Bern Ballet's latest programme was aptly entitled “Kontraste” (Contrasts), because the two works couldn’t have been more different. Whereas Sharon Eyal’s Lost Cause epitomized the digital age and saw its resonance electrifying the dancers’ bodies, Jo Strømgren’s Salve Regina was a straight piece of dance-theatre, one almost close to the Broadway stage. The only thing the two ballets had in common was that they both picked up on languages of movement that demanded the highest degree of precision and athleticism.

Bern Ballet in Sharon Eyal's <i>Lost Cause</i> © Gregory Batardon
Bern Ballet in Sharon Eyal's Lost Cause
© Gregory Batardon
The Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal pushes all the buttons of the abstract in movement, but in Lost Cause, she also had terrific ballast in the accompanying music by Ori Lichtik, one of the founders of the techno music scene. His score behind Lost Cause sounded like a cross between the beat of a house-sized heart and the relentless pounding of a factory floor operating at full capacity. Such tremendous rhythmic intensity underpinned the whole ballet, each of the dancers beholden to its overriding power, and using every part of their bodies – cocked heads, fingers, even their eyes – to convey sustained tension. In small configurations as well as in group work, the dancers showed absolute precision and control of a vast catalogue of movements, including the raised arms, bent elbows reminiscent of the funerary processions in Egyptian tomb sculpture, for example, or even the linked body-chains I associate with Le Sacre du printemps. Yet each of the historical citations was alluded to subtly, never used overbearingly. 

Bern Ballet in Sharon Eyal's <i>Lost Cause</i> © Gregory Batardon
Bern Ballet in Sharon Eyal's Lost Cause
© Gregory Batardon

Mayaan Goldmann’s costumes for Lost Cause were also stunning. While somewhat variable in cut, each dancer’s beige-colored full-body stocking suggested a baseline of nudity, a democratic, primal state that reigned over and beyond the modest theatre stage at Berne’s trendy Vidmar Hall. What’s more, the dancer’s forefingers were colored lime green, as if they were a force of Nature just coming into season.

Much of Eyan’s choreography focused on the collective group and was performed frontally, but the acrobatic turnings and intertwining of the figures in smaller configurations were equally mesmerizing. Assigning specific meaning to the sequences was optional, since the graphic formations themselves were the key elements. That said, the tight marriage of music and movement in contemporary dance just doesn’t get any better; indeed, the Swiss première of Eyal’s Lost Cause ballet was a true triumph.

Bern Ballet in Jo Strømgren’s <i>Salve Regina</i> © Gregory Batardon
Bern Ballet in Jo Strømgren’s Salve Regina
© Gregory Batardon
After the break, we travelled into the contrast of what was another genre. Jo Strømgren’s Salve Regina ballet immersed the audience in a concrete narrative that reflected specific historical events and was peppered with their respective citations. Seven characters searching for compassion and protection danced in two distinctive settings: firstly, in historical costume, appropriately regal, and secondly, as witness to a much more modern era.
Bern Ballet in Jo Strømgren’s <i>Salve Regina</i> © Grgeory Batardon
Bern Ballet in Jo Strømgren’s Salve Regina
© Grgeory Batardon

Vis à vis Lost Cause, Salve Regina stood at great distance from abstraction. Norwegian choreographer Strømgren told a real story, albeit changing a hymn to the Virgin Mary to a hymn to security. In the first half of the ballet, a kind of tableau vivant set in period costume gave us the bawdiness that peppered the Elizabethan age, complete with a hard-hearted queen. Salacious protagonists hiding  – and being discovered – under a carpet, for example, were part of what became the slapstick sentiment. Promiscuity, hot tempers and the royal’s authority over her peons all played out first. But in the second half of the ballet, by contrast, it was the characters looking for consolation and protection, their interactions imbued with humour, grief or the attributes of trades. Baroque music – Vivaldi, Monteverdi and Scarlatti – was liberally cited. Costuming by Bregje van Balen, while semi-Elizabethan in the first half, became more neutral, if somewhat non-descript, in the second.

The stage design, also by Strømgren, could be likened to that of a puppet show. A line-up of huge ribbons hanging side by side like a hedgerow made a curtain the dancers could dip through, forward and back. That set detail recalled the Shakespearian adage that “all the world’s a stage”, yet the ballet’s somewhat hackneyed humour became tiresome over time. And while the dancers mastered challenges of the choreography, the piece ultimately came across as far showier than it was sublime. Even some of the ingenious effects – the blazing fire that engulfed the upstage at the very end, for example – didn’t really elevate the second ballet to a great deal more than just pleasant entertainment.

****1