and began to choreograph smaller pieces, among them a highly avantgardist venture which brought him as a a prize a commission to produce it for Swiss tv – working out so successfully, that he got a contract as artistic director and chief choreographer at the recently rebuilt Basle Municipal Theatre, which plays for a ten months season, offering its patrons opera, drama, operetta, musical and ballet performances. Starting with the 1973/74 he stayed there for seventeen years, building up an enormous repertory based upon a choice selection of classics like “ Giselle” , “Fille mal gardée”, “Nutcracker” and “Coppélia”, with a strong contingent of full-time pieces (among them a highly successful a version of the “Midsummer Night´s Dream”, with Mendelssohn´s music amended through compositions by Philip Glass and Steve Reich – but there was also a specially commissioned new “Don Quixote” with Hans van Manen as protagonist).
Apart from choreographing the main bulk of the repertory by himself (establishing his vast empire of ballets set to Bach, and working his way though the standard classics of the 20th century from “Firebird” and “Daphnis and Chloe” through “Pulcinella” and “Les Noces”, the obligatory Prokofiev, Mahler, Ligeti, Berio and Nono, he imported the Balanchine standard classics, but also individual ballets by Kylián and van Manen as well as staging Gluck´´s opera “Orpheus and Eurydike” and Henze´s ”Ondine” ballet. From Basle his company guested regularly each summer at the Ludwigsburg Castle Festival, near Stuttgart, making it its annual summer residence – Saratoga Springs on a minor scale.
Already in Basle it became clear, that here was a budding choreographer of inert musicality, strictly classically based, versed in many forms, whether abstract or narrative, with a great sense of humour and the rare gift to tell a dramaturgically developed story over three acts – without borrowing from pantomime, but with a strong intake of sportive and athletic movements. People loved his ballets, and thus ballet became a pillar of the theatre´s repertory – on equal footing with opera, while at most other houses it functioned only as an agent of vicarius liability. Favourite invited guest-choreographers were Balanchine and van Manen.
At 51 he transferred for the 1991/92 season as artistic director and chief-choreographer to the Deutsche Oper am Rhein – a much bigger company, serving the two nearby cities of Düsseldorf and Duisburg, Activities multiplicated, the repertory now included the big classics like “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty, while apart from Spoerli´s own contributions the repertory was peppered with Balanchiana from all over his oeuvre, with van Manen still favoured as an alternative. The company often appeared abroad and Spoerli´s ballets were in great demand by other troupes, with his “Midsummer Night´s Dream” and “La Fille mal gardée” heading the list. He himself was invited as guest-choreographer by the Vienna State Opera, La Scala di Milano, the Royal Opera Houses of Copenhagen, Stockholm, the Stuttgart Ballet and even by the Paris Opéra, though plans of a new “Fille mal gardée” there misfired through a strike of the dancers (not against him but because of technical reasons).
Five years later Spoerli finally returned home to Switzerland to lead the ballet-company at the Zurich opera-house which with Alexander Pereira as general manager had progressed to the front-rank of Continental opera-houses through its ambitious repertory policy, its galaxy of international conductors from Harnoncourt through Dohnanyi to Welser-Möst, its collection of star-singers like Gruberova, Kasarova, Ghaurov, Shicoff, Hampson and Kaufmann. The ballet company of the house, however, had always been granted secondary rank only – even under such veteran ballet-masters and mistresses like Nicolas Beriozoff, Patricia Neary and more recently under Uwe Scholz.
This was changed drastically when Spoerli took over in 1996 who catapulted the company within few seasons to compete with the established troups in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart , let alone Vienna and the other cities in Austria and Switzerland. Key works of his repertory were “Goldberg Variations”, the six solo cello suites from Bach as well as classics – among them an electrifying “Don Quixote” plus the other classics which he had first staged in Basel and Düsseldorf, plus an unending succession of shorter non-narrative pieces to music from Rameau (his staging of the spectacular ballet-opéra “”Les Indes galantes”) through the Vienna classics of the age of enlightenment, Schumann, Schubert and Brahms, but also of Offenbach through Mahler, Stravinsky and Prokofiev to John Adams, György Ligeti, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Of course he continued his policy to import as many Balanchines as he could get (though, astonishing enough, no Robbins), he was the first in our regions to invite Merce Cunningham (for “Summerspace”) and Twyla Tharp, competed with Hamburg about Christopher Wheeldon, continued his collaboration with van Manen, and dared after a short ballet by Forsyrhe to produce his full-length “Artifact” (which cannot be danced any longer by Forsythe´s own company because in its present state it is too small for the big ensembles), he also invited Lin Hwai Twin from Taipeh for his first European production. Consider that Spoerli finished the last season through choreographing the complete ballet-music of “Idomeneo” collaborating with Harnoncourt for a new production of Mozart´s opera at Graz), he staged so far through the 2008/9 season Forsythe´s “Artifact”, succeeded by Johan Kobborg´s version of Bournonville´s “La Sylphide” and is now in the midst of preparations for his next Bach programme, centered about Bach´s “Magnificat” (conducted by Marc Minkowski). I don´t know of any of his colleagues of comparable creativity. And be reminded that all these productions are accompanied by full orchestra and chorus (and hardly ever – as in the case of Cunningham and Forsythe – by electronic gadgets), so that the music standard of all these performances is guaranteed).
Today the Zurich ballet is the most traveling of all continental companies, Hamburg and the Paris Opéra included. In addition to the legitimate company Spoerli has established a smaller Junior Company to bridge the gap between a dancer´s conclusion of his schoolish education and his first professional engagement. In 2000 Spoerli established the “Foundation Heinz Spoerli” to further persons or objects advancing the public interest in ballet. The first recipient was Martin Schläpfer, artistic director and chief choreographer of the Mainz company and one of the first dancers when he started back in Basle in 1973. Now Schläpfer ranks as the most promising of younger choreographers, wo leaves next season to take up the same position at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein of Düsseldorf and Duisburg. Schläpfer was chosen to hold the laudatio for Spoerli in Essen and it proved a truly memorable and even moving event, when he remembered those early years of his career and his evaluation of Spoerli´s career as a ´dance maker´(that is how Spoerli sees himself – not as a ballet-director and choreographer, but as a craftsman of dances – obviously modeled upon his great predecessor from St. Petersburg and New York).A man of great loyalty, Spoerli has inspired numerous ballet-masters and dancers who have worked with him for years – among them the Americans Sheldon Schwartz, Christ Jensen and Victoria Mazzarelli.
Originally it was planned that Marijn Rademaker, the receiver of the German Dance Price ´Future 2009´, was to appear as Peer Gynt in a performance of the first act from the Zurich production. Unfortunately he had hurt himself and could not appear, and so we were shown a twenty minutes film-clipping of Rademaker in some of his outstanding roles from ballets by Cranko, Balanchine, Tetley, Neumeier, Spuck and Goecke – and it was his dancer colleague Spuck from the Stuttgart Ballet who remembered many an amusing episode from their collaboration in Stuttgart. Actually Rademaker, of Dutch origin, a blonde with an imposing physique, made a turbo career at Stuttgart, where he is now listed as a Principal. All the guestting choreographers want to have him as he is not only a brilliant technician, cutting the air like an arrow, but also an exquisite actor of almost demonic powers, especially as Jago in Neumeier´s “Othello”. Was it this role that he reminded me as the only other Dutch dancer of world reknown that I can remember – of Lucas Hoving as Jago in José Limón´s “The Moor´s Pavane”?. Otherwise the programme, consisting only of ballets by Spoerli, seemed outrageously long (speeches included), missing to show his rare humorous gifts (for instance in that highly amusing Swiss folklore parody of “Chäs” – referring to Swiss cheese).
The company, though, or should one better speak of two companies, for the Junior Ballet appeared side on side with the ´Seniors´- proved in fine fettle throughout as well in Spoerli´s soul-digging excursion into Brahms´s Handel Variations as in the exquisitely drawn pure lines of the excerpts from his forthcoming Bach ballet, while I could find little to admire in his Skjrabin inspired “Les débauches du reve”, which looked to me like a meeting of Ku Klux Klan members in an ice-cream parlour at Stonhenge and the complete concert for violin and orchestra from Philip Glass to accompany the final divertissement from “A Midsummer Night´s Dream”, while demonstrating the dancers exuberance and polished vitality definitely stayed out its initial welcome.