Obituary: Hans Zullig
Monday 07 December 1992
HANS ZULLIG was an actor-dancer of great distinction who created many leading roles in the Ballets Jooss. To give Zullig his rightful place in dance history it is necessary to state that Kurt Jooss' brilliant company sprang from Rudolf Laban's Central European movement in modern dance. It was an attempt to throw off the artificiality of classical ballet which at the turn of the century had become decadent. Kurt Jooss sought to express real-life problems with an integral movement style that emanated from the centre of the body.
In 1929 Jooss' ballet The Green Table (with music by Fritz Cohen), a satire on the League of Nations and war, won an International Prize in Paris. In this ballet Zullig danced the part of the young soldier. The ballet became a classic and, after seeing it, Leonard Elmhirst and his wife brought Jooss and his school and company to Dartington Hall, in Devon, to become part of their remarkable cultural project. From this luxurious base the company toured extensively during the Thirties and its dancers became world-famous.
Hans Zullig was born in 1914 at Rorschach, Switzerland, and in his youth studied with Jooss and his collaborator Sigurd Leeder. Although it was German by origin, the company was essentially international, with dancers from Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and South America. Zullig became Jooss' favourite dancer and an intimate understanding existed between them. Zullig interpreted Jooss with ease, and yet with an intensity that was uncanny. His role of the youth in The Big City (music Alexandre Tansman), a ballet of Parisian low-life, was a spellbinding study, and a lyrical partnership ensued between him and the exquisite Noelle de Mosa whose fragile beauty as the girl was unforgettable.
There were no stars in the Jooss company; it was very democratic under its autocratic director. Every artist was a part of the whole but without billing or publicity such dancers as Zullig, de Mosa, Rudolf Pescht, Elsa Kahl and others became world figures through the roles they created. Zullig's greatest period was the Thirties when he electrified audiences with his brilliant and forthright portrayals. Between world tours he appeared with the company in seasons in London, with one memorable one at the Old Vic in the autumn of 1938, and after the war at the Haymarket.
Zullig had a small, compact physique, with a remarkable head. He possessed the chemistry to transform himself into a prince, a working lad, or a patriotic hero. His technical facility was polished and exact, his flowing movement beautifully modulated, his artistry consummate. The critic AV Coton wrote of him: 'Hans Zullig has his place in the very top rank of male dancers seen inside 20 years.'
As close as he was to Jooss and his art, Zullig was something of a rebel because at heart he loved the classical dance which Jooss frowned upon. Jooss was a great humorist and a genius of theatre art, but his expressive means were limited by the confines of his medium. Zullig felt himself inhibited and wanted to enlarge his horizons. He never concealed his predilection for classical facilities and sometimes he tried to soften his master's prejudice.
During the war years he and the company became marooned in South America, and suffered some hardship and disintegration while Jooss, who had stayed behind at Dartington, was interned; but later released. By 1943, after the Elmhirsts had withdrawn their support, Jooss found new benefactors in Cambridge and by brilliant skill and diplomacy he managed to salvage his company by having them returned to England in ones and twos by merchant ship and man-of-war: an incredible feat at this time. Undaunted, in 1943 he began rehearsals in Cambridge with the remains of his resurrected company and the following year he toured the provinces with a repertoire that included The Prodigal Son, Big City, Spring Tale and a new very English ballet to Beethoven's Spring Sonata, Company at the Manor. The ballets were meticulously produced but enjoyed only a moderate success. The ballets were too serious and too Germanic for popular taste in those war-torn days but it was a phenomenal achievement that when a war was raging a German could show his art in the English provinces. Despite a certain prejudice, small audiences came to see Zullig and de Mosa.
During this time I occasionally shared a dressing-room with Zullig and found him a very congenial companion, and a very modest man, dedicated to his work. He confessed to me his deep interest in the technique of classical dance and a longing to dance in classical works which I found rather touching.
Zullig's restless yearning was cooled when Jooss gave him the opportunity to create a ballet. He chose the music of Rameau and made an 18th-century court ballet entitled Le Bosquet. Full of harmonious and flowing movement, it was something of an innovation because he was allowed to use a pastoral decor which contributed to the atmosphere - all Jooss' ballets were danced in front of black curtains enhanced only by brilliantly devised lighting. AV Coton wrote: 'Few first ballets have revealed such a mastery of the elements of dance and acting and a choreographic instinct so sure and controlled as Le Bosquet.' It enjoyed a quiet success. Despite Coton's enthusiasm for a new creative talent it was to remain Zullig's only choreographic work. He was more interested in studying and transmitting the intricacies of the classical technique (from which he had been denied so long) and transmitting his new- found knowledge to a scientific development of his own medium which was to enrich subsequent generations of Jooss dancers.
After the war, financial pressures forced Jooss to disband and return to Germany. Very soon he was invited to establish a large school and company at Essen- Werden, in which he now incorporated classical ballet in the curriculum. Zullig, however, stayed in England and events gave him the opportunity he dreamed of - to dance in a classical repertoire.
I think it was Peggy van Praagh who signed him up as a soloist with Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, with whom he enjoyed a noteworthy success in 1948-49, dancing prominent roles in Andree Howard's Selina and John Cranko's Sea Change. Having satisfied his ambition to work with a classical company he returned to the fold to teach and perform in the Folkswang Theatre at Essen and at the modern dance centre in Zurich and at Dusseldorf Opera House. During this period his teaching was greatly influenced by the classical elements he had absorbed in England and he became much revered as a teacher.
From 1956 to 1961 he extended his performing life by taking a post as teacher and soloist at the Chilean University in Santiago where Ernst Uthoff, a Jooss disciple, had established a modern-dance group.
In 1961 Zullig returned again to Essen and in 1969 became director of teaching staff. He continued to teach and direct right up to his death. A great stylist, a great trouper, he lived only for the dance and died in harness.
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