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.
Nacho Duato is on the move again. After two years as artistic director of Staatsballett Berlin, Duato has announced that he will be handing his post over to a co-directing team of choreographer Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman, who is currently artistic director at Royal Swedish Ballet.
Staatsballett Berlin is the home company of stars like Iana Salenko, and formerly Polina Semionova. The change in leadership won't take place until summer 2019, when Duato's contract expires. But since this is Germany, where dance news is major news, the move was announced by Berlin's mayor this morning. (Nope, we can't imagine that happening in New York.)
No word yet on what Duato's plans might be going forward. Before Staatsballett Berlin, he'd spent 2011 to 2014 leading the Mikhailovsky Ballet in a more contemporary direction, following 20 years as director of Madrid's Compañia Nacional de Danza (which he left under pressure from Spain's Ministry of Culture).
Duato hasn't had a particularly easy time since arriving in Berlin. Several performances were cancelled last year when the dancers went on strike over a pay dispute. The local press has not warmed to his choreography. And according to Spiegel Online, critics have accused him of not being invested enough in the company.
Yet Sasha Waltz is a bold choice for co-artistic director of the company. Although she is already a darling of the Berlin dance scene, the dance theater choreographer is known for wildly avant garde collaborations, sometimes literally setting stages on fire. She and Öhman reportedly plan to curate a rep that includes both classical and modern works. Meanwhile, she will continue to run her own Berlin-based company, Sasha Waltz & Guests.
At today's press conference, she said the co-directorship will allow her to remain active as an artist, as Öhman will take on most of the executive and administrative tasks of the shared position. The pair has signed a five-year contract, which stipulates that Waltz will set a piece from her own company's existing repertoire annually, while also creating three new works for Staatsballett Berlin during that period.
The Staatsballett Berlin dancers, who are mostly classically trained, are in for a major change.