Part of the University of the Arts, the Zurich Dance Academy (taZ) focuses on classical ballet training, but also includes modern repertoire practice. Its annual gala performance,  “Footprints” – a tradition since the school’s founding in 2004 – presented classical, neoclassical and contemporary choreographies for aspiring dancers between the ages of 9 and 19. The choice of widely varied works was optimal, since the three-hour programme on the city’s noble opera house stage featured a broad spectrum of dance genres and creative impulses.

© Bettina Stöss
© Bettina Stöss
The “taZ” is a partner school for the world-renowned ballet competitions; Le Prix de Lausanne, the Youth America Grand Prix and the Tanzolymp Berlin. While finalist and winning entries from select of those events performed first in the programme, I found three entirely different choreographies far more inspired. The first among them − drawn from Les Delibes’ Coppelia − was a colourful and spirited Mazurka choreographed by the school’s own Marina Stocker-Diakova. Dynamic formations of varying numbers of dancers in embroidered, loose-fitting peasant blouses and flowing skirts brought the best of central European traditions home, and the dancers showed themselves enthusiastic and entirely comfortable with the score. The work showed tremendous “oomph”, confidence and verve. Soloists Marina Wasserfallen and Davide Sioni were entirely convincing as a pair, making this the most inviting and upbeat part of the first programme half.

There were no stage sets in “Footprints”, per se, but before Camille Saint-Saëns' “Carnival of the Animals” began, the house’s red velvet curtain was lit so as to be mottled with thick vegetation, and all kinds of jungle sounds were projected out to the audience. In Alexei Kremnev’s choreography, various configurations of dancers – one after the other − conjured up a colourful menagerie: there were hens, rooster, and a pair of wide-mouthed turtles, kangaroo, elephant, a school of fish. It was a delightful trip through the different animal species and demeanours, the quite elaborately painted bodysuits helping to clinch our understanding of which creature was which. Each of the animals had its unmistakable attributes, and was danced with great humour and insight. Further, intermingled among the cast of creatures, a vivacious bunch of teenage “visitors” appeared in cotton shorts and button-down shirts to marvel at the animals, more or less taking our part as on-stage observers. The black swans seemed too caught up in the demands of their own footwork to show much rapport with one another, and that sets a marker to work on. Experience will show more interaction in character which is equally as important as mastering the steps. 

© Bettina Stöss
© Bettina Stöss
Hands down, though, the programme’s most compelling work was Duncan Rownes’s choreography for Into Silence that came last in the bill. The light design alone was stunning: it struck geometric forms to complement the angles of Philip Glass’s extraordinary music “The Canyon”. The simplest of costumes – black leotards − depersonalized the 25 male and female dancers, whose dynamic push-pull gestures and rotations throughout suggested the contrast of running away, then returning to place, much like the motion of a piston engine.

Nor in this muscular piece was it uncommon to see the men strike highly demonstrative, even macho poses. By contrast, though, there were as many quiet gestures from the other camp: bundled motions that shot out limbs as “stalks,” and a frequent covering of eyes as if to avoid the here and now. As the dancers swam, rode, showed their refusal to be static, there wasn’t a minute that didn’t hold my rapt attention. The piece was simply Herculean, the bodies used as vehicles to stretch into every orbit, filling the space of the darkened stage either individually or in sold clusters, and often contracting around their centres, much like what Martha Graham pioneered in the 1950s. The braided swell of tightly packed bodies that undulated side to side, in fact, kept the entire house breathless, and there were many such moments. In short: this was a spectacular piece; its utterly seamless sequence of thrills almost caught the audience off guard, for this could have well been a pre professional, or accomplished company dancing.