Opera House, Zürich
October 15, 2023
Cathy Marston chose a triple bill, Walkways, to open her first season as ballet director of Ballett Zürich in October: Wayne McGregor’s Infra, her own Snowblind and Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces. In an interview she said she had composed the evening like a well-balanced meal. The three pieces are strung together by a common theme: walkways, as the title says. In each ballet, the dancers literally cross from one side of the stage to the other, but their pathways also cross and open new beginnings.
McGregor created Infra in 2008 to music by Max Richter that evokes the busy noises of a city. At times there’s the sound of a train, and the whistling that announces its departure, but that’s mixed with more lyrical and intimate passages.
When all twelve dancers are all on stage, it looks crowded. That feeling is enhanced by Julian Opie’s set, a band of LED figures crossing on a walkway a level above the dancers. Again, perhaps at a train station. Those figures are oblivious to the dramas taking place on the floor below. Here couples, in all constellations, meet in intimate duets full of emotion, often with an odd person out watching.
One scene especially, demonstrates the dichotomy between the intimate and personal and how people can be anonymous in the mass of the city. Six couples each in their own square of light dance a loving duet. Like couples in apartments, they are separate but pertain to the same kind of ritual.
The Ballett Zürich dancers mastered McGregor’s movements extremely well. They worked with a high energy level, and the many body rolls and the men turning the women in standing splits became expressions of deep emotion.
Cathy Marston’s Snowblind, based on Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome, was originally created for San Francisco Ballet in 2018. It is about a farmer, Ethan, living in Massachusetts with his hypochondriac wife Zeena. Her cousin, Mattie Silver, arrives to help in the house. When Zeena finds out Ethan and Mattie have fallen in love, she throws Mattie out in a snowstorm. Ethan follows her, and because they cannot live out their love, they decide to commit suicide in the raging storm. Zeena finds and saves them and the three of them continue to live together.
Marston draws the characters simply but effectively. Zeena, Francesca Dell’Ario, is dressed in greyish-white (costumes and sets are by Patrick Kinmnoth). When Ethan, Esteban Berlanga, approaches her, she writhes in pain. She even throws him out of their bed. Mattie, Ruiz Nakagawa, in a long red dress, is the opposite of Zeena. She playfully throws snowballs and makes snow-angels. Ethan is caring and respectful towards his wife, but suffers from her rejections. Mattie, he treats with gentle love. Around the three of them, fifteen dancers move as farmhands, curious neighbours watching the ménage-a-trios unfold or glittering snowflakes whirling around the characters, setting the dismal atmosphere.
Between them, the three main characters created big and very emotional drama. You did not have to know the story to understand what was going on. The music, arranged by Philip Freeney, a long time collaborator of Marston’s, underscores the tragedy of the story.
Jerome Robbins Glass Pieces looks surprisingly modern, although it dates from 1983. In the first section, and to Philip Glass’s repetitive music, 33 dancers, including members of the Junior Ballet and students from the Tanz Akademie Zürich, walk across the stage in various ways. In the second movement, couples break out, sometimes moving in slow-motion, sometimes posing. It concludes with a third section, the dancers now crossing the stage in a striding low run.
It is a high energy piece in which relations and emotions are created by the way the dancers encounter each other. But this far into the program, they seemed to have run somewhat out of steam.
Marston received a staggering 3,000 applications and auditioned 300 dancers for the 19 available places she had with the 36-member company. Having so many new dancers was the main reason she did not want to start the season with a premiere. She wanted to give them time to gel as a group. And they seem to be doing just that. Although they have only had a few months together, their dancing was quite harmonious.
Walkways demonstrates well Marston’s vision for the company. She sees it as a ballet company but a contemporary one, and will create new pieces for them, starting with Atonement in April, 2024, based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. But she will also invite other choreographers, to present work in a variety of contemporary styles. She also regards it important to look back to see where modern-day dance came from. Her next triple bill in January, Timekeepers, brings pieces by three different choreographers: Bronislava Nijinsky, Meryl Tankard and Mthuthuzeli November; from three different continents, Russia, Australia and South Africa; and from three generations.