The city of Basel’s affection for contemporary dance – particularly dance with a narrative twist – is in great part owed to the energy and commitment shown by British-born artistic director and head choreographer Richard Wherlock, who's been leading Ballett Basel since 2001. As creative guiding light, he has built on the tradition of the classic and modern dance vocabulary in works that mixed his infectious joie de vivre with virtuosity and athletic prowess. Highly valued for the continuity and artistry he has brought the company, he is credited for having “made dance socially acceptable” in the western Swiss city, and his 15-year tenure was reason for celebration.

Richard Wherlock © Theater Basel
Richard Wherlock
© Theater Basel
Dance uses the body as its tool of expression. While usually mute, it is not without its site- and culture-specific messages. Further, dance creates a natural basis for communication inasmuch as it bridges national borders and continents. In just this vein, Basel Ballet has shared a cultural exchange with the renowned Seoul Ballet Theatre and its director/resident choreographer James Jeon since 2012. Six SBT dancers, therefore, joined the Basel company for the evening’s offer.

The twenty short performances featured in the jubilee collectively showed the range, emotive power, and dynamism of the company’s achievement. In Johan Inger’s striking Rain Dogs (2011), a singularly schizoid fellow whispers and stutters, bursts into hysterical laughter, jolts and reviles his own body or slithers around on the floor. “Can you hear me? I’m coming” the voice of American singer-songwriter Tom Waits chortles in just as a female figure appears at the back of the stage. If his dance with her is brief, the lyrics give us the scurrilous humour of a drunk’s tragedy: “the piano has been drinking, not me”.

By contrast, Wherlock’s Lore (1997) has the male dancers of the company – all in Scottish kilts – perform a catalogue of jubilant acrobatic moves from straight chairs. There are countless gyrations, gravity-defying leaps and bounds, a double shot of humour, and a great pub roar of "yeay!” at the end of the piece. Whether dance or spectacle, works like this show the “cheek and charm” that fellow choreographer Christopher Bruce cites as Wherlock’s most endearing attributes. Taken together, they have clearly opened contemporary ballet to a far greater public.

For me, however, the hands-down highlight of the evening was Jiří Kylián’s 27’52 (2002). The piece began in a geometric construct that reminded of a work of Russian Constructivism, but then quickly opened to the dancers being locked inside one another’s limbs like a many-tendriled aquatic plant. Bare from the waist up, both dancers moved to a hauntingly beautiful electronic score (Dirk Haubrich) of slow strings beneath a single and long-sustained high note. In clever staging at the end, the male dancer pulls up part of the floor to make a “wall” between himself and the woman, then hides himself beneath it, as if “dead” to her. Both as love poem and story of the jilted lover, the piece’s emotive power was palpable.

Voices in the Wind (James Jeon) and Wherlock’s Snip Shot (both 2015) were two of the “Moves” trilogy that marked the Basel and Seoul cooperation. Cited as narrative pieces, the first was largely frontal, and incorporated a bevy of Asian fans, along with their nicely mastered coquetry. In the Snip Shot excerpt, six dancers in white moved to an exquisite Bach cello suite, using tremors of hands and other kick-start elements of surprise that typify the best of Wherlock’s work.

Bruce French’s set design, ever-changing, were simple in every case but highly commendable, given that there were 20 different “stages” for scenes from all the ballets, and no fewer than eight video projections shown among them intermittently. The clips (Sulamith Ehrensperger, Andreas Guzman) featured Wherlock and members of the company either in rehearsal or interface with the community and ballet public. The short coverage of the company’s 2011 China tour was upbeat, but the more poignant sequence was of the choreographer working with physically challenged children at Basel University’s Children’s Hospital. Those aside, the lengthy personal congratulations from members of staff and professional colleagues were somewhat exhausting, and the total programme − over three hours and twenty minutes long − knocked the adage that “less is more” right out of the ball field.

That said, “Sir Richard’s” great artistic engagement and tireless commitment to the Basel company have borne mellow fruits, and his work underscores dance as a universal communication tool.