Tewja revolves around a Ukrainian shtetl at the beginning of the century and is a dance adaptation of the Broadway musical hit Fiddler on the Roof that played to enthusiastic audiences in the 1960s. It was a high order to adapt a musical so rife with associations. Given the number of characters and relationships, anyone who didn’t have programme notes may have been somewhat muddled about who was who. In brief, the poor Tewje and his wife, devoutly committed to preserving their religious tradition, fully expect to have their three eligible daughters marry members of the faith. While the eldest two are matched nicely to acceptable boys, the youngest falls in love with – and wants to marry – a Christian, which her parents refuse to allow. When the girl weds him anyway, she is shunned by her father, an act that tortures him visibly.

Frank Fanner Pedersen (Tewje) © Ismael Lorenzo
Frank Fanner Pedersen (Tewje)
© Ismael Lorenzo

The choreographer has said this ballet expressed “emotion in motion”. And motion it was: all the couples and the 20-some members of the corps de ballet wind, twist and dive around one another, and bend back from the waist to be intercepted by a partner. Bodies functioned like rope, making lassos, passing one over another, under, through the cocked arms or legs dancer supplied. Where one body made a space, another seemed compelled to fill it. Indeed, drawing on a catalogue of undulations and movements that were largely frontal and dervish-like, the choreography hardly gave the audience a moment’s rest. Motion as mainstay of the dance, yes, but much of its acrobatic chaos seemed unfounded; a few members of the corps de ballet seemed to have difficulty overcoming a sense of “where does this bit of body go next”? In short, less might well have been more.

The music − played resoundingly by the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Mayer − was original and lively. The composer’s dedicated klezmer configuration Kolsimcha joined the orchestra, and its clarinets and trombone are to be highly commended. But with time, with such constant battering of downbeats at confounding volume, my ears were hard put to sustain it.

<i>Tewje</i> in Basel © Ismael Lorenzo
Tewje in Basel
© Ismael Lorenzo

In a bombastic wrap that even included big band and jazz sound, I found variety all too rare. Granted, there was a beautifully mystical sequence when Tewje’s adherence to his faith is being tested. Later, when the villagers are forced to leave the shtetl, the sombre procession is driven by a burdened, slow-moving score that is quiet, but shattering. Especially today, where ethnicity, exodus and refugees are so much in the news, more could have been made of this tragedy musically, and it was surprising to find that such moments were few and far between.

Despite these shortcomings, there were highlights in the production, the performances of the principal dancers foremost. Particularly Golde (Ayako Nakano) and the three sistersAndrea Tortosa Vidal as the fiery Zeitel, Tana Rosás Sune as an elegant Hodel, and Dévi Azélia Selly, an expressive Chaveexcelled in their roles. Their three pendants were commendable, and Frank Fannar Pedersen danced a vigorous and passionate lead, but the man’s strapping youth put him at a visual disadvantage in his role as the father.

Javier Rodriguez Cobos, Debora Maiques Marin and Sergio Bustinduy © Ismael Lorenzo
Javier Rodriguez Cobos, Debora Maiques Marin and Sergio Bustinduy
© Ismael Lorenzo

The stunning costumes (Catherine Voeffray) were almost Dada-like: half-skirt, half trouser combinations, schoolgirl’s dresses on the sisters in giving, yummy fabrics that underscored their innocence and promise. Further, the staging featured huge video projections behind the dancers (Andreas Guzman) that varied from scene to scene: the portrait faces of the principals enlarged 20 times as they danced, the muzzle of a clumsy old workhorse chewing his feed as the die-hard father suffered for his treatment of his youngest daughter. Underscoring the rural tradition most poignantly were the images of wheat stalks in the evening breeze, a toddler awkwardly yanking at his suspenders, a woman’s hands kneading a loaf of soft bread.

Some of the stage props (Bruce French), though, were beyond my understanding. The six giant spools centre stage in one scene − which Chave once used as a backdrop for an extended leg and erotic posture − and the hanging paper rolls the dancers yanked down to strew, may well have alluded to the scrolls of the faith. But the upright bamboo beach cabins? The three giant size 5 foot high, blank cylinders whose rims the dancers hung over like birds at a birdbath? All too contrived and seemingly senseless, they were hard to figure in. Hard enough that I left the theatre exhausted, strung out for trying, and wondering if that was precisely the emotion the ballet meant to impart.

***11