Spoiled

“Timekeepers” (“For Hedy”/”Rhapsodies”/”Les Noces”)
Ballet Zurich
Opernhaus Zurich
Zurich, Switzerland
January 20, 2024

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2024 by Ilona Landgraf

1. S.Williams, “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.BatardonThe Ballet Zurich’s new triple bill Timekeepers is a testament to a wind of change that has swept through the company since Cathy Marston took the reins as artistic director last August. Twenty new faces joined the company, and many others left to follow the previous artistic director, Christian Spuck, to the State Ballet Berlin. I was told that, despite initial hesitation, the Ballet attracts large audiences to its performances. The premiere of Timekeepers was indeed very well attended. Its program combined two world premieres – Meryl Tankard’s For Hedy and Mthuthuzeli November’s Rhapsodies – with Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923). Each of the three pieces comprises music that premiered almost exactly one-hundred years ago.

The Australian Tankard took on the challenge to choreograph George Antheil’s composition Ballet Mécanique, a medley of noises made by mechanical instruments, such as electric bells, propellers, a siren, and sixteen self-playing pianos (or pianolas). It couldn’t be realized in 1926, as synchronizing so many pianolas turned out to be impossible back then.
3. S.Williams and G.Livingston, “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon2. S.Williams, “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon The problem was solved by Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914-2000), an Austrian actress who later rose to Hollywood fame under her show name Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was a talented beauty surrounded by scandal – and she had brains. From arms dealer Fritz Mandl – one of her six husbands – she learned about torpedo guidance systems and the importance of preventing WWII’s Axis powers from jamming them. Lamarr came up with the idea of frequency hopping – a method that she patented in 1942. It would later inspire technologies like GPS, WLAN, Bluetooth, and smartphones, but at the time was neglected by the U.S. Marines. In any case, frequency hopping solved Antheil’s synchronization problem. That’s why Tankard included the character of Lamarr in her choreography and titled it For Hedy.

4. S.Williams, M.Huguet, G.Livingston, and ensemble “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon5. J.García Pérez and ensemble, “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.BatardonShelby Williams portrays Hedy, a femme fatale who knows what she wants and whose steely glance leaves no doubt that she’ll get it. The red of her lipstick is the only color on the otherwise black-and-white stage. She strides and poses in a black, floor-length satin dress (costumes by Bregje van Balen) like a diva used to success, unfazed by the chaos that brakes loose once a video flash indicates the release of her controversial film Ecstasy. That sends her (on stage) audience, which was until then sitting on stools in a semicircle with backs turned to Lamarr, into a state of frenzy. They crawl on their stomachs as if plowing through mud, hop onto and off of their stools, bawl, run around, and box invisible enemies as if they had been catapulted back to the 1913 premiere of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (except that this near-riot took place on stage instead of in the auditorium). I waited for someone to imitate Nijinsky and beat the rhythm with fists and shout “Ras, dva, tri” to the dancers, but the uproar calmed down by itself.
7. S.Williams and ensemble, “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon6. S.Williams, “For Hedy” by M.Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon The breather was short though. In no time, on-stage pianist Guy Livingston pounded on the ivories again, eliciting yet another cacophonous rollercoaster ride (Livingston played the 2013 concert version, supported by an “orchestra” of 64 loudspeakers). It accompanied gritty macho bravado, an Astaire-ish solo, a handkerchief folk dance, and a solo faintly reminiscent of Cecchetti demonstrating fleet-footed exercises.
Of Lamarr’s six husbands, Tankard included two. One treated Lamarr as sensual and smooth, as if he was her second backbone; the other tossed her around like a leaf in an aggressive storm. She emerged exhausted, torn by inaudible screams. Pushed by a staccato of dissonances the dancers ran back and forth as if in a rat race. As some collapsed, Lamarr covered her ears in pain. Until then, white patterns of growing neurons and brain waves had spread on the backdrop. Matters turned perilously dark when they were replaced by the skyline of a city under missile fire (set design by Magda Willi). Though the high-rise buildings looked different, the ringing of a siren made me think of the air raid in Dresden in 1945. Lamarr still wore her satin dress and stood upright like a statue, but she looked emaciated and had lost all her hair.

8. D.André and B.Lawrence, “Rhapsodies” by M.November, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon9. M.Yerg and ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by M.November, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon The mood brightened right away with the first tunes of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which accompanied Rhapsodies, the South-African-born November’s debut piece for Ballet Zurich. A few bars into the clarinet solo, Dores André was lured out of the lit, wooden door frame that had confined her. Brandon Lawrence, who stood in the cozy twilight next to the frame, seemed to wait for that moment when she stepped out to give her supple movements free leeway. He made André dive into space like an eager fish, fly like a bird drunken with liberty, and bounce about as cheerful as the young woman in Ashton’s Voices of Spring.
11. C.Perotta Altube and ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by M.November, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon10. M.Cauthorn, L.van Rensburg, and S.Bates, “Rhapsodies” by M.November, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.BatardonThe frame was also too small for Makani Yerg. He was freed when it opened into a folding screen in front of which a group of sassy guys swooshed through a routine, clapping, kicking their legs, and swaying their hips as if inspired by West Side Story. Five women in casual, earth-colored outfits (also designed by Bregje van Balen) followed them, their pointe shoes cheekily pattering the floor. The folding screen later transformed into an array of huge window frames through which the dancers stepped or swung like carpenters fond of dancing or where they took a seat to watch Perrotta Altube’s suggestive solo.
12. Ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by M.November, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon 13. Ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by M.November, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.BatardonThe mood changed abruptly when a fiery, red-orange light turned the frames and the stage into a witch’s cauldron for Nehanda Péguillan. She appeared to perform an ancient ritual, which grew intense after a group of women joined her, jumping, stomping, and thrusting into the air in sync. The singsong and shrill Amerindian-like screams that accompanied them were added on by November.
As Gershwin’s melodies floated across the stage again, André and Ruka Nakagawa met for a duet in a dimly lit room, whose oppressive atmosphere seemed necessary to reinforce their determination. The entire group assembled again, shaking their legs, flapping their hands, and trembling from head to toe as if to drum up the energy from the ground. As their anxious gazes turned upwards, they seemed to have accomplished their goal.

15. M.Richter, K.Bloma, F.Dell’Aria, R.Nakagawa, I.Wheeler, G.Calzuola, I.Kopaczynska, M.Ackermann, and G.Giani, “Les Noces” by B.Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon 14. P.Octávio, M.Gutiérrez Rubi, I.Arregui, M.Yerg, K.Smith, and B.Lawrence, “Les Noces” by B.Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon Nijinska’s Les Noces fit into the program for several reasons. Its music by Stravinsky (which premiered together with the ballet) might have inspired Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique and was recalled by Tankard when choreographing For Hedy. Similar to the dancers in the final scene of Rhapsodies, the Russian peasants who celebrated a marriage ceremony in Les Noces were close to the earth. Their festive moods weren’t effervescent but rather were dominated by humility and a strong sense of duty and togetherness. Everyone accepted their place in the hierarchy set by God and nature. The life of these folk was plain and dominated by work.
16. M.Pettingili, I.Bilash, and ensemble, “Les Noces” by B.Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon 17. D.Mulligan, C.Dalton, and ensemble, “Les Noces” by B.Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.BatardonThat’s why Natalia Goncharova’s set and costume design was limited to brown and white. The beauty of the ceremony resulted from the geometrical patterns and tableaus into which the wedding guests assemble, the ornaments they form with their arms, and the unity of their movements. The latter wasn’t perfect at the premiere, but that didn’t harm the piece. What harmed it, though, was the fact that the role of the bride was danced by the only non-binary dancer of the company, Max Richter (formerly Mackenzie Richter). Christopher Saunders from the Royal Ballet, who rehearsed Les Noces in Zurich, has been familiar with the piece for decades. He is familiar with the values and faith of the Russian people that it depicts. That he chose Richter for the female title role can only be interpreted as gross disrespect for Russian culture. That’s disgusting.18. Ensemble, “Les Noces” by B.Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024 © G.Batardon

Links: Website of the Ballet Zurich
For Hedy” – Rehearsal
“Rhapsodies” – Rehearsal
“Les Noces” – Rehearsal
Photos: 1. Shelby Williams, “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
2. Shelby Williams, “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
3. Shelby Williams and Guy Livingston, “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
4. Shelby Williams, Mariá Huguet, Guy Livingston, and ensemble “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
5. Jorge García Pérez and ensemble, “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
6. Shelby Williams, “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
7. Shelby Williams and ensemble, “For Hedy” by Meryl Tankard, Ballet Zurich 2024
8. Dores André and Brandon Lawrence, “Rhapsodies” by Mthuthuzeli November, Ballet Zurich 2024
9. Makani Yerg and ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by Mthuthuzeli November, Ballet Zurich 2024
10. Max Cauthorn, Lucas van Rensburg, and Sean Bates, “Rhapsodies” by Mthuthuzeli November, Ballet Zurich 2024
11. Constanza Perotta Altube and ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by Mthuthuzeli November, Ballet Zurich 2024
12. Ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by Mthuthuzeli November, Ballet Zurich 2024
13. Ensemble, “Rhapsodies” by Mthuthuzeli November, Ballet Zurich 2024
14. Pablo Octávio, Marti Gutiérrez Rubi, Iacopo Arregui, Makani Yerg, Kilian Smith, and Brandon Lawrence, “Les Noces” by Bronislava Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024
15. Max Richter, Keita Bloma, Francesca Dell’Aria, Ruka Nakagawa, Inara Wheeler, Greta Calzuola, Irmina Kopaczynska, Mariko Ackermann, and Giorgia Giani, “Les Noces” by Bronislava Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024
16. McKhayla Pettingili, Inna Bilash, and ensemble, “Les Noces” by Bronislava Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024
17. Daniel Mulligan, Chandler Dalton, and ensemble, “Les Noces” by Bronislava Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024
18. Ensemble, “Les Noces” by Bronislava Nijinska, Ballet Zurich 2024
all photos © Gregory Batardon
Editing: Kayla Kauffmann
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The comments about Max Richter are incredibly offensive. I see you have no issue with gay men being constantly asked to portray straight men who are married to swan queens and princes, or in more modern narratives based on the lives of actual people. You also didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that the entire cast was not of Russian descent for this Russian wedding (a fictional one at that). Why choose to harass Max with your comments? Dancers are performers and with that, actors. They morph themselves into characters that are different from themselves constantly. Max portrayed… Read more »