Dance Scene and Trends in Germany

Choreographers as Opera Directors

At some point in the beginning of culture, song and movement were one. They carried people off to a world different from the everyday. In the form of stage art, they have more or less retained this transporting power.

The first European operas in the late Renaissance and the Baroque presented ancient myths in the form of music, song and dance. In Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydike, for example, minatory and joyous dances of court society, sailors, spirits and witches are constant features. When choreographers began again to stage not only such scenes but also whole operas at the start of the twentieth century, it was often these works that they chose. They were the start for many creators of dance; then followed Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and more recent opera.

Freedom of the art of dance

Since the 1980s, more and more choreographers have been accepting commissions to direct operas at German opera houses or switching their métiers completely. At municipal theatres, the dance department has traditionally been assigned to the opera. But the struggle to establish dance as an independent art form led to dancers’ no longer feeling committed to appearing in decorative “dance interludes” in operas and operettas. And when dancers dedicated themselves to dance theatre instead of ballet, they had little or no contact with the orchestra. Yet it has been just dance theatre choreographers who seem to have developed a liking for the adventure of opera. Pina Bausch has created two “dance operas”: Gluck’s Iphigenie on Tauris and then Orpheus and Eurydike (1975). She doubled the main roles – a dancer to each singer – and confronted Orpheus, eyes shut and struggling for self-control, with a swaying crowd of women. A style of dance that is, as one critic described it after the new production in Paris in 2008, at once expressive yet stripped of everything superfluous.

Dance opera

Danced opera is a special case. In contrast to dance theatre, which often consists of collage-like scenes, this kind of choreography has a story and composed music as its basis. Sometimes it attempts to have the singers and chorus move together with the dancers on the stage rather than standing about as mere “sound suppliers”. The choreographer Sasha Waltz succeeded in this in her first opera, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (2005), in which she also doubled the roles. She thus pointed up the contrast between the collective sensuality, opulence and light-heartedness and the solitude of death at the end of the opera.

Good choreographers know how to place and move individual performers, couples and groups in space, even through minimal gestures, in order to achieve a certain effect and say something about human feelings and relationships. Given choreographers’ sense for music and its special connection to plot, the distance to directing opera is not so far. Yet it is also not an easy one cross for artists used to developing pieces together with dancers on themes they themselves have chosen.

The greatest error a choreographer can commit, says Joachim Schlömer, who has been staging operas now for ten years, is to translate an aria directly into dance – for instance, by thus reduplicating the gesture of suffering. It is a question of whether the director should introduce dance at all. In each case, Schlömer asks himself where dance elements are necessary. One occasion for their use is to represent what is going on in the mind, to have the body symbolise mind. In the third part of Schlömer’s 2006 Salzburg Mozart trilogy, dancers contort themselves senselessly in spots of light, flail about, are constantly fidgeting with themselves. Afterwards, the empty spots of light are like an echo of wasted life.

Direction as choreography

Dancers as mute figures alongside vocal characters mainly symbolise something supra-personal. A single dancer, unnoticed by the decadent court society, is now and then subjected to ill use by the bored emperor Nero. By this device, explains Rosamund Gilmore, she meant to suggest the slavery in Rome that Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea passes over. After thirteen years in dance theatre with her Laokoon Dance Group, she switched fields in 1990 and now directs operas from all musical epochs – “my favourites are works from the 21s century”.

Arila Siegert also particularly likes directing contemporary opera, which often employs collage techniques. Trained as a dancer by Gret Palucca in Dresden, Siegert used to choreograph dances for special musical works. In 1998, she tried her hand at her first opera, Verdi’s Macbeth. Dance as such is not her guiding light in opera. Her directorial approach, she says, is based on hearing, often intuitively, and, she stresses, “reducing everything to the essential!” Just as in choreography.

The most famous choreographer among opera directors is also a student of Palucca: Ruth Berghaus, who had to change her branch of work in 1952 due to East German cultural politics. For decades, her technique of analysis, which applies Brecht’s theory of theatre to directing opera, was feared and admired, and then finally taken up as a model in both German states.

Few choreographers, however, are as austere as Berghans as opera directors. Sometimes one has the feeling that the movement on the stage is slightly overcharged. On the other hand, singers appear to value the choreographer’s precise way of working with body posture. There is an art to not demanding the impossible in body control and rather finding a deliberate combination (not necessarily a doubling) of movement, text and melody together with the singer, and this is something that choreographers, too, must learn, as they themselves testify.

As different as the directing styles of the choreographers mentioned and others such as Johann Kresnik, Reinhild Hoffmann and Daniela Kurz are, and in spite of occasionally too much moving about on stage, the choreographic approach has enriched opera, reminding us of the origin of this art and of our delight in it.

Melanie Suchy
The author, formerly active in the area of cultural promotion and international cultural exchange, now works as a freelance journalist.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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March 2008

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