Keeping them on their toes

The Zurich Ballet’s new production ‘Winds in the Void,’ to be performed in Tel Aviv next week, is based on air.

Zurich Ballet Dancers 311 (photo credit: Courtesy/Peter Schnetz)
Zurich Ballet Dancers 311
(photo credit: Courtesy/Peter Schnetz)
Next week we will have a rare opportunity to witness the work of one of the leading choreographers and dance companies in Europe. The director in question is Heinz Spoerli and the ensemble is the Zurich Ballet who are coming here to put on four performances of Spoerli’s latest creation, Winds in the Void, at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv (November 13-16). Winds in the Void is based on three cello works by Bach – Suites Nos. 2, 3 and 6.
During his 15-year tenure with the company Spoerli has devised a number of shows based on music by Bach and, in the past, the choreographer has talked about the timelessness and universality of Bach’s music.
“For me, Bach is the composer who fits into any era,” said Spoerli at the time. “He’s the sort of umbilical cord who always brings things full circle. Everyone can identify with Bach. It’s so exciting. For me, it’s a very relaxing experience, almost like meditation.”
Meanwhile, Zurich Ballet company member Yen Han connects with a different attribute of the composer’s oeuvre.
“There is something so pure, clean and precise about Bach’s music. I think Mr. Spoerli makes the dance very pure and very musical, and also expressive and full of the musicality, and that’s how I see Bach as well. Bach’s compositions are so simple but, at the same time, they are so rich and full.”
Spoerli’s last creation for the company, Und mied den Wind, was also based on three Bach cello sonatas, but fed off the highly tangible elements of water, fire and earth. The new show is based on air, so presumably that offers the dancers the artistic challenge of make the ephemeral elemental theme more palpable.
“The approach to this work is more minimalist,” explains Han. “Everything has to be perfect and clean, but at the same time it has to bring out a spark and the energy of the music. There is nothing fancy on stage, it is just about the dance and the music.”
Although the company is based in Switzerland it is very much an international ensemble.
“We come from all over the world – America, Korea, Spain, Italy, Turkey, China and of course there are some Swiss dancers,” says Han, who was born in Los Angeles and has Chinese roots. “I am not sure if we all bring something different, from our cultures, to the dance, but there is something about people from different parts of the world working together. I think that adds to our work.”
Han has been with Zurich Ballet for 17 years, which is an incredibly long time to spend with any employer, especially in the arts.
“Yes, artists often want to move on and to try different things, but I respect and appreciate the things Heinz has done with the Zurich Ballet over the last 15 years,” she says. “He has brought the company up to a very high level of performance and I have a very deep understanding of his work after so many years together. I have danced many roles for him so it’s a collaboration. When you are appreciated so much and you work with someone so well it makes it difficult to leave.”
For his part Spoerli is delighted to have had Han with him all this time. “Yen Han is like a sponge,” he says.
“It’s wonderful to create for her because she can put so much into the process.” Han is now 38, which is something of a grand old age in her line of work.
“Yes, I am quite old for a dancer and I have to keep fit, but all dancers are disciplined about that.”
Yes, but Han had additional “obstacles” to maintaining peak fitness.
“I have two children and I had to work hard to get back to a high level after I had the babies. I had to retrain after that, and start from the beginning again. You have to work at it every day and stay focused.”
Then again, there are benefits.
“When you are older you are more mature and more experienced so you don’t get so nervous. You have a better idea of what you have to do and you don’t waste your energy in the wrong way. You tend to understand that there’s more of the artistic side, which is very important, rather than just the technical side. That only comes with experience.”
Han also subscribes to the “you’re only as old as you feel” approach.
“You can be 25 and feel 50, and one can be 50 and feel 25. Your age is just a number, your body will tell you how old you are.”
Han is also aware that she has to stay on her toes – literally – if she wants to keep up with her colleagues at Zurich Ballet.
“This is a very good company, and the people around me definitely inspire me to produce good work and to keep that quality. If the company wasn’t so good I wouldn’t be so encouraged to push myself.”
The choreography of Winds in the Void calls for the dancers to work in different units and Han feels this enriches the end product. “I think using different sizes of groups helps to vary the work,” she observes. “The dancers are the instruments of the music, and they express the power of the piece. The dance gives a different feel to the music so, when there are more dancers perhaps it expresses the music in a stronger way, or when there is just one [or a] couple of dancers it may be something more lyrical.”
Han feels that the division of labor also helps to hold the audience.
“It’s not like you have lots of dancers on the stage at the same time, with most of them just standing around. With our works everyone is important from beginning to end.”
Spoerli places great store by the roots of the discipline, and Winds in the Void manifests this.
“It is very classically based,” says Han. “One must have a very classical training and background but, of course, you need freedom to express the text. There are a lot of feelings in this work, as there are in the music. You have to feel a specific moment of the music, you have perfect the expression of Bach’s music.That’s the important thing.”
Zurich Ballet will perform Winds in the Void at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv from November 13 to 16 at 9 p.m. For tickets: (03) 692-7777