Zurich Ballet - Joseph Asner - 02112011
The Zurich Ballet features dancers from 24 nations. 'We were global before globalism existed,' says Spoerli. Photo by Joseph Asner
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Many dance troupes are closely identified with the choreographer and artistic director leading them. But in the case of the Zurich Ballet, it seems that Heinz Spoerli has taken this tendency a step too far. His name appears together with the name of the troupe wherever possible, whether on billboards and in various notices at the troupe's home base, on the vest he wears, or on the Ballet's truck in the car park. Spoerli is everywhere, he can't be missed. Even on the home page of the troupe's website, among the changing photographs of dancers, his huge portrait suddenly appears.

Spoerli's troupe, slated to appear in Israel this month, is part of the Zurich Opera House. The Opera's neoclassical building, a beautiful, elegant edifice of relatively humble dimensions befitting Swiss good taste, graces the banks of Lake Zurich. In the afternoon hours, the building's lively halls were filled with dancers dressed in athletic outfits and communicating mostly in English, suggesting a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Spoerli's spacious, orderly room looks out over the lake. The furniture is ultra-modern, the sophisticated lighting adapts itself to the movement of people in the room. Behind the desk, instead of family photos, framed black-and-white photographs of seven outstanding choreographers hang in a row, like a kind of pantheon of the 20th century's greatest maestros of dance: Pina Bausch, Mats Ek, George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Jerome Robbins, and Hans van Manen.

Spoerli has a story to tell about each of them. Bausch, he says, was a good friend; they met when he worked for a number of years in Dusseldorf, not far from Wuppertal. He didn't particularly like the movie Wim Wenders made about her, since it didn't sufficiently reflect her spirit, but he nevertheless appreciates Wenders' efforts to acquaint worldwide audiences with her legacy.

Ek is in Zurich at this time, working with the dancers in anticipation of a show's upcoming opening night. Balanchine, whom he met as a young dancer in Cologne, apparently had the greatest influence on him. He taught him the importance of musicality in dance.

Forsythe wanted early in his career to join the dance troupe Spoerli led in Basel, though eventually he chose the Stuttgart Ballet. "When he created his first piece of choreography I invited him to present it in my troupe, and since then we've had a good connection."

Kylian is a "good friend," many of whose works Spoerli staged with his troupe. He has immense respect for Robbins ("the choreography of Fiddler on the Roof is a work of genius, no less" ). He's been collaborating with van Manen for decades.

Global outreach

"Our troupe has representatives from 24 nations," says Spoerli proudly in his scratchy, weak voice. "We have Arabs, Russians, Australians, Americans, Spaniards. All mixed together. Dance is an art in which language is not a barrier, you know. We were global before globalism existed."

The troupe's cosmopolitanism has to do with Spoerli's aspiration from the outset to position himself as an international artist and "put his name on the map." He therefore makes it a rule to recruit the best dancers he can find from anywhere in the world, without granting precedence to Swiss performers. Out of 38 dancers in the senior troupe and another 14 in the junior troupe, only five are Swiss. He says he is steadfast in the face of local criticism regarding this point.

"It is very important to maintain high standards of classical ballet," he says. "Quality should not be compromised. You can't watch bad dancers performing good choreography, but you can watch bad choreography with good dancers. The most important thing is my dancers."

At an early stage in the conversation Spoerli reveals the news: At the end of the current season, after 15 years with the Zurich Ballet, he will retire from his position as the troupe's director and head choreographer. The director of the Opera House is leaving his position to direct the Salzburg Festival, and Spoerli has no interest in continuing under a new, unfamiliar leadership. He will be replaced by Christian Spuck, a 42-year-old choreographer from Germany active with the Stuttgart Ballet since the late 1990s.

"I've worked so much in my life, now I'll go to work a bit as an independent choreographer," says Spoerli, who is 71 years old. "I'm really looking forward to it. My biography is about to be published, and when I look back on all I've done, the quantity is staggering. I've been directing troupes for 39 years, I've staged works in all the opera houses in the world and I've had great fun. I've done some good work, some pieces were fantastic and some a bit less so, but it's always been interesting and motivated by a love for dance. Over the 15 years I've been in Zurich we've had about 101 international tours - we've been in Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, South Africa, Spain, Italy, everywhere. Our last tour will be to Istanbul."

Are you tired?

"No, I'm not tired at all. But I don't want to conduct these struggles any longer, to begin anew. A new director is coming and times have changed. We've had financial support from various organizations, including a bank, UBS, which gave us a lot of money every year to go on tour. That's all about to end, because UBS is no longer so big. The entire industry is changing. It's becoming harder, even in Switzerland, and that makes the work more difficult."

Spoerli was born in Basel in 1940, and was attracted to the stage from a young age. He began studying dance in his youth and later danced in various groups in Basel, New York and London. Beginning in the 1960s he became a solo dancer in Cologne, at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, and at theaters in Basel and Geneva. In the late 1960s he began working as a choreographer and in 1973 one of his works was aired on Swiss television, an event that marked his emergence as a major artist.

Following the show he was offered the directorship of the Basel Theater's ballet troupe. He directed the troupe for 17 years, cultivated its status, and staged contemporary and neo-classical works alongside well-known classical pieces. Beginning in the 1980s Spoerli worked as a guest choreographer in a variety of theaters, including the Paris Opera, the Vienna Opera, Milan's La Scala and various other institutions in Berlin, Hong Kong, Lisbon and Stockholm. In 1991 he took over the directorship of the Dusseldorf Opera ballet troupe and in 1996 he became director of the Zurich Ballet.

Inspired by Bach

Spoerli loves Israel, "a wonderful place," he says. He had friendly relations with Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and with Jeannette Ordman, arriving in the country several times to visit them. In 1977 he came to Israel to stage his work Opus 35 with the Israel Ballet, taking the opportunity to tour the country. He has been here with the Basel Ballet and, in 1998, with the Zurich Ballet, when he staged his choreographic interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

This time he will also stage a work inspired by Bach. Between November 13 and 16 the troupe will stage four performances of The Winds in the Void at the Israeli Opera - a ballet set to the music of three out of six of Bach's cello suites: No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6. "When I staged the Goldberg Variations it was such a success that I decided to choreograph the cello suites as well," explains Spoerli. "Of course I saw Yo-Yo Ma play them and I like them very much."

Spoerli split the six suites into two different shows. In 1999 he choreographed the first, fourth and fifth suites - a production addressing the elements of earth, water and fire, which included lighting a fire on the stage. In Israel he will stage only the second part, devoted to the element of air and created later, in 2003.

He says that the troupe often goes on tour internationally with this show, which includes 35 dancers, mostly due to the simple production. Also, the show only requires one cellist, Jens-Peter Maintz, who will arrive from Switzerland with the troupe. And no, Spoerli does not like staging performances with recorded music.

The work, an abstract ballet from beginning to end, as Spoerli calls it, is a kind of triptych made of up duets and trios, a number of solo performances, and some group dance pieces by the troupe's polished dancers. The lighting and costumes play a central role, dominated by different hues of red, blue and green. These colors have to do with the changing moods of the suites, explains Spoerli. Behind the dancers, a large ring hangs in the air, lighted in different colors throughout the show and exuding smoke. "It connects all the parts," he says of the ring. Of the smoke he says, "it is very difficult to create the effect of wind on the stage, and the smoke allows me to create an awareness of wind."

The male dancers seem more central in this work than the female ones. Spoerli agrees. "As far as Bach's music is concerned," he says, "for some reason girls don't have the requisite sharpness. Men have the power to interpret the music better and present its feeling better."

He explains his choice of Bach's music by the deep love and admiration he feels for the composer. "Whatever situation you're in, you can listen to Bach and it elevates you back to your emotional base," he says.

Spoerli wishes to end the interview with a subject that lies heavy on his heart: the widespread lack of recognition of the importance of movement training, and the danger this poses for the quality of dance. "I think that classical training is very important," he stresses. "When I was planning to set up a school here I prepared a five-year plan: The first year would include four hours of classical dance and one hour of modern dance, the second year would have three hours of classical and two of modern, the third - half and half, and in the last two years every student would be able to choose whether to study classical or modern.

"I wanted them to learn and then be able to choose which they prefer," clarifies Spoerli, "for them to have the proper training. It's like in painting, you need the basic training first. That's what's lacking and that's the danger in dance today, that they don't even learn. What's more, today many dancers begin studying dance at 18, which is too late for the body. I'm not saying it's obligatory to dance in a classical troupe, but you need a technical basis. And I think that classical dance is the best and easiest way to get to know the body."