Ballet Dortmund's new languages of movement

The tour de force at the Israel Opera begins with Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, created by William Forsythe.

 BALLETT DORTMUND dancers perform ‘The Rite of Spring.’ (photo credit: LESZEK JANUSZEWSKI)
BALLETT DORTMUND dancers perform ‘The Rite of Spring.’
(photo credit: LESZEK JANUSZEWSKI)

Ballet aficionados will get a unique opportunity on Wednesday, June 6, and the three following nights to enjoy a unique evening composed of three brilliant works. 

The tour de force at the Israel Opera begins with Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, created by William Forsythe in homage to the late great choreographer George Balanchine. It continues with The Rite of Spring by Edward Clug, who offers the audience something few dared imagine possible – a bold new vision that goes beyond the 1913 same-titled work created by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes.

The evening concludes with Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, a work for 16 dancers so admired by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands she gifted it to King Harald V of Norway.

The relationship between ballet, royalty, power and the state is centuries old. The art form grew from candle-lit balls where the mighty and the good danced the night away. It leapt, fully grown, from the head of yet another monarch – King Louis XIV of France. Other absolute rulers, among them Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong, would also have intense relations with the art. 

“Louis was called the Sun King because he danced the part of Apollo,” Offer Zaks said.

Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino from the Dortmund Ballet.   (credit: PR)Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino from the Dortmund Ballet. (credit: PR)

A dancer and choreographer in his own right, he once confronted Hugo Chávez of Venezuela when the latter insisted Zaks switch a ballet theme from Anne Frank to Palestinian issues, Zaks explained the French king “decided art has power, and that he would conquer Europe not with force, but with French culture.”

When Louis danced as Apollo during a 13-hour performance of Ballet Royal de la Nuit in 1653 he was a teenager. Yet the strength of his conviction would project French civilization into Russia, where Marius Petipa would lead the Imperial Ballet, and fuse the art to the Russian soul when producer Sergei Diaghilev would open the Ballets Russes in Paris.

If you saw Natalie Portman in the 2010 film Black Swan, it was because Petipa and Lev Ivanov revived Swan Lake in 1895. 

“The ballet, formed in the 17th century, shaped a whole new set of physical behavior for the nobility,” Zaks said. Graceful and quick, he quickly mimics how peasants used to walk during those years, dragging their feet as if carrying a sack of grain – then assumes an erect posture like a soldier with a medals-laden chest – at this point he quickly goes through the five basic ballet stands to present how the nobility aspired to be. 

“The ballet introduced a new ideal of moving in space,” Zaks offered, “a graceful way of movement as well as behavior.”

When Castro took over Cuba in 1959 he invited ballerina Alicia Alonso to show the world the revolution can dance. When Zaks accepted a 1993 invitation by Alonso to visit the island, he became the first Israeli to dance there, alongside his wife, Maria Barrios Zaks.

Authoritarian societies, which once existed in the USSR and now exist in, for example, China, share several key factors that shape their ballet culture. “In the USSR people did not have a television, they went out to see a ballet show that would distract them from their troubles,” Zaks said.

“Everything looks beautiful in the ballet,” he chuckled, “the ballerina always finds her prince in the end.”

In China today, the ballet is heavily influenced by the style developed by Agrippina Vaganova, who fought fiercely to protect the integrity of Russian ballet under the Soviets. The choreography cultivated in China is different from the one born under Balanchine in the US when he co-founded the New York City Ballet. 

When Isadora Duncan danced barefoot, she dispensed, with one idea, the en pointe perfected by Pavlova, to reach a more natural human movement. When Pina Bausch began working with gravity and the feeling of weight, in contrast with the classical ballet ideal of a female dancer being weightless like a sylph, she advanced the art.

When the National Ballet of China wanted a ballet adaptation of the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, it invited a young choreographer who studied at the Bausch school in Germany – his name was Xin Peng Wang. The success of that production eventually led to him serving as the artistic director of Ballett Dortmund, where he recently created a ballet adaptation to the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber

“The language of dance is an international one,” Zaks suggested. “If you watch the show you will be able to follow the plot, and this is what is so wonderful about this art, the art of dance. Movement begins in the place words end.”

Arms become streams

“ARMS BECOME streams,” says the dramatic reader who performs in Cacti while the dancers begin the performance. In Clug’s version to Rite of Spring, water is poured on the stage, and the ballerinas, assisted by male dancers, glide through them as if they were swans. Forsythe has his dancers toss, lift and twist the ballerinas they work with in borderline aggression. 

If, in the court of the French king, the ballet was meant to offer a rational order of society with the Sun King at its center, then this ballet is almost fearful in how truthful it is to the emotional reality of our post-COVID-19 age of war in Europe.

“The Ballett Dortmund troupe is very international,” said one of its youngest members, Israeli dancer Shai Ottolenghi. “At the moment, there is not even one German dancer in it, people come here from different schools to make art together – it is a very magical process.”

Ottolenghi admires many Israeli choreographers and expressed his deep desire to eventually return to Israel and work with them. At the same time, he deeply appreciates the unique chance Dortmund offers to participate in works created by world-class masters of the art today. “There is more interest here, in Germany, in the sort of dancing I want to do at the moment,” he concluded.

Theater Dortmund general director Tobias Ehinger said it has chosen a program with works by choreographers who have not been shown in Israel before.

“We are aiming at a cultural exchange,” he said. “We will return in 2023 with a full scale, 70-dancers strong production.” Troupe members will meet young students at several schools during their short stay here.

“In a democracy,” Zaks said, “support is given to dancers and nobody interferes with the artistic content of their performances. In a dictatorship, they do exactly that and the dancers are told to deal with the revolution, the state or the figure of the ruler. People like the artists coming here are interested in artistic freedom. Just as Diaghilev was able to bring together the best set and costume designers, the greatest musicians, the finest dancers to Paris for his ballet – Dortmund does the same today.”

Ballett Dortmund will present Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude by William Forsythe, The Rite of Spring by Edward Clug and Cacti by Alexander Ekman’s at the Israel Opera between June 8 and June 11. 

Ballett Dortmund will also perform Paradiso by Xin Peng Wang instead of Rite of Spring at Jerusalem Theatre on June 12 and at Haifa Auditorium on June 14.