In 2012, when Christian Spuck took over as artistic director of the Swiss company, top of his “to do” list was to commission a work by McGregor. The two men knew and liked each other from time spent choreographing at Spuck’s former home, Stuttgart Ballet – they just needed to wait until the right time.
Meanwhile, in another part of Europe, composer Max Richter was putting the finishing touches to his fascinating re-working of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Aware that dance companies often requested use of his music, Richter contacted McGregor (also a friend and collaborator) in advance. “I’ll hold off giving it to anyone else, you can have first dibs whenever you’re ready,” said Richter – happy to wait until the right time.
You can probably see where this is going. In early 2014, the right time arrived. McGregor’s new piece, Kairos was premiered by Ballett Zürich, set to Richter’s music. Just over a year later, both Ballett Zürich and Max Richter will appear at the Edinburgh International Festival in the same week. Perfect timing indeed.
As Spuck (or “Spucky” as McGregor calls him) quite rightly says, “everybody wants a piece from Wayne McGregor”. Regular commissions around the world, plus commitments at the Royal Ballet (where he is resident choreographer) and his own company, Random Dance, keep him mighty busy. What made McGregor say yes to the Ballett Zürich commission?
“When Spucky talked about his passion and vision for the company, I wanted to be a part of it,” he says. “A lot of choreographers of my generation are becoming directors of companies, and want to do things differently – and I really love that, I want to be part of that new wave.”
McGregor recalls having “a really lovely time in Zürich” while making the piece. So too the company. Spuck, keen to give his dancers new challenges, was delighted to see the effect McGregor’s very particular way of working had on them.
“It was a new experience for many of the dancers,” says Spuck, “because Wayne works in a different way to other choreographers. He doesn’t walk in and give them steps, he gives them phrases and the dancers have to develop a lot of it themselves. It was a big push for the company, and opened it up to the 21st century.”
McGregor’s approach may have been novel for the dancers, but Spuck had warmed them up nicely since his arrival at Ballett Zürich.
“He has created a really amazing, open energy with the dancers,” says McGregor, “and they’re very curious to try lots of different kinds of work. My way of choreographing is very collaborative, and the dancers are active participants in the creation. I want to work with them, rather than on them.
“I expect them to talk to me, and for me to have a relationship with them in the rehearsal room. My best work is when I feel that transaction of energy has worked well, which it really did in Zürich.”
Those who have heard Richter’s The Four Seasons: Recomposed will know what McGregor means when he says “you think you know exactly where you are with it, and then suddenly you’re somewhere else”. Notes appear when you least expect them, others don’t appear when you do. It’s Vivaldi, but not as we know it, and the perfect vehicle for McGregor’s equally unexpected choreography.
Add to that potent mix the work of British visual artist Idris Khan, and the clever lighting design of long-time collaborator Lucy Carter, and you can see why Spuck is so pleased to have Kairos in the Ballett Zürich repertoire.
“I’d wanted to work with Idris Khan for a while,” explains McGregor. “He’s an amazing artist, who often works with pieces of music, which he writes over like a palimpsest. Idris took Max’s printed score and then overlaid it into this blurry, amazing scenography.”
McGregor wasn’t the only one to buddy up with an electronic music pioneer. Spuck himself chose the work of one of Richter’s teenage heroes, Philip Glass, to accompany his half of the double-bill, Sonett.
Inspired by four of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the piece uses Glass’s atmospheric Eighth Symphony as a propellant.
“I like the drive his music has – how it’s always pushing everything forward and getting bigger and bigger,” says Spuck. “It’s kind of like a machine. And it’s quite repetitive, which is good, because I have an actress in the production who talks over the music a bit, but the audience doesn’t have to feel like it missed out, because it comes back.”
Dressed as Shakespeare, the female actor reads the four sonnets aloud – text which Spuck calls “the most beautiful love poetry I’ve ever read in my life”. But rather than use his choreography to depict the narrative being spoken, Spuck was more interested in the sonnets’ inherent ambiguity.
“Everything is unclear in these sonnets, there are lots of question marks,”’ he says, “and that’s what I find fascinating about them. They’re very mysterious – who is the dark lady? Who is the poet? I’m not trying to create pictures of them, the piece is actually about those question marks.”
As well as reading the works aloud, the actor attempts to stir things up on stage, interacting with the dancers as they move around her.
“She tries to organise the ballet a little bit,” explains Spuck, “but it doesn’t work, she can’t explain things. And because she fails, there’s a little bit of chaos, which makes it really exciting.”
German-born Spuck first stumbled upon the sonnets when he was 21, and was instantly fascinated by them. Although he speaks excellent English, reading the sonnets in their original form proved too challenging (“I understood almost nothing”). Having sought out a few different translations, his love for Shakespeare’s language was sealed. “They have followed me ever since,” he says. “They’ve always been on my mind.”
Last seen at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2009, when his compelling and highly entertaining The Return of Ulysses was performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Spuck is one of the new guard keeping ballet alive. When he took over the helm at Ballett Zürich, alongside bagging a dance from McGregor, his goal was to reach out to new audiences and show how rich the dance language can be.
“Ballett Zürich is quite a small company, with 36 dancers,” he says. “But it’s the only company in Switzerland with enough dancers – and the right technique – to dance classical productions.”
Bringing in new choreographers to create work and, he says, making the experience pleasurable enough they’ll want to come back, is an important part of Spuck’s strategy. So, when McGregor returned home after creating Kairos and instantly got in touch, Spuck knew he was on the right track.
“I was so pleased when Wayne wrote me a very nice letter at the end,” says Spuck, “telling me that he really enjoyed his time here with us, and that he found the dancers incredibly open, supportive and full of ideas.”
• Ballett Zürich is at the Playhouse, 27-29 August, at 7:30pm