Ballett Zürich’s tribute to the visionary American choreographer William Forsythe included three ballets that had never before been performed in Switzerland. The setting of The Second Detail (1991) is largely clinical. All the dancers are all in full-body, light grey leotards, and the flats are soft slate-coloured and modest. The word “THE” which faces the audience just above the orchestra pit, is the sole prop on stage. Already in this first ballet of the evening, Forsythe shows that he tailors his work to the best of the dancers’ competencies. The lanky Russian red-head Elena Vostrotina, for example, is designated the one who will shoot her long legs like pointed arrows at whatever might hang far above the stage. The petite Michelle Willems is given a chance to demonstrate her modest elegance. The six male dancers, too, are given over to their own calligraphy; one juxtaposed with the fits and starts of Thom Willems' enigmatic, pimped electronic score.

Anna Khamzina, Giulia Tonelli and Meiri Maeda in The Second Detail
© Gregory Batardon

Forsythe’s movements are anything but simple. They explore every possible angle, every height the body can configure relative to the stage. In short, the Zurich programme featured highly complex and demanding choreography that gave little visual or physical respite, either to the dancers or the audience itself. In this first ballet, dancers temporarily at rest perched neatly on simple wooden stools along the backstage wall, lending a rehearsal room ambience to the stage. The letters “THE” were deliberately toppled over just before the curtain without any real explanation, although that action took spirited laughter. As contrast, the inclusion of the rather frenetic female samurai who joined in the final sequence was perplexing, and her largely frontal, jagged movements was somewhat incongruous. Dressed in stiff and voluminous whites, Issey Miyake's costumes may have fitted in more readily at a glam Met Gala.

Kevin Pouzou and Rafaelle Queiroz in Approximate Sonata
© Gregory Batardon

Approximate Sonata (1996, revised 2016), featured four pas de deux, each, its own constellation. Again, a single printed word, “Ja” (yes), this time against the dark, far wall, was the only set decoration. Stephen Galloway’s costumes were essentially ballet studio gear in neon colours, and Willems' music was hard to pinpoint as a genre, but includes electronic beats, rising and lowering pipe scales, and occasional sequences that might nicely accompany a short horror film. That the dancers all broke out in a kind of studio chatter before the curtain went down was refreshing; it suggested we were the lucky party with unmitigated access to a session that not just anybody gets to see.

Yet in this second piece, the dancers showed themselves at different levels of comfort with the complex choreography, and the partners’ work together was not always optimal. Granted, the vocabulary of movement was highly challenging, but one young dancer, who looked somewhat more challenged than the others, fell over her partner at one point in a single low slide, an unfortunate – if quickly corrected – slip. Parts of the performance felt somewhat self-conscious, a little too repetitive, with movement defined strictly for movement’s sake, but altogether lacking emotive content. Instead, the work solely underscored the body lines and weave of calculated steps.

Jesse Fraser, Katja Wünsche, Dominik Slavovsky and Sujung Lim in One flat thing reproduced
© Gregory Batardon

One Flat Thing, Reproduced (2000) by contrast, was utterly exhilarating, even if it was a marriage between modern ballet and a glorified circus act. At the start, fourteen dancers thundered twenty metal tables forward on the stage at top speed, then proceeded to expand their bodies around the broad expanse of a second “stage” the tables made. They plunged across the surfaces, making a busy working factory of their interactions, whether with one another, or above, among, or below with the table legs themselves. Such dynamism takes nerves, not only for the company to execute at that tremendous pace, but, indeed, for the audience to watch. After all, one misstep, and fingers could be smashed; bodies could crash into one another; one of the props could tip over on its side. Indeed, the element of risk was so omnipresent that many of us had to hold our breath. Yet despite the choreography’s huge vocabulary around the tables, there was never a hitch, never a squeal. Instead, this work was a true phenomenon: risk and reward in a single package, and a ballet that has to be seen to be believed!