The Dance Maker

In his identity papers and on his calling cards, the designation is of course different. However, when describing his profession, Heinz Spoerli prefers the term “dance maker” to “choreographer” or “ballet director”. This, he says, is “because this is a plain description of my passion, my motivation and my creative work.” His intention is “to make audible music visible”, “to visualise music and create an additional dimension of experience.”

Of course, no-one could have foreseen that Spoerli was to “make dances”. Born in Basel in 1940, he came from a solid middle-class family. Like many middle-class children, Spoerli was irresistibly drawn to the theatre from an early age. At the age of just 14, he appeared at the Basel Opera as an extra, and used the money thus earned to finance his first, secret ballet lessons. According to an interview Spoerli gave to the New York Times, when he finally confessed to his parents that he wanted to be a dancer, they threw him out. However, it must have been a gentle, delayed ejection, as Spoerli was able to complete his dance studies in Basel in peace.

In 1960, Spoerli had his first engagement in Basel, where the ballet company was at that time directed by Vaslav Orlikovski. In 1963, while recovering from a meniscus operation, it became clear to him that dancing in Orlikovski’s (very traditional) ballets was not his life’s ambition. Trusting to luck, he travelled to Cologne, took part in a trial class and was engaged by Tod Bolender, the ballet director there. Bolender, whom Spoerli later described as “my dancing father”, continued to influence Spoerli’s life even after the dancer’s years in Cologne. Three years later, as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was looking for a dancer for Bolender’s “Still point”, Spoerli threw himself into a foreign adventure without stopping to think too long about it.

Spoerli later described his work in the wilds of Western Canada, with long bus journeys to the performance venues, as “dancing on the peak of the Matterhorn”. It made him tougher, but he did not enjoy it all that much. He only began to feel at home at the Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, a city with more European flair — not least because it was a relatively short distance from New York, at that time the ballet capital of the world.

In the meantime, Spoerli began to choreograph on a modest scale; his first attempts were performed in Calgary in 1967. After three years in Montreal, Spoerli returned to Switzerland. During the 1969/70 season, he again danced in Basel and also presented his own works there for the first time. However, Basel was not yet ready for him. In the autumn of 1971, after another year in Montreal, Spoerli took up a post at the theatre in Geneva, which not only wanted him as a dancer, but also offered him the opportunity to choreograph his own works. The following spring, his first really professional ballet was performed there: “Le Chemin”, which brought him luck twice over. This successful work was recorded for television, and was consequently seen by Werner Dueggelin, the new director in Basel. He immediately offered the 30-year-old dance maker a contract as ballet director.

Dueggelin never regretted his spontaneous decision. Spoerli remained in Basel for 17 years. He single-mindedly built up a technically first-class company based on the classical tradition but with modern leanings, and became an extremely hard-working choreographer. Up to six or eight one-act works per season were the rule rather than the exception; from 1976, these were joined by feature-length works. The low-key, dramaturgically highly intelligent revision of the classics was the area in which Spoerli made much of his reputation over the years. He created a dance version of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and choreographed his first “Giselle”; Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Henze’s “Undine” and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” followed.

This brought him a guest contract with the Paris Opera, for which he choreographed a version of “La fille mal gardée” in 1981 that met with critical and public acclaim. In 1984, the choreographer pulled off another stroke of genius with Léo Delibes’ “Coppélia”, this time for his own ensemble; under his hands, the often so banal ballet fairy tale gained a new maturity. Not everything attempted by the choreographer is an instant success. But Spoerli is tough. He revises some works again and again until they finally give in and attain their perfect form.

Spoerli has meanwhile set high standards for multi-act ballets that take up an entire evening. In 1984, he choreographed “Falstaff” and engaged his colleague Hans von Manen for the title role (the repertoire of the Basel Ballet leaves plenty of scope for von Manen’s work). In 1988, he created “La Belle Vie”, which for many years was Spoerli’s masterpiece: a minor choreographic miracle set in and dealing with the French Belle Epoque, which it criticises without suppressing any of its fascination.

Narrative ballet is still Spoerli’s domain. However, he has also succeeded in producing impressive non-narrative works. These include the early farce “Chäs” (1978) rooted in Swiss folklore, as well as the Mahler choreography “Wendung” (1979), a parody of the fashion for jogging set purely to drum rhythms (by George Gruntz) called “Thundermove” (1980), and the Brahms ballet “Four Songs for Women’s Choir” (also 1980) which he freed from anything that was merely pretty or pleasing. In a choreographic tour de force in 1985, he pitted himself against Hans-Juergen von Bose’s “The Night of Lead”, which defeated even William Forsythe at the premiere in Berlin.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Spoerli began to find his native city of Basel too confined. At this time, he was proposed for practically every important vacant directorship in the German-speaking countries, and finally decided in favour of the German Opera on the Rhine with its theatres in Duesseldorf and Duisburg. Within five years, he had brought new life to the double institution’s run-down ballet company, and restored it to its original position as one of Germany’s leading classical ensembles. Spoerli’s most important choreographic work during this period was a lucid dance version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano cycle, the “Goldberg Variations”, performed on an open, empty stage; this is generally believed to be his
best piece. In 1996, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia gave him its International Dance Festival on a silver salver; he used this as a platform for successful modern performers — Cunningham, de Keersmaeker, and the Nederlands Dans Theater. But when Zurich offered him the opportunity of taking over the most important Swiss ballet company in the same year, nothing could hold him in Duesseldorf.

As the director of the Zurich Ballet, Spoerli has since consolidated his reputation as one of the European continent’s leading choreographers. On the occasion of his 60th birthday in the autumn of 2000, he founded a trust which was intended “to make a general contribution towards preserving dance as an art form and to promote public interest therein”. In order to consolidate his company’s foundations, he also set up the Junior Ballet for young dancers. The Zurich Ballet’s own newspaper now promotes communication between the ensemble and the public. Over the years, Heinz Spoerli’s restless spirit has inspired important initiatives that remain in existence long after Spoerli has turned his attention to new ideas — for example, the “Basel Dances” festival, which Spoerli founded during his time in Basel and also directed from Zurich; or the Swiss Professional Ballet School, which led a rather humdrum existence until Spoerli restructured it over a three-year period.

On the board of the Nureyev Foundation since May 2004, “dance maker” Spoerli has choreographed Berio and Schnittke (“Approaching Clouds”, 2000), Ligeti (“Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures”, 1997) and Brahms (“Brahms, a Ballet”, 1997), Mozart (”…eine helle, lichte, schöne Ferne”, 1999) and Bach (repeatedly) (”…und mied den Wind”, 1999, “In den Winden im Nichts”, 2003), and not to be forgotten, a marvellous interpretation of Schubert’s C Major Quintet (2002). Uniting the roles of producer and choreographer, he also daringly staged Rameau’s ballet opera “Les Indes Galantes” (2003). He has taken his ensemble to Tokyo and Peking, London and Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Cape Town and Singapore — and even into the lion’s mouth, to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. And everywhere he and the Zurich Ballet go, Heinz Spoerli earns high praise, both as a dance maker and a ballet director, for his choreography and the high technical standard of his dancers.