THE BAYERISCHES STAATSBALLETT – FROM ITS ORIGINS TO TODAY
From the court festivals of the 16th century through to the first ballet stars in the 19th century
If we look back over the surprisingly long history of ballet in Munich, we find, as in other major European cities, the tradition of court festivals in the French and Italian styles of the 16th and 17th centuries. Big names then became glittering highlights in the 19th century. Paul and Marie Taglioni, for example, appeared in Munich in 1825, when the Nationaltheater was reopened following a theatre fire.
King Ludwig I and the dancer, Lola Montez
Lola Montez (actually Elisabeth Rosanna Gilbert) was a stage artiste hailing from Irish-Scottish stock. She travelled across Europe as a “Spanish dancer” and enjoyed enormous success with her offering. As she tarried a while in Munich the ageing King Ludwig I drew her and her art into his entourage (and more), with the affair no doubt having much influence on his abdication in the crisis-shaken year of 1848. A year before, in 1847, Lola Montez had succeeded in performing Giselle at the Nationaltheater. It was beset with various problems, as the performance was to start in the middle of August, when almost a third of the theatre’s staff were on holiday, which would still be the case today, as in August all Bayerisches Staatsballett and Bayerische Staatsoper employees enjoy their well-earned summer break.
Lucile Grahn as an influential ballet mistress in the world of ballet and Richard Wagner’s operas
The Giselle production was restaged to accommodate the guest performance of the famous dancer, Lucile Grahn. Ms Grahn made Munich her adopted home in 1869 and worked as a ballet mistress until 1875. Among others she rehearsed the ballets Sylvia and Coppélia and collaborated with the dance composition of the premieres of Richard Wagner’s Rheingold, Tannhäuser and Meistersinger. During this time, the company and the ballet school formed an integral component of the royal, and then the state opera house. The dancers’ main task was to perform in the dance interludes and cooperate in aptly-named “movement choirs” for operas.
The Prinzregententheater opens
As the Bayerische Staatsoper’s second venue after the Nationaltheater, the Prinzregententheater opened in 1901 as a festival theatre for role model performances, which it continues to do to this very day. The building is an arena theatre reproduced in the style of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre with exemplary art nouveau charm. It served as the main venue from 1944 until 1963 when the Nationaltheater reopened, after which it was used less frequently and only renovated in 1996 after a thirty-year Sleeping Beauty sleep. Today it serves as the Bayerisches Staatsballett’s second venue.
Social radicalization and war years
In the 1920s modernity was heavily represented on the programme with works by Béla Bartók (The Wooden Prince) and Igor Stravinsky (Petrushka) or ballets by Manuel de Falla. In public life, radicalization tendencies became increasingly perceptible during this period. On one hand the inflation of 1923 resulted in demand for a strong leadership personality. On the other hand, the downward economic spiral became the argument for claiming the Jewish community had benefited from the crisis. While the democratic system was increasingly questioned in the 1930s, the nascent, radical National Socialists cast themselves as patrons of a music theatre culture that should follow the party doctrine. At the Nationaltheater, political convictions were reflected in the choice of works and the staffing policy. Following the seizure of power in 1933 in particular, rigorous measures were taken to rid the theatre of non-Arian performers and staff. Jewish visitors were ultimately barred completely from performances in 1938. The opera house on Max-Joseph-Platz was then destroyed during an air raid in the night of 2 into 3 October 1943. However the Bayerische Staatsoper began performances in the Prinzregententheater at the end of 1945 already. In 1951 the Friends of the Nationaltheater formed a citizens’ initiative to begin the Nationaltheater’s reconstruction, and it opened again in 1963. The Friends of the Nationaltheater continue to support opera and ballet activities to this very day.
The history of the opera and ballet divisions with regard to the Third Reich and the pre and post-war periods at Munich’s Nationaltheater was diligently reprocessed in the extremely readable history of the Bayerische Staatsoper (Wie man wird was man ist, Henschel Verlag).
Post-war years – Russian and English dance tradition
In the autumn of 1945, the new Director, Marcel Luitpart, got to work and began his direction by gathering the remaining ensemble members in a room in the middle of the bombed-out ruins under the roof of the Nationaltheater. Luitpart delivered an quite successful series of ballets, predominantly from the repertoire of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in his own adaptations. In June 1948, he also caused a jolly serious theatre scandal with the world premiere of Werner Egk’s Abraxas in the Prinzregententheater. The culture minister of the day personally saw to the work’s removal after just five performances because of, “far too great liberties taken”. Ballet in Munich then truly blossomed under his successor, Victor Gsovsky, who combined the Russian dance tradition with innovative choreographic trends in the young French dance scene. Gsovsky had previously worked at the Ballet des Champs-Elysées, among others, from whence he also brought Irène Skorik as his ballerina. She was not only ideal and a role model for an entire generation of dance students – she also represented the embodiment of romantic-classical dance art for the audience. In the following years (1952-1954) Pia and Pino Mlakar led the ensemble first of all. They were replaced as training masters by Alan Carter and his wife Joan Harris. And so the English school moved into Munich. This balanced dance technique proved itself in both training and education as extremely beneficial for the dancers’ development.
New dance languages under the direction of Heinz Rosen
The newer dance languages of the 20th century were afforded greater attention when Heinz Rosen took over at the helm of the Staatsoper’s ballet division in 1959. Rosen had been a student of Rudolf von Laban’s school of German expressive dance. He was lucky enough to have dance personalities of intensive creative power in the ensemble, such as Natascha Trofimova, Heino Hallhuber, Franz Baur or Walther Matthes, who could transpose his ideas and instructions into dance. In the years that followed, Rosen brought more and more outstanding dancers to Munich, some as guests, some as permanent members. The dedication by Konstanze Vernon, a young Berliner principal from the school of Tatjana Gsovsky, proved to be especially momentous here. Over two decades later, this performer indeed initiated the foundation of the Bayerisches Staatsballett as an independent division under the auspices of the Nationaltheater. She debuted in Munich in 1963 with the Ballet Festival Week in Carl Orff’s Nänie und Dithyrambe together with her long-standing stage partner Winfried Krisch.
Introduction of the Ballet Festival Week and opening of the reconstructed Nationaltheater
With the introduction of the Ballet Festival Week, Heinz Rosen opened the doors to the international ballet world in 1960. He succeeded in bringing big ensembles and stars from major European and American cities here to Munich, and so with the first version, the American Aaron Copland appeared with a guest performance by the American Ballet Theatre with a choreography (Rodeo) by Agnes de Mille. The ballet contributed two choreographies (Dance Panels in Seven Movements by Aaron Copland and Entrata-Nänie-Dithyrambe by Carl Orff) to the Nationaltheater’s reopening in 1963. Added to this, came the world premiere of Triptychon to symphonic music by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. The latter was a piece that evoked very ambivalent emotions among part of the audience with regard to the atrocities of the Second World War and can be described as Rosen’s courageous programme arrangement. All in all, the company’s style under Rosen’s direction is a typical expression of stage dance of the time, a mixture of classical and modern dance with elements of expressive dance.
1960-1990: Formative stimuli from John Cranko
In the two decades between the Rosen era and the foundation of the Bayerisches Staatsballett lie a series of short periods in office. Important and direction-setting here were above all the years when John Cranko, in addition to his work in Stuttgart, steered the destiny of ballet in Munich (1968-1970). He delivered three of his most beautiful narrative ballets for the company in Munich, which had been produced in Stuttgart: Romeo and Juliet, Onegin and The Taming of the Shrew. His artistic influence continued its effect during the director period of his dance colleague from his youth with the Royal Ballet, Ronald Hynd. The hope cherished by many that Cranko would move his field of influence and activity entirely to Munich, was not fulfilled, but he did have a major influence on the company’s style with the rehearsals of his most important works. To this very day, Cranko’s three great narrative ballets, Romeo and Juliet, Onegin and The Taming of the Shrew, are an indispensable part of the Bayerisches Staatsballett’s repertoire. Directors such as Dieter Gackstetter or the ballerina Lynn Seymour also set important accents. Gackstetter, for example, gained Jerome Robbins for his first work with a German ballet company. And Lynn Seymour brought Bournonville’s jewel, La Sylphide, to the stage. The development of Youri Vámos, for many years thereafter one of Europe’s most important choreographers, began under Director Edmund Gleede. Stefan Erler brought David Bintley to Germany for the first time. In the mid-1970s, a dance couple worked in Munich, which would return to the company more than two decades later as director and ballet mistress – Ivan Liška and Colleen Scott.
Konstanze Vernon and the foundation of the Bayerisches Staatsballett for the 1990/1991 season
In the 70s and 80s it became increasingly more evident that the company would have to be structurally organised in some other way, to be able to stay abreast of ballet’s international development and the increased dance requirements caused by new choreographic languages. The driving force in this period was Konstanze Vernon, an icon in the 60s and 70s, and not just in the Bavarian ballet scene. For Vernon, it was crystal-clear: Ballet in the state capital only had a future if, in addition to the classics, new forms of expression were introduced and responsibility by oneself was carried for one’s own artistic creativity. The necessary resources had to be created for these tasks and the Staatsballett had to become its own organizational and financial entity. Thanks to her political instinct she managed to convince the politicians responsible for culture to set up an artistically and budgetary independent ballet directorate and to create new rehearsal spaces. She had presented the success model in the preceding years with the conversion of the opera-ballet school into the state ballet academy, in close cooperation with the Heinz Bosl Foundation for ballet she had established. With an administrative act, the Cabinet finally decided in February 1989 to found the Bayerisches Staatsballett at the beginning of the 1990/1991 season. Konstanze Vernon utilised the 1989/1990 season as a preparatory year during which the talk was already of the “Bayerisches Staatsballett being formed”. The Bayerisches Staatsballett has been an independent artistic entity since September 1990. From a cultural-political standpoint, this represented an important transition to a separate and artistically autonomous division under the auspices of the Nationaltheater. Ballet has been trained and rehearsed at the Ballettprobenhaus rehearsal building at Platzl 7 in the heart of Munich’s old town since 1991. This independence resulted in an immense boost in quality, which meant coveted choreographers such as Hans van Manen, John Neumeier, Jiřì Kylián, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, Lucinda Childs, Twyla Tharp and Angelin Preljocaj could be won over for numerous productions.
Pronounced expansion of the repertoire during Ivan Liška’s direction period (1998-2016)
Following Konstanze Vernon’s time at the helm, Ivan Liška shaped the company’s renown from 1998 to 2016. Ivan Liška had been a formative principal at the Hamburg Ballet under John Neumeier before he assumed his position as Director of the Bayerisches Staatsballett after a year as Konstanze Vernon’s deputy. From 1998 to 2016, he built up a repertoire from more than seventy works ranging from classical to the avant-garde. In Liška’s period as director, we see productions of important choreographers such as Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe and Mats Ek, as well as the classical reconstructions of Raymonda, Le Corsaire and Paquita entrusted to dramaturgist Wolfgang Oberender. Pina Bausch’s Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen also represented a highpoint towards the end of Liška’s period in office. The educational work as part of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Campus Programme was also intensified and further expanded during this time thanks to the dedication of dramaturgist Bettina Wagner-Bergelt.
Bayerisches Junior Ballett foundation in 2010
In autumn 2010 the Bayerisches Staatsballett, the Heinz Bosl Foundation and the “Hochschule für Musik und Theater” in Munich founded what is now theBayerisches Junior Ballett Munich: The 16-member ensemble consists of eight volunteers from the Staatsballett and eight students from the Hochschule. With a scholarship from the Heinz Bosl Foundation they complete a two-year excellence training course, are used in Bayerisches Staatsballett repertoire performances and go on tour with their own productions.
Igor Zelensky as Director – 2016 until today
In August 2016 Igor Zelensky took over from Ivan Liška as the third director since the Bayerisches Staatsballett was founded in 1990/1991. Zelensky studied at the Institute of Ballet in Tiflis and at the Waganowa Institute in St. Petersburg. In 1988, he made his debut at the Mariinsky Theatre and was promptly entrusted with the main roles of the classic repertoire. For many years, he was the undisputed star at the top of the male principals at the Mariinsky Ballet, then the Kirov Ballet. Since his first appearance at the Bayerisches Staatsballett as part of the Terpsichore Gala I in October 1999, he has been a regular guest principal in Munich. In addition to maintaining the Bayerisches Staatsballett’s wide-ranging repertoire, Igor Zelensky has also brought the works of internationally coveted choreographers such as Sharon Eyal, Yuri Grigorovich, Wayne McGregor, Christian Spuck and Christopher Wheeldon to Munich. An important goal for him is to also offer a platform to younger choreographers, who include names such as Andrey Kaydanovskiy, Philippe Kratz, Edward Liang and Liam Scarlett. At the beginning of the 2020/2021 season Andrey Kaydanovskiy was named the Bayerisches Staatsballett’s resident choreographer, and in spring 2021, he produced his first full-length ballet with the Munich company, The Blizzard.