Sasha Waltz on What Went Wrong at Staatsballett—And How They're Moving Forward
You could say that Sasha Waltz has had a rough few years. When she was appointed co-artistic director of Staatsballett Berlin in 2016, along with Johannes Öhman, former artistic director at Royal Swedish Ballet, it didn't go so well. She was met with petitions and protests from the dancers, who argued that under the leadership of someone with minimal ballet experience the company would lose its classical heritage and technical excellence.
But she's also had an arguably fruitful few years. She's celebrated the 25th anniversary of her company, Sasha Waltz & Guests, for which she's continued to create critically-acclaimed, highly collaborative work. The drama surrounding Staatsballett has died down significantly. And next year, when she joins Öhman at Staatsballett (his tenure began this year), she'll be at the helm of two of Berlin's greatest dance companies, creating new work for each company every other year on an alternating basis.
This week, Waltz's Kreatur will have its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For Waltz, it's a particularly special tour stop: It's part of BAM's final Next Wave season programmed by outgoing executive producer Joseph V. Melillo, whom Waltz considers an influential collaborator and supporter.
We caught up with her about Kreatur and what she envisions for Staatsballett:
What Inspired Her Latest Work
As a starting point for Kreatur, Waltz took her cast to a former prison in Berlin, where an inmate gave them a tour. This experience sparked the initial questions the work would be grappling with, says Waltz, around freedom, fear, power structures and dominance.
The piece features costumes from fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, which Waltz says "create an aura around the body and transport us into a strange futuristic place where we look back to where we are as humans." One special costume, made of metal spikes, represents "the threat we are encountering in the present."
Waltz also collaborated with Soundwall Collective, a group of musicians known for their site-specific recordings, on an electronic soundscore she describes as an "acoustic photograph."
Why She Took On the Staatsballett Job
Waltz wants to break down Staatsballett into a less hierarchical structure. Here, her Kreatur. Photo by Ute Zscharnt courtesy BAM
For Waltz, the opportunity to lead Staatsballett meant a chance to bring contemporary dance to a wider audience. "It's the biggest institution for dance in Germany," she says. "If we want to change older structures we have to enter them. I think it's time for that. It will give another platform for contemporary dance so that contemporary is not only on the outside. It's time to open up the repertory to other languages to see where we can take a new ballet to."
The chance to break down the hierarchy of a traditional ballet company was also appealing: "I think it's really important to work more in a collective, empowering every person to have their own ideas and to take full responsibility for what they're doing and not waiting for someone to think for you," she says.
She isn't daunted by the prospect of running two companies at once, either. Waltz will mount revivals with Sasha Waltz & Guests during the years when she's not making new work for them, and bring in outside choreographers as well as company dancers to keep the repertory growing.
Her Vision for Staatsballett Berlin
Waltz's vision for the company includes both classical and contemporary rep. Here, Staatsballett dancer Iana Salenko in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Yan Revazov, courtesy Staatsballett
Waltz envisions a company that performs both contemporary repertory, like the collaborative work she plans to create on the group, and classical ballets, including new reconstructions of full-length works. This plan is already being enacted: The company hired Alexei Ratmansky to reconstruct Marius Petipa's original La Bayadère, which will premiere next month.
Staatsballett has hired a new crop of contemporary dancers, and Waltz says they may hire more depending on how much contemporary repertory they'll be performing in a given year. They'll also have what Waltz calls "hybrid" dancers who can do both classical and contemporary rep.
About All That Drama...
Dancers protesting the appointment of Waltz and Öhman. Photo via change.org
Waltz says that the Staatsballett dancers' initial resistance to her leadership was rooted in miscommunication and fear. "After we met them and answered, like, 50 questions, there was a big change and an opening up," she says. "Now it's a different atmosphere, there's a strong engagement in the company. There's a lot of new dancers and they're all willing to transform and be active in this practice."
Since Öhman took over this summer, the dancers have seen standing ovations—something they hadn't experienced for many years, according to Waltz—which has boosted morale significantly.
"We said we would draw a line and leave what happened behind," she says. "I don't want to bring it up all the time. We have to create something new together."
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.