“Grid”, “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel”
Zurich , Switzerland
March 25, 2012
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2012 by Horst Koegler
With his March 2012 premiere Heinz Spoerli closed his 16th and final season as artistic director and chief choreographer of the Zurich Ballet. He had held the same position from 1973 through 1991 at Basel (the city where he was born in 1940), and from 1991 through 1996 at the Duesseldorf/Duisburg based German Opera on the Rhine. It means that he functioned as a director/choreographer for 39 continuous years, during which he created almost 200 ballets in the three/four cities plus guesting for many companies abroad. It is an imposing balance-sheet, which earned him the title of ´Switzerland´s No. 1 Ballet-Man´, which hadn´t existed before. Actually he was the first Swiss to secure a set place for Swiss ballet in the history of ballet, established through his companies touring around the globe. And if Swiss ballet does not yet rank among the Ivy League companies of the world, it certainly holds its honorary place in the second row.
Among his greatest successes so far have been the classics: “La Fille mal gardée” “Giselle”, “Coppelia”, ”Nutcracker” and “Cinderella”, “Chaes” (meaning “Cheese”, which makes fun of Swiss fads), “A Midsummer Night´s Dream” (not only Mendelsohn, but also Steve Reich and Philip Glass). “Goldberg Variations”, “Bach Cello-Suites” and “Peer Gynt”. Among invited guest choreographers apart from Balanchine, there appears most often the name of Hans van Manen, but also those of Cunningham, Lin Hwai-Min, Robbins, Tharp, Kylián and Wheeler.
His new programme offers three creations of his own. It starts with “Grid”, set to Shostakovich´s piano concerto no 2, op.102, of 1957, which he first did in Basel in 1987. This was followed by Gluck´s “Don Juan”, a premiere for him, which Gluck wrote for Angiolini, the great Noverre contemporary, in Vienna, exactly 250 years ago. He concluded the performance with a new version of Richard Strauss´s “Till Eulenspiegel”, which he first did in Basel in 1980. If the evening did not turn out to be the glorious finale we all had hoped for, it nonetheless emerged as a finely balanced triple-bill, which showed the company in sparkling fettle.
“Grid” refers to the wall which serves as the background mural constructionby Keso Dekker, and is danced to Shostakovich´s youthful second piano concert, dedicated to his son, played in Zurich by Alexey Botvinov, Spoerli´s Ukranian house-pianist for several decades, who is to him what Gordon Boelzner was for Balanchine and Robbins. MacMillan had used it in “Concerto” for one of his early Berlin programmes in 1966 and Neumeier its dreamy adagio movement for the ravishing opening pas de deux in his 2002 Hamburg-created “The Seagull”. Spoerli set it for three couples of soloists, a pas de deux couple and a corps of six plus six corps dancers, as a concert-piece. a bit like Balanchine´s opening of his “Jewels”, with rather muted virtuosity, its central pas de deux blossoming in the liana-like intertwining bodies of the graceful Viktorina Kapitonova and Stanislav Jermakov. Otherwise it´s mostly richly patterned geometric structures, with sweet lyric coating, as if springing from the music´s mostly boisterous, but then again strangely hesitant continuity, Lighted atmospherically by Martin Gebhard, it looks under its starry sky like one of Robbins´ “Nocturnes”, and it is danced by the Zurichians with delicate charm, the girls adorable in Dekker´s softly billowing iridescent skirts.
This is followed by Gluck´s “Don Juan”, one of history´s first ballets d´action, after the comedy by Molière, a beautifully chiseled and illustrative score, following the plot roughly like we know it from Mozart's “Don Giovanni”, with the notorious Spanish womanizer seducing the differently characterized girls in dozens, to be revenged by the Commander and taken to hell, where he is almost taken to pieces by the Furies (the music of the finale was later used by Gluck also in his “Orpheus and Eurydice”). It´s a vigorous and rhythmically alert score, and one wonders why it is so little used by contemporary choreographers (who rather prefer to stage Gluck´s opera).
Unfortunately the music of the Zurich production was performed by the house´s normal opera-orchestra instead of its special Órchestra Scintilla, generally reserved for the works of the baroque and early classical repertory. So it sounded rather commonplace to our ears, conducted by Theodor Guschlbauer, a routinier for music of the 19th century, while we are by now accustomed to the more finely grated sounds for that sort of music by specialist ensembles. Nor could I muster much enthusiasm for Spoerli´s staging of the plot, designed by Florian Etti and Jordi Roig (and again lit by Martin Gebhardt). For that I am spoilt by the many fabulous designs for Mozart´s opera I have been confronted with during the seventy years of my regular threatre visits. Its Spanish references were rather vague with a special effect reserved for the appearance of the Commendatore from his tomb. And though Spoerli´s basically classical choreography looked as though it had been splashed with a pint of Vino tinto (and with a funky zapateado choreographed for the twin-brothers of Oleksandr and Sergiy Kirichenko), and though Spoerli tried to characterize the female protagonists according to their individual temperaments (performed by She Yun Kim as Dona Ana, Galina Mihaylova as Zerlina, Sarah-Jane Brodbeck as Duchesa Isabel and Juliette Brunner as Teresa), they hardly emerged as sisters from the family of Carmencitas. Nor did Daniel Mulligan as Passarino a sort of Leporello guy, or Felipe Portugal as the Commendatore appear as truly individually profiled characters. That was left to Vahe Martirosyan, Zurich´s best dancer, as Don Juan. Hailing from Armenia, he looks like a born macho, oozing sex from all his pores, as if devouring everybody on stage with his tigerish leaps and dazzling pirouettes. It certainly was a nicely to look at prodution, too nice perhaps after the invasion of genuine Spanish troupes we have experienced on stage and in the films of Carlos Saura.
And so on to Spoerli´s final “Till Eulenspiegel”. And as he possesses such a great sense of humour one had hoped for a ballet of sunny rememberances at the end of one´s life — like Falstaff summing up his experiences at the end of his life, with ´Everything in the world´s a jest, Man is born a jester´. Alas, this was not to be!
For an orchestra-piece of “Till Eulenspiegel´s” popularity, Strauss´s tone-poem on the legendary medieval prankster has received rather few ballet productions. There was Nijinsky´s attempt for the Diaghilev company, premiered in New York in 1916, and there was Babilée's version for himself with the Ballets des Champs-Elisée troup in 1949, but I haven´t heard of one during the last decades. But then the Strauss heirs are notoriously stingy in granting permission for stage performances of it, and thus many requests were turned down. It took long negotiations for the Zurich direction to be allowed another staging (though Spoerli had done it during his early beginnings in Basel), and so there is little chance that it will be revived next season, when a new artistic director (Christian Spuck from Stuttgart) will take over.
Best moments of the new Zurich version are the beginning, when Till arrives from the flies and the end, when after having been hanged for his misdeeds, he appears again, Petrushka-like, poking fun at the surprised onlookers. In between there are lots of episodes where he performs his pranks to various groups of onlooking citizens, seduces girls and distinguished ladies, mocks dignitaries of the law and a priest, but these are incidents of no or little dramaturgican stringency, and so the ballets just fails to build up a progressing action and dissipates into some more or less jocose sketches. There is a lot of folklore tinted rustic dancing with opoprtunities for soloists to present their individual acts, but the whole resembles a colorful patchwork structure rather than a coherent comedy. And so it looks in Florian Etti´s rather drab designs, which seem to have been assembled from the fundus.
The dancers obviously enjoy presenting their cunning tricks and whims and so does Arman Grgoryan as Till, another one of Spoerli´s boys imported from Armenia, a born comedia and good-for-nothing. It´s only because Spoerli has done such exhilarating ballets in the past, like “Fille”, “Chäs”, “Pulcinella” and “Cinderella”, that one feels a little disappointed when confronted with his farewell Zurich production, as one had hoped that it would turn out to be the crowning event of his life. But then he is approaching seventytwo during the next months, a man still brimming with energy and vitality, that one hopes for another major creation during his new state as a freelancing guest choreogapher in great demand all over the globe.