The Ballett Zürich’s Strings triple bill programme features three choreographic signatures: repertoire pieces by William Forsythe and Christian Spuck, and Chamber Minds, a world premiere by Edward Clug. Various string ensembles accompany the three performances live, giving the diverse dance program tremendous musical and emotional appeal.

D Slavkoský and T Vandebeek in Spuck's <i>das siebe blau</i> © Gregory Batardon
D Slavkoský and T Vandebeek in Spuck's das siebe blau
© Gregory Batardon

Spuck’s 2000 choreography, das siebte blau (The Seventh Blue) takes its momentum from Franz Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden, but also enjoys the injection of music by György Kurtág and sound bytes of whispering and unintelligible German phrases by Stuttgart sound engineer Dieter Fenchel. Director of Ballet Zürich, Spuck uses the simplest dance movements, casual entrances and exits, a series of winding movements and a whole host of partnering combinations to fix the notion of Schubert’s evocation of loneliness. In tableaux danced at warp speed and in flawless synchronicity, the dancers are hardly individualised; no single body is given more stage time than another. It is the collective dance that counts.  Each of us − like Schubert’s maiden − must one day die. In what I found the most compelling scene, where the couples dance over misty ground, the alternately lower each of their women into a space resembling a grave, a place that allows only a glimpse of “remaining” body parts. That a leg here, a hand there, is visible before each dancer emerges among the living once again induces a haunting sensation, none the least because the dancers’ muscular push-pulls had made each of the performers so fully alive hitherto. They even slapped one another...hardly elegiacal. Yet now, the bodies portray a whole gamut of emotions − despair at one’s loss, attempts to justify or be casual in the face of it... Repeatedly, the company alternatively pauses upstage, one with a hand on her hip, another with his arms folded, clearly imparting a sense of “I can wait my turn”. What better comment on the inevitability of death is that? No wonder that just before curtain, the whole crowd races forward with a thundering, shrill cry; who of us truly welcomes our last darkest hour? The psychology was palpable.

A Grigoryan and V Kapitonova in Forsythe's <i>workwithinwork</i> © Gregory Batardon
A Grigoryan and V Kapitonova in Forsythe's workwithinwork
© Gregory Batardon
William Forsythe’s workwithinwork created in 1998 is the last of his  “ballets about ballet”. The choreographer has succeeded in crafting a critical analysis of the traditional rules of classical dance, set to the unpredictable − and for most somewhat challenging − music of Duetti per due violine by Luciano Berio. By “tipping, turning and spinning in all directions”, his dancers often go ugly, too. In one memorable scene, two female dancers confront each other in exaggerated, awkward postures, their stiff and angled torsos metaphors for a “pointed” argument. In another, a dancer at odds with the crowd throws her hands away from her body repeatedly, much like a vulgar washerwoman. There are acrobatic battles between the men, gyrations and swivels off centre that suggest acute “hang-ups” and seemingly endless takes on rolling, contracting, extending and constricting, sometimes giving various clusters an almost Laocoonean profile. At times the work on stage is so attuned to − and absorbed by − itself, that we, the audience, seem almost superfluous. Not surprisingly, the set (also by Forsythe) was virtually non-existent. A single stage-wide panel lowered to some 8 feet above the floor alluded, perhaps, to the fact that all of us are trying to “find” our way, that we are all in the same boat.

The evening’s true showstopper was Edward Clug’s Chamber Minds. The set alone (Marko Japelj) is dazzling; when the curtains open, a singular vibrating line − stretched across the dark backstage − shimmers like a thwarted ray of moonlight. Suddenly the line “breaks” into 12 crossed strands that hover over the whole stage and can, we learn later, be individually or collectively raised, lowered, angled, aligned. Through side panels left and right, a naked forearm at its natural height caresses the heads of a male and female dancer to “pull them in” – a small detail at the start, yes, but one that has a breath-taking effect. Clug, who directs the Slovenian National Ballet, here works with Ballett Zürich for the second time. The Romanian typically crafts minimalist movements and explores the interlocking and intertwining of the performers’ limbs, and Chamber Minds was no exception. The dancers here − ever tilting, jagging their bodies off centre, losing and finding their balance − impart an unexpected beauty, a sense of humour and a tendency to foible that makes the work infinitely human.

M Knight, J Brunner, M Renard in Clug's <i>Chamber Minds</i> © Gregory Batardon
M Knight, J Brunner, M Renard in Clug's Chamber Minds
© Gregory Batardon
The sexes are treated entirely equally, but an extended leg of one dancer becomes a service table for another; a man wanting to get the affections of an unreachable woman is yanked forward by two helpers and “hooked” onto her ankles. If only it were that easy! But the rare joy of laughter offered is highly refreshing. And the Leo Kulaš costumes, modest by virtue of their black, white and flesh-colours and zipper closures underline the simple pleasures − tenderness among them − that are Clug’s byline.

Of all three works, this last is by far the most appealing. Milko Lazar’s sublime Ballet Suite for Violin and Cembalo (2014) to which the work is set is played with conviction and subtlety; it draws on the power of the two instruments in a perfect marriage. The choreography incorporates a degree of robotics elements, yet is uniquely identifiable as Clug's : the human joint is the choreographer’s playground: the mechanical (or digital) elbow, knee and shoulder are the tools of his trade.

Accompanying musicians Hanna Weinmeister (violin), Xiaoming Wang (Second violin), Valérie Slavik (viola) and Bruno Weinmeister (cello) deserve particular mention for their vibrant and dynamic performances. Both violinists played for the first two pieces; Weinmeister was joined by the accomplished Naoki Kitaya (cembalo) for the third. Yet, of the three choreographed works, Clug’s was the only one that gave the ballet-hungry Zurich audience a Gesamtkunstwerk in which all the elements − choreography, music, designs and performance − worked together to dazzling effect. Chamber Minds was perhaps less challenging to dance than the high intensity Forsythe piece, but it imparted a “wow” factor that the evening’s other pieces were hard put to match.

G Tonelli and S Fukushi in Clug's <i>Chamber Minds</i> © Gregory Batardon
G Tonelli and S Fukushi in Clug's Chamber Minds
© Gregory Batardon

Nonetheless, as a program of works that included a pursuit around the psychology of death, a critical assessment of the art form of dance itself, and a tribute to the sanctity of modern movement, Strings made for a highly likeable package overall. It also calls attention to the fact that the “prima” status for principal dancers has in these works given way to that for the choreographer as the "leader". He or she uses the dancers as abled all-purpose instruments; and the possibilities are limitless.

****1