Every two seasons and now for the fourth time, members of both ballet ensembles at the Zurich Opera – Ballett Zürich and the Junior Ballett – are given the chance to present their own choreography to the public. Ballet Director Christian Spuck regularly encourages his dancers to approach their art from a new perspective and be creative themselves; “The road to choreography follows one’s own trials in dance,” he has said. This year’s nine featured talents played on the annual Zurich festival’s “beauty and madness” motto, which opened up a whole spectrum of interpretations. And the dances’ accompaniment varied as widely as from Chopin to Ella Fitzgerald, from a woman’s scratchy voice recording to a croon by Elvis, with a whole catalogue of electronic music in between. 

Iacopo Arregui and Emma Antrobus in Knight's <i>Mocambo</i> © Gregory Batardon
Iacopo Arregui and Emma Antrobus in Knight's Mocambo
© Gregory Batardon

The Young Choreographers performances are traditionally held in the Studio Bühne, an intimate theatre and practice space in the belly of the house that boosts the immediacy and the intensity of the works presented. The venue’s wooden stage makes it hard for the dancers, particularly any on pointe, to move soundlessly. Yet with nothing between the audience and the action, a convincing portrayal strikes a unique chord. In our case, the audience saw parts of a production it rarely gets to see. Before Luca Afflitto’s stunning Come gli occhi sotto le ciglia to music from J.S. Bach’s Matthew’s Passion, for example, a stage-hand prepped the scene with emissions from a smoke machine. When the agile Yeonchae Jeong began to move through the smoke in a strong raking light, his dance uncurled as sinuously as the smoke itself.

Other staging was more open to interpretation. In Manuel Renard’s The Breathing Room, for example, letters fell successively from the rafters to the floor as a male couple (the choreographer and Jan Casier) moved through a passionate journey of joining, then falling apart. Near the end, a single piece of paper – a confession? a revelation? a life? – was miraculously suspended in mid-air over several minutes, such that the magic of dance was reflected in a single detail. 

Giulia Tonelli and Mélissa Ligurgo’s highly lyrical Klastos also underscored the pain of relationships and gave us the evening’s most consistently drawn choreographic line. Dancing herself with her fine duet partner, Manuel Renard, Tonelli gave consummate grace to even the most demanding of his hoists, and together, theirs was pure poetry in dance.

Dominik Slavkovsky’s Conspiracy was decidedly more down to earth. Set in an ultra-conservative Mid-Western USA, it revolved around the story of the famous 1947 Roswell Incident in which an “alien” UFO passenger purportedly crashed into the Missouri countryside. Dressed in an impossible lime-green body-stocking and a creepy mask, our lanky alien (Cohen Aitchison-Dugas) encountered a small-town family once on earth. Their love-struck, agile daughter (Michelle Willems) ultimately revealed the tall green guy as human. Most of the movements were gleeful and full of bravado. At the end of the piece, humorous cow moos were aligned to criticism of Donald Trump, and not surprisingly, the work’s humour and bright lighting spelled out something of show-business. 

By contrast, though, exploring as it does the pain of schizophrenia, Lucas Valente’s Trees Die Standing was hauntingly poignant. An initial silence is broken by what sounds like the churning of an intergalactic warship. Then three male bodies (the choreographer, joined by Luca Afflitto and Mark Geilings) embody brute force, working as tightly together as if they were the pulsing gears of a heavy machine. So, too, were the unforgiving convolutions of a fight scene, where the dancers’ slithering shoulders and powerful pounding mirrored a battle inside an ailing mind. 

Innovative works by Adrià Vilar Algueró, Matthew Knight, and Michelle Pinelis rounded out the programme. Pinelis’s final Paint. Erase. Redo., in fact, was something of a Jackson Pollock painting on steroids. Over a huge, painted canvas floor, and seeming almost haphazardly, the six dancers skidded through a feast of bright colours, slopping them all over their bodies and leotards to a degree that would make even a paint-ball park cry.