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February 2003

Pointing the Way

Ballet companies of international repute, right on our doorstep

Sadly, many Munich residents seem unaware that their city is home to not one, but two world-class ballet companies—the Bayerisches Staatsballett and BallettTheater München. To a certain extent, both are still eclipsed by the opera companies with which they share their respective theaters, for opera has always been more popular and had more social cachet in Germany. However, in recent years, both companies have made great progress in emerging from these shadows.

The Nationaltheater is home to the Bayerisches Staatsballett, a great classical ballet company, which compares favorably with the Paris Opera Ballet, or the Royal Ballet in London. The Staatsballett isn’t as big as either of those companies, but the repertoire and the artistic standards are certainly on a par with them. Since 1989, it has been officially separated from the Staatsoper, which means that the artistic director now has more scope and more power to make decisions. The present artistic director of the company is Ivan Liska, a Czech dancer who has spent most of his career with John Neumeier in Hamburg, but who also performed in Munich in the early 1970s. Liska describes his job by saying “It’s not my company. The company is paid by the state and so am I. My job is to oversee classical ballet in Munich for a certain period of time. We want to share our work with the public. That’s why we have the master-classes, during which everybody can come into our studios and see great dancers from the past sharing their experiences with a new generation. We have to show what we do best, which is to adapt to the styles of different choreographers, and to be as true as possible to their vision. So, for example, we are now working on a new Sleeping Beauty with Sir Anthony Dowell from the Royal Ballet. His Sleeping Beauty, which carries on the tradition of classical ballet in the English style, remains close to the original while making sense of the fairy story for a modern audience.”

Liska believes that dance is for everyone because there is no language barrier and it can be enjoyed and understood on many levels. He says people can understand dance in the same way that they understand body language, while knowing nothing about it consciously. It was also probably the first form of artistic expression known to man, older even than song. And Liska feels that when we are in a dark theater we allow ourselves to be moved, even transformed.

As the theater building was bombed during the war, it had to be completely rebuilt. Opened as late as 1963, the new Nationaltheater is a faithful reproduction of the original Neoclassical opera house, whose grand monumentality is indeed impressive. The splendor is something one doesn’t experience in a normal playhouse or cinema. Despite the building’s luxurious furnishings German opera house audiences have a very relaxed dress code. It is impossible to be either over or underdressed, but wearing one’s finest can be part of the fun. The lack of sartorial snobbery extends to other areas too, as audiences are friendly and helpful to foreigners. Children are welcome and even encouraged to attend. And there is nothing quite like the experience of two thousand people thoroughly enjoying themselves at a live performance.

Cherie Trevaskis, an Australian dancer who is now a ballet mistress at the Staatsballett, joined the corps de ballet not long after the new theater opened, and fell in love with it immediately. Although Trevaskis has danced in some of the greatest theaters in the world—the Paris Opera, the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg, Covent Garden in London—she still finds the Nationaltheater the most beautiful opera house of all and considers it worth visiting if only to enjoy some of its unique features, such as the huge chandelier, which hangs above the stalls and is lifted up into the ceiling at the start of every performance. She also believes that today, more than ever, we need an art form such as ballet to give us a different perspective on life. Ballet is not just about escapism, stresses Trevaskis, but about understanding different values: the way classical ballet has been passed on from generation to generation, the sheer hard work and perfectionism involved, the fact that every performance is unique. For two or three hours, she says, you can be transported into another world.

For those who have never seen a ballet, Sherelle Charge, another Australian dancer, who is a soloist in the company, suggests John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew as an ideal piece to begin with. Based on Shakespeare’s play, the plot may already be familiar to many people in the audience, but it is Cranko’s gift of making ballet accessible, says Charge, that makes The Taming of the Shrew ideal for ballet novices. It is also colorful, fast, funny and quite short (two approximately one-hour acts in addition to an interval). The piece was premiered in Stuttgart in 1969, and it has been part of the Munich repertoire since 1976. Because it is so well suited to children, the Staatsballett has taken the unusual step of declaring all three performances in February to be Familienvorstellungen (family performances), which means that children pay only € 8 per seat, no matter where they sit.

The Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz is a smaller, cozier and perhaps more approachable opera house, yet grand enough for a special evening. Traditionally used to stage operas and operettas, the repertoire today also includes musicals and ballets. At first the role of the ballet company was mainly to supply dancers for opera performances: flamenco dancers for Carmen, waltzing couples for The Merry Widow and so on. This changed in 1996, when the new director, Klaus Schultz, engaged the British choreographer Philip Taylor to develop a fully-fledged modern dance company, which, while still being available to support the opera company, would have its own identity: BallettTheater München. In only six years, the company has received international recognition and has begun appearing at venues abroad. In December last year, the troupe was invited to a dance festival in Salvador, Brazil, and in May they will appear at the Brighton Festival, one of the most important dance festivals in England. Their audience has grown steadily; Taylor is particularly proud of the fact that in the year of the euro, when figures were down at theaters across Germany, BallettTheater München increased its audience by 12 percent.

Taylor danced at the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and the Nederlands Dans Theater before coming to Germany. Because it has a resident choreographer as its artistic director, BallettTheater München concentrates on producing new pieces. Not all the new work is by Taylor; dancers in the company are encouraged to choreograph as well. Taylor says that his company attracts the kind of dancers who want to be involved in a creative process, and he chooses them as individuals. There are 23 dancers in the company and all are soloists, not part of a traditional ballet hierarchy. This, coupled with the fact that the theater is small, means that the audience can enjoy a more intimate and relaxed atmosphere. “I want to dance something that I myself can relate to,” is how Taylor describes his approach, “something that is in my world now. The themes are never going to change—love, life and death—but the way you look at them does. So I think it’s important to look at them from a perspective connected to the world we all live in, so that anybody can find their way into my work.”

In April this year Taylor will present his latest work, a full evening of dance episodes called Questionable Dances, which includes the new piece Junction, a short ballet first performed in November last year. “Questionable Dances,” says the innovative British dancer, “is a series of dances and each one represents a question. Every dance is about something I question. I’m a choreographer and that’s how I express myself. Other people might paint a picture or write a book. Junction is very enjoyable, with beautiful colors in the costumes and a minimalist set, which I think works very well, and there’s a jazzy score by an English composer, with lots of movement. The one thing the work as a whole represents is a question, a universal question. That doesn’t mean that it should be baffling. I like to keep the form and structure of the work as simple as possible, for myself, the dancers and the audience.”

During February and March the company will perform two other modern dance programs, and in March and April members of the BallettTheater will be appearing in the Cole Porter musical Kiss me Kate (also based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), which Philip Taylor both choreographed and co-directed. With so much talent and variety in Munich’s ballet scene, even dyed-in-the-wool dance skeptics should spend an evening at either the Nationaltheater or the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz for an unforgettable experience. Buying tickets: Bayerisches Staatsballett Nationaltheater Max-Joseph-Platz 2 Tel. (089) 21 8519 20 BallettTheater München Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz Gärtnerplatz 3 Tel. (089) 21 85 19 60

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