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Upheaval at Staatsballett Berlin

Iana Salenko and Marian Walter. Photo by Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin.

The appointment of Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman has already proved controversial.

Unrest is brewing in Berlin. In September, local government officials announced that the current director of the Staatsballett Berlin, Nacho Duato, would be replaced in 2019 by a duo of co-directors: choreographer Sasha Waltz and Sweden's Johannes Öhman. In response, the company's dancers, worried about the future of ballet in Berlin, have fought back through an online petition and official protests.

Home to a handful of international stars, including Iana Salenko and formerly Polina Semionova, the 89-strong Staatsballett is one of Germany's biggest classical companies. Born in 2004 from the fusion of Berlin's three ballet ensembles, previously employed by different opera houses, it became a noteworthy classical company under the direction of Ukrainian-born star Vladimir Malakhov. Duato has proved divisive since his arrival in 2014, but his recent choreography has relied on the classical technique.

The selection of Waltz and Öhman, on the other hand, has sparked anxiety about the potential fate of the Staatsballett's classical tradition. While Waltz is a world-renowned choreographer with her own Berlin-based company, she works in the Tanztheater tradition of Pina Bausch, with a contemporary vocabulary. “She comes from a completely different genre," says Elinor Jagodnik, a member of the corps de ballet and union representative. “The dancers will know more about ballet than she does, and the company will no longer attract classical talent."

The inclusion of Öhman, who has been the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet since 2011, was widely seen as an attempt to balance Waltz's avant-garde approach, but the dancers are unconvinced. Waltz stated in an open letter that her planned repertoire would be 50 percent classical, yet included Angelin Preljocaj's modern Snow White among those classical productions. (Waltz and Öhman declined to comment for this article.)

In addition to around 20,000 signatures, the Change.org petition attracted statements of support from the likes of John Neumeier and Lucia Lacarra. The dancers contend the appointment was political in nature. The mayor and cultural senator of Berlin, Michael Müller, appoints the Staatsballett's director, and he made the announcement three years in advance, shortly before standing for reelection. In October, his political party weakened, and it is likely that he'll be ousted as cultural senator, along with culture secretary Tim Renner. Jagodnik says the dancers hope the new directors' appointment will be reversed. “We're open-minded, but audiences in Berlin deserve to see classical ballet."


Meanwhile in Milan…

In October, La Scala announced that artistic director Mauro Bigonzetti was stepping down effective immediately, citing his need to recuperate from a severe back problem. Bigonzetti took over early in 2016 after Makhar Vaziev left to direct the Bolshoi. Echoing the current situation in Berlin, there has been speculation that ongoing tensions between the classically trained company members and the more contemporary director/choreographer were a contributing factor to Bigonzetti's departure after only eight months at the helm. A new director is expected to be announced by March, and will take over from Fréderic Olivieri, who is filling the post in the interim. —Courtney Escoyne

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