Programmed together at Ballett Zürich, works by choreographers William Forsythe, Sol León/Paul Lightfoot, Douglas Lee, and Filipe Portugal point to the fascination and daring possibilities of modern dance.

In the first ballet, William Forsythe’s New Sleep, three unassuming, clownish figures confront a yardstick, a potted plant and a collection of bowling bowls. Commissioned in 1987 for the San Francisco Ballet to the explosive, electronic music of Thom Willems, these make for “odd couples” indeed. But the quirks among a dozen other black-clad figures show Forsythe’s theatrical vision and superb timing, both in the movement and in set, costume and lighting design, areas where his execution is also truly sublime. 

I had seen this same New Sleep in Zurich in 2013, but the reprisal packed much more meat into the performance. There is something almost Vaudevillian about the dancers’ mechanical movements, exaggerated gestures and demonstrative exchanges, the tick-tock, crash, and cataclysmic sounds that are their background. As the figures strike angular stances, the Academician “son” among the three principals shrouds then reveals the bowling ball, a possible metaphor for knowledge. In any case, New Sleep was as precisely danced as a fine Swiss watch keeps time. It was also a strong reminder of “Dada” peculiarities in the very city where the art movement was founded 150 years ago.

Skew-Whiff, set to the overture of Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”, is a highly charged work that Sol León and Paul Lightfoot choreographed for the Nederlands Dans Theater back in 1996. It demands strong technical abilities, but also excellent acting skills to animate the four figures convincingly. Studded with movements that often end in a sustained grimace, the ballet also features various humorous scenarios and spartan English expressions: “Hal-LO” says the one female dancer (the superb Katja Wünsche) matter-of-factly when entering. Later, to the last, gorgeous waltz music, one of the three males sets his arms around her with a maudlin, oddly intoned “I luv you”. 

Douglas Lee’s Aria is a mysterious pas de deux of intertwining figures that was crafted specifically in 2012 for Katja Wünsche and William Moore, who both joined the choreographer when he moved from Stuttgart to Zurich. Alexander Jones danced the male role here. To the repetitive chant of “lost in… lost in…” as the piece began, I too felt somewhat lost, until the pair grounded us through direct eye contact. From there, we were a part of the arc that Jones raised over his head, the axes of the lithe body he turned around his own, even as the music moved into the atonal and diffuse. But I was stunned when all that fluid beauty came to an entirely abrupt end after some five minutes. The music just stopped, and the two dancers separated and exited: no resolution, no winding down, no reason. I was left hanging, lost in space. The minimalistic set design, primarily fog, did that sensation justice, leaving me with a decidedly strange sense of the unfinished.

The final piece was by Filipe Portugal, acclaimed soloist of the Ballett Zürich, who has recently started to choreograph for the company. After his stunning Tauwetter last season, Portugal closely collaborated with the acclaimed Swiss jazz musician, Nic Bärtsch. for this new creation, Dialogue. Bärstch has said that his music “begins one way and transforms itself into a kind of living thing”. For his part, Portugal says Bärtsch’s music gives him extraordinary freedom. “I can just let go, move on it, “ he says, “without having to keep a confining structure in mind.”

Yet greater restraint might well have tightened this work. Movements were often so convoluted that an odd head, ankle or arm just plumb got in the way of the supporting dancer. And the piece is considerably longer that it needed to be; there came a time when the turning and twisting of bodies to mantra-like phrasing became repetitive. A small child sitting behind me started to chatter, and when the lights dimmed between sections, the audience broke into applause, assuming Dialogues was over. The work indeed flowed, rather than get caught up in any contrivance, and the worship of the female body was paramount, which is always easy to like. But I found the music less than inspired, even somewhat pedestrian, and the revisited patterns in dialogue with it – for lack of viable tension or hefty resistance − to be somewhat pale. The two or three times that one of the dancers broke the mould with a hard knee knock or visible shake-down were welcome counterpoints. I’d have liked more of that heft.