Switzerland has more ballet than its cheese has holes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THIS APPEARED IN THE 2/22/88 WORLD EDITION THE land of cuckoo clocks, Gruy`ere cheese, and William Tell is now earning itself a new reputation - that of a center for dance.

Switzerland, half the size of Ireland with a population of 6 million, now boasts four full-size dance companies plus an annual dance competition - the Prix de Lausanne - that each January attracts young dancers from around the world. (This year's winner came from South Africa: Ann Wixley who, with predatory poses, dramatically performed a piece called ``Soul of Africa.'')

The newest jewel in the Swiss dance diadem is Maurice Bejart's ``Ballet of the 20th Century,'' which recently transferred its headquarters from Belgium to Lausanne. For 28 years, the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels had been home to the Bejart Company and had seen it develop into one of the world's most admired dance companies. But last season, the funding for ballet productions was so drastically cut that Bejart accepted an invitation from Switzerland to resettle his troupe there as the resident company of the Theatre de Beaulieu.

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Maurice Bejart, one of the major choreographers of our time, delights in producing full-blown theatrical productions. His company of 50 dancers just completed a successful season in Paris where it performed the epic ballet, ``Kabuki: 47 Samauri,'' which is based on Bejart's feel for the traditions of Japanese Kabuki theater.

Relating the true story of the 47 ronin (samurai) who in 1702 avenged the assassination of their master, Bejart fills his spectacle with far-eastern atmosphere, emphasizing the ancient rituals with careful, deliberate movements. The ballet was created for Japan's Tokyo Ballet Company in 1986 before becoming part of the repertoire of the ``Ballet of the 20th Century.''

But not everything Bejart does wins immediate praise, as he found in California last year. His ``Malraux, or the Metamorphosis of the Gods'' deals with the life of French writer and statesman Andre Malraux, who served as Charles de Gaulle's minister of information and later as minister of culture. Critics in Los Angeles, bored with the long political speeches (in French) that are woven into the show, complained, ``It's not dance.'' Yet the ballet was acclaimed in Europe for its expansive portrayal of the French statesman and Bejart's clever treatment of five aspects of his character - hero, writer, adventurer, eccentric, and ``dyable,'' Malraux's own word for himself refering to his habit of doodling.

Ballet Company of the Grand Theatre de Gen`eve

Further along Lake Geneva, in the city where the League of Nations was founded, is the Ballet Company of the Grand Theatre de Gen`eve, which has had a long association with the United States through the work of George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet. Under his watchful eye, the company preserved and performed his flowing style for 10 years from 1969, first under the direction of Alfonso Cata, then Patraicia Neary.

Today, it offers a varied program often with a South American flavor. Its director since 1980 has been Argentine choreographer Oscar Araiz. The present season opened with a double bill of Bartok's ``The Miraculous Mandarin'' and ``Pantheon,'' and on March 13, Araiz will present his new ballet, ``Child Alice,'' to music by David Del Tredici. Taking his inspiration from the classic fairy tale of ``Alice in Wonderland,'' Araiz uses three ballerinas to depict the complex character of Alice.

In his ballet ``Misia,'' premi`ered in Geneva and taken in September to the Pompeii festival in Italy, Araiz follows the life of the influential and fascinating Misia Sert, who became the muse of many famous artists from the end of the last century to the last world war. Araiz introduces, either as dancers or in his choice of music, many of the people she knew - such as Debussy, Ravel, Diaghilev, Nijisky, Isadora Duncan, and Coco Chanel.

Basel Ballet

Further north, Heinz Spoerli, director of the Basel Ballet, has returned to his roots. Born in Basel, he studied dance in the US and Britain and has danced with many top international companies. He took over as director in 1973 and has choreographed many ballets for his company, including an unusual version of the classic ``Swan Lake,'' which premi`ered at the end of 1986. Combining the fairy-tale world with psychological dreamings, Spoerli used two ballerinas for the Odette/ Odile role - traditionally danced by the prima ballerina - and upgraded the role of the Prince's valet, Benno, usually a ``stand-and-pose'' position. The repertoire this spring will also include Spoerli's latest ballet, ``La Belle Vie,'' with music by Offenbach, and a mixed bill of works by Dutchman Hans van Manen.

Zurich Ballet Company

Working alongside the financiers - the ``Gnomes of Zurich'' - in Switzerland's largest city and economic center is a young ballet company, whose home is the splendid 1891 Opera House. Today's Zurich Ballet Company (the city has had a regular ballet company since 1964) was formed 2 years ago by Uwe (pronounced Oofay) Scholz, who came from the Stuttgart Ballet where he had been resident choreographer since 1982.

Renowned for his musicality, the young director has attracted talented and lively dancers from the US, Europe, South Africa, and Australia, including the brilliant Russian ex-Bolshoi dancer Vladimir Derevianko. The 37 dancers give 70 performances per season at the Opern-haus as well as dancing in the operas when needed.

This January, the company premiered a new full-length ballet created for Vladimir Derevianko by Scholz and based on ``Le Rouge et le Noir,'' Henri Stendhal's classic 19th-century novel.

``Rot und Schwarz,'' as the ballet is known in Zurich, tells of the rise and fall of Julien Sorel in the France of the Restoration. The talented son of a working-class family, he callously climbs the social ladder, using women as the rungs.

Stendhal's novel is difficult to translate into balletic terms - much is written of the political climate and of the inner thoughts of the characters. Scholz's ballet tries to pull the story together, but so much is packed into the many scenes that the effect often becomes confusing, and dramatic action replaces dancing. This same patchwork of ideas surfaces in the music as well. He has selected 15 pieces by Hector Berlioz. These, though beautiful, offer no sense of oneness to the production.

Scholz successfully uses the starkness of silhouette to set many scenes, and the audience in the Opernhaus was impressed with the contrast of black religious habits and scarlet military uniforms. But all too often the stage fills to overflowing with moving people, making it hard to focus on the action. Scholz often interrupts the real dancing in mid-flight with boisterous action from the corps.

As Julien Sorel, Derevianko is the perfect foil for all this busyness. He remains cruelly calm as he coldly calculates each step. In his all-too-few solos, Derevianko showed his great elevation and the neat, stretched technique of his Bolshoi training. There should have been more such moments, but he was instead kept busy partnering the two women, especially in the third act, where there is much carrying, tossing, and lifting of the ballerinas in two long pas de deux.

Uwe Scholz has a good eye for theatricality and a fine, well-tuned company. A brave pruning of ``Rot und Schwarz'' and the insertion of more classical dance would add greatly to the enjoyment of his latest ballet.

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