The German expression ‘klein, aber fein’ (small, but very good) is fitting for the Zurich's Junior Ballett. Last season, I was so captivated by its ‘New Creations’ programme that I decided to see it again.

The first piece, Passing By, was choreographed by Eva Dewaele to the mesmerizing music of Glen Gabriel. The set design (Dewaele and Jörg Zielinski) was sublime in its simplicity; behind an otherwise undecorated stage, two huge dark mounds appeared in silhouette. Between them, a mottled sunrise rose above the ‘valley’ (Martin Gebhardt, Light design). The seven dancers, dressed in soft and transparent blues, filed forward, at first aloof to one another. When night came, the music and mood changed markedly: the bodies were transformed into malleable, expandable, supple entities whose unfolding movements broke personal barriers.

Moving unpredictably in every conceivable direction, the dancers ‘scooped’ one another up, jerked to attention, sometimes tried to shake their hands and legs away. And while sometimes the complexities stifled the flow or seemed self-conscious, most of the movement was entirely fluid. More, the action seemed like a metaphor for society itself – as here in a ‘mountainous’ country − where people may interact momentarily, even find common ground, but ultimately lose that encounter to memory.

Such serious tenor was nicely broken by an homage to the great Belgian singer Jacques Brel in Les Bourgeois (Ben Van Cauwenburgh, choreography). Soloist Shlomi Miara gave a show-like performance – cigarette and all − that lightened the mood. Also fresh was Itzik Galili’s choreography for The Sofa, an uncannily staged and lustily danced scenario that took place entirely on a single piece of vinyl-covered furniture: a first chases a woman, he is then himself chased by another man. All’s well that ends well, with the second man's pressed-velvet trousers and tightly zippered black leather top (costumes Nastasja Lansen) adding to the great fun.

The second major piece, Paysage Obscure, was choreographed by artistic director Christian Spuck, who also designed the innovative set. Ina Buschhaus’s costumes saw all nine dancers in black, dervish-like garments; the four men in skullcaps and dark John Lennon shades. Spuck’s work gave a new definition to ‘earthbound’; many of the dancers emerging first from a bonfire-ready pile of refuse and old wooden chairs to slither along the floor, part rodent, part snake. Classical ballet here? Hardly. Instead, heads flop and then jerk up for eyes to refocus; dancers are dragged with their flexed feet bobbing on the floor behind them. By the same token, they turn and do airbound twists, exhausting the possibilities of rotation. The music − Schubert’s emotive ‘String Quartet in C-major’ − is regularly marked by striking double beats after short melodic passages. Spuck often underscored the beats with two short repetitive movements, much like the in-and-out of a sewing machine needle. Secondly, he worked like a painter arranging a motif, using the negative spaces – those around and among the dancers − as key facets of his integral whole. As such, he made his ballet something more multi-faceted and stronger for – forgive the play on words –the many legs it stands on.

Lastly, Tauwetter was a highly imaginative work by Ballett Zürich’s own principal dancer, and promising choreographer, Filipe Portugal. Set to music by Philip Glass, Max Richter, and Samuel Barber, and enhanced by Portugal and Jörg Zielinski’s subtle and highly effective set, this is a ballet of unparalleled beauty. In the programme notes, the choreographer praises the energy of the junior dancers, who ‘want to learn everything and try anything’ in their search for their own place in the contemporary dance landscape. That search is even physically manifest in the young dancer who herself, at the end of the piece, sits watching the dancers with those queries from the edge of the stage, her back to the audience. Meanwhile, the dancers cross over and under one another in positions that defy gravity; they make ‘clusters’ of bodies and figures that try to ‘outrun’ the laws of velocity. These tensions are positive impulses that can serve to promote maturity and personal growth.

Of the five ballets in the ‘New Creations’ programme, Portugal’s cites ‘tradition’ most closely, but his great achievement is in marrying the classical work with the modern aesthetics. Truly commendable is the originality of the ensemble sections, and the insights that bring facets of human psychology to the fore. We can only look forward to more of his work.