Founded in 2001, the Junior Ballet Zurich, made up of promising aspirants dancers, is the second of the city opera house’s own dance company. Its current “New Creations” programme showcases this year’s dancers – 13 juniors from 8 nations – who have all come to Zurich to gain stage performance experience within the conditions of a professional company. Not surprisingly, the “bloom of youth” was a terrific draw to audience members of all ages; for all I could see, there wasn’t a single empty seat in the house.

<i>Paysage Obscur</i> © Judith Schlosser
Paysage Obscur
© Judith Schlosser

The program began with a sensation that something had gone terribly wrong: there was a total blackout in the house. Then on the very first base chord of a striking “Passing By” by Glen Gabriel, the curtain went up to 7 dancers crisscrossing a brightly lit stage flanked by a dramatic backdrop of black 'hills' and mottled pink sky at the back of the stage. Eva Dawaele’s choreography, set design and silvery costuming were breathtakingly beautiful from the start. A male duet became an all male trio, while the quartet of women entwined and overlapped one another, turning in to each other and sustaining their movements near one another like punctuation in a complex sentence. Every possible partnering configuration pulsated energetically, but then ended quietly like something ethereal against a background of soft blue. Lighting designer Martin Gebhardt’s work was simply brilliant.

Next was Paysage Obscure, choreographed by Zurich’s own Christian Spuck, who also managed set design, and set to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major. Scored for two violins, a viola, and two cellos, this is the work that Arthur Rubenstein passionately called “the door to Heaven”. As one of Schubert’s last works before his untimely death at age 31, the music is widely read as a premonition of the composer’s tragic fate. Spuck’s piece begins with bodies slowly crawling out one by one or in small groups from a cluster of old wooden side chairs stacked at stage rear. The dancers’ entirely black costumes (Ina Buschhaus) bear markings that resemble the carapaces of wood beetles. Indeed, larvae-like figures also crawl across the stage in a quartet of the lowly earth bound. But with the men’s skullcaps and dervish-like twirls could also be sensed spiritual references that was both reverent and holy. Once, one stiff, solid formation moved only its many hands: a haunting apparition. But there was good humour, too, where dancers actually bumped one against another on the violin’s’ pizzicato, the implication being “off you go.. I’m here now”! And the work included some terrific knee and flexed feet constellations. Nothing, in fact, about the body’s possibilities was too obtuse for Spuck, whose work is as demanding technically as it is theatrically.

<i>Les Bourgeois</i> © Judith Schlosser
Les Bourgeois
© Judith Schlosser
There was more humour, though, in choreographer Ben Van Cauwenbergh’s homage to the great French chansonnier, Jacques Brel. Les Bourgeois was masterfully performed by the young Japanese dancer, Surimu Fukushi. Dressed in a loose pair of black trousers, a white shirt and black tie, he was at ease on the stage as a pair of old house slippers, and captured Brel's character precisely. At the same time, he dazzled with jumps snapped out at the speed of light. Sim[ly put, he was terrific in the role.

The Sofa (choreography by Itzik Galili on music by Tom Waits) also tickled a funny bone. The lyric’s bottom line: “Nobody will ever love you the way I could” was picked up by boy-going-after-girl. There was aggressive quarrelling, tossing and lunging of the two on a sofa first, but a simple head (his) to groin (hers), seemed to settle tempers quickly before she exited stage right. Then in exactly the same tireless approach as he had given her, the man himself was pursued by a handsome fellow, whose attention included another oral transgression. While more of an athletic and perfectly timed Marx-Brother-like sequence than serious ballet, the convertible sofa (Janco van Barneveldt, set design) was a clever invention, and the audience was smitten and highly amused. I confess I was, too.

Finally, Tauwetter was choreographed by Ballett Zürich’s own principal dancer and promising young choreographer, Filipe Portugal. Studded with more classical elements than the other four dances, this work is on the threshold of expression; both tender and powerful. The stage is multileveled, its depth compromised, then expanded by the lowering and raising of transparent gauze sheeting. The music was a triple bill of selections by Philip Glass, Max Richter, and Samuel Barber, whose elegiacal “Adagio for Strings” is so closely associated with the tragedy of 9/11.

<i>Tauwetter</i> © Judith Schlosser
Tauwetter
© Judith Schlosser
Portugal used all the thirteen dancers in generous constellations. Most interesting was his contrast between 'on-' and 'off stage' positions: anyone not in action simply stood, as if waiting casually on the side-lines to dance their parts. But it is just this formal/informal juxtaposition that mirrored the relationship between classical to more modern dance form. Ingenious, too, was the way bodies doubled as props or supports for the alternating soloists. For where a move might threaten a dancer’s balance, another would momentarily offer a back to bend onto, a hand to give leverage, serving as ballast to extend the limits of physical possibility. As such, Philip Portugal’s was a pointed exploration of what the merits of contemporary dance can well be. And in this context, the young American dancer Lydia Bevan should be commended for showing some of the very best technique of the genre.