Filled with the sound of a cello's strings
Amal Choucri Catta enjoys Winds in the Void, presented at the Cairo Opera House by the Zèrcher Ballet
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach seems to be in vogue with contemporary choreographers: a few weeks ago the German Mannheim Ballet Company performed a piece accompanied by Bach's celebrated Goldberg Variations, played on two pianos, and last week the Swiss Zèrcher Ballet performed a piece entitled Winds in the Void to three of Bach's impressive Cello Suites played by the excellent soloist Jens Peter Maintz. He deserves our particular appreciation for his brilliant performance and for the perfect coordination between the cello playing and the dancers.
Choreographed by Heinz Spoerli, Winds in the Void was presented on 11 and 12 February in the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House, where it was billed as one of the performances in the programme of "Swiss Tales" celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Cairo house. The piece was an extraordinary experiment and a breathtaking union between past and present. It was a vibrant tour de force for soloist and dancers alike, the latter succeeding in bringing the Bach of yesteryear into contact with the Spoerli of today.
Bach's Cello Suites were composed in Coethen in 1717 while Bach was serving as Kapellmeister at the Court of Anhalt-Coethen. Musical interests here were in instrumental compositions rather than in religious works, hence Bach's works for cello among other pieces. Strangely enough, Bach's reputation as a composer during his lifetime was restricted to a fairly narrow circle, and his music was regarded by many as old-fashioned. Today, his published works fill many volumes, revival of interest in Bach's works being dated to the Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion in March 1829 conducted by Mendelssohn.
The dramatic and emotional force of Bach's music was remarkable in its day, and it has spoken to succeeding generations with increasing power. For many composers, and for countless listeners, his music is supreme: according to Richard Wagner, Bach's work was the most stupendous miracle in music. His Cello Suites are today considered as the pinnacle of the cellist's repertoire, and Jens Peter Maintz added both suspense and animation to his performance.
His concentration was overwhelming, and it extended out into the hall where it could be felt by the audience, gripped by the instrumental playing as well as dazzled by the dynamic and vibrant performance of the accompanying male and female dancers. Their discipline, energy and flexibility were astounding. There were around 40 dancers in total, though this number did not appear at the same time on stage. Instead, the dancers broke up into duets, trios or small groups, each expressing sad or jovial moods and happy or gloomy feelings.
They leaped, jumped and stretched high in the air, performing classical grand écart and pirouettes en pointe with unbelievable grace, before returning elegantly to modern dance techniques and progressing with acrobatic pliancy across the stage and disappearing off into the wings. The choreography was quite demanding: the threesomes, twosomes and small ensembles expressed as much beauty as power, and the various movements of the dance were performed impeccably.
There was no set, and instead a huge circle decorated the black backdrop radiating red, blue or green steamers according to the colour of the dancers' costumes. The show lasted 75 minutes without an interval: a feat not only for the dancers and soloist, but also for the audience, which eventually discovered a certain repetition in the dancers' movements.
There were, however, a number of interesting sequences, such as when the men, in long, swinging skirts, performed a wild dance in front of the sizzling circle that was reminiscent of eastern mysteries. At another moment the girls came dancing onto the stage like so many waves blown in from the sea: the winds were thus not always "in the void", and the void was in any case filled by the sound of the cello's strings.
The lights were kept low, and the dancers gleamed in romantic pas-de-deux, brightly producing textures of eloquent joy. We were also given perfect ensemble movements by the corps de ballet, mainly by the girls in their crimson costumes, flouncing and whipping into a turn while stirring up turmoil with showy pirouettes, their arms mastering and molding space which, one might think, lay beyond their reach.
They were fascinating, though rather brief and rare: one would have liked to see such enchanting formations more often or in longer sequences. It seems, however, that Spoerli's choreography aimed more at establishing coherence between the dance and the music than at transforming the music into choreography. This explains the rapid changes in the dancers and in the dance sequences, as well as the winds that blew away the prelude, sarabande and gigue, bringing a plethora of duos and trios onto the stage that quickly disappeared into the wings.
It must be said that Heinz Spoerli's is an important name in European choreography. Born in 1940, he became fascinated by dance at an early age, joining the Canadian Royal Winnipeg Ballet and first achieving acclaim for his ballet Le Chemin. Spoerli later became director of ballet in Basel and in Germany, and in 1996 he was appointed director of the Zurich Ballet where he has consolidated his reputation as one of Europe's leading choreographers.
He has presented works by George Balanchine, such as Serenade, Theme et Variations, as well as choreographed Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, and worked on ballets like Giselle, La Fille mal gardée, Romeo and Juliet, the Nutcracker, Cinderella and a number of different modern works. At Cairo Opera's Main Hall, audiences enjoyed Spoerli's ideas and the abstract conceptions of his choreography. They loved the dancers' discipline, admiring their excellent performance and no doubt hoping that in the near future they would be treated to one or other of Spoerli's full-scale ballets.
In the meantime, Cairo audiences applauded the excellent performances of Winds in the Void, and as the dancers took their bow, the house was filled with the sound of loud ovations.
Winds in the Void, presented by the Zèrcher Ballet, choreographer Heinz Spoerli to Bach's Cello Suites, soloist Jens Peter Maintz. Main Hall, Cairo Opera House, 11 & 12 February.
photo: Sherif Sonbol