Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

With Wall Down, Berlin Ballet Soars

German reunification has brought renewed energy to this city. Three prime companies, freed from boundaries, draw audiences and top artists as they did before the war

SINCE the wall came down four years ago, the once-divided city of Berlin has again become one of Europe's cultural focal points. The lack of borders now allows renowned artists as well as unknown experimentalists to flock to the old city as they did in the 1920s and '30s.

For the dance world, this has been an important development. Of the three major ballet companies in the city, two were originally in the eastern sector. Their western sister was the Berlin Ballet, based at the Deutsche Oper on Richard Wagnerstrasse. To the marooned West Berliners, it offered a glimpse of outside culture while also providing a haven for international dancers to gather and share their experience. For the past five years, the company has been directed by the Danish dancer Peter Schauffus, who came to Berlin from directorship of English National Ballet. Schauffus left at the end of last year to become the director of the Danish Royal Ballet.

About these ads

The new director is Ray Barra, an American from San Francisco, who was ballet master at the Berlin Ballet from 1966 to '70. He comes to the company from the Spanish National Ballet, where he was director for the last few years.

Under Schauffus, the company had much success - he brought in top choreographers such as Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Maurice Bejart, organized exchanges of dancers between his company and the Kirov in St. Petersburg, and attracted many renowned guest stars for his classical and contemporary repertoire.

The Dance Theatre Ensemble at the Komische Oper, on Franzosischestrasse, was recognized as one of the most innovative dance companies in East Germany. This was due to its founder and longtime director, now chief choreographer, Tom Schilling, whose work was individual and vital and did not reflect the Soviet realism that most East bloc choreographers produced in those days. For the past two years, Doris Laine, the Finnish ballerina, teacher, and past director of the Finnish National Ballet, has been in charge of the company, continuing the tradition of supporting homegrown choreographers and composers. Next spring will see a new production of ``Coppelia'' by Jochen Ulrich.

But the greatest change has come to the ballet company of the State Opera House situated on the wide tree-lined boulevard of Unter den Linden. Once the showcase of the East, reflecting the structure and styles of the former Soviet Union, the Staatsoper Ballet was highly acclaimed throughout the Eastern bloc for its standards, its schooling, and its dancers. Foreign eyes caught occasional glimpses of selected young dancers winning prizes at international ballet competitions.

Now that has all changed. Rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of communism, the company now takes its place grandly with the world's top ballet companies.

Its new-found hope and inspiration have come from the Opera House itself.

The general director, Georg Quander, is a ballet lover as well as an opera buff and has given much support and effort to upgrading the company to international standards as well as giving more performance time to the ballet.

About these ads

The musical director is Daniel Barenboim, whose name alone attracts quality. Many of his contacts in the artistic world have approached him, and vice versa, with the result that many guests have come to perform at the Opera House.

One of those invited was the renowned choreographer Maurice Bejart. As well as staging his ballets, he was asked to become director. He refused, since he still has his own company in Lausanne, Switzerland, but agreed to be the company's chief choreographer. He also recommended French dancer and director Michael Denard as prospective director. ``They needed someone with experience who also spoke German - which I do,'' Denard told me (in excellent English) in his office across the street from the Opera House. ``The idea interested me. I'd worked for 25 years at the Paris Opera and with Bejart in Lausanne. So I made a proposal. The Opera House liked it, and here I am.''

Seated in front of a bookcase displaying an assortment of model owls, many with lighted eyes, Denard spoke of his plans for the company. ``Of course, classical training will remain the basis of the company, and I see it as an important duty to perform such classics as `Giselle,' `Coppelia,' `Swan Lake,' `Sleeping Beauty.' It's a tradition not just for the Opera House but for the audience and the dancers. We are developing contemporary training, as we in the West know it, little by little. I have plans to invite several modern choreographers as well as guest dancers and let my dancers work with other companies. The company now needs to become known in the West - perhaps we will tour with the new works especially created for us.''

Denard is able to have two new productions per season. Last year, the company performed Bejart's ``Night, Transfigured Night'' and ``The Miraculous Mandarin'' - a program that Barenboim conducted - his first ballets. This fall saw the premiere of ``Dix'' by the well-known French choreographer Roland Petit. Next spring Bejart will create another new work for the company - ``Scheherazade.'' There are talks with Pierre Lacotte, the authority on reviving historic ballets, to create an ``Hommage to Taglioni'' as the Berlin Opera House has strong ties with the Taglioni family. Paul Taglioni, the brother of the ethereal St. Petersburg ballerina Marie, was engaged as premier danseur in 1829 and became director of the company 40 years later.

The premiere of ``Dix'' was a triumph for both ballet and orchestra. In his work Petit uses a variety of dance styles, from neoclassicism to vaudeville, which successfully expanded and enhanced the German dancers' technical abilities. The music was a compilation of eight modern composers from Schonberg to Weill with a bit of Eubie Blake ragtime. The orchestra, conducted by Asher Fisch, coped magnificently with the long program - 90 minutes without an interval.

Petit's ``Dix'' dwells on the pictures and not the life of Otto Dix, the German painter born in 1891. Petit has taken 10 of Dix's paintings as his theme and exhibits them one by one for closer individual inspection. Like their originals, the ballets are graphic in depicting the degradation and often bizarre happenings of the period between the two world wars. Yet Petit has managed to convey the atmosphere without gratuitous or offensive effect as was seen in the episode, ``Walpurgis Night.'' While the painting graphically depicts an orgy of nakedness that might shock viewers, Petit cleverly offers the sense but not the sensation of it by putting his dancers into oversized, rubberized ``birthday suits.'' Looking like Michelin-tire men, their cavortings and goings-on become humorous and ridiculous rather than distasteful. Other episodes give opportunity for individuals to shine, showing no lack of sparkling talent at the Staatsoper.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.