Dancers Petition Against Staatsballett Berlin's New Directors

September 13, 2016

September has been a trying month for the dancers of Staatsballett Berlin, Germany’s largest ballet company. Last week, they learned that current artistic director Nacho Duato will be departing from the company at the close of the 2018–19 season, and his successors will be Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman, as co-artistic directors. This news, especially the appointment of Waltz, a dance-theater–based choreographer who would assume the majority of the artistic duties, sent the company’s classically-rooted dancers into a tailspin. They soon took action.

The homepage of the company’s website now directs visitors to a dancer-led petition protesting the appointment of Waltz and Öhman. Needless to say, the language is blatantly direct. (You can read the petition in its entirety—in German, English and Japanese—here.) First, they reject the incoming leadership due to the disconnect between Waltz’s background and Staatsballett’s traditionally classical ballet dancers, stating, “unfortunately the appointment has to be compared to an appointment of a tennis trainer as a football coach or an art museum director as an orchestral director. This decision by Michael Müller [Berlin’s governing mayor and senator for culture] and Tim Renner [Müller’s secretary] demonstrates their complete ignorance of the traditions and lines of development of dance and ballet in particular.” While this wording may sound harsh, the dancers have reason to be upset: Waltz doesn’t fit the typical job description for a company that’s used to dancing Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and Jewels .

Why would the city wish to shift the focus of the company so much? The dancers assert that the decision, which comes during an election season, may be more political than artistic. For American artists, this situation is hard to fathom, since the government would never have a hand in selecting a director. The dancers also point out that ignorance may be partially to blame: Those responsible for choosing the new leadership might not be well enough versed in dance to realize the misfit. Additionally, there has been speculation that Waltz was chosen to boost ticket sales due to her popularity in the region.

The petition continues, explaining that “we respect the work of Sasha Waltz but find her completely unsuitable to lead our company.” They go so far as to say that this new leadership would “seriously damage the image of the Staatsballett as a worldwide renowned classical ballet company.” But that doesn’t mean they want Duato back. The petition also demands that a new selection committee be put together, including members of the arts community and representatives directly from the company.

Former Dance Magazine cover star Iana Salenko even posted the petition on her Instagram account, begging for supporters to sign it:

While it’s difficult to tell if the petition will have an effect on the company’s future leadership, no one can say these dancers aren’t deeply invested in their art form. On the flip side, just think how Waltz must feel about this very awkward situation.