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."
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
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.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.