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Reading Rämistrasse #110: He Shen and Tatjana Lisa Blaser on On the Move at Ballett Zürich - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #110: He Shen and Tatjana Lisa Blaser on On the Move at Ballett Zürich

One evening, three pieces – from alleged emancipation to utopia to a bitter goodbye from Spuck.

On the Move

Our evening begins at the backstage entrance, where a dancer hands us our tickets. We say toitoitoi and make our way to the front of the house, while informing each other about our specific relation to ballet. We look at the arriving audience and Shen asks cheekily if ballet isn't just an arch-conservative sport. To which I reply with a grin, aware of my love for this art “Miau! Looking forward to the first piece - the boy who wrote it is 90 years old!”

The first piece names the evening. Directed by the neoclassical choreographer Hans van Manen, On the Move is already thirty years old. The piece is set to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, with Hanna Weinmeister on violin. Fourteen dancers perform with the same tight-fitting bodysuits. The seven colors of the costume indicate seven pairs consisting of a man and a woman. The piece is mainly pas-des-deuxs. Apart from man and woman, there is not much. On the Move has no classical storyline and that is what Hans van Manen is known for: a ballet in the spirit of ballet.

ON THE MOVE: On the Move, Ballet Zürich, 2023

Image: Gregory Batardon

Although the eradication of the narrative was a very progressive way to emancipate gender roles in his time, we find almost no evidence of that same emancipation today. The piece might make sense in the context of ballet history, but not at all when just perceiving it in a phenomenological manner, or as a dilettante viewer. Showing On the Move today raises difficult questions: one of them is how to deal with the historicity of the avant-garde.

Hans van Manen recognised early in his career that the principles of classical narration solidify heteronormative gender roles. In great pieces of classical ballet such as Romeo and Juliet, Le Sacre du printemps and Giselle, principles such as three-point narrative à la Greek drama, or motifs like love, death and betrayal are crucial in defining these roles. Van Manen perceived the male role in classical ballet as a submissive, bad or even a losing one. To emancipate this male role, he eradicated the classical narrative. He was the first ballet choreographer to show dancers naked and men dancing as a duo, and was therefore perceived as radical.

What emerges from this eradication is a formalism that confronts the audience directly with what there is on stage. Positioning bodies in the matrix of binary sex, in order to paint a highly uniform picture. (Have they been put together according to the golden ratio?) Van Manen is the Mondrian of ballet. His formalist strategies are incredibly strong and rigid with a clear set of rules and protocols when it comes to colors, movements and proportions.

What we see is a highly strict aesthetic, which can mainly be characterized as clear, rigorous and homogeneous, if not ‘straight’ or ‘western.’ It works through musicality and unmistakable skill in a modernist logic based on abstraction and separation. One question that arises: upon which ‘undergarments’ or protocols is the ‘new’ built? Except for the eradication of classical narration, Van Manen’s choreography does not attempt to subvert classical ballet in terms of technique and variation, which leads to treating men and women based on their ‘natural strength’.

The man holds the woman, pushes her in front of him, lifts her up, gives her the necessary hand, supports her arm, holds her leg, and so on and so forth while the woman shines. She is in the spotlight, she kicks a leg up, her graceful elegance and stamina glow. We see the man as a category on stage, all having the same order, displaying subtle strength through leading the woman. The man who seems to take a steadfast and rather passive role has in fact control over the integrity of the female body. He is responsible for not letting her fall, hence he is the powerful one.

The piece produces a pattern that can only be appreciated from a distant view, prioritising the order imposed upon bodies rather than their individual difference. While reflecting upon his position regarding the women in the ballet, we see it as a kind of warning about, an admonisher of, the past. Moreover, gender parity and diversity in the ballet world in general continues to be an issue, considering the fact that this production consists of three pieces by three male choreographers in a male-lead institution – though this will not last much longer, as Cathy Marthston takes Christian Spuck’s position next season.


The music of Debussy and Ravel seems to promise a certain serenity, even romance. Yet the second piece, Tal, directed by Louis Stiens, stands out in the trilogy with its radical position of how a wild relationality among bodies of human and non-human can be imagined through the vocabulary of ballet, and the collective as a living mode.

The intention of undoing categories of the body is obvious. Pale costumes blur individual differences, bodies are unburdened from being categorised by their appearances. It is worth mentioning that a non-binary dancer performs in this piece, and the cast is non-gendered – both decisions are progressive in the field of ballet.

The bodies move like ghosts, aliens, animals or water. In several moments, their movement reminds us of the aesthetics of Butoh, a Japanese post-modern dance that was invented in the 20th century as an aesthetic counterpole to ballet. As ballet aesthetics had prioritised occidental, caucasian bodies, Butoh imagines an alternative aesthetic where the ugly, the sick, the uncanny and the dead are celebrated by Japanese bodies that fall out of ballet aesthetics. We do not know if the choreographer has consciously referenced Butoh, but if he has, the piece would have merged two incommensurable genres and further complexified the political debate inherited by contemporary ballet.

ON THE MOVE: Tal, Ballet Zürich, 2022

Image: Gregory Batardon

A piece of mountain is present, a non-human body. Its organic form and fleshy texture is well conceived to evoke a bodily, sensory feeling. It makes you think about human nudes. It makes you want to touch it, be part of it and engage with it, which happens in the choreography. The relation of the dancing bodies and the scenography is utterly complex: in the beginning, a dancer pushes the piece of mountain and moves it onto the stage; he analyses it, climbs on it, all the way to its edge. At the top he shows us his back, like the wanderer above the misty landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. The dancer stands there, strong and searching, then moves his arm to recreate a telescope from which he looks through. This moment frames Tal’s narrative, in which the deconstruction of romanticism, the white man and an analytical way of worlding takes place. There are moments when bodies drop and fall on the surface, like a stream flowing down the valley; sometimes, people emerge from the ‘cave’ in the mountain, as if the mother Gaia has just born them; in another moment the dark fleshy surface embraces the dancers, gently indulging their touch, bodies intertwining with each other. It is a collective movement, where the relation between the human and non-human bodies are complex. Sometimes all the bodies breathe the same rhythm, then there are moments of friction where jealousy, pretentiousness and unrest appear like pus squeezed out of a pimple. There is one pas-des-deux where two dancers move, turning their bodies into each other while grimacing to the audience. In another moment, the whole flock seems to sleep on the flying mountain with the flying mountain.

While the texture, form and colour of the mountain (designed and produced by the scenographer Bettina Katja Lange) might remind you of the Alps, Mount Fuji or a petrified body of water, the crucial distance for the sublimation of so-called ‘nature’ is suspended. Human and non-human bodies engage with each other in an intimate, erotic manner. Towards the end of the piece, we see how the dancer with the telescope has changed: he is no longer the strong one in search of an adventure, but has become a non-gendered thoughtful part of the collective.

It is the choreographer’s intention to question the notion of ‘nature’, which has already been problematised in the contemporary philosophy debate. Yet what the interrogation of nature has led to, is not only a rethinking of things around us, but also a radical imagination of being outside the defined orders and categories in which our bodies are accustomed to participating. It is a sex against the idea of nature.


Together and lonely summarises the first impression of the third piece, Lontano from Christian Spuck. As a farewell postcard from his time at Opernhaus Zürich, this piece seems, at first glimpse, rather challenging and obscure. As in the other two pieces, there is little by way of a clear storyline. It has less residue from classical ballet than the first, it is not as utopian and full of contrast as the second.

Yet Lontano is overwhelming. A giant dark surface hanging above the stage (maybe a mirrored floor?) descends during the piece, rendering a spatial effect as if the dancers were in a coffin. Music from György Ligeti changes volume abruptly, dragging the audience in and out, in and out. With the hint of the title – distant in Italian – it is not difficult to come up with words such as solitude, separation, segregation, etc. just looking at the atmosphere rendered by the scenography and the music.

What are the protagonists doing in this atmosphere? Well, many things, almost too many. It is neither purely performative, nor observing, nor acting, but rather a mixture of all of these. We see people, some look like couples, some others lying on the ground as if they were dead. At times, there are a few groups doing fundamentally different movements on the stage when the scenography above them rolls down like a pressing thick cloud, like the ceiling in the Truman Show cracking apart. No intimacy is present, no love and desire can be traced from the movements. It seems that the choreographer wants to tell us that those lives have nothing to do with each other and are at the same time caught in the same cage. On stage, it is a world whose pieces do not coalesce. It is full of ruptures, without any light emitting beyond it promising hope. It presents a mess without giving you pleasure, and leaves you not quite knowing what to do.

ON THE MOVE: Lontano, Ballet Zürich, 2023 

Image: Gregory Batardon

Difference is visibly represented in the piece in the costumes, especially compared to the other two works. The dancers are wearing costumes in grey, blue and green, loose but still tailored, pants, skirts, gendered and somehow nongendered. Only one dancer is wearing a costume that stands out, which is a pair of shorts. His body is painted with the colors of the other costumes, like military camouflage. In many of Spuck’s pieces there is a solo acting role embodying a specific topic. This dancer seems to embody war as an antagonising force in society.

If we speculate that the piece is about global locality, it is descriptive in terms of the contemporary human condition. The stage is like a snow storm ornament or a petri dish in which different bacteria are at work diachronically. We are invited to hold it, though do we dare shake it?. The piece reminds us of Huis clos, in which 3 people in one room represent a model of how society works. For Spuck it is the whole company of 20. It seems that he wants to bring them all on stage, to embrace entropy as his last move, leaving us spectators and Zürich confused in his wake.

We stepped out overwhelmed by the immense difference to be found among the three pieces. It seems that we have consumed an old world, a parallel virtual world and a world that has already crumbled into many miserable pieces of debris. Though each piece is choreographed individually, we and the dancers experienced the three as an ensemble, which makes us wonder how the three could be potentially related. Which one of them is the world in which we live? Or are we in all of them?

On the Move, Ballett Zürich, 14 January–11 February 2023

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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