Published on December 26, 2007
The trolls of Zurich
Two months ago, my dance reviewer colleague and I did something we'd never done before. We watched performances ofthe same ballet twice - less than 18 hours apart. It wasn't that we both dozed off during Zurich Ballet's Saturday evening performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and were thus unable to write a review, but rather that we were both so entertained, moved and enthralled by the spectacle that we just had to see it again.
After the Sunday matinee performance, Peter A Marschel, the company's manager, told me, "You should come to Zurich." It seemed just a casual invitation, but when my recent trip to Tel Aviv had a possible stopover in Zurich, and I found out that their new production of "Peer Gynt" was being performed that same weekend, I did exactly what he suggested.
And so, while my colleague was reviewing the Mariinsky Ballet in Bangkok, I was in an armchair in dance maker's Heinz Spoerli's office overlooking the picturesque Lake Zurich.
The creative process started with the story and the music, explains Spoerli, one of Europe's most revered artistic directors.
"I've been interested in the story of 'Peer Gynt' for a long time but didn't specifically know how to stage it. In this production, I use both classical and modern music to make it a very strong evening. Everyone knows Edvard Grieg's music, it's wonderful, but when you have one suite after the other, I think it's, well ... too sweet."
"The problem was that I had lots of modern compositions to choose from," Spoerli continues, adding that he uploads classical, baroque, and modern music onto his three iPods - one for each genre - and always travels with them. In fact, right now he's on his Christmas vacation in Bangkok and Phuket, and probably listening to one of these.
"Finally, when I decided to use [Australian composer] Brett Dean's and [British composer] Mark-Anthony Turnage's music, the whole piece came together wonderfully. They strongly complement one another - you don't know when the Grieg stops and the others start. But then we ran into another problem - Turnage wrote the piece for 80 to 90 musicians, so we had to re-orchestrate to fit our opera-house size, which is limited to around 60."
"I also have singers and actors in this multimedia production. I think it's nice for this kind of story because it's like a Nordic Faust."
Spoerli strives continually for choreographic excellence, and that includes working actively with a quality ensemble of dancers. "I'm always seeking the quality of dance. Perhaps, you can get away with watching bad choreography performed by good dancers, but not vice versa. All the major choreographers have fantastic dancers around. For me, it's like a dialogue I have with my dancers in the studio. They give me feedback on my choreography, and at the end something happens."
On stage later that evening at the Opernhaus Zurich, a majestic traditional European-style opera house that's shaped like a horseshoe on the outside, something was really happening in "Peer Gynt".
The main and junior companies of skilful dancers looked relaxed and comfortable in their home theatre. Likewise, every musical note from the house orchestra flowed in perfect sync with the dancers' gestures on stage. And the audience shared in the evident joy of the performers, among them Thai ballerina Pornpim Karchai who portrayed one of the three Säterinnen.
The enthusiastic applause as the curtain came down proved that Spoerli had again succeeded in creating a modern form of ballet through innovations such as incorporating other dramatic arts. It made "Peer Gynt" more a performance than a ballet, allowing for greater engagement with the piece by the contemporary audience.
Like the performers in Shakespeare's"Dream", the opera singers and stage actors in "Peer Gynt" blended seamlessly with the ballet dancers. And echoing his creative use of Steve Reich's and Philip Glass's music in addition to Felix Mendelssohn's in "Dream", Spoerli's integration of Dean's and Turnage's compositions formed a happy married with Grieg's in "Peer Gynt".
Especially noteworthy was Spoerli's adept choreography for the second act, when the stage was filled with sand as the setting of the dramatic story shifted from Norway to Morocco and Egypt. The movements on the sand not only created striking and meaningful stage visuals, but their unique sound added to the musical accompaniment - at moments it was as if the dancers had become an extension of the orchestra and those musical notes suddenly had limbs.
Propped up by a surrealistic set design dominated by strong colours and sharp lines, the whole aesthetic was immaculate.
Peer Gynt journeyed to many parts of the world only to find that home was where true love and faith had always resided. The much-travelled Heinz Spoerli and his company of international dancers created and presented their consummate performance in the most vibrant city of this Alpine country.
Following his intriguing abstract ballet "Goldberg Variations", Bangkok dance enthusiasts had to wait three years for Spoerli's "Dream" to come to Bangkok. Rumour has it that thanks to the tremendous critical acclaim and popular success of "Dream" we may only have to wait till the next international festival for our third experience of the Zurich Ballet.
In the meantime, ballet fans can check out wuercherballett.com, and also send suggestions to the International Cultural Promotions on the choreographic masterpieces they'd like to see here in Bangkok, hopefully next October.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th. He wishes to thank Peter A Marschel for his help.