The Bavarian State Ballet - history and presence

Dance has a long tradition in Munich, but it was only the artistic and financial independence from the opera, which Konstanze Vernon, with the support of the Bavarian State Government, finally achieved in 1988, that made it possible for the former Ballet of the Bavarian State Opera to develop into one of the outstanding companies in the international dance scene. The Bavarian State Ballet (since its successful appearence in New York in 1993 also known as Bavarian National Ballet) dances into its 15th year with the 2014/2015 season, under the direction of Ivan Liska and into its 25th year all in all.

Looking back on the surprisingly long Ballet history in Munich, you find the same roots as in all the other European capitals: the tradition of court festivities in the Italian and French manner of the 16th and 17th century. Short ballets were performed not only as part of operas, but also as independent works to begin or end a performance. From the beginning of the 19th century legendary names set highlights. Thus Paul and Marie Taglioni danced at the Munich National Theatre in 1825 at the re-opening after one of the then frequent theatre fires.

Every Munich tourist will remember the picture of a beautiful lady of Mediterranean complexion, clad in severe black velvet: Lola Montez. An adventuress of Irish-Scottish descent, she travelled through Europe, after a stormy love affair in Seville as a Spanish dancer. In Munich the ageing King Ludwig I was so impressed by her appearence that he had her painted for his famous portrait gallery and even elevated her to peerage. In the middle of summer, 1847, Lola Countess of Landsfeld exercised her new power by ordering a special performance of the ballet Giselle that had been produced at the Munich National Theatre in 1845, only four years after its Paris premiere. Since in August many of the dancers and theatre staff were away on holiday, Michel La Roche, Royal Court Solo dancer and ballet master, noted in his diary (August 27, 1847) about the revival " [...] I had no small trouble, but afterwards all went well [...] Demoiselle Holler (Friederike Holler, beloved local ballerina who was Giselle) was acclaimed by her admirers [...] I was in charge of the whole ballet."

Giselle remained in the repertoire for several decades. So it was performed on the occasion of the first guest season of Lucile Grahn in March and April 1851. " [...] and it pleased greatly in all parts", as ballet master La Roche noted, and again, on October 24, 1855, at the end of Lucile Grahn's third extended guest season in a number of different roles: "Today Mlle Grahn appeared on the stage for the last time, to a well filled house, was called eight times (i.e. curtain calls) and wreaths were thrown". In 1869 Lucile Grahn made Munich her home, worked as ballet mistress at the National Theatre till 1875, rehearsed and supervised the production of a number of ballets, among them Sylvia and Coppelia, and she assisted in the choreographic arrangements of the first performances of three Richard Wagner operas, Das Rheingold, Tannhäuser, and Die Meisterisnger. To this day, there is a street named in her honour.

Round the turn of the century the ballet school and company continued work in rather unspectacular ways, as part of the Royal, then State Opera. The main task was to provide dances within the operas. However, the ballet company continued to dance, survived both the "declaration of war" of the expressionistic German Dance with its war cry "the ballet is dead" and the black years of the two world wars.

In the autumn of the year 1945, Marcel Luipart set to work, assembling members of the company amidst the bomb ruins of what was once the Royal Opera House, in a room that still had four walls standing upright and apparently strong enough to support a temporary roof. For quite a few years dancers made their way to daily class and rehearsals across the debris and up a wooden staircase that became dangerously slippery in wet weather. Inspite of all difficulties Marcel Luipart staged a successful series of ballets, many taken from the heritage of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, however in his own choreographic adaption. In June 1948, he created the choreography of the world premiere of Werner Egk's Abraxas ( a ballet on the theme of Dr. Faustus) It caused a huge sancdal - hardliy comprehensible today. The Minister of Culture personally decreed to ban it from the programme, after only five performances, because of "too offensive permissiveness".

Two years under the direction of Victor Gsovsky (1950-1952) brought a first peak in the postwar development in Munich. Gsovky came from the now legendary Ballets des Champs-Elysées, cradle for a number of young innovative French dance artists, outside the stern rituals of the Opéra. Still firmly rooted in the classical Russian-French ballet technique they developed a new choreographic style integrating contemporary forms of dance and drama. And Gsovsky brought to Munich a young ballerina, Irène Skorik, whose stylistic perfection and lyrical expressiveness became an example for a whole generation of  dance students, the incarnation of the classical, romantic art of ballet for the audience. "Irène Skorik sets standards of mastery and spiritualisation of physical movement", wrote critic O. F. Regner.
From 1952-1954 Pia and Pino Mlakar directed the company, producing a diversity of ballets in addition to reviving some of their predecessor's. With Alan Carter and his wife and ballet mistress Joan Harris came the advent of the British dance tradition, of the system of dance technique and teaching that had been developed under the stict eye of Ninette de Valois for the London school of her Sadler's Wells, now Royal Ballet.

It is based on the teaching of former tsarist ballerinas who had come to London with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes or as emigrés in the wake of the revolution. This well-balanced technique proved particularly beneficial in the long run as standard for the training of children and dance students and that was perhaps Alan Carter's  most important contribution to the development of Ballet in Munich. He choreographed and staged a series of very divers ballets and dance dramas that provided the company with manifold opportunities of development.
Then in 1959, Heinz Rosen became Ballet Director for nearly a decade, he could build on a well-trained ensemble with strong soloists. Rosen came from the school of German expressionist dance of Rudolf von Laban. In all his dance creations his keen eye for scenic effect, his sense for dramatic impact of body lines in space prevailed over a relatively poor, repetitive dance vocabulary. However, he was lucky in having dancers of a strong artistic and creative personality, like Natasha Trofimova, Dulce Anaya, Heino Hallhuber, Franz Baur or Walter Matthes, who succeeded in translating his intentions into dance. In the course of years Rosen brought a number of outstanding dancers to Munich, partly as guests, partly as permanent members of the company. One engagement, of a young soloist from Berlin, from Tatjana Gsovsky's school, proved of particular consequence: Konstanze Vernon.

With the introduction of an annual ballet festival week in 1960 Heinz Rosen opened the door on the international ballet world. He manged to arrange guest performances of complete companies and of stars of the world renown who set measures for the Munich dancers and audience alike.

Particularly in the galas outstanding soloists from the dance metropolis of the West - Kopenhagen, London, New York, Paris - performed together with Soviet stars from the Bolshoi Theatre. And sometimes they danced the leads in ballets of the Munich repertoire. Another important, though small step into the international ballet scene were a few tours to European countries.

Until the re-opening of the reconstructed National Theatre in November 1963, ballet (and opera) performed in the Prinzregententheater, an artdéco theatre, with arena like auditorium, conceived like the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. After long years of disuse and complete renovation it was re-opened in 1996 and now serves as additional stage for the Bavarian State Ballet.

The two decades between the era of Rosen and the foundation of the Bavarian State Ballet were filled by a succession of rather short term directors. Particularly the years 1968-1970, when John Cranko directed the Munich Ballet in addition to his work in Stuttgart were of lasting importance. His artistic supervision continued through the directorship of his dancer colleague from Sadler's Wells days, Ronald Hynd. Many had hoped that Cranko would finally transfer his work to Munich, but he decided against it. However, he produced a number of his works from the Stuttgart repertoire, particularly his great ballet dramas, for the Munich company and also created several new works here and thus has exercised a major and lasting influence on the style of the company. His Romeo and Juliet, Onegin, and The Taming of the Shrew are still indispensable favourites in the repertoire of the Bayerisches Staatsballett. Other directors set artistic accents. Dieter Gacktetter persuaded Jerome Robbins  for the first time to work with a German company, the dramatic ballerina Lynn Seymour got Willam Forsythe to create a work in Munich and brought the Danish classic La Sylphide. This Bournonville jewel has remained in the repertoire ever since. Edmund Gleede encouraged Youri Vamos to do choreography and he is now one of the leading choreographers, even beyond Germany. Stefan Erler brought David Bintley, then on the brink of fame, to stage a complete evening of his ballets, his first appearence in Germany. In the mid-seventies the names of a dancer couple were on the roster of soloists, who were to return to Munich two decades later to lead the company as director and ballet mistress: Ivan Liška and Colleen Scott.

Unfortunately these years were marked by increasing tensions as result of the dependence of the ballet director from the direction of the opera. The search for a qualified new director seemed nearly hopeless. It is the great personal achievement of Konstanze Vernon, who, with her unwavering artistic and pedagogical vision as well as political dexterity, convinced the politicians responsible for the arts that sensible work with the ballet company can only be done withou interference from other theatrical branches, that effective work needs artistic and financial independence and sufficient space for studios and rehearsals. Konstanze Vernon, in the 60s and 70s Munich's great dramatic ballerina, had begun to lay the basis for the development of a good company years before, beside her dancing career. She had transformed the opera ballet school into a state academy, on a level with music and art academies, and established the Heinz-Bosl-Foundation to support dance students. The name perpetuates the memory of Heinz Bosl, her unforgettable Munich dance partner who died so tragically young from bone cancer. The foundation has quickly become an institution of world-wide renown. The Munich Ballet Academy was the first in Germany to base training on the Russian Waganova system and it engaged Russian pedagogues like Olga Lepeshinskaya long before "Glasnost". Successful participation in the famous international ballet competitions soon made the Munich Ballet Academy an internationally known address for excellent ballet training.

Such success finally convinced local politicians. In 1988 Konstanze Vernon was appointed to transform the opera ballet into an independent company, the Bayerisches Staatsballett. Of course, the company still shares the stage and workshops of the grand Nationaltheater with the opera.

The quality of the company and careful, long-term planning of the repertory made it possible to win universally demanded choreographers of world renown like Hans van Manen, John Neumeier, Jiří Kylián, Mats Ek, Lucinda Childs or Angelin Preljocaj to work with the Bayerisches Staatsballett. They appreciate the competence of the dancers and their readiness to meet new, unaccustomed demands.

On the other hand Vernon's efforts to foster choreographic talent within the company showed a first remarkable success: Davide Bombana has progressed to create full length works that won sufficient recognition to bring an offer from Florence where he was appointed ballet director with season 1998/1999, leaving a year later to pursue his career as a free lance choreographer.

In September 1998, Ivan Liška took up office as Artistic Director of the Bayerisches Staatsballett. For twenty years he was one of the leading soloists in John Neumeier's Hamburg Ballett, created and danced principal roles in nearly all ballets. He now intends to pass on his knowledge and wide experience as one of the outstanding dancers of his time to the members of his company.

The repertoire of the Bavarian State Ballet is perhaps the most diverse and artistically important to be found. It lists more than fifty ballets. There are the great full-length ballets: the romantic masterpieces Giselle and La Sylphide, the classics Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quijote, and those of our century: John Cranko's Onegin, Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée and Scènes de ballet as well as John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Nutcracker, The lady of the Camellias and Illusions - like Swan Lake. In addition there are works by Balanchine, Kylián, van Manen, Peter Martins as well as famous representatives of the modern dance scene like Lucinda Childs, Twyla Tharp, Angelin Preljocaj. Mats Ek's fascinating new version of Giselle and Shannon Rose - an Irish Love Story, the impressive dance drama which Youri Vamos created for the company, are further milestones in the company's history.
The first ever German performance of La Bayadère, the reconstruction of the complete version by Patrice Bart, was the final highlight of the Vernon era.

The premieres of the 2007/2008 season are chiefly creations. Jörg Mannes created a new full-length ballet on Shakespeare's The tempest, using music by three first-class composers: Bruckner, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. Martin Schläpfer, ballet director in Düsseldorf, created a work for a company other than his own, on music by Sofia Gubaidulina. The Italian avant-garde artist Simone Sandroni signed another new work. Both Schläpfer and Sandroni had an important personality by their side who did the stage and costume design for their ballets: rosalie.

Hans van Manen was represented during this season with his Adagio Hammerklavier and the revival of Große Fuge. The particular bond which has linked the Munich company and the Dutch choreographer for several decades has become especially evident when van Manen invited the Staatsballett to take part in a festival celebrating his 75th birthday in Amsterdam.

In 2007, the ballet world celebrated the 80th birthday of John Cranko. The Terpsichore Gala VII was dedicated to this artist who prematurely died in 1973. Besides, the Bayerisches Staatsballett danced Onegin which has been performed almost 250 times after its première in 1972 as homage to this genius who has become a classic.

In the season 2008/2009, the Bavarian State Ballet celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Ballet Russes, premiering two legendary pieces of Serge Diaghilev's company, Shéhérazade and Les Biches. Terence Kohler's creation Once Upon an Ever After which has been highly influenced by the spirit of Serge Diaghilev became a further hit ballet of the season. The great choreographer Jiří Kylián opened the Ballet Festival Week 2009 with his multimedia spectacle Zugvögel. The performance focuses on the tragic and triumphal sides of artistic life, accentuates the eventful history of Munich's Nationaltheater and was the prelude to the jubilee season 2009/2010.

The 20th anniversary of the Bavarian State Ballet was celebrated furthermore with a second premiere: Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness. Nacho Duato's ballet reflects in its furious and modern dance language the essence of Johann Sebastian Bach’s daily life as well as his music.

The Bavarian State Ballet resumed its brilliant jubilee year with a further 14 days-long festival week opened by William Forsythe's masterpiece Artifact. Forsythe is currently the most influential choreographer and his ballet presents – similar to Kylián's Zugvögel and yet in a very different manner – the immensely rich and varied possibilities of dance on stage today. After a pause of some years Mats Ek's Giselle had been revived in the Prinzregententheater. This avant-garde version of the great classic by the son of Birgit Cullberg and former assistant of Ingmar Bergmann was again a tour de force for the audience as well as for the dancers. Terence Kohler's work with the dancers turned out to be exquisitely productive. He was not only appointed to choreographer in residence by Ivan Liška but produced together with the ensemble an additional premiere to the end of the season: Série Noire – ein choreographischer Krimi.

Several important tours have earned the Bayerische Staatsballett international acclaim: first the resounding success, one might say triumph in the mecca of dance, New York, followed by visits to China (Peking and Shanghai) and the Philippines. Ivan Liška started his first season with a visit to the Budapest State Opera and a few days later the Bayerisches Staatsballett danced on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The Russian audience who still feel like the true guardians of classical ballet applauded the company from Munich enthusiastically. And so did Seville, Madrid, Venice and various cities in Italy as well as the Indian public in Dehli, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta, where the Bayerisches Staatsballett represented the Western Dance tradition, winning great acclaim for one of the great ballet companies in Europe. Montréal and Ottawa in Canada, Athens, Prague and Antalya were among the cities visited during the season 2003/2004. In October 2006 the company danced in Beijing and Shanghai, to complete the tours to the Far East one year later with guest performances in the Taiwanese capital of Taipeh. Even before that the Bayerisches Staatsballett was choosen to open the ballet season at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice.

In short - the Bayerisches Staatsballett remains an exciting cosmopolitan company, with members from more than thirty nations, directed with artistic and economic foresight in an intelligent infrastructure. Thus, as opposed to many other companies, the Staatsballett can boast of seventy performances in one city with an average sales quota of over ninety percent, which shows the public's unflagging interest in the company’s development.

Ballet Directors in Munich after World War 2

  • 15.10.1945–31.08.1948  Marcel Luitpart
  • 01.09.1948–31.08.1950  Rudolf Kölling
  • 01.09.1950–31.08.1952  Victor Gsovsky
  • 01.09.1952-31.08.1954  Pia und Pino Mlakar
  • 01.09.1954–31.08.1959  Alan Carter
  • 01.09.1959–31.09.1967  Heinz Rosen
  • 01.10.1967-31.08. 1970  John Cranko
  • 01.09.1970–31.08.1974  Ronald Hynd
  • 01.09.1974–31.08.1975  Dieter Gackstetter (provisional)
  • 01.09.1975–31.08.1978  Dieter Gackstetter
  • 16.11.1978–31.08.1980  Lynn Seymour
  • 01.09.1980–31.08.1984  Edmund Gleede
  • 01.09.1984–31.08.1986  Ronald Hynd
  • 01.09.1986–31.08.1989  Stefan Erler (provisional)


Formation of Bayerisches Staatsballett (Bavarian State Ballet)

  • Season 1989/1990: "Bayerisches Staatsballett in the course of Formation"
  • from season 1990/1991: "Bayerisches Staatsballett"
  • 01.09.1989–31.08.1998  Konstanze Vernon
  • 01.09.1998-31.08.2016  Ivan Liška