Ballett am Rhein presented its latest triple bill at Cologne Opera this week, a rather less grand location than its usual stages of Deutsche Oper and Theater Duisberg. The evening features three plotless ballets from celebrated 21st century choreographers, but this is where the similarities end. We start with the most classical; the stripped back technical masterclass of pointe shoe clad ballerinas and their partners with Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and end with the brooding physicality of Sharon Eyal’s Salt Womb

Ballett am Rhein in Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia
© Bettina Stöß

Aesthetically, it would be hard to find a more traditional new work than Wheeldon’s Polyphonia. Originally created for New York City Ballet in 2001, it marked the beginning of his transition from dancer to choreographer. Four couples share the stage, the men in dark lycra, and the ladies in shiny ballet shoes and simple, spaghetti strapped leotards and thin waist belts, they look ready for an RAD exam. With simple costumes (Holly Hynes) and bright lighting (Mark Stanley), set to ten short piano compositions from György Ligeti, it’s a potentially exposing look at the dancers' technique and musicality, but not without humour and originality. 

It begins and ends with an upbeat playfulness, the dancers responding to each beat with a new move, stretched out arms, a twist of the wrist, bent at the waist, it’s easy to see the same mind who created the Card Scene in his Alice in Wonderland. Aside from these quirks, we can also luxuriate in the beautiful arabesque lines, stretched feet and port de bras whether dancing in synchronicity or as four separately lit couples. 

Ballett am Rhein in Demis Volpi's One and Others
© Bettina Stöß

Charlotte Kragh and Eric White are the pick of the quartet, displaying light, spritely musicality and crisp technique that I could have watched for hours. Over time, the compositions evolve into something more romantic. Marié Shimada is thrown around by the four men, over heads and across the ground, her legs pulled into the classical positions and a box splits over the head. It adds some excitement, a hint at a plot but there is some inconsistency in the ranks and over the thirty minute duration, the energy and desired bravura is lacking.

You could argue it’s the perk of being the director of the company that you can choose your own work in a mixed bill to form the title of the evening. However, in the case of Demis Volpi’s One and Others it is completely valid in a compelling 25 minutes which I am already longing to see again. Loosely, it explores the dynamic between five couples negotiating various states of togetherness; but even without programme notes it is a beautiful, theatrical, emotive creation that doesn’t require context. 

Ballett am Rhein in Sharon Eyal's Salt Womb
© Bettina Stöß

It is enhanced by tension-filled score, this time a string quartet composition from Christos Hatzis and simple skin tight costumes in grey and fleshy tones from Thomas Lempertz. A woman is lit alone in a spotlight facing away from the audience. She wraps her arms around herself, alone, longing for contact. There are moments of chaos and disarray interspersed with absolute stillness as a woman is repeatedly thrown and lifted by the cohort of men, her legs are pushed and pulled in and out of splits and jumps. 

In another section, the women move in unison, the bourrée towards the front of the stage, stopping in between to use their pointe shoes as a percussive instrument. Their partners returned, testing their balance with a series of leans and daring positions. 

This is all just a prelude to the heady pas de deux with which the piece culminates. Lara Delfino and Dukin Seo are entirely focused on each other and their magnetic connection. Chests shine with perspiration (the grey outfits mostly discarded), stretched limbs and mournful strings come together for a highly visceral experience. Sensuous, but brief and understated, until she is left alone as she was at the start, we feel every breath. 

Ballett am Rhein in Sharon Eyal's Salt Womb
© Bettina Stöß

The evening is completed with Sharon Eyal's 2016 choreography, originally for Nederlands Dans Theater, Salt Womb. It’s filled with the signature Eyal movement vocabulary, slow repetitive phrases, energy-sapping and requires endurance for the 17 dancers who take it on. Darkly lit, they slowly plié into deep second positions to thumping electro music. They repeat this for minutes until their thighs must be on fire. Eventually, a dancer takes a turn to break off into a slightly modified movement before returning to the main clan.

Stamina and fortitude is demanded in steps that are danced low, with bent knees, feet kneading the stage. The phrases are repeated with alternating motifs. Technically the rhythmical movements as one unit are impressive, even hypnotic, but after some minutes monotony sets in. The bodies in tight black lycra glisten with sweat, their expressions slightly pained. 

The audience could barely stop applauding, some on their feet in appreciation by the end, whilst others headed for the door. It’s hard to imagine someone appreciating the crystal clear neoclassicism of Polyphonia and the pulsating nuances of Eyal’s work in the same way. There might be no story on offer but the broad appeal of the three pieces together allows the audience to experience a full spectrum of balletic offerings.