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Volksoper Wien Premieres

Promethean Fire

Ballet Director Martin Schläpfer talks about the 2022/23 season at the Vienna Volksoper

The programme for the 2022/23 season features names like Merce Cunningham, Andrey Kaydanovskiy, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Hans van Manen, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, Martin Schläpfer and Paul Taylor. What awaits ballet audiences at the Volksoper?

Martin Schläpfer: As an art form, ballet is a wonderful cosmos of the most divergent aesthetics, working methods and forms – it is so vast it is almost impossible to know all of it. This fascinates me and as a result I’m looking to programme out work in as horizontal a manner as possible. That means: no separation, no niche thinking that only focuses on certain aspects of the repertoire and continues to reinforce divisions, but instead planning where works of classical modernism, modern dance and world premieres enjoy equal status with romantic story ballets and neoclassical pieces. We have looked very closely at the repertoire of the Vienna State Ballet and set out coordinates with which we will carry on established Viennese traditions but also be able to show other facets, such as the premiere of Promethean Fire in 2022/23, for example.

This will be the first time that works by Paul Taylor and Mark Morris have been seen in the history of the Vienna State Ballet.

I think this programme offers a wonderful combination: Taylor and Morris both found their artistic home in New York, they have many roots in common but they each went their own way – they’re two artists who were seen as the avantgarde of modern dance but are now classics, artists whose works are distinguished by a movement language of their own and a specific bodily technique, but without breaking with everything that a classically trained dancer brings with them. Because that is an important aspect: if I want to expand the repertoire, I have to be able to take my ensemble with me and show the dancers the way to integrate other dance and body techniques.

Taylor’s Promethean Fire opens the programme. One dance critic compared this piece to “a cathedral in a state of siege”.

That’s a nice analogy. Taylor created this choreography to works by Johann Sebastian Bach in 2002, after the Nine Eleven attacks. And even if he denied that his piece related specifically to those events, it does have a threatening atmosphere of crisis and an incredible power. He works with lifts that have no sense of lightness about them: they feel like a great burden. It’s as if the dancers are chained together.

With his choice of title, he has written the Prometheus theme into his piece: Prometheus, the bringer of fire, who formed humanity, the original courageous rebel who supported liberation from ignorance, civilisation, knowledge, science and progress – but who also stands for human hubris, for equating oneself with God, a distant relative of Icarus, who does not manage to find a balance between rise and fall.  

The question of balance is one of the central issues of our time. It’s not just the latest political events, with a completely senseless, profoundly inhuman war of destruction in the middle of Europe, that show we have lost any form of balance. And despite ever greater progress in many areas of life and more and more scientific discoveries, we are still a long way from any control over our lives and from really understanding nature. On the contrary: there’s so much we don’t know. That, too, is Prometheus! That ultimately, we can only approach anything that might suggest there is something God-like in the world and in human beings with great humility. Many of us no longer believe in the ancient primary forces in life. But we can’t escape from them. I’m very interested in all these questions – in dance, too …

... for which balance is obviously a key topic.

As a language of the soul that seeks to express itself through the body, dance can definitely become vertical: it can turn into an Apollonian form that aspires to get away, that glows from within like an illuminated cathedral. A piece like Taylor’s Promethean Fire shows us quite emphatically that despite the huge explosive potential which this energetic, charismatic communication through the body might be able to release, in the end we are still bound by gravity. A jump is a jump that is always going to fall back onto the ground.  

Mark Morris responds to Taylor’s dance drama – which really gets under our skin – by concluding the programme with Beaux. A piece full of humour for nine beautiful men, a finale that fits wonderfully at the Volksoper as a theatre where there is always a great deal of laughter.

Beaux is the opposite of the at times embittered seriousness with which we currently debate the roles of men and women. To a score by Bohuslav Martinů, it plays with the cliché of the beau, the beautiful man, with an elegant sense of humour, a gift for precise observation and a real light touch. Not least because we do have some really gorgeous men in our company, for me this piece is a jolly way of spicing things up – to which I provide a contrast in the middle of the programme with two miniatures from my own repertoire to two beacons of the musical avantgarde: György Ligeti’s Lontano and Ramifications. For me, encounters with contemporary music are just as much part of good programming as encounters with contemporary dance. The dancers are on pointe and in these pieces, I show how wonderfully pointe shoes suit contemporary music: you can not only add percussive counter rhythms to the compositions that Ligeti has arranged as flat surfaces but you can also stab or drill into them like a swamp landscape of sound. Ramifications is sculptural and elusive solo that is everywhere: inside and out. Lontano is a pas de six in a very clear, geometric structure with a psychogram superimposed over it. Both of them close with the end of time or the end of this reality and shift retrospectively into a different phase of life or spirituality. I felt that this was a nice middle section, not only for this programme, but an important idea for the whole season.

A season that is marked by a new beginning: it is the first season for Lotte de Beer and Omer Meir Wellber. How is this reflected in the Vienna State Ballet’s repertoire?

A first symbol of our collaboration is the premiere of Iolanthe and the Nutcracker, a co-production between the Volksoper and the State Ballet. Lotte de Beer and Omer Meir Wellber want to plan more cross art form productions. Of course, such ideas aren’t new. But what these two want to achieve seems to me to be more than surfing a particular trend. It’s an interesting and attractive way of looking at things and I’m delighted that Andrey Kaydanovskiy had agreed to choreograph the first project of this kind. Following his successful world premiere lux umbra in our programme Encounters, which we will also continue to show in 2022/23, to me it makes absolute sense to continue working together with him. He is a choreographer who always conceives his productions from a dance theatre point of view, looking for stories and characters, so to me he seemed ideal for this production. It is the beginning of a new era with an Artistic Director arriving who directs work herself, and that work on stage will definitely have an influence on the theatre and the people who work there. I’m very much looking forward to that.

What opportunities does a collaboration like this offer?

Of course, the dancers of the Volksoper’s corps de ballet, which will perform as a unit in Iolanthe and the Nutcracker, are to a certain extent used to working like this because they regularly take part in music theatre productions here and are consistently encouraged as performers. But Iolanthe and the Nutcracker goes a step further by linking dance and opera very closely together. I am expecting a very strong amalgam of direction and choreography. “Cross art form” doesn’t really describe a project like this that well: they are not crossed so much as growing into each other, gathering all the possibilities together, so that the direction, choreography, musical direction and design, but also the singing, instrumental music and dance are inwardly connected with each other and by combining the two originally independent works – the opera Iolanthe and the ballet The Nutcracker – something original is created. It’s a way of working that’s not at all like my own, which is why I’m very interested to watch it. When I’m choreographing, I like to allow the different levels to develop in parallel – connected at key points where I agree paths together with my partners – and to go continue developing on their own, until everything finds its way together in the final rehearsals.

The “horizontal” programming that you described to begin with has not only had an influence on the premieres but also the repertoire for the coming season – and of course there are numerous links with the programme that will be performed at the Staatsoper.

Lotte de Beer and Andrey Kaydanovskiy are combining the Nussknacker with Iolanthe, I am going to stage a new Sleeping Beauty at the Staatsoper – so we will be examining Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky intensely. Out of the names you mentioned at the beginning – to which I would add Lucinda Childs, Marco Goecke, Ohad Naharin, Heinz Spoerli, but also Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Rudolf Nureyev – at the Staatsoper we will weave a tapestry of different shades of dance that seem to me to be crucial to dance of the 20th century and of the present and for which I want to create an enthusiasm among our audience. For me, the repertoire system also presents the chance not just to reproduce one performance after another, but to continue working on productions that are extremely challenging to dance. This is true of Alexei Ratmansky’s 24 Préludes with their virtuoso technique yet great humanity in a scenario that only appears to be abstract, where the dancers meet each other as individual personalities, and also of my ballet In Sonne verwandelt in our programme Encounters.

... one of your fine, quiet, rather philosophical works, that also speaks to us about what you described earlier as “something God-like in human beings”. A work with music by Beethoven that gives us courage, like a meditation …

... and for the dancers, a ballet where there is no escape in the direction of superficial effects that look for quick applause: they have to work right through what I want to say with the dance. The same is true of Ein Deutsches Requiem, where I personally feel a great need to take it on to the point that I feel it can reach, with Roger Díaz-Cajamarca, the new Director of the Volksoper’s wonderful chorus and supplementary chorus, as my partner, conducting in the pit. The lovely thing about the repertoire is that you can carry on working on the pieces, sharpening them, giving them greater depth, and you can also be open to different nuances that the dancers who are new to our ensemble will bring with them.  Theatre work is always work in progress, no performance is the same twice – and I am very much looking forward to our audience, who we are now finally able to make personal contact with after a difficult start in between lockdowns: I am looking forward to us going on a journey together and that it will be a pleasure, not only to attend individual performances but also to follow our development on this journey, and to be moved by all the work we have planned.   

Martin Schläpfer was talking to the dramaturg Anne do Paço. English translation by David Tushingham

The last musical theater works Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked on a year before his death were an opera and a ballet: Jolanthe and The Nutcracker. The ideas for both can be found in the composer’s same notebook, musically they are deeply related, and in terms of content they share the same theme: growing up, inner maturation, and the clash between imagination and reality. In both works, a rupture through the ordered structures of childhood leads to a new world: In Jolanthe, a sheltered princess is cured of her blindness by learning what it means to see the world as it is; in The Nutcracker, a girl discovers a prince in a nutcracker, with whom she sets off on a dream journey to a fairy-tale land of milk and honey.

In 1892, both pieces were premiered together in St. Petersburg; at the Volksoper Wien, they now interweave for the first time in a joint production of opera and ballet directed by new director Lotte de Beer and choreographed by Andrey Kaydanovskiy for an imaginative dance-opera for the whole family.

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For the second time, the Plattform Choreographie will take place at the Volksoper Wien – a format in which ensemble members of the Vienna State Ballet develop and present their own choreographic concepts. In a protected space and at the same time in a professional setting, selected young choreographers have the opportunity to develop freely and creatively, but also to get to know the challenges of creating a piece in the daily running of the theatre – from the idea to the final design.

For the audience, the Plattform Choreographie is an invitation to get to know dancers of the Vienna State Ballet from a different side as choreographers in a diverse program with various aesthetics, movement languages and musical styles.

Funded by the Circle of Friends of the Vienna State Ballet

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With the premiere of Promethean Fire, postponed for Corona reasons from May 2021 to February 2023, the Vienna State Ballet presents for the first time at the Volksoper two outstanding artists of American modern dance: Paul Taylor and Mark Morris. Their ballets examine the outer contours of the Promethean motif – in between hubris and humanity, disaster and beauty, creation and transience.

Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire ought to be viewed as a direct reaction to the attacks on »Nine Eleven«. Even if the choreographer subsequently withdrew this specific allusion, a fundamental mood of disaster is present in the space: conflicts break out, emotions clash – but hope prevails in the end in this moving dance drama set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach in the magnificent orchestrations of Leopold Stokowski.

By contrast, with his wonderful sense of humour Mark Morris puts nine beaux on stage: men of beauty, real men, but also good mates, chivalrous gentlemen and innocent angels. At the same time, with its lightness of touch, Beaux is an example of ambitious, lucid »music-making with the body«.

Ballet Director Martin Schläpfer responds to the two Americans’ powerful language of modern dance with two miniatures: subtle movement studies that glow in delicate colours, dances that are like »the powder on butterflies’ wings«.

Canadian conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie makes his debut with the orchestra of the Volksoper Wien. As a guest, he has recently worked with orchestras such as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra as well as with Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Musikfabrik or Ensemble Resonanz.

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