Three outstanding choreographers; the American William Forsythe, the Czech Jiří Kylián and the Israeli Ohad Naharin are brought together in Zurich Ballet's latest triple bill. Each in his own way has pushed the physical boundaries and narrative possibilities of modern dance, and all have left their mark on dancers and companies all over the world.

Viktoria Kapitonova and Manuel Renard in <i>In the Middle Somewhat Elevated</i> © Gregory Bartadon
Viktoria Kapitonova and Manuel Renard in In the Middle Somewhat Elevated
© Gregory Bartadon

The programme began with Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated whose enigmatic title alludes to the two single golden cherries that hung centre stage over the dancers’ heads. The fruit stands for the tiny fraction of an elaborate design intended for, but never realized at the works’ 1987 première. Commissioned for the Paris Opera, Forsythe's piece opens with a bang loud enough to lift the startled man in front of me four inches off his seat. But it also triggers the launch of five female and four male dancers into explosive sequences: leaps, pirouettes, contortions and torpedo-like rushes at an almost inconceivable pace. To call the work  ‘acrobatic’ is an understatement; much more, this was a flurry of new figures and diagonal lines, each dancer’s movements − by design, and almost without exception − as slick as a whistle. Having finished their twirls and twists, the soloists, duos or larger groups often took casual rest, acting as if at rehearsal in the studio, and just making way for the next fellow to follow. In the Middle demands staggering technique of its dancers, whose movements oscillate between that relaxation and the highest degree of athleticism. It was almost exhausting to watch, and with music (Thom Willems and Leslie Stuck) so repetitive and mechanical, I could hardly imagine stepping it out. Despite some unevenness in the dancers’ technical abilities − the energy in the Forsythe piece was nothing short of boundless.

Kylián’s Gods and Dogs (2008) is a more narrative work, and one that struck an emotive chord. Admittedly, the piece begins in mechanical mode, but as it enfolds it tells stories of compassion, confusion, rejection and despair.

Alba Sempere Torres and Matthew Knight in <i>God and Dogs</i> © Gregory Bartadon
Alba Sempere Torres and Matthew Knight in God and Dogs
© Gregory Bartadon
The eight dancers embrace new conventions: sliding as if on ice-skates to enter; descending into – then emerging from – the orchestra pit; exaggerating and holding expressions of yawning and guffawing in complete silence. In a pas de deux that was as close to a ‘love story’ as the evening had, the complicated entwining of body parts was as accomplished as it was sentimental. Yet even here, a Beethoven String Quartet accompanied by the slow-motion projection of a wild dog running out at the audience threatened the norm. Then there were the rotating movements, the frenzied shaking of hands as if to rid them of history or distress, and the work that succumbed to soft pumping motions, each one, subtly shaking our familiar ‘foundations’. In the latter half of the piece, the staging was spectacular. A silver, beaded curtain replaced the original felt drop, and shook and shimmied like the dress of a 1920s flapper. Against the wave of an eel-like curtain, the final solo dancer jittered and coiled around himself until the stage went back to black, at which point a series of magically lit snakes and ladders wormed their way over his body.

Last, Naharin’s Minus 16 is the work that has the most obvious ‘showlike’ quality out of the three performed, such that I liked it the least. The music ranged as far as from Perez Prado & His Orchestra and Hava Nagila through to Antonio Vivaldi and Dean Martin, a sure-fire hodgepodge of genres. As we took to our seats after the interval, a solo dancer doing the bossa nova was already planted in front of the curtain. His performance, between Vaudeville and sexual innuendo had me in stitches, even though I usually cringe at humour that is anything like at the Ice Capades. In time, other dancers sat in a half-circle like Orthodox Jews in civil dress: black suits, white shirts, black hats.

Zurich Ballet and Zurich Junior Ballet in <i>Minus 16</i> © Gregory Bartadon
Zurich Ballet and Zurich Junior Ballet in Minus 16
© Gregory Bartadon
While Naharin has written that "beauty is an illusion, and there is a fine line that separates it from sanity" – a nugget of wisdom in itself – the symbolism of these people bearing their chests and stripping down to their skivvies, one after the other left to right, simply escaped me. So did the jolt that forced the last person in the semicircle, with every round, to sprawl out on the floor. But when towards the end, a whole troupe of 20 dancers filtered through the audience, and – much like in a Mossad covert action – kicked out random partners to join them on the stage, none could say this wasn’t enjoyable.