There is hardly a better setting for a Paul Klee ballet than the Swiss capital of Berne. The artist was born near there, and his prolific legacy can be seen both in the city’s superb Museum of Fine Arts and the Renzo Piano-designed Paul Klee Foundation. In Klee’s paintings, the bright colours sparkle, the drawings often include a pinch of humour, and the etchings’ bizarre details invite broad interpretations, none the least for their poetic titles. As an important representative of Classical Modernism, Klee’s oeuvre left its mark on a whole generation of artists. Yet his conviction that pictorial work arose from movement was a go-ahead: innuendo, the dream world, musical impulse and the written word are all fair game for invention in dance. Klee was to say that “Art does not reproduce the visible, but makes it visible,” and the Berne ballets reflect just that.

<i>Paul Klee</i> © Gregory Batardon
Paul Klee
© Gregory Batardon

The first, Engel in Blau (Angel in Blue), was choreographed by Kor'sia, a collaboration between Mattia Russo and Antonio de Rosa, whose work plays foremost on the oscillation between contrasting elements. The theme of belonging versus being an outsider is integral to the piece, as are literal translations of motifs that Klee often used in his work. The life-size model of a 15-hand-tall horse is actually ridden here, playing on the name Der Blaue Reiter, the artistic circle whose members, among other greats, included Wassily Kandinsky and Franc Marc, a particularly dear friend of Klee’s.

In Engel, the dancers used a distinctively different dance vocabulary, one often depending on redistribution of body weight. Indeed, the ballet’s opening scene felt like visiting an institution for the physically-impaired: imbalance, club feet, scoliosis, distorted faces were all integral to the tableau, and Catherine Voeffray’s justifiably way-out costumes ranged widely from that of circus acrobats to suitors in 17th-century pantaloons. What’s more, the figures’ movements – somewhat human, somewhat creature – were invariably exaggerated. The angel in blue who straddled the horse, for example, explored again and again the degree her body could defy gravity, clearly showing that company members assisted with the choreography.

<i>Paul Klee</i> © Gregory Batardon
Paul Klee
© Gregory Batardon

But the work’s music, too, took us all over the map. A Swiss factor underscored its beginning and end with alphorns and yodelling, but an unlikely mix —Joseph Haydn, a Bellini aria performed by Maria Callas, a fragment by Thomas Tallis and Marilyn Manson’s heavy rock – comprised the enigmatic score.

That said, the dancers did a commendable job of staying on top of the conundrum. Their complex movements saw them at various levels near and above the stage, some demanding death-defying acrobatic skills. Further, this was a distinctly democratic ballet; the Angel (Angela Demattè) stood out by virtue of her blue leotard, and danced a long and sinuous duet with her partner, both of them mastering the challenge of truant arms and legs. Given the all-for-one-and-one-for-all impression, the ballet left many in the audience wanting for an interpretation, hoping for a sense of resolution. Neither was forthcoming. That said, there were gyrations on steroids here, and lots of humour, including that around one of the dancers gliding across the stage on skis.

<i>Paul Klee</i> © Gregory Batardon
Paul Klee
© Gregory Batardon

By contrast, the second ballet was a straightforward narrative. Drawn largely from Paul Klee’s own biography, Mr Rabbit revolves around a set of wooden figures the artist fashioned for his young son, Felix. Etienne Béchard’s choreography features four principals: Mr Rabbit, The Evil Queen, The Lady and Felix himself. Till Kuhnert’s brilliant staging included huge, revolving mirror-doors downstage that brought the audience into the drama, which was nothing short of fairy-tale scary. Since a large red ball often figures in Klee’s work, a red balloon functioned here not only as a plaything, but also as a symbol for energy and what is ultimately right. Costumes, again by Voeffray, were superb, especially for the corps, whose lithe movements were echoed in the soft drape of her Japanese-inspired garments.

As the Queen – cast here as outlandishly gay – Winston Ricardo Arnon made his first appearance in patent boots on ten-inch stacked heels. Taller than the rest of the company anyway, Arnon made for a towering figure of evil, and his mastery of huge gestures was commendable. Indeed, the whole company deserves accolades for its consistency of gyrations and pacing en masse, despite their robot-like face masks that must have hampered visibility. Toshitaka Nakamura danced a highly athletic Mr Rabbit with terrific aplomb; Andrey Alves made a highly sympathetic Felix; and as the Lady, Nozomi Matsuoka gave a stunning performance of lithe and consummate grace. Her character’s refusal to return the balloon to the young Felix was perplexing, but that was a set-up: at the very happy end, a virtual flood of red balloons spilled over the stage and out into the audience.

***11