A Dance Film and Jazz Sound Join Forces

As much a joint venture as it was pioneer project, a dance film and jazz concert recently celebrated its world première for the large audience in the Ernen town hall. It tapped the creative energies of two artists who shared neither age group nor genre, nationality nor history, but whose talents merged to make a memorable performance.

Heinz Spoerli, the long-year chief choreographer at the Zurich opera house, counts among the long-time friends of the Musikdorf Ernen. His ballet, «In den Winden im Nichts», which could translate to «In the Winds of the Void», is a work set to three of J.S. Bach’s suites for solo cello. It was recorded for Swiss television back in 2004. But it was only recently that South African jazz pianist Charl du Plessis adapted its music to underscore the ballet documentary in a new way, intermittently injecting jazz sound into it as the accompaniment. On the day after the première, Charl kindly met with me to give insights.

Who and what spurred the project?
Years ago, I bought a DVD of Spoerli’s ballet, «In den Winden im Nichts», in Johannesburg, and was alerted to the beauty of his choreography. Much later, aware that Spoerli, too, was a close friend of the Festival Musikdorf Ernen, I suggested to the festival director Francesco Walter that we try accompanying some of his work with jazz. Once we had Spoerli’s permission to proceed, I arranged with my trio to work in new ways of scoring the 2004 film.

Long phrases of the cello faded out again and again during the performance. And despite that, the synchronization with the dancer’s steps was consistently spot on. How did you achieve such precision?
Claudius Hermann’s sublime cello faded for the audience, but I had an earpiece that allowed me to hear the three suites in their entirety, so I could give impulses and markers to the other two musicians accordingly.

What kind of collaboration did you have with Heinz Spoerli?
Remarkably, we had no contact during the generation of the new jazz score. But right before the première, we gave him a private sitting, and he was very positive about what we’d devised.

Doesn’t the title, «In the Winds of the Void», suggest that there may be an absence of anything palpable?
No, we saw that differently. We usually associate dance with sustained movement, with high energy and human joy. But Spoerli’s interpretation reflects a quotient of silence. Sometimes, for example, the cello stops playing while the dancing continues, as if it were something of a breathless moment in a long conversation. That made for a tension that made the work more exciting.

Agreed. But film is a medium that is inhabits a single surface, while dance lives and breathes in the round.
Yes, that’s clearly a point. And while the ballet includes a lot of humor, this work doesn’t portray anything particularly empathetic. For me, anyway, «In the Steps of the Void» strikes up more of an academic conversation than it gives insight into an emotion or a clear story. Of course, there’s really no absolute. One segment, for example, has the female dancers frenetically stepping out and flailing their arms, movements which gave the trio’s drummer something very concrete to translate into striking rhythms. But emotive? No.

The women often grinned and grimaced poppet-like, while the men’s’ muscular physiques were consistently emphasized. A tribute to the male physique, overall?
I believe it is that, yes.

What are your and the trio’s plans for the future?
We’ve been on something of a Baroque train for a number of years now, so we’ve agreed that train can stop. Our next project will be into other unchartered territory: taking glorious arias of select operas and injecting them with jazz. I might even venture a joke over it; after all, our Spoerli dance project underscored ballet without using a stage of dancers. Why not venture a focus on opera without any singers?

Ernen, Monday, 23 July 2018, by Sarah Batschelet