“In the Night” and “Song of the Earth”
Zurich Opera House
April 2, 2011
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2011 by Horst Koegler
In the final premiere of his 15th and penultimate season as artistic director and chief-choreographer of the Zurich Ballet, Heinz Spoerli has double-billed Jerome Robbins´ Chopin based “In the Night” with his own creation of Gustav Mahler´s “Song of the Earth”. It is a programme which could be billed “Les Adieux”. For if the Robbbins materialized like some sort of after-thought to his preceding “Dances at a Gathering” – Spoerli´s creation of Mahler´s Lieder Symphony ends with the altist´s last words ´Ewig, ewig, ewig…´ (Always, always, always…´), sounding like the never ending echo of farewells in the night.
It fits the company´s repertory perfectly, as a rounding off of its American roots, firmly anchored by about fifteen ballets by Balanchine. For Balanchine and his legacy has inspired Spoerli ever since he started to choreograph about fifty years ago, and to which he returned time and again over the decades by invitations to guest choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon (pace of his being British born, he seems to us to belong to the US wing of the Anglo-American ballet fraternity). The Chopin nocturnes are played by Alexey Botvinov, Spoerli´s Ukranian pianist since his Düsseldorf days, who has become to him what Gordon Boelzner was to the New York City Ballet. While Vladimir Fedoseyev, who has already conducted Spoerli´s ballet set to Mahler´s Fifth Symphony in 2005, headed the opera-house´s orchestra, with Liliana Nikiteanu and Erin Caves as soloists. Thus the evening´s ambitious musical level was guaranteed throughout its two hours of duration.
Robbins` “In the Night” transfers the rural setting of its five couples of youthful dancers having a good time in “Dances at a Gathering” to a fictional palace under a starry sky, where three adult couples dance their varying relationships before being united in a fourth nocture for a pas de six. It is as if they have come out from the ballroom to take a refreshing breeze in the garden, elegantly dressed in their robes, originally designed by Joe Eula, but here now redesigned by Anthony ex-Royal Ballet Dowell, as the original lighting by Thomas Skelton has been rearranged by Jennifer Tipton. I wouldn´t claim, though, that the new costumes are an improvement – -at least not for the cavalier as the last of the three in blue, with a red spot on his waistcoat, which I first took for a heart and then, maybe, as some spilled red wine, clashing badly with the subtle colours scheme of the other costumes).
The staging is by Christiane Redpath, and suggests to me a coming together of three generations, the innocently trustful Giulia Tonelli and Olaf Kollmannsperger, the more experienced and consolidated Sarah-Jane Brodbeck and Vahe Martirosyan, and the dramatically capricious Galina Mihaylova and Arsen Mehrabyan. But they all are behaving extremely politely and as representatives of good manners –- even if the men have to transport their ladies upside down. It is also a ballet which communicates an infinite tenderness, when they softly touch their bodies or are united in a timid kiss. It is a marvellous ballet, as if growing out of the music and then liberated dancing in an ideal partnership with it. The couples of “Dancing at a Gathering” coming together again after years have passed and they all have arrived at a later stage of maturity. A beautiful demonstration of the genuinely music generated Zurich classicism the company has developed during the fifteen years of the Spoerli regime.
If “In the Night” is danced on a breeze of nostalgia for times past, Spoerli´s “Song of the Earth” breathes melancholy throughout its almost one hour of performing time. It emerges as a piece of remembering a life which has passed through various stages of personal memories. As such it is a sort of journey through life from its sunny youthful exuberance through the sunset of its last days in the shadows of the night. Spoerli associates the six episodes of the individual movements with the protagonists conjured up by Mahler´s music and the Chinese poems in their Gerrman translations, entitled ´The Drinking Song of Earth´s Misery´, ´Lonesome in Autumn´, ´Youthful´, ´About Beauty´, ´The Drunk at Springtime´and ´Farewell´.
It is cast for six soloists, according to the characters mentioned in the poems: The Man (Vahe Martirosyan), ´Eternity´ (Karine Seneca), ´Death´ (Filipe Portugal´), ´The Divided´ (Arman Grigoryan), ´The Girl´ (Galina Mihaylova) and The Beauty´´ (Sarah-Jane Brodbeck) -- conjuring up memories of the past. Florian Etti, Spoerli´s designer of many ballets before, has set up the hilly landscape stretching from azure serenity through the blackest of night horizon, and Claudia Binder the costumes (I disliked intensely her white leotards and black boots for the boys, fabricated from wrinkled cloth, making them look like appearing in illfitting underwear) –- with Martin Gebhardt in charge of the astmopherically suggestive lighting. The Man is a sort of Everyman figure and seemed to me like another Moses, descending from Mount Arafat, overlooking Yerevan, the area where Martirosyan hails from. The choreography suggests a whiff of art nouveau from the fin de siecle, just prior to World War One.
Spoerli doesn´t attempt to illustrate the text – like MacMillan did when he choreographed Mahler´s Lieder Symphony in 1965 for the Stuttgart Ballet. Being, at 71, almost twice as old as MacMillan was when he tackled Mahler, Spoerli in this late stage of his life takes his cues from individual words, phrases and moods of the text and meditates choreographically about them. The result is a hauntingly beautiful succession of scenes, big and small ensembles, but hardly any solos, based upon the contemporary classic vocabulary, with only one character en pointe (Seneca as a guest ballerina who has accompanied Spoerli throughout his career from his early days in Basel and who dances today with the Hanover company).
Spoerli works like a sculptor, his material being the music, which he forms as dances, so that one can say that he uses the music like a sculptor using marble from which he cuts his statues. Not everything is clear, and there are some enigmatic moments, for instance with the figure called The Divided, obviously referring to the text´s ´On the tombs squats a wild and ghostly shape – a Monkey!´, performed by Grigoryan with animalistic exoressionist gestures, With their tidal flow of movements in constant flux they are building up to arrestingly composed groups before disassembling again and becoming again part of the incessant currant. Thus occurs a steady stream of dances in different tempi, sometimes accelerated and then again retarded, avalanching and suddenlyslowing down. There are numerous elegiac excursions, melancholically tinted, suffering extreme pressure, orchestrated in a minor key, followed by exuberant high jinks, resembling a roller-coaster ride.
Thus “The Song of the Earth” undergoes a metamorphoses as “The Dance of Life”, passing through its valleys and hills of sorrows and anxieties, and skimming its summits of carefree joys and exaltations. It is a fitting tribute to fifteen years of consequent artistic directorship, now slowly approaching its end.