British-born Richard Wherlock, who has been director and chief choreographer of the Basel Ballet since 2001, is best known for crafting contemporary dance that bursts with energy and comes to the stage in traditional story-telling form. His artistic engagement at the Basel State Theater has widely been cited as one that underscores dance as a universal communication tool. 

Claudine Schoch, Sergio Bustinduy, Paige Borowski, Debora Maiques Marin, Javier Rodriguez Cobos © Lucian Hunziker
Claudine Schoch, Sergio Bustinduy, Paige Borowski, Debora Maiques Marin, Javier Rodriguez Cobos
© Lucian Hunziker

With his ballet Tevye, Wherlock pays a dance tribute to the lost world of the Eastern European shtels, the communities of Jewish faith that were built upon a deeply rooted religious culture, and whose most important attributes were charity and a consistent work ethic. In the story, Tevye and his wife, both devoutly committed to preserving their tradition, expect to have their three eligible daughters marry members of the faith. The elder two are nicely matched to acceptable fellows, yet the youngest wants to marry a Christian, which her parents refuse to allow. When the girl weds him anyway – in the company of a pink neon cross – she is shunned by her father, an act that clearly tortures him emotionally.

The choreographer has said this ballet expressed “emotion in motion”. And motion it was: the couples and the 20-some members of the corps de ballet wound, twisted and catapulted around one another, almost without interruption. Their flexible bodies passed one over another, under, through the cocked arms or legs of their stage-mates. Where one made a space, another would move to fill it. Indeed, drawing on a catalogue of undulations and movements that were largely frontal and dervish-like, the choreography hardly gave the audience a moment’s rest. Motion as mainstay of the dance, yes, but this was often close to acrobatic hullaballoo.

That said, there were highly poignant moments, and the human side hardly came up short. As Golde, Tevye’s wife, Ayako Nakano gave a stellar performance of consummate grace. She danced the mother of the three sisters − Andrea Tortosa Vidal as the fiery Zeitel, Tana Rosás Suñé as an elegant Hodel, and Dévi Azélia Selly, an expressive Chave. The girls’ three partners (Jorge Garcia Pérez, Anthony Ramiandrisoa and Max Zachrisson) also gave commendable performances. Further, Frank Fannar Pedersen danced a passionate lead as Teyve, but hardly looked old enough to be father to three grown daughters, and the false beard he attached near the end, while part of ancient Jewish tradition, was too flimsy to look more than comical. Otherwise, Catherine Voeffray’s stunning black and white costuming deserves every accolade.

Debora Maiques Marin, Javier Rodriguez Cobos © Lucian Hunziker
Debora Maiques Marin, Javier Rodriguez Cobos
© Lucian Hunziker

The Holocaust resulted in the extermination of the shtetls in Eastern Europe, an appalling reality that is alluded to in the production within two final, memorable scenes. Firstly, a procession of the cast in basic overgarments simply walks slowly left to right across the stage to heart-wrenching orchestration, their heads hanging. Secondly, the cast pulls down large and irregular strips of paper from rolls far above their heads, and strews them across the stage, perhaps alluding to the shreds the Third Reich made of the Eastern Jews’ families and personal histories. 

There were other imaginative set components: two huge shards of scooped-out bowls upstage serve as allusions to the mountainous background of the homeland. But by the same token, they were distant relatives of Intersection, Richard Serra’s massive Corten steel sculpture of aligned curves that stands outside the Basel Theatre’s entrance, an association that somehow brought the drama closer to home. Secondly, set designer Bruce French added full stage sized video clips; whether of the close-up, graceful sweep of a wheat field or a craggy old mare chopping on her feed, they boosted both the romance and humor of select sequences. 

Olivier Truan’s original music draws on the klezmer tradition, and his world-renowned configuration of five musicians Kolsimcha joined the fine Basel Symphony Orchestra in playing the upbeat, colorful melodies. Kolsimcha – whose name translates to “the voice of joy” – drove the musical fireworks, and the gifted Ariel Zuckermann, who enjoys a long relationship with the group as a flutist, was on the podium as conductor.