The evening began with George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a ground-breaking work that premiered in New York in 1946. It was first performed in Zurich in 1977. The ballet portrays four physical and psychological personalities types: the melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric. A uniformly lit sky-blue backdrop (Martin Gebhardt, light design) sets off the dancers in the simplest of costumes: short black leotards for the women; black tights and white tees for the men (costumes after Kurt Seligmann). The set itself was equally as sparse; no décor; no distraction.

Katja Wunsche in <i>The Four Temperaments</i> © Gregory Batardon
Katja Wunsche in The Four Temperaments
© Gregory Batardon
Balanchine commissioned Paul Hindemith to compose Theme with Four Variations for String Orchestra and Piano for his new ballet, for the modest sum he could afford: USD 500. Fortunately, Hindemith consented. Here in Zurich, the score was in the hands of the cheerful, Russian-born Mikhail Agrest, who conducted the opera’s superb Philharmonia Zürich, accompanied by the gifted pianist Kateryna Tereshchenko.

The work's propensity towards the frontal reveals the age of the choreography, but Nanette Glushak’s (direction) is faced with the challenge of a pledge to the original. The company’s soloists are more or less amalgamated into the company, though two profiles made waves. The Frenchman, Manuel Renard - whose noble countenance saw him take true ownership of the stage, performed Phlegmatic brilliantly. Canadian Eric Christian’s solo in Melancholic showed great conviction and body control, yet for me, his exaggerated contortions were more unpleasant to watch than they were melancholic. And while the company dancers showed a high degree of exactitude in adherence to the score, their steps and patterns looked self-conscious and over-studied, a bit too constrained to flow.

Katja Wunsche and Denis Vieira in <i>Frank Bridge Variations</i> © Gregory Batardon
Katja Wunsche and Denis Vieira in Frank Bridge Variations
© Gregory Batardon
But it was not so with the performance of Frank Bridge Variations (2005), choreographed by Hans Van Manen to the music of Benjamin Britten – a work which brilliantly instrumentalises some 20 able bodies. The set (Keso Deeker) was striking in its simplicity: only a dark indigo backdrop of variable widths - as powerful as the most emotive of Mark Rothko’s colour paintings, and a floor side-lit by channels of parallel light that almost made musical staves on which the dancers could “play” (Bert Dalhuysen, light design). Costumes, also by Keso Dekker, in various shades of burgundy for the women, and opalescent greens and scaly browns like snakeskins for the men, made a powerful aesthetic. 

The female dancers, off pointe here brought more unleashed energy to the work. A trio of male dancers’ fast turns across the full breadth of the stage were a jaw-dropper, and many unexpected “flare ups” of muscle took your breath away. There included surprises as simple as the arc of a body interrupted by a sudden agitated wagging of hands, and figures walking in pairs across the stage riveting one’s attention. The music alone was so stirring. Had the whole company raised a workers’ flag, you might have thought them on their way to a union meeting, for here was a labour force of the first order. The dancers leaned into one another like a cathedral’s great bells, wove patterns that mirrored Britten’s score. Hans Van Manen has been praised for the ways in which he portrays the relationships and intimacies between men and women, and there was no lack of that here. But there was also a love story: the boy who has been wanting for a certain young woman’s attention finally gets his girl.

<i>Falling Angels</i> © Gregory Batardon
Falling Angels
© Gregory Batardon
The last of the three ballets, Falling Angels (1989), set to composer Steve Reich’s “Drumming − Part 1” was nothing less than spectacular. Jiří Kylián’s work for eight women − all in something like black 1930 glam bathing costumes – brought feminine attributes (and drawbacks) to the fore with as much upbeat humour as technical excellence. Every part of the dancers’ bodies and their elastic costumes were used to theatrical advantage. As was the psyche: expressions of tenderness, frustration, desperation, and attraction alternated with those of friendship, embarrassment, confusion, and, not seldom, aggressivity. While a pair danced in the foreground, the forearms, then the faces of the other dancers were spot-lit like a parade of masks or the fingers of condemnation right behind them. Kylián's figures emerge from the dark backstage as phantoms come to life for the dance, but then retreat at the end back into the darkness, much like a cycle of life. As such, Reich’s relentlessly interweaving drumbeats give rise not only to the finest precision choreography, but one that pays tribute to the power and enigmatic nature of women.