Choreographer Crystal Pite is no stranger to Zurich Ballet, staging Emergence here in 2018, now revived in this triple bill. It celebrates the lives of bees, and parallels them to the hierarchical structure of a ballet company, independent of hierarchy, but also pays tribute to the power and energy of the swarm. While no honeycomb as such appears, the dancers access the stage through an oddly-lit and cramped tunnel, the male dancers, sporting tattoo-like carapaces on their arms and shoulders. Jay Gower Taylor’s backdrop, best described as a leafy black arc, reflects their constant frenetic twitches, the fluttering gestures, the pumping of the collective bees’ bodies, which seem to defy the laws of gravity. Like the timeless industry of the “bees” themselves, the dancers’ bright energy – with thousands of erratic, short, sometimes almost paralytic movements with all limbs – was breathtaking. As Pite describes, “the bees take part in a lively debate, full of rivalry, which lasts until the different opinions converge and coordinate.” Such, the life of bees.

Dominik Slavkovsky and dancers in Emergence
© Carlos Quezada

Marco Goecke’s Almost Blue takes its name from the accompanying, heart-wrenching musical selections, both by the legendary Blues singer, Etta James and by Antony and the Johnsons. As long-time chief choreographer of Stuttgart Ballet, and now ballet director at the Staatstheater Hannover, Goecke’s Almost Blue is clearly infused with a sense of melancholy and aggression. The choreographer explains openly that the work relates to the termination, in 2018, of his many working years in Stuttgart, which effected an overriding sense of loss. The dancers’ hands here, in give-and-take gestures, and the striking “cuts” with which they often move, are also telling in that context. And the staging is entirely focused; there are no distractions of a visual kind other than sinuous legs and arms, sometimes pressing into the unknown, striking out at something undefinable, but with terrific bodily strength. His modern ballet becomes an epic tale of shattering regret.

Mark Geilings in Almost Blue
© Carlos Quezada

The mood changed markedly after the second interval. While Pite celebrated the world premiere of Angels’ Atlas in February 2020 with the National Ballet of Canada, its European debut with Zurich Ballet had to be postponed. The long-anticipated work engages a large corps of dancers, and plays on a vast range of emotions, from what we imagine as life-after-death, to the collective agonies of the living when those they love and/or need are gone.

Angels' Atlas
© Carlos Quezada

Pite herself cites the work as an attempt to measure both the heavens and humanity in dance form. Her dancers, in a catalogue of configurations – pulsing push-pulls, offerings and retractions – allude to humans’ transience, despite the visceral pulse of their present lives. Dancing to compelling music by Owen Belton, Tchaikovsky and Morten Lauridsen, whose O magnum mysterium could well have been used as a subtitle for the ballet, the theme is something of a metaphysical anchor for the human condition, whose dramatic aspects are a matrix held together by threads that often escape our understanding.

Angels' Atlas
© Carlos Quezada

While PIte’s trailblazing choreography is based primarily on the horizontal, the spiritual component is rooted in the vertical. The astounding beauty of the work is that everything seems interconnected: the dancers offer no movement without a counter-movement, and that inherent flow gives the ballet its purpose and meaning. The expanding and contracting prisms of light on the simple, if stunning, backdrop (Jay Gower Taylor and Tom Visser) offer the stage an uplifting sense of the celestial, mirrored by the sheer majesty of the human body in movement. To call the performance brilliant is nothing short of a major understatement.

*****