While new to Zurich, and as fresh and compelling as it is, Speak for Yourself is no new ballet. Choreographed by Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot to music by Steve Reich and excerpts from select J.S. Bach fugues the ballet premiered in 1999 at the Nederlands Dance Theater. It has been described as a “chemical dance experiment” that combines fire, water and dance to make an entirely unique theatrical experience.

Wei Chen in Leon and Lightfoot's <i>Speak for Yourself</i> © Gregory Batardon
Wei Chen in Leon and Lightfoot's Speak for Yourself
© Gregory Batardon

Throughout the first half of the performance, smoke pours out of the nape of dancer Daniel Mulligan’s neck. Rising and billowing, pierced or coddled by sublime lighting, the smoke builds into an ever-changing and infinitely beautiful “set” behind his fine solo work. Eventually, he and five other male dancers intertwine around and counter one another before a trio of female artists join them. One of the men (Wei Chen) showed himself particularly tortured, and the expressiveness of that cried out for some form of salvation. That comes – albeit with delicate beginnings – with the smoke’s counterpart: water. It’s a sprinkle of soft rain first, then becomes a steady drizzle that covers the whole stage.

With the threat of destruction finally gone (“where there’s smoke, there’s fire”), water, by contrast, serves as a metaphor for healing and the new. But incorporated into any dance performance, water is not without its challenges to the artists’ safety. Despite that liability, the shower gave the dancers the chance to make real ripples on the floor with their hands and feet. What’s more, the water’s squeaks and swooshes underfoot added a brilliant overlay of sound to Reich’s electronic score.

Matthew Knight in Leon and Lightfoot's <i>Speak for Yourself</i> © Gregory Batardon
Matthew Knight in Leon and Lightfoot's Speak for Yourself
© Gregory Batardon

The ballet’s three female dancers set another dynamic, a more temperate and quieter one. Anna Khamzina, Yen Han, and Elena Vostrotina all mastered Léon and Lightfoot’s demanding choreography, yet their configuration was somewhat less harmonious than the men’s, owing, perhaps, to their disparate heights and varying degrees of fluidity. Another anomaly was the tempi of the Bach fugues, played in some instances (from playback) at a pace that was somewhat slower than familiar recordings. No matter: the piece was filled with a poetry of its own, and, reflecting the dualities in human experience, sustained keen interest throughout. The final image, too, was one of sustained grace: a single dancer (Matthew Knight) stood with his back to the audience, his head dropped forward and out of sight, his arms raised left and right. Like the godforsaken, lone tree in productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the gesture left us with something as heart-wrenching as it was memorable.

Dancers of Zurich Ballet in <i>Emergence</i> © Gregory Batardon
Dancers of Zurich Ballet in Emergence
© Gregory Batardon
Crystal Pite’s Emergence followed, an ingenious work that articulates the movements and mystery of what is known as “swarm intelligence”, which the choreographer had studied in bees. Like Speak for Yourself, this ballet has a history: it premiered in 2009 in Toronto, then, as now, featuring no fewer than 36 dancers: 18 female, and 18 male.

The piece began with one figure crumpled up on the floor, a single arm twitching and shivering as if this were an insect emerging from sticky honeycomb. Behind that prone body, the simple set consisted of a mere two elements: on a back-panel, a huge vortex of painted leaves surrounds a tunnel opening onto the stage. In no time, a whole horde of black-hooded dancers swarmed in from left and right, the women dressed in stiff, black carapace-like leotards, the men covered black “tattoos” over their bare shoulders – in designs that resemble insects’ mandibles. As the figures moved, they engaged in a kind of “wagging dance”; and, repeatedly slapping their crooked arms up onto their backs, they make delicate bee wings almost visible. The female contingent was the stronger camp, and it countered the frenzy with a disciplined march, bringing some order to the teeming chaos. But this was a hive if ever there was one; even as two dancers cling to the tunnel’s curved walls, their contorted positions seemed to defy gravity.

Dancers of Zurich Ballet in <i>Emergence</i> © Gregory Batardon
Dancers of Zurich Ballet in Emergence
© Gregory Batardon
What’s more, in Owen Belton’s hypnotic electronic score, the music churns and vibrates, and is studded with the little tweaks and shivers of the insects’ world. The ballet’s pacing was equally complex, but a certain pas de trois and pas de quatre were particular marvels: soloist Giulia Tonelli slithered as seamlessly and convincingly as if she were an underground creature. Further, the whole corps’ finale was as tight and clean as a silvery zipper going up and down… here were three dozen dancers whose measured, geometric moves were perfectly synchronized despite the legion of movements and the buzz of irregular utterances, audible breathing included. In short, neither choreography, staging, lighting, costumes, nor the dancers’ precision could have been any better. Emergence is a definite must see.

*****