A Swiss-German Requiem

The Dusseldorf Ballet dances to Brahms's composition

The Düsseldorf Ballet (photo credit: PR)
The Düsseldorf Ballet
(photo credit: PR)
As a young man, Martin Schlapfer, a student at London’s Royal Ballet School, treated himself to a record. It was the first record he had ever purchased for himself. Far away from his home in eastern Switzerland, Schlapfer allowed himself this small indulgence, a recording of Brahms’s A German Requiem . Now, nearly 40 years later, Schlapfer is touring the world with A German Requiem , an evening-length choreography set to Brahms’s composition. As the artistic director of Ballet Am Rhein, or Dusseldorf Ballet, Schlapfer finally found a way to express his love for A German Requiem through dance. The company’s next stop will be the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. “It’s always been one of my favorite pieces of music,” explains Schlapfer over the phone. It is early in the morning, and Schlapfer will soon teach a company class, the highlight of his daily activities. “For Brahms, it is not a requiem in the classic sense. It is about the human condition. The questions in this piece are more about doubt and despair rather than Christian themes. I really like the fact that Brahms didn’t mean to point the finger and make an ordinary requiem but did something different.”
Schlapfer’s career has taken him around the globe several times, first as a dancer and then as an artistic director, teacher and choreographer. In 1999, he arrived in Mainz, Germany, where he spent a decade building up the local ballet company before relocating to Dusseldorf. One year later, Tanz Magazine named Schlapfer Choreographer of the Year. Having gotten off to a running start, Schlapfer decided it was time to take a big chance. “I never thought of choreographing to A German Requiem . I was meant to make a new work that would premiere on July 4. I knew that I had to fill the house and that it had to be something special. It was interesting to me to present A German Requiem during the summer, not where it usually belongs in the winter world,” he says.
For Schlapfer, the process was full of challenges, uncertainty and discovery. “The beginning of any piece is always hard. It is full of fear for me. You don’t know why one piece works and another doesn’t. There’s no clear key to what makes a piece magic and another not. You prepare your mind, do your research, and then you go in front of the dancers. We started with eight female dancers running in a chain towards the audience. That was our first image,” he says. This upcoming tour represents a number of things for Schlapfer. For one, touring to Israel will increase the international exposure of Ballet Am Rhein, a major goal for the company. There is also a political element of this engagement that does not escape him. “In my opinion, Tel Aviv is a perfect example of dealing with today’s issues and trying to integrate them. Coming as a German company to Israel is in itself an important thing. We are bringing a piece of art, not heritage, but A German Requiem is a significant piece of German music. We are 21 nationalities working together for something we love, which is dance. In its small way, it’s an example that you can overcome the social, political, cultural differences if you just look at who you are,” he asserts.
Whereas most of his contemporaries favor mixed bills to one-part programs, Schlapfer opted to present Israeli audiences with one work, A German Requiem . “It’s our first visit and, as such, I prefer to bring a full-length piece. I do full-length pieces very rarely. I feel that this work represents me and the company at our possible best. Requiem is one of my favorite works,” he says.
Ballet Am Rhein will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on October 20 to 24. For more information, visit www.israel-opera.