Versatile Ballet Company

Compared with Paris or London, Vienna or Copenhagen, one can say that only recently has dance played a significant role in Zurich’s cultural life: the city entered the scene of international dance history only in the early years of the 20th century. Shortly before the First World War, Rudolf von Laban, one of the greatest innovators in European dance, opened a school that made Zurich “one of the focal points of the modern expressive dance movement.” However, according to Horst Koegler’s ballet lexicon, ballet played “a merely decorative role in the house’s opera and operetta productions” at Zurich Opera House. The ballet company first attracted attention beyond purely local interest in the 1930s, when the Yugoslav dancers Pia and Pino Mlakar shared the artistic directorship of the ballet for four years.

In the period following the Second World War, the first important steps were taken by the Lithuanian-born Briton Nicholas Beriozoff, who directed the Zurich Opera Company from 1964 to 1971 and was primarily responsible for its solid classical repertoire. However, after Beriozoff came a period of inconsistency and rapid changes in leadership. The Frenchman Michel Descombey was succeeded by the Briton Geoffrey Cauley, who was in turn followed by the Swiss Hans Meister and Joerg Burth, who shared the directorship. No-one lasted longer than two or three seasons in the Zurich Ballet’s top position. All the same, Rudolf Nureyev arrived in 1972 and taught the ensemble his “Raymonda”, later “Don Quixote” and his “Manfred”.

Only when Patricia Neary, a former ballerina at New York City Ballet, arrived as ballet director in 1978 did any semblance of calm and continuity return to the company. Neary remained until 1985, as long as Beriozoff, and without any personal ambition did her utmost to make Zurich Ballet the most important European performer of Balanchine ballets, with the largest and best European repertoire of the great choreographer’s work.

The decade from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties belonged to two young choreographers who, rather overwhelmed, were somewhat lacking as directors of the Zurich Ballet. The German Uwe Scholz, celebrated at the Stuttgart Ballet as an extraordinary talent, came to his first directorship in Zurich at the age of only 27. He debuted with a feature-length choreography for the Haydn oratorio “The Creation” that was slammed by the critics, and never really regained his footing. After five increasingly unsuccessful years he was succeeded by the similarly young Viennese choreographer Bernd Roger Bienert, who attracted attention by collaborating with some of the best-known architects in Europe and produced some beautiful reconstructions of works from the early days of modern dance, but ultimately with no greater success than his predecessor.

When Heinz Spoerli assumed the directorship of the Zurich Ballet in 1996, it was certainly not as down at heel as the ballet of the German Opera on the Rhine was when Spoerli had taken over five years previously. However, nor would anyone have considered it one of the leading continental ballet companies, although it can certainly lay claim to that description at the beginning of the 21st century. Spoerli managed this huge leap forward in as short a time as he did in Duesseldorf, thanks to four related factors: quality-conscious selection of dancers with no national prejudice; first-class training by ballet masters such as Peter Appel, Chris Jensen (with whom Spoerli also worked in Basel and Duesseldorf), and the Frenchman Jean-Francois Boisnon; an intelligent repertoire policy satisfied only with the best; and the quality of Spoerli’s own choreographies, which build naturally on the strong points of the repertoire.

It is a commonplace of dance history that major ballet ensembles can only exist in combination with major choreographers. This was particularly true in the 19th century, and is still true in the 21st. The Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen owes its surprisingly enduring prominent position to the wonderful August Bournonville, and the Ballet of the Marijinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg to Marius Petipa in the time of the Czars. The London Royal Ballet would never have played more than a provincial role without Frederick Ashton, and the New York City Ballet would never have become the first among the great ballet companies of the world without George Balanchine. The same goes for the Netherland’s Dans Theater and its choreographer-duo Hans van Manen and Jiri Kylian, the Brussels Ballet du XX e Siècle and Maurice Béjart, the Wuppertal Dance Theatre and Pina Bausch, and the Ballet Frankfurt and William Forsythe. The combination of the Zurich Ballet and Heinz Spoerli has long since joined the ranks of these renowned companies.

In the last ten years, ballet director Spoerli has acquired some of the best choreographical material available on the international market for his dancers: works by George Balanchine, such as “Serenade”, “Theme and Variations”, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”, “Allegro brillante”, “Duo Concertant”, “Rubies”, and “Symphony in C”; choreographies by Hans van Manen, like “Grosse Fuge”, “Solo”, “Metaphors”, “Black Cake”, or “Déjà-vu”; pieces by William Forsythe such as “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and “Herman, Schmerman”; Merce Cunningham’s “Summerspace”, and Twyla Tharp’s “Push Comes to Shove”. However, he has always paired these pieces with his own equally valuable choreographies.

Most of Spoerli’s own choreographie s were created especially for his Zurich ensemble. However, sensibly, he did not hesitate to bring at least one of the pieces that he had already choreographed in Duesseldorf to Zurich (but with new costumes): “Goldberg Variations”, set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano cycle. With this piece, choreographer Spoerli explored a new dramaturgy of feature-length ballet: not a merely abstract interpretation of the music, but an attempt to portray “life passing by” through dance. Couples find each other and lose each other again, views and insights change. Since the combination and confrontation of bodies always results in relationships, emotions and tension, “Goldberg Variations” is never really abstract; the unusual number of dancers and the length of the road they travel together already result in extraordinary wealth of possibilities.

Spoerli, who for decades has enjoyed great success primarily as a master of narrative ballet, may now have created a new dimension and a new genre as a mature choreographer (after all, he celebrated his 60th birthday in the autumn of 2000): pure dance with only the barest hint of a plot.

The feature-length “Brahms. A balletv, choreographed exclusively to the composer’s chamber music, attempts to describe the composer’s “inner conflict between exhausting yet fulfilling creativity and the unfulfilled longing for love”. The sublimation of a life unlived into an art form is a complex reflection of the composer’s alienation on stage.

The Mozart ballet entitled “Eine lichte, helle, schoene Ferne” begins with delicate rippling and oscillating movements, as if the finest Meissen porcelain figurines had come to life. Then, in the second section, not only the music, but also all activity on stage, darkens. The contrast between the lighter and darker passages creates an enchanting piece of classical dance that does Mozart more justice than most conventional choreographies, while simultaneously avoiding any slavish reverence towards the divine composer.

Although Spoerli’s interpretation of Schubert’s String Quartet in C Major tells a story, it does so in such a careful way that it is difficult to retell it in simple words. There are five dancers in solo roles on stage (before an extremely restrained and discreetly deployed ensemble of five couples). However, it would be erroneous to describe them as symbolising the five stringed instruments. Spoerli’s story does not reveal its secrets. There is nothing unambiguous about the constellation of the figures, the neoromantic, softly flowing movements, great, virtuoso leaps and pathetic postures. Spoerli lends the dance an unreal lightness: a playfulness that robs even death (if death plays any role at all for this quintet of dancers) of all regret or tragedy.

The Bach choreographies “…und mied den Wind”, “All Shall Be”, and “In den Winden im Nichts” rely primarily on virtuoso athleticism; their movements profit from floor exercises and acrobatics as well as many lifting and spinning movements, right up to the veritable “death spiral” inspired by figure skating; even synchronised swimming is apparent in the circling leg movements of the ballerinas, held head-down.

Spoerli’s choreographies normally incorporate the women of the ensemble, led by ballerinas Yen Han, Ilara Radda and Karine Seneca, at least as well as their male colleagues. However, in the pieces devoted to Brahms, Mozart and Bach, the men clearly predominate: the fabulous Michael Revie in “Eine lichte, helle, schoene Ferne”, or Jens Weber, Federico Bonelli, Francois Petit (and Revie again) in the Bach ballets.

In their 1964 interpretation of Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs”, however, the choreographer and his set designer Florian Etti dazzle with veritable magic tricks. In a considered, slightly diagonal line in the background, real vortices of cloud dance, from which the eight dancers appear again and again as though from nowhere, and into which they disappear; in one stage segment directly before the seething inferno of cloud, they cast long shadows of black light, thanks to Robertus Cremer’s ingenious lighting. Yet the strong impression left by “Folk Songs” is due to more than the set and its magic tricks. The dancers’ movements are richly inventive and full of fantasy. With a large, thirty-person ensemble, Spoerli pulls out all the stops in dance orchestration. He relies not only on the bravura of his excellent soloists, but also on the sheer impact of multiple movements that peak in an intoxicating finale.

Naturally, a gigantic work such as Rameau’s ballet opera “Les Indes Galantes”, in which Spoerli, as director and choreographer, put dance on an equal footing with the music in the spring of 2003, cannot be a permanent fixture in the repertoire of a ballet company associated with an opera house. But nor is that necessary. Together with a careful selection of classical and contemporary narrative ballets –– a lush “Summer Night’s Dream”, a delicate “Giselle”, a lively “Fille mal gardée”, a “Nutcracker” that is far more than a Christmas fairy tale, the Prokofiev pieces “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella”, the latter beautifully dressed in miles of the finest silk, and then, since the winter 2002 season, a new version of the “La Belle Vie” written for Basel, a feature-length piece that brilliantly reflects the Belle Epoque with all its advantages, social and human problems — pure dance results in a repertoire that hardly any other contemporary ballet company can call its own. That all this should have been created in a mere nine years borders on the miraculous. Yet it is simply the result of hard work by all those involved — before, on, and behind the stage.