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Zurich Ballet - 'In Den Winden Im Nichts'

by Kate Snedeker

October 4, 2006 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ballet audiences are a finicky, often unpredictable breed, so to present a program consisting of a single, unbroken 75 minute long ballet set to the music of a single cello is an act of daring. But Heinz Spoerli’s “In den Winden im Nichts” (Winds in the Void) is a unique ballet, and in the hands of the dynamic Zurich Ballet and cellist Claudius Herrmann it stands on its own as a fascinating evening of dance.

Set to a series of Bach’s cello suites, “In den Winden im Nichts” is the second of two ballets that Spoerli has done to Bach cello music. And, as the evening’s performance marked the Scottish debut of the Zurich Ballet, the ballet provided audiences a first look at the acclaimed company. Starting with Arman Grigoryan’s solo, we were introduced to and sleek, athletic company. Like Grigoryan, the men tended towards the solidly muscular, the women lean and angular, and all solid technicians.

“In den Winden im Nichts” is divided into three sections, each choreographed around a separate cello suite and a different color – red, green and blue. The curtain opens to reveal Grigoryan alone on stage in a pool of light, one side of the dark back scrim lifted to reveal a barre at a dizzying angle. Unfazed by the rather windblown state of the barre, he proceeds through a series of tendus before he moves forward, the barre sliding back into the void.

Grigoryan has the body of gymnast – intensely muscular, but limber and controlled. These features are supremely highlighted in this solo, which in its slow and deliberate pacing allows us to appreciate the extent of his flexibility and strength. At one point, gymnast-like, he slides down into a middle split, and then pushes slightly back up, poised just above the ground for a few long seconds.

After the prelude, the curtain lifts to reveal a void of black crowned by a large, but simple metal ring that hangs high over the stage, tilting away from the audience. This spare set, by Sergio Cavero, is transformed through color and intensity by Martin Gebhardt’s lighting. At times the ring emits clouds of smoke, at others it glistens in a deep red glow.

The Bach cello suites, played stunningly by the indefatigable Swiss cellist Claudius Hermmann, act as the wind, buffeting the dancers through the void on stage. Spoerli’s choreography focuses on the muscular angle, and motifs repeat themselves from one section to another. In one duet, a woman is propelled by a gust of wind, jumps backward in to her partner’s arm, legs and arms stretched out. As the couple dances onstage, the steps are repeated by a trio of couples, the motif transitioning the ballet from one section into another. In another section, the wind knocks the women upside down in their partner’s arms, their knock-kneed legs sticking out like antennae from the men’s heads.

Spoerl’s self-designed, deep-hued costumes are short shorts with sleeveless tops for the men, and leotards designed with flesh-colored halters to look strapless for the women. The shift in colors seem primarily a device to transition between the three sections, reflected in some of the choreography. Red begins the evening, most strikingly in the Courante for 15 women that has edgy sultriness. Green arrives more unexpectedly, with six men in long patterned skirts gathering beneath the smoking ring, joined by six women in green. From the very earthy feel of the male sextet, the green of women’s costumes seems a natural transition. Blue emerges last, dominated by male muscularity and power.

And to my eye, it was the men, both choreographically and technically, who seemed to dominate the ballet. From Grigoryan’s muscularity, to the sleeker fluidity of Vitali Safrokine and the cool stability of Dirk Seegers, we saw the breadth of the company’s male talent in a series of very different roles. Spoerli also seemed to take the most pleasure in providing balletic challenges for his men – endless slides on to the stage ending in sharply defined, still positions; grand plies a la seconde entered via seemingly impossible hop-ups from all sorts of prone and sitting positions, and a wonderful tour de force in the final gigue with all fifteen men onstage together.

In this country, where many companies struggle to have fifteen men in a company period, it is a joy to see so many men all on stage together, in their own choreography. There were a few stumbles –Yudai Fukuoka, a late substitution, pulled off a beautiful double air turn from a nearly invisible preparation, but appeared to struggle a bit in the endings of the stage-bound pirouettes.

Two sections stood out in the evening. The first was an evocative visualisation, seemingly of wind rippling through leaves, as portrayed by all fifteen of the female dancers. Poised in a long, constantly moving line, legs and arms were thrust up and bodies bobbed up and down on and off pointe in a part-chaotic, part-organized movement that captured the capriciousness and freedom of a window ruffling leaves. One could almost see the playful gust of wind as it made its way down the line of dancers. This giddy wind proceeded back and forth, with the line rippling and weaving, one particularly beautiful sequence proceeding with each dancer in turn doing a low battement, step step, chaine turn.

The other section was a brief moment, as danced by Grigoryan. In a sequence that began as a series of turns a la seconde, without losing speed or balance, he shifted into attitude derriere turns, then pulled his leg in to retire to end in series of pirouettes. Though brief, the turns were executed with such elegant control that the effect was breathtaking.

The ballet ends with the full cast. After a joyous Gigue, they line up along the back of the stage where a thick curtain drops into their hands, covering them to the waist. Five men remain; four soon slip behind the curtain. At the end of Grigoryan's brief, final solo, the unseen hands let the curtain drop, silently, leaving him alone as he began. As the cello strikes a final note, the lights fade into darkness.

The last word should go to the cellist Cladius Herrmann, a member of the Zurich Opera Orchestra, who played the nearly 75 minute-long trio of Bach suites with great beauty. It is a feat of mental and musical strength that more than matches that on stage.

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