Zurich Opera House
September 2, 2011
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2011 by Horst Koegler
"4 Choreographies” announced the advertisement for the opening of the Zurich Ballet´of the 2011/12 season. Hardly very appetizing fare, it seemed. And yet an ambitious start, its four authors including George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylián and Heinz Spoerli, artistic director and chief-choreographer of the company.
And there was more to it. For Balanchine, the master, and Forsythe, than a strapping teenager who had just started his carrer as a dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet, had been the first colleagues who Spoerli had invited to Basle, Switzerland, his home-town where he had been appointed ballet director in 1973, then a youngster of 33 years, after his apprentice years in Basle, Cologne, Winnipeg, Montréal and Geneve.
In 1996 Spoerli had moved to Duesseldorf –Duisburg, the twin-cities of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (German Opera on the Rhine), a company twice the size of his Basle troupe, continuting there on his paths which he had so solidly laid during his 18 years in Basle – now concentrating his efforts on ballets based upon Johann Sebastian Bach, culminating in his glorious “Goldberg Variations” of 1993, which has since become the name-plate of his companies, shown on many tours around the globe.
In 1996, however, he returned to Switzerland as his home, building the Zurich Ballet into the country´s number one troupe, establishing it among the prime league of opera-based ballet-companies of the German language countries, where it now competes with Hamburg, Stuttgart and Munich – and definitely before Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and Vienna. Balanchine still functions as the main foreign choreographer apart from Spoerli´s own contributions – others including van Manen and Kylián plus some Americans like Cunningham, Tharp, Forsythe and, well – even if he is no US native – Wheeldon, and as an exotic import from Taiwan, Lin Hwai-min (with the noteworthy absensce of any delegates from the British de Valois/Rambert stable of Ashton, Tudor, Cranko and MacMillan).
During his 16 years in Zurich Spoerli has clearly developed into one of the continent´s leading classically-based choreographers – a man of all sorts of ballets, one-acters, full-length spectacles, classics, comedies, sort of biographies. abstract and purely concert pieces plus everything inbetween - always firmly roooted in the music of his choice, with a great sense of humour, rare among his colleagues. He is now 73 and this is his last Zurich seaon, for he has decided to quit together with Alexander Pereira, the Intendant (General Manager) of the Zurich opera-house, who leaves to take up his new job as director of the Salzburg Festival (and there are already some rumours that Spoerli might continue as a freelancer in Salzburg).
And so to Zurich´s opening of Spoerli´s last local season – with two more premieres to follow: a revival of Mats Ek´s highly controversional “Sleeping Beauty”, originally created for Hamburg in 1996, and as Spoerli's finale next summer, Gluck´s “Don Juan” and Richard Strauss´s “Till Eulenspiegel”. In a way, then, Zurich´s latest new programme can be seen as a reflection of some of the colleagues he valued most during his almost forty years being in charge of the companies he headed in Basle, Duesseldorf-Duisburg and Zurich.
Balanchine and Stravinsky, that reads in the context (not only) of the Zurich repertory always like a return to the New Testament of the classic ballet. Every time one is confronted with Balanchine, one discovers new details. And thus it happened this time, with "Duo Concertant," as Hanna Weinmeister as the violinist and Alexey Botvinov introduced the grave accords of the cantilene, with the Ben Huys-coached dancers Victorina Kapitonova and Stanislav Jermakov, two étoiles of the company, listening motionless to the solemn sounds emanating from their instruments – as if they were filling up with music, before trying out some gestures and steps, which develop into more complicated patterns – but never as an interpetation or illustration of the music, but rather as a sort of choreographic comment on it, opening a new dimension. It´s a marvellous creation. Then in the last movement, the Dithyrambe, moving into a completely new space, an almost surrealist landcape, in which one is aware only of individual spotlighted limbs. It is one of the few ballets in which the choreography enters a new cosmos beyond the music. As performed by Kapitonova and Jermakov it materializes like a solemn ritual, practised by devotees of the holy order of Terpsichore – a kind of sequel of the divine “Apollo”.
I wish I could wax as enthusiastically about Forsythe´s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” – one of his most performed pieces from his early output (he created it in 1996 for his Frankfurt company). It is one of his exercises in pure classicism, set for three ballerinas, who in their Stephen Galloway designed plate-like tutus look like descendents from the Bauhaus era, and two dancers in tight-fitting bathing suits. It is set to the final allegro vivace movement of Schubert´s big C major symphony, which is blasted mercilessly and horribly blurred from the loudspeakers. Choreographically it emerges like a polytonal etude of five individual voices, which rarely perform in unison, but mostly follow their own course, constantly trying to outdo each other in speed. It thus resembles a running competition match rather than a coordinated arrangement of dances, with the poor dancers chasing each other at break-neck speed. The Zurich dancers, coached by Ander Zabala, include Sarah-Jane Brodbeck, Galina Mihaylova and Veronique Tamaccio plus Joayong Sun and Vahe Martirosyan. They performed it like if they had been drugged, but it did not help to erase the impression that the whole undertaking resembled a travesty of the Schubert we have come to love and venerate.
Nor could I share my colleagues' enthusiasm for Jiri Kylián´s “Duo from 27´52´´” – in spite of my admiration for the genuine musicality of many of his pieces. Its somewhat enigmatic title refers to its duration of 27 minutes and 52 seconds - that is its original length when it was created for the Netherlands Dance Theater II in 2002. In Zurich it was performed as announced: i.e. as an extended pas de deux, plus a third dancer for the very end, who wraps the two executants in the stage décor (designed by Kyláan and Joke Visser). It´s one of those insider pieces with French texts (more brabbled than declamated) and a quotation from the Dalai Lama. It is performed to a sound-collage by Dirk Haubrich, which boasts to derive from shreds of Gustav Mahler s Tenth Symphony (though just recently having been confronted with it in Neumeier´s Hamburg “Purgatorio”, I failed miserably to disover any musical relationship). Like its shrieking sound explosions, the dancers seem to explore their innermost fears and terrors in clashing movements, hard-edged fights and seemingly inextritcable knottings, fired by their anger and hate and thereby stripping their souls. Giulia Tonelli and Olaf Kollmansperger perform this like a laboratory act, but it all looks terrribly mechanic and stilted rather than as a spontaneous projection of their innermost genuine feelings – until in the very last seconds they get wrapped up in the floor-carpets and are carried away by Jinyong Sun like remnants of garbage. Now that is certainly a product which seems to have been concocted outside of the Balanchine orbit.
What a relief to be confronted immediately afterwards with the finale of the programme: Spoerli´s brand new “In Spilville”, set to Antonin Dvorak's string-quartet no. 12 in F major, his ´American Quartet´, composed while holidaying 1893 in this Czech settlement in Iowa, the north central state of the United States. With its forests amd valleys, flanked by the Mississippi River, it reminds one a bit of the landscape of Bohemia – and actually, with some of its melodies inspired by bohemian sources, while others sugest maybe indigenous Indian influences, the music sounds a bit like the composer´s answer to his compatriot Smetana´s “From Bohemian fields and groves”. In its vivacious but subdued gaiety and and electrifying propulsion it could as well be termed “From Iowa´s fields and groves”. In fact it is one of Spoerli´s happiest creations, a mature example of his serenity.
It develops under Florian Etti´s imposing abacus, stretching over the whole width of the stage, with a circular blob in its middle which spreads its light in different colours (the lighting is by Martin Gebhardt). There are five couples, the girls in softly flowing, flimsy dresses, its tops in flaming red, which then thins out down to the knees in fading pink, the man in blue trousers with sleeveless white shirts and bare arms (designed by Spoerli). The cloth is so thin, that the wind can blow through them, with the dancers becoming toys of the wind.
It is evoked by the four musicians from the house´s orchestra, Hanna Weinmeister and Anahit Kurtiyan as violinists, Valerie Szlavic on the viola and Claudius Herrmann on the cello. It is as if the music gently blows the dancers through their four, closely interlinked movements – its elan vital tinted by a prise of amber (the tree with its autumnal leafs, growing in Iowa). And with all its spontaeous gaiety it is tinted with some notalgia – with the composer remembering his younger years in Bohemia.
Spoerli has structured the four movements individually: the opening Allegro for three couples, among them Galina Mihaylova and Vahe Martirosyan, Sarah-Jane Brodbeck and Filipe Portugal, the following Lento as a dreamy and langurous pas de deux for Brodbeck and Martirosyan, the third, a Molto vivace, for two couples Vittoria Valerio and Daniel Mulligan, Pornpim Karchai and Kollmansperger, and the finale, a boisterous Vivace, ma non troppo, for all ten. It is a classical work balletically, sprigthly and bouncy, reminding a bit of Bournonville, its bravura technique slightly softened. And it is danced with gusto by the Zurichans – a ballet in the line of “Dances at a Gathering”, but without its emotional overtones, its rare folksy reminiscences subtly veiled.