A dance of dreams: Zürich Ballett in Marcos Morau’s Nachtträume

Opera House, Zürich
November 4, 2023

Last year the Spanish interdisciplinary artist Marcos Morau created Nachtträume (Night Dreams) for Zürich Ballet and on November 4, it was back on stage. Morau is neither a dancer nor a choreographer in the usual sense, but with his own Barcelona based company, Le Veronal, he creates pieces that mix all art forms.

Nachtträume is a mesmerising piece that takes place in the dark realm of dreams inhabited by genderless creatures and a drag-queen dressed in black sequins and a towering tiara. The Queen, Ruben Drole, a singer with Zürich Opera, opens and closes the piece with her entreating plea, “Liebe mich” (Love Me). At times she mingles with the dancers while reciting texts by the Spanish poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Shakespeare and others about love and power. At other times she disappears.

Ballett Zürich in Nachtträume by Marcos Morau
Photo Gregory Batardon

The dancers are depersonalized. All wear white shirts and shorts reminiscent of school uniforms. At times they also don a jacket or replace their shirts with black sequined tops. Costumes are by Silvia Delagneau. But their uniform hairdo and visible suspenders on their calves make associations to the silent movie era and the interwar period.

Indeed, Morau said in an interview that he was inspired by Kurt Jooss’ 1932 ballet The Green Table, which can be interpreted as a reflection on the political powers during the interwar period and their devastating effects on people. Morau finds the ballet’s statement about war as relevant today as then.

Another inspiration was the American choreographer Bob Fosse, especially his film Cabaret, which is set in Berlin in 1931.

Francesca Dell’Aria (with megaphone) and dancers of Ballett Zürich in Nachtträume
Photo Gregory Batardon

Both these worlds are visible in fragments in Nachtträume, which meanders from one dreamlike scene to the next, on or beside set designer Max Glaenzel’s round, raised platform that sometimes carries a round table; and beneath a huge spaceship-like chandelier that moves up and down, and that is equipped with removable balls of light.

The piece begins with two dancers at the rim of the platform moving with angular, jerky movements like marionettes, except not quite, because a push to a shoulder or the pulling of an angled high-raised leg creates a flow of movement that continues from one performer to the next. At one point all 34 dancers pose as if for a class photo, only to then morph into one organism spreading organically across the stage. When that structure disintegrates, headless men in suits appear who walk around and pluck the light balls from the chandelier, placing them on each other like heads.

Ballett Zürich in Nachtträume by Marcos Morau
Photo Gregory Batardon

In another scene the Queen walks into a night-club environment. A lonely trumpeter appears and accompanies her song while couples whirl around ballroom dancing. Like Morau, Spanish composer Clara Aguilar creates hints. In this scene, you think you catch a jazzy tune from the 1930s but, before you have a chance to identify it, it mutates into something else. In one scene reminiscent of a music hall performance, the dancing and the rocking beat of the music was so intense, that I for a moment was sucked completely into the action and forgot where I was.

An allusion to Jooss’ ballet comes in a scene in which a round table on the platform is filled with microphones like at an international political meeting. But the power is totally deflated because no-one is in charge. Some participants run around the table looking busy, while others dressed in jackets and carrying briefcases scurry around.

Morau also plays with clichés. As children we are sometimes told to count sheep when we cannot fall asleep. Sure enough, a group of sheep come flying in like a cloud. They are made out of plush but, life-size, look astonishingly real. Another scene is really sleep-inducing: when the whole group of dancers push chairs around at break-neck speed for what feels like a very long time and for no obvious reason. At another point, and the sequence of the scenes is hard to remember, they also move and dance around two piano players sat at their grand pianos.

Singer Ruben Drole and dancers of Ballett Zürich in Nachtträume by Marcos Morau. Photo Gregory Batardon

After beginning with the Queen rising from the orchestra pit sat on a chair, Nachtträume concludes with the dancers being lowered into the same, the Queen sat on a chair similar to that used by a tennis umpire. With a quivering voice, she again keeps repeating, “Liebe mich.” It is hard to tell what the work is all about, but as the Queen says at one point in Calderón de la Barca’s words, “Everything in life is a dream, and the dreams are dreams.”

The dancers were excellent throughout, taking us through Morau’s fascinating and enthralling one-and-a-half hours long dreamscape in the blink of an eye. He gives us fragments, which look familiar, but that then change into something else. He spurs our imagination and leaves room for everybody to make their own associations, to take a ride down their own lane.

The standing ovation and prolonged applause was fully deserved.