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April 2000

Dancing the Nights Away

Munich Ballet Week 2000-eight evenings of beauty and grace as seen from a principal ballerina's point of view

Lisa-maree cullum, principal dancer of the Bavarian State Ballet, is injured. She has torn a muscle and won’t be dancing for three weeks. She sits on a sofa in her apartment just off Gärtnerplatz and looks desolate: “It came as such a shock.” Looking at what the principal dancer has achieved in her first 27 years, it would seem luck has always been on her side.

Cullum’s career reads like a fairy tale for budding ballerinas. Born in New Zealand in 1972, she learned to dance at her mother’s ballet school in Papua, New Guinea. At 14, Cullum left school and went to Australia to attend a full-time ballet school. Only a year later, she won the Gold Medal at the Adeline Genée competition in London, whereupon she was offered a position in the English National Ballet (ENB). But in the same year, Cullum won Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne, which included a scholarship to a school of her choice, so she decided to forego the London offer and study in Monte Carlo first. At 17, she took up her appointment at the ENB, which was then headed by Danish director Peter Schaufuss. When he left London a year later to take over the Berlin ballet company, he asked Cullum to join him. “After one year as a group dancer I had the feeling I had not yet begun to learn anything from him,” the ambitious artist explains. She followed him, and remained in Berlin for eight years.

Schaufuss was very much a mentor to Cullum. “He likes to choose very young girls, foster their talents and push them through the ranks of the company.” Eventually, though Schaufuss left Berlin, Cullum stayed, dancing under a string of successive directors. She gracefully shrugs her shoulders: “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t move companies easily.”

There were various reasons why Cullum finally left the city on the Spree. In the last few years under a new director, the Berlin repertoire had become too modern for her tastes. “I consider myself a classically trained dancer. I like to do modern, but I need to have the balance of both.” In addition, audiences were dwindling: “it was very difficult to go out on stage and dance for very few people.” Here in Munich, Cullum dances to a full house, which still delights the ballerina: “I had never seen a theater where every single performance is sold out. That is a great feeling.”

Finally, Cullum’s mother played a prominent part in her decision to relocate. After viewing Cullum dancing Sylphide, she commented, “Lisa, you’re dancing very well, but I don’t see the improvement I saw last time I visited.” The criticism shook the young dancer, who admits to having sunk into something of a routine.

Particularly impressed by the large number of classical ballets that the Bavarian State Ballet has in its repertoire, Cullum contacted Ivan Liska, artistic director of the Munich ensemble, and, a phone call later, she had a job. “It happened all very fast. I expected it to be much more difficult,” Cullum laughs. So she took up her appointment in Munich in August 1998, and was embraced by the rather spoiled Munich audience. A mere five months later, Cullum received a Star of the Year for best dancer, awarded annually by the Abendzeitung for “outstanding achievement in the area of art and culture.” Of course she admits she has talent: “it was never hard work for me to stand in fifth position,” she says apologetically. But she also knows that she was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

Fortunately for the audience, Cullum will be well back on her toes and dancing by the time the Munich’s Ballet Week — a fixed event in the city’s social calendar for more than four decades — begins on April 4. For the year 2000, artistic director Ivan Liska has created a program that shows the most important works of the current repertoire, and includes additional highlights, such as famous guest dancers and new choreographies.

As tradition has it, Munich’s Ballet Week begins with a company premiere, which this year takes up a John Neumeier creation, A Cinderella Story. American-born Neumeier, director of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973, first choreographed the ballet in 1992. Undoubtedly one of the foremost personalities in the international ballet world today, his ballets have been very well received in Munich. A perfectionist, Neumeier has been considered a difficult person to work with, but Cullum, cast to dance both the central part as well as one of the sisters, says she is looking forward to working with him. “He explains every little detail. You see what it is he envisions, and you want to help him get there.” Although much of the rehearsing is done beforehand with the help of three teachers from Hamburg, “John always adds the final touches.”

During the ballet week, Cullum will be dancing the leading role in the traditional version of Giselle, a romantic ballet first performed in Paris in 1841. This, she declares, is one of her favorite parts. “Peter Schaufuss staged a new production the year I arrived in Berlin, and to my surprise he cast me as Giselle.” Why would he take such a chance, choosing the relative rookie over more experienced principals for his premiere? Cullum smiles, “When I asked him years later, he said he had wanted someone who would do it his way, who wouldn’t question what he wanted.”

The accomplished dancer is enthusiastic about Ballet Week’s other, modern version of Giselle by Mats Ek. Created in 1982, this ballet propelled the Swedish choreographer to international fame. Beate Vollack has taken on the role of strong-minded Giselle. “She is wonderful! It was the first piece that I saw when I came to Munich. I knew Beate from Berlin. She’s such a wild person and her performance just blew me away!”

La Bayadère, a traditional ballet conceived by Marius Petipa, will be shown twice during Ballet Week, once with stars from the famous St. Petersburg Kirov Ballet, and once with locals Elena Pankova and husband Kirill Melnikov in the leading roles of priestess Nikiya and her forbidden lover, the warrior Solor. The Bavarian State Ballet currently boasts three Nikiyas: Pankova, Maria Eichwald and Cullum. It was Cullum’s sensual rendering of this part that earned her the Abendzeitung star.

Named after the muse of dance, the Terpsichore Gala II continues a series introduced by Liska last fall. The stated aim is to “combine the glamour of world stars with a clear thematic concept.” While the program has yet to be finalized, it will star internationally renowned dancers, such as American artist Ethan Stiefel and Simone Noya from Vienna. With any luck, it will include such amusing pieces as Intuition Blast, which premiered at the Terpsichore Gala I. This male pas de deux to the music of Swan Lake by Ralf Jaroschinski combines classical movements with hip-hop dance to create a crowd-pleasing atmosphere rarely found in modern ballets.

Ballet Week closes with a set of three ballets by contemporary choreographers. Cullum will probably dance in The Second Detail by William Forsythe, an American who has headed the Frankfurt ballet since 1984. Forsythe has dancers fill the stage in quickly changing configurations to the electronic music of Thom Willems. Typical of his later work, this is a cool and elegant one, by an artist often labeled the “bad boy” for trying to break with the stigmatic sense of the word ballet. For his Frankfurt ensemble, he coined the expression “modern musical,” and let his dancers sing and talk. But here he is back on more traditional terrain, approaching the neoclassical, although his anarchistic style eschews all classification. Two further ballets being shown the final evening are choreographed to classical ballet music by Igor Strawinsky, but have few purely classical elements left in them. Amir Housseinpour reinterprets the music for Petruschka to reflect on individuality, whereas Saburo Teshigawara’s meditative Le sacre du printemps enables dancers to become aware of their bodies as they open up to the music, an awakening witnessed by the audience.

Ballet week 2000 promises to be a balance between classic and modern dance, between the past and the future it helps shape. And what will shape Cullum’s future? The ballerina would like to continue giving guest performances at other internationally revered theaters, and she would love to dance with the Covent Garden Royal Ballet, London. She believes that “as a principal, it is important to go away and work with other people so you continue to learn and grow.” But Cullum says she also feels there is life beyond ballet, and that of course means a family and children. We will not lose her soon, however, as she intends to be a working mom. Cullum smiles broadly, and adds: “To be a ballet dancer you have to be little bit cuckoo.”

Munich Ballet Week, April 4–11, 2000, National Theater. Box Office tel: 089 29 85 19 20, fax 089 29 85 19 03. Program: (all ballets begin at 19:30): April 4 and 5, A Cinderella Story; April 6, La Bayadère; April 7, Terpsichore-Gala II; April 8, Giselle (traditional version); April 9, Giselle (by Mats Ek) April 10, La Bayadère; April 11, The second detail, Petruschka and Le Sacre du Printemps Ticket prices range from DM 9 (standing room) to DM 132.

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