Ballett Zürich: On the Move

Opera House, Zürich
February 4, 2023

On the Move is not only the title of Ballett Zürich’s latest triple bill and Hans van Manen’s piece of the same name that opened the evening, but also a description of the momentary state of affairs at the company. After ten years as director, Christian Spuck, leaves at the end of the 2022/23 season to take over the directorship of Staatsballett Berlin. In an interview in the programme, he acknowledged that dancers will leave, new ones will arrive and the institution will change and move on when British-born Cathy Marston takes over in September.

The change has already begun. Spuck refrains from taking his leave on a grand scale. Instead, he hands over the stage to Marston, who will introduce herself to the company and the audience in April with her full-evening piece The Cellist, which she created for the Royal Ballet in 2020.

Matthew Knight and Sujung Lim in Lontano by Christian Spuck
Photo Gregory Batardon

Spuck describes his last piece for the company as a farewell postcard signed by each dancer. It concludes the On the Move programme, which had its premiere in January. He uses a mix of music by Alice Sara Ott, John Zorn, Frédéric Chopin, and György Ligeti’s Lontano, which lends its name to the piece and which is about taking leave. Spuck wanted to briefly reflect upon what this implies.

He does so by letting 31 of the company’s 35 dancers appear in loving duets, trios of mostly two men and one woman, creating intricate patterns, or together as a group in ensemble scenes and flashy showpieces. Clad in green, blue and grey costumes by his longtime collaborator Emma Ryott, the performers emerge from and disappear into darkness upstage as if ever present in the dark or ever changing; like in a company.

A man, Daniel Mulligan, stands apart from the rest. Sometimes he just watches, sometimes he performs a solo amongst the others. Dressed in a skin-colored leotard, it looks as if he is naked, but with many body tattoos. Although the audience received the piece with raving applause, it is nothing more than a postcard.

On the Move by Hans van Manen
pictured: Loïck Pireaux, Rafaelle Queiroz, Daniel Mulligan and Irmina Kopaczynska
Photo Gregory Batardon

Van Manen’s On the Move dates from 1992. Spuck wanted to honour the choreographer, who turned 90 last year, an event celebrated in his hometown, Amsterdam, with performances of 19 of his ballets danced by six different companies. Van Manen stopped choreographing in 2014 but came to Zürich to work with the dancers during the final rehearsals.

To Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, On the Move is a play with the pas de deux, and perhaps with what time can do to a relationship. Two main couples, one dressed in red, the other in black (costumes by Keso Dekker), weave in and out of a group of ten dancers, sometimes also in couples, sometimes as a whole. The red couple, Michelle Willems and Matthew Knight, engage in a playful relationship, like young people in love, still exploring each other with passion and excitement. The pair in black, Katja Wünsche and Jan Casier, move in a more sedate manner. Their bodies are in perfect harmony, like people who have been together for a long time and can anticipate the partner’s next move. At one point they execute a body roll as if their two bodies were one. At another, Casier pulls up Wünsche from a split on the floor, as if she were weightless. They were breathtakingly beautiful.

Squeezed in between these two feel-good ballets was Luis Stiens’ Tal, meaning valley in German. Stiens is a dancer with Stuttgart Ballet, but leaves at the end of this season to embark on a career as a full-time choreographer.

Ballett Zürich in Tal by Louis Stiens
Photo Gregory Batardon

Tal is his first piece for Ballett Zürich although he did create Wounded for its junior company in 2018. Stiens mixes music by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel with a soundscape of wind, rocks rolling and the occasional hum of an old airplane created by Michael Utz. To this, nine dancers move on, under and behind a sculpture created by Bettina Katja Lange, which looks like a rock worn by wind and water. Sometimes they lie immobile on the sculpture, altering the look of its surface. Sometimes they squiggle like maggots or slide down from its top to the floor head first. Or they move the sculpture so you can see its rear and the grid it is built upon. When the dancers then wiggle like worms on the floor, it feels as if some invisible hand has lifted a stone to reveal the hidden life under it. Combined with the music the piece evokes the feeling of seeing a part of nature under a microscope.

Spuck concludes his tenure with Ballett Zürich with two of his evening-length pieces, Anna Karenina in March and, in May, Monteverdi, a music-theater work that he created at the beginning of this season and which he describes as his true farewell piece for the company.