Dancing with less is truly more, the Quintett triple bill at Ballett Zürich

Sixteen years ago in Porto, I got hooked on William Forsythe’s work through one of the pieces on the current program at Opernhaus Zürich, “Quintett”. I was particularly looking forward to revisiting Forsythe’s ballet with a new cast, and curious about the pairing with works by Hans van Manen and Jacopo Godani. It was an evening dedicated to minimalism proving that in dance less is also more, though sometimes eccentric is not enough. And yes, “Quintett” moved me just as much yesterday as with the 2001 Ballett Frankfurt cast – that rare, spine-chilling, simultaneous smile and tear-inducing type of moving.

All three pieces had pared down set designs, lighting effects and costumes. In “Kammerballett” and “Quintett” the choices purposefully shape the personality of each dancer on the stage. In “Kammerballett” the stools act as an extension of the dancer’s body and attitudes. In “Quintett” the choice of colour only in the hip to shoulder area creates a visual focus on the dancers’ “épaulement”, a reference to the piece’s inspiring muse throughout. Even though the light projector, staircase and mirror might at first seem odd, they link to a conceptual anchor for the piece, a recurring loop of life through dance with an energy source (light) and a resting place (sunken staircase). In contrast, the large golden-yellow curved surface to the stage right in “rituals from another when” remained mostly unexplored, although it promised dynamic and lighting potential.

The music for “rituals of another when” felt more of a creative constraint than inspiration. Too close in style to earlier electronica used by William Forsythe, the choreography never quite lets go of that legacy either. Jacopo Godani’s use of feline-inspired hip to shoulder rippling movement, while interesting seems to lack a clear purpose. I found the “pas de deux” showed this conflict the most, male and female dancers were flawlessly fluent, but in two different languages. My expectations were high for the co-creator of “Quintett”. The creation for Ballet Zürich felt largely interchangeable with some of his earlier work.

“Kammerballett” shows that it doesn’t take a musical commission to bring out the best in dance creativity – Scarlatti, Karayev and Cage’s music blend wonderfully together and support the mood evolution. It is hard to find a piece where the most economic of dance movements can convey so much with so little recourse to hyper-extensions or major virtuosity “fireworks”, like in Giulia Tonelli’s solo. Giulia’s expression development was a highlight of the evening. She was already impossible to overlook whenever on stage in Anna Karenina, and her performance in Requiem was exquisite.

Gavin Bryar’s music for William Forsythe’s “Quintett” could have been a risky choice when first created. The difficulty of its repetitiveness and subtle changes are such that two screens facing the stage counting each loop are added for support. Yet, with a waltzing melody, each new loop draws the audience further in. Premiered almost 25 years ago, “Quintett” is still a technically demanding work. It requires full commitment from its five dancers, who are always dancing on the edge of physical reach and energy shifts. Its connections remain exciting, the spare comic moments unpredictable. The “pas de deux” are stand-alone jewels – lifts, drops and every beat in between blessed with beauty. It was clearly the best choice to end the evening for both dancers and audience, the pure joy of dance shining through.

It is perhaps unfair to compare three pieces from such different stages of each choreographer’s career, but to the viewer once the selection is done only the present experience matters. And for this viewer, “rituals of another when” was the warm-up act that left one cold, “Kammerballett” the elegantly linear, steady build-up preparing you for the emotional grand finale that is “Quintett”.

“Quintett” is on the Opernhaus Zürich stage until June 2017, you can check Ballett Zürich’s schedule and preview materials from this production here.

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