The pending world première of Jacopo Godani’s Rituals from another When saw the choreographer rehearsing here on site with the Ballett Zürich dancers for the 7 weeks prior. As Artistic Director of the Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company, and successor there to William Forsythe, Godani has positioned himself firmly as an innovator on the dance horizon, in no small part because he takes a major hand in the technical details of production: lighting, costumes, set design and musical accompaniment.

Anna Khamzina Jan Casier Melissa Ligurgo in Godani's <i>Rituals from Another When</i> © Carlos Quezada
Anna Khamzina Jan Casier Melissa Ligurgo in Godani's Rituals from Another When
© Carlos Quezada

His Rituals is marked by a broad spectrum of colours and a canalization of energies that mirrors the animal world. Indeed, alone or in pairs, select of the dancers often loped − bent over − across the stage, their oily shoulders moving like great cats, or the panther in Rainer Maria Rilke’s eponymous poem: in “powerful soft strides… like a ritual dance around a centre.” Further, to the riveting electronic score of Ulrich Müller and Siegfried Rössert’s 48Nord, some also spotted, turning their heads sharply to the side to stare blankly, much as cats do. What’s more, the golden-hued stage alternated bright lighting with the infrared, furry light that shows nocturnal animals in unexpected urban areas, making for terrific atmospheric effects.

In that context, the dancers frequently made an undulating pack, all of them costumed in hot coloured, knee-length loincloths. The bodies took on circular movements, legs and arms seeming like the surfaces of a never-ending Möbius strip. Original as it was, as unwieldy as the movements were for the human body, I confess that, over time, I missed a counterpoint or break in the visual.

Performing Kammerballett next, the Ballet Zürich continued to build on its longstanding relationship with the renowned Dutch choreographer, Hans van Manen. First performed by the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1995, this work shows him a master of purist style, and remains a brilliant combination of cool distance, elegance, and humanity even today. Music as diverse as that of Kara Karajew, Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage allow each of the eight dancers to expand their own personal vocabulary of movements to the fullest.

Alba Sempere Torres and Jan Casier in Van Manen's <i>Kammerballett</i> © Carlos Quesada
Alba Sempere Torres and Jan Casier in Van Manen's Kammerballett
© Carlos Quesada

To begin, each one of the eight dancers brought a footstool onto the stage individually, in doing so, revealing aspects of his or her personality, sometimes even with infectious humour. Mélanie Borel and Daniel Mulligan’s lyrical duet showed them beholden to the higher power of their music: her delicate footwork included a detail that was as utterly beautiful as it was small: fluttering to the trill of the piano score’s two adjacent notes.

In a later segment, soloist Katja Wünsche stood centre stage, seeming as self-assured as is needed to launch a TED talk, but soon revealing resignation, even fearfulness, and repeatedly covering her eyes or face with her hands in gestures of heart-breaking poignancy. In sum, the dancers operated in a brilliant and fluid matrix of retraction and offering that, for me, made a true highlight of the evening.

William Forsythe’s tremendously dynamic Quintett was performed last. Premiered back in 1993 in Frankfurt, the ballet was conceived as a tribute to Forsythe’s dying wife, the fine dancer Tracy Kai-Maier, but he has often called it an hommage to life itself, as well. In that light, the few modest stage props make sense: a clunky slide projector suggests a review of history; a grill-like mirror above a sunken staircase alludes to a way into another world.

Giulia Tonelli and Manuel Renard in Forsythe's <i>Quintett</i> © Carlos Quezada
Giulia Tonelli and Manuel Renard in Forsythe's Quintett
© Carlos Quezada

Considered a modern classic today, Quintett plays on the unexpected turnings, warp speed and blur of dancers in countless configurations. They come together, then break apart, seek a new direction, run into one another, threaten to fall, are rescued by the nearest strong arms, catch their breath, and start up all over again a moment later. The hullabaloo included a whole host of complex variations, including Giulia Tonelli’s childlike playfulness and stubbornness, and Katja Wünsche’s hair going every which-way as she tackled her partner repeatedly, then stood out of the turbulence by simply watching some of the action from the wings.

As many-faceted as those experiences were, they were also underscored by a distinctive musical thread: a homeless person sings in an off-key voice, “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet; this one thing I know.” Repeating that over some 30 minutes as the singular track, British composer Gavin Bryars offers the dancers an enigmatic spur, but also the mantra that is the ballet’s only truly predictable thread. Otherwise, one must put expectations aside, for Quintett − the highest technical and artistic demands placed on its dancers − is hallmarked by the sheer hustle and bustle that give the work all order of earthly surprises, just as real life itself affords.