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Zurich Ballet

'Lettres intimes,' 'Sarcasms' and 'In the Upper Room'

by David Mead

October 10, 2009 -- Opernhaus, Zurich

For the opening programme of the new season, Zurich Ballet artistic director Heinz Spoerli decided on three works that bridged the classical and the modern, with a touch of humour thrown in.

“Lettres intimes” is Spoerli’s interpretation of Janacek’s string quartet of the same title (or “Listy duverne” in Czech). Janacek composed the score in response to his affair with Kamila Stösservoa, a married woman, 36 years younger than himself, and the content of the letters he wrote to her. Although Spoerli eschews such overt narrative, “Lettres intimes” is most definitely not an abstract ballet. He has managed rather to reflect successfully the emotions that can result from a relationship. There is no doubt that it can be viewed as that between Janacek and Stösservoa, although Spoerli prefers to see its as being non-specific and the two lead dancers are not even given character names in the piece.

The choreography reflects in detail the emotional rollercoaster of the score, full as it is of moments of hope and joy, solitude, loneliness and despair. The ballet has echoes of MacMillan’s “Solitaire”, in which a female dancer is always left alone. Here it is a man, in this performance Armenian Arsen Mehrabyn. Right from the start there is the sense of him being apart.  As the curtain rises he stands alone, watching a girl in the distance. At the end it seems little is resolved, as still alone he collapses to the floor, apparently crying. Even when surrounded by other men, who often seemed to take on the role of friends, he seemed to be alone with his thoughts.

But it was Kazakhstan-born Aliya Tanykpayeva who stole the show. She showed all the technique one expects from Russian trained dancers, but it was allied with warmth, and a hugely expressive body and face. Her pain and anguish at events was there for all to see. It will be interesting to see how her acting, and what I suspect is an innate lyricism, is used in the future. I know I am speaking on the basis on one performance, but I suspect she would make an ideal Juliet.

The emotional pull of the ballet is added to by Florian Etti’s hauntingly beautiful, yet simple set that suggests a vast open country, not unlike Moravia, from where Janacek hailed. But is does so much more than place the ballet geographically. It reflects the vastness of the emotions portrayed, and the emptiness when the leading man is left alone.

Hans van Manen’s “Sarcasms” is apparently a tongue in the cheek duet, but in fact is a trio for two dancers and the on-stage pianist Alexey Botvinov. Just in case there was any doubt that the work was inspired by Balanchine’s “Duo Concertante”, van Manen even credits Mr. B. for the set and costumes. “Sarcasms” has a very different feel though. The almost cocky Stanislav Jermakov showed off what he can do. The ever-watching Sarah-Jane Brodback looked bored and pretended to ignore him but there was always a glint in her eye. She was waiting for just the right moment to step in an upstage him. It gets increasingly sexy, although in quite a humorous way. Van Manen doesn’t leave too much to the imagination. At one point she even grabs his crotch to make a point, and he then dives repeatedly on her prone body.

If those shenanigans didn’t put the audience in a good mood, Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” certainly did. Sometimes it is great to just be able to sit back and watch dance simply as bodies moving in space to great music with having to think about a story or what it all might mean. And I know Philip Glass’ minimalist composition is not to everyone’s taste, but that is exactly what Twyla Tharp's ballet delivers.

Zurich Ballet’s dancers in their pyjama-like striped shirts and trousers and red leotards were quite outstanding as they bounced, jogged, leapt in their pointe shoes and sneakers. They really let their hair down and left everyone in no doubt that they were thoroughly enjoying every moment of it. Tharp’s quirky movement is not as easy to get spot on as it looks, but I would go so far as to say this was one of the best performances of the ballet I have ever seen, with a special mention for Pornpim Karchai and Galina Mihaylova, the opening stompers. The audience roared their approval at the end, and quite rightly so.

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