What Should Ballet Dramaturgy Achieve? by Horst Koegler

by Horst Koegler
Transcribed from a lecture given in 1976 at the Noverre Society in Stuttgart, Germany -June 29, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Ilona Landgraf

Had anyone asked John Cranko what ballet drama­turgy is, I ima­gine he might have ans­wered, “Ballet drama­turgy is the fig­ment of a frus­tra­ted German ballet critic’s ima­gi­na­tion, and that per­son is Horst Koegler.” I have no illu­sions what­so­ever about my per­sis­tent demand for more bal­let dra­ma­turgy. I dwell on it in order to cor­rect an in­to­ler­able si­tu­ation that puts ballet at a dis­ad­van­tage com­pared to drama and opera.

Because the term bal­let dra­ma­turgy didn’t exist in the past and bal­let got along with­out it, some people today do not see the need for it. Al­though I can under­stand this at­ti­tude his­to­ri­cally, I don’t agree. Theater dra­ma­turgy has ex­is­ted ever since Aris­totle’s Poetics, which spelled out the rules for comedy and tra­gedy. We also know what Gott­hold Les­sing’s Ham­burg Dra­ma­turgy ac­com­plished for the Ger­man theater. Opera dra­ma­turgy is less ex­pli­citly fixed and, des­pite the Flo­ren­tine Came­rata’s erudite debates on the topic, never produced globally accepted standards.

Still, evidence for the existence of both opera dramaturgy and theater dramaturgy can be found on our stages, even if here in Stuttgart it’s doubtful. But whoever heard of ballet dramaturgy in our theaters until now? The profession of ballet dramaturge doesn’t even exist. Where ballet dramaturgy is actually practiced in our country (and I don’t exclude Stuttgart by any means), it is either in the safekeeping of the ballet director himself (as with John Neumeier in Hamburg) or is an adjunct of opera dramaturgy.


What amazes me more is that our contemporary dance theater companies, whose directors (such as Jochen Ulrich in Cologne and formerly Gerhard Bohner in Darmstadt) are quite aware that ballet (or dance) dramaturgy is needed, do not advocate for the establishment of a dramaturge position in their own companies. Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, too, showed no such initiative. Then, Edmund Gleede [director of the Bavarian State Ballet] fell into her lap. I don’t even know if she’s especially happy about that, although the recent Stravinsky ballet evening in Wuppertal is the only one in the three years there of Bausch’s creative work that, owing to Gleede’s participation, has a total dramaturgic concept.

“Where to begin with what doesn’t exist at all?” I hear the bal­let­goer ask. This is a dif­fi­culty I don’t un­der­es­ti­mate. But without ef­fec­tive en­cou­rage­ment by thea­ter people, hardly any­one will tackle this la­bo­rious task, this pi­o­nee­ring achieve­ment. I’m con­vin­ced that there are young stu­dents at our uni­ver­si­ties who would be in­te­rested in such a job and would be qua­li­fied for it if they were en­cou­raged.

I know at least one woman at the Uni­ver­sity of Mu­nich who would be an ideal bal­let dra­ma­turge, if only she were given the chance. How­ever, even in Hamburg, where the opera luxu­riates with four es­tab­lished dra­ma­turgy posts, Neu­meier seems re­lu­ctant to offer her a re­gu­lar po­si­tion. For the du­ra­tion she is em­ployed piece­meal, while Neu­meier him­self, who is ap­pre­hen­sive of “dra­ma­turgy,” refers to her as a re­sear­cher, an in­ves­ti­gator, some­one who sup­ports him in ex­plo­ring sour­ces for his next pro­duc­tion. She ex­plored so tho­roughly, found so much new ma­terial and new in­sights, that Neu­meier’s up­coming Swan Lake pro­mises to be sig­ni­ficant and a sen­sation. On the other hand, Stutt­gart thought of pur­cha­sing from the Kirov the exis­ting antiquated 1952 production of The Sleeping Beauty by Konstantin Sergeyev, rather than mounting its own.

What I wonder about again and again is why no dramaturges emerge from the ranks of the dancers themselves. Often the transition to another profession is really problematic for them. During their careers as dancers, the most intelligent must have realized how much today’s ballets all suffer from a lack of dramaturgy. I think that especially dancers, with their knowledge of the medium, are qualified to be ideal ballet dramaturges, provided they pick up the necessary knowledge. Slumbering here is the chance for a successful profession – unrecognized up to now.

I am advo­cating for ballet dra­ma­turges not from ulterior mo­tives. I do not in­tend to be­come one my­self, and ce­rtainly not at the Stutt­gart Bal­let. Just as I’d never want to be­come a bal­let com­pany di­rec­tor any­where. I did my ap­pren­tice­ship in the theater before em­bar­king on writing and haven’t the least am­bi­tion to re­enter by the stage door as a dra­ma­turge or stage director at the opera (which I already was), nor as bal­let di­rec­tor or general manager.

Even if cros­sing from theater to jour­na­lism has become more and more fre­quent re­cently, that’s not my stri­ving. I con­sider my­self a bal­let jour­nalist in the broa­dest sense of the word. I simply love to write, as dif­fi­cult and in­crea­singly hard as it is to exist as a free­lance bal­let jour­nalist these days. Should I be frust­rated? This might be the case, only I haven’t rea­lized it my­self up to now. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake.

Back to bal­let dra­ma­turgy. What should it be and what should it achieve? We have to dis­tin­guish between two dif­fe­rent kinds of dra­ma­turgy. One deals with the pro­cess of cre­a­ting a per­for­mance; the other de­fines the pro­file of the re­per­tory, maybe even of the com­pany. Any­one who saw The Prince of Hom­burg at the Ber­liner Schau­bühne at the Halle­sches Tor ex­peri­enced the ideal si­tu­ation in which both kinds of dra­ma­turgy were manifested. A completely new perception of a familiar classical play was the result of the interaction of dramaturgy and production. This dramaturgically initiated new perception became the hallmark of the repertory and the intention of the theater.

A stylistic phenomenon of similar coherence I find only in one ballet ensemble, New York City Ballet. Yet there is just as little deliberately practiced dramaturgy there as at The Royal Ballet or the Ballet of the 20th Century. The example of Berlin’s Schaubühne shows that dramaturgy doesn’t exist in isolation. It depends on what is being prepared for staging and on the production, by which the piece (whether drama, opera, ballet, and everything in between) is made alive in the theater. I overvalue the capabilities of dramaturgy not in the slightest. A production without dramaturgy is possible, and happens at most of our theaters. Whereas dramaturgy without production remains merely theory and is condemned to sterility.

Referring to ballet, is dra­ma­turgy only an­other ex­pres­sion for draf­ting a lib­retto or sce­na­rio? Who­ever be­lieves this is pro­foun­dly wrong! A bal­let dra­ma­turge is not a lib­ret­tist. De facto, it might seem to be the case. John Cranko was his own bal­let dra­ma­turge, even if he pre­ten­ded not to know it. He con­sidered a “dra­ma­turge” to be a ty­pi­cally Ger­man in­ven­tion. But there is no doubt that his big story bal­lets have their own dra­ma­turgy. Con­tained in his Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, and Carmen, and also his stagings of clas­sics like Swan Lake and Nutcracker, there are en­tirely de­li­berate, highly in­tel­lec­tual con­si­derations that preceded the creative process of cho­reo­gra­phing. He might have phrased it dif­ferently, even re­jected the term dra­ma­turgy as too high­brow and pre­ferred to talk of pro­ducing a li­bretto or a sce­nario.

So, Cranko was dra­ma­turge, li­bret­tist, cho­reo­grapher, and stage director, an im­pos­sible bur­den that is still commonly prac­ticed in ballet. It cer­tainly could also be blamed for the rapid wea­ring out of our cho­reo­gra­phers’ core power for making bal­lets, simply be­cause they are phy­si­cally over­chal­lenged. Today, nobody would expect an opera composer to write the libretto, compose the music, rehearse the parts with the singers and the orchestral musicians, and also mount and conduct the opera. Yet all this is expected quite naturally of today’s choreographers, whether the great Balanchine or the little Miss X in the middle of nowhere.

This example shows that choreography is the creative achievement of an author, an achievement comparable only to the job of a dramaturge or a composer, not a postcreative role done by a stage director or conductor. Indeed, choreographers are partly to blame for the crazy demands on their vigor.

One of the main reasons for this is that ballet still hasn’t developed a generally accepted notation system, one that allows choreographers to compose their ballets at their desks at home in order to hand over the choreographic score to the ballet’s stage directors for production afterwards. I know this is an idea considered by many dancers and choreographers as somehow absurd, but I think of today’s way of creating choreography on the living body of a dancer as an entirely anachronistic and above all uneconomical working process. It is simply outdated in this century.

However, there’s an­other rea­son for this no lon­ger jus­ti­fi­able over­strain of our cho­reo­gra­phers: their re­fu­sal to de­le­gate co-crea­tive res­pon­si­bi­lity. In this res­pect the cho­reo­gra­phers of the past ac­tually were one step ahead. In the past century, but partly still in Diaghilev’s time, they com­mis­sioned others to write their li­bret­tos. Neither La Syl­phide, Giselle, Swan Lake, nor Sle­eping Beauty has a li­bret­to by the bal­let’s ini­tial cho­reo­gra­pher.

Yet in these days our cho­reo­gra­phers with­out ex­cep­tion feel ob­liged to write all their li­bret­tos them­selves. It hap­pens with Cranko as with Tetley, Béjart, Mac­Millan, Neu­meier, and Gri­go­ro­vich. Where the whole world now­adays aims to de­le­gate res­pon­si­bi­lity, our cho­reo­gra­phers can­not get enough of it, es­peci­ally since in most cases they are also bal­let di­rec­tors, par­ti­cu­larly of our largest troupes.

They all behave a little bit like Wagner, but he was wise enough to restrain his appetite for power to a few festival weeks in Bayreuth and he did leave the conducting to his staff there, while today our choreographers try to practice the Wagnerian plenitude of power for twelve months a year. No wonder constraints in the daily course of business often obstruct their view of crucial contemporary truths, for what’s happening in related artistic fields, for new perspectives and new approaches.

Raised in the world of ballet and shaped by its training method’s discipline, their minds work in well-trodden paths. It has always been done this way, has proved itself, and so it has to be like this. They don’t have the power any more to search for new approaches. In most cases they lack orientation about what’s going on next to them and are unable to use it as stimulation for their own work.

My concern is less a theo­re­tical in­ves­ti­gation of the term ballet dra­ma­turgy than a high­ligh­ting of con­crete exam­ples from today’s bal­let world, exam­ples of work for which a drama­turge should be a ne­ces­sity. I con­sider it a role for some­one who pro­vides ideas and is a super­visory authority for the cho­reo­gra­pher, a first dis­cus­sion partner.

The role should in­clude being the fa­ci­li­ta­tor for a piece, de­ter­mi­ning what should be de­ve­loped from scratch, and someone who moderates the dis­cus­sions among cho­reo­gra­pher, li­bret­tist, com­po­ser, and stage and cos­tume de­sig­ner. The ideal bal­let dra­ma­turge should be equip­ped with a pro­found gene­ral know­ledge in the hu­mani­ties, be com­pletely fa­mi­liar with bal­let his­tory and in­formed up-to-the-minute about what’s going on in every ar­tis­tic area. He or she should have a flair for artistic de­velop­mental pro­ces­ses and above all a skill that is a sine qua non: a great deal of ima­gi­na­tion. A must is to ar­ti­culate and reason, not just opin­ionate.

Still other traits are tactical diplomacy and being reasonable, but not dogmatic, since the dramaturge’s closest working partner is the choreographer. And choreographers, at least the really creative choreographers, are mostly extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable people. So the dramaturge ought to know how to deal with people, especially those who call themselves “artists.” This ideal ballet dramaturge did exist, even if he himself had no idea that he was one and considered himself an impresario: Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, the creator of the Ballets Russes, the company that from 1909 to 1929 set the course for modern ballet.

The dramaturge is a pro­du­cer of ideas, a se­du­lous sti­mu­lus who, with his know­ledge of the con­tem­po­rary art scene, con­stan­tly places new sug­ges­tions into the cho­reo­gra­pher’s hands. Even more than is the case in drama and opera, ballet people take exis­ting pie­ces, the so-called clas­sics as well as pie­ces of the modern re­per­tory, as an im­mu­table source for the li­bret­to and the score, with the ori­gi­na­lity of the pro­duc­tion ari­sing mostly from the decor.

Cranko seemed per­fectly aware of the need to see es­pe­cially the clas­sics from a new pers­pec­tive. His Swan Lake pro­duc­tions in Stutt­gart and Mu­nich allow us to draw this con­clu­sion, but most of all his Nut­cracker in Stutt­gart, which his new dra­ma­turgy li­be­rated from the cap­ti­vity of being a Christ­mas bal­let and made into a bal­let for all sea­sons. How­ever, Cranko would have staged this pro­duc­tion with much more care and con­sis­tency and avoided the mishap with the decor had there been con­stant su­per­vi­sion by a dra­ma­turge, for example, one like Diaghilev.

Neumeier pursued Cranko’s approach for his Nutcracker: he also converted it into a ballet fairy tale for all seasons but went one step farther by expanding it into an allegory on the art of ballet. His Drosselmeier is none other than the great Petipa himself, author of the original libretto. By all accounts from Hamburg we will experience something similar in Swan Lake, originating from Cranko but surpassing Cranko, namely the connection to Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Actually this reference existed already in the Munich production. It was not yet more distinct than in Stuttgart, being only a stage set and a reference in the decor, both by Jürgen Rose. That Neumeier seems to be identifying Prince Siegfried with Tchaikovsky and Ludwig II (according to Hans Mayer’s new book Außenseiter [Outsider]) is of eminent current interest.

That’s the current status of bal­let’s clas­sical dra­ma­turgy. Eight years ear­lier Cranko took up his work in Stutt­gart. Today people in Stutt­gart talk a lot about pre­ser­ving the Cranko heritage and about for­ti­fying the foun­dation Cranko created. Ob­vi­ously how­ever, he was much more ad­vanced in his un­der­stan­ding of the clas­sics than those res­pon­sible for bal­let in Stutt­gart today.

Rather than moun­ting a pro­duc­tion of its own, Stut­tgart thought of buying the Kirov’s exis­ting 1952 Sleeping Beauty. How Hans-Peter Doll, himself coming from dra­ma­turgy, and Glen Tetley, who con­fronts us with fu­tu­ris­tic dra­ma­turgy that no one else com­pre­hends, both of them res­pon­sible for Stutt­gart Bal­let, could even think of buying such a dated ver­sion of The Sleeping Beauty is in­com­pre­hen­sible to me.

I ack­now­ledge the dif­fi­cul­ties in­ter­na­ti­o­nally renowned cho­reo­gra­phers will have when expected to work from a new con­cept and to col­la­bo­rate with a dra­ma­turge. In the case of The Sleeping Beauty it must in­clude every­thing ex­tant of Petipa’s ori­ginal cho­reo­gra­phy and it must be as pure as pos­sible. Sooner or later we’ll have to face this if we don’t want to fall back to a pre-Cranko stage of de­ve­lop­ment in Stutt­gart and else­where.

Ballet people are un­aware of how the pro­duc­tions of clas­sics could pro­fit from co­ope­ration with a pro­duc­tion dra­ma­turge. Indeed, the bal­let clas­sics still have to be re­vam­ped for con­tem­po­rary thea­ter. Only then will they be taken se­ri­ously on the in­tel­lec­tual level of the best pro­duc­tions of some­one like Giorgio Strehler, Peter Brook, or Peter Stein. This can hap­pen only when cho­reo­gra­phers fi­nally decide to call on ade­quate dra­ma­turges as col­la­bo­rators.

Com­pared to the in­no­va­tion of using dra­ma­turgy for bal­let clas­sics, as a sti­mu­lus for crea­ting new pie­ces it seems even more im­por­tant. In that, Cranko was de­fi­ni­tely on the right track. he chose this path out of a tra­di­tional un­der­stan­ding of bal­let. He was the first Western choreographer of our time who realized the need to create new, program-filling works. The results were Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, and Carmen. There is no doubt that he would have continued on this path, in which case what kind of works might have emerged had he cooperated with a dedicated dramaturge who could have offered him options other than clinging to the literary original?

One is happy to see that Cranko avoided a straightforward reproduction of the Onegin plot at least once, with the so-called “mirror” pas de deux. Less fortunate was his device of having the two women participate in the Lenski-Onegin duel. No playwright or opera librettist would dare to be so unsophisticated today. But these were at least attempts, although they are no models for contemporary ballet, and for musical reasons, too. With all due respect for the effort involved in Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s [composer of Onegin and other Cranko ballets] Tchaikovsky and Scarlatti potpourris, artistically they are not worth mentioning.

When Diaghilev and Massine dis­co­vered Pergolesi’s music in ar­chives in Naples, scores that had been to­tally for­gotten, Diaghilev com­mis­sioned Stra­vin­sky to com­pose a new score for Pulcinella. It emer­ged, des­pite all of Per­go­lesi’s in­spi­ra­tion, as an ab­so­lu­tely dis­tinc­tive Stra­vin­sky bal­let score that has pro­ven its via­bi­lity apart from stage pro­duc­tions. Later, Stra­vin­sky dealt simi­larly with Tchai­kov­sky for Le Baiser de la Fée.

Who can ima­gine the music of Onegin or The Taming of the Shrew as suites accep­table for the con­cert hall? More likely, Wolf­gang Fort­ner’s score for Cranko’s Carmen might be. Yet the Stutt­gart Theater was overly chal­len­ged by this score. Why, des­pite re­peated an­nounce­ments of re­vi­vals, have per­for­man­ces of this ballet been kept to an ab­so­lute minimum?

In aesthetics and dramaturgy the multiact Cranko ballets are stuck in the nineteenth century. It is an aesthetic that produced questionable works for opera like Gounod’s Faust, Thomas’ Hamlet, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte, but at least they came up with new music back then. Here, too, it is Neumeier who is on the way to taking a crucial step forward. Nobody should blame him for being extremely cautious in this by scheduling new combinations that consist of several pieces, yet reach for dramaturgical coherence.

Neumeier’s program in Frankfurt, “Pictures, 1, 2, 3,” pointed the way, so did his brilliant contraposition of Le Baiser de la Fée and Daphnis and Chloe as Nordic winter dream and Mediterranean summer exaltation. His equally adventurous and persuasive pairing of Gluck’s Don Juan with Sacre made sense as a rumination on the impossibility of love and its consequences. These two ballets suggested a step toward the mulitact, coherent form.

Then, there was his Meyerbeer-Schumann in Hamburg, a tremendous dramaturgical effort. It was only partially successful but did attempt to assemble existing material into a larger, new work of art. Neumeier made it a distinctive statement. Afterwards he moved sideways: Mahler’s Third Symphony to test this dramaturgical conquest of virgin soil with an unaltered piece of music of exorbitant dimension. One can only admire Neu­meier’s wis­dom, how he gra­du­ally ap­proa­ches the task of a the­ma­ti­cally co­he­rent, eve­ning-length bal­let to new music. That, of course, is the goal: a pro­gram-fil­ling work arising from the cho­reo­gra­pher’s col­la­bo­ration with a re­nowned com­poser of our time.

Why is there no­where an at­tempt, for ex­ample, to of­fer some bal­let equi­valent to what Bertolt Brecht and Franz Xaver Kroetz (I know that he has writ­ten no pro­gram-fil­ling piece up to now) or Harold Pinter and Edward Bond have to offer in spoken theater? It’s be­cause there are no bal­let dra­ma­turges ca­pa­ble of in­ven­ting com­pa­rable con­tent and form in col­la­bo­ration with cho­reo­gra­phers. But do we want to give up hope and resign ourselves forever to ballet lagging behind the dramaturgical progress of contemporary theater, and to persuade ourselves that this deficiency is compensated for by the choreographic contribution? For me, No, at least not yet.

Even during Cranko’s era I wasn’t satisfied with this. The crucial point of my criticism of Cranko is that his dramaturgy was stuck in the past. I cannot understand why a man with the education and the knowledge of Walter Erich Schäfer, who has a flair for development in contemporary theater, didn’t help Cranko out of this impasse. My reviews of Cranko have always been an attempt to lure him out of this dramaturgical attachment to the nineteenth century. Probably I asked too much of him. Presumably Cranko would have needed a dramaturge he trusted, the Diaghilev every choreographer could use. And in this I don’t exclude Balanchine, Ashton, Béjart, MacMillan, Grigorovich, and Neumeier – not even my friend Hans van Manen.

By the way, I consider van Manen an excellent dramaturge, in some respects ahead of Neumeier – not in terms of the multiact, thematically coherent form, which doesn’t interest him at the moment, or of needed revision of the classics – but in terms of clear and conclusive dramaturgy. For every piece, van Manen sets himself a new thematic and formal task, then realizes it with admirable logic.

I consider dramaturgy as necessary for anecdotal or dramatic storytelling. Van Manen in the single-act form he prefers is simple, clear, and straightforward in his dramaturgy. A shining example of this is the ballet Mutations, for which van Manen choreographed the film sequences, while Tetley was responsible for the stage choreography. The dramatic conception of integrating film and stage was van Manen’s and it’s a shame that it was overlooked, because Mutations was the first respectable nude ballet of the recent past.

For van Manen, a new ballet production is always linked with the dramaturgy, which has to be developed specifically for the piece and topic. He would profit from cooperation with a dramaturge, too, because of the pressure that would be lifted so that he could concentrate on choreographing. However, I don’t believe van Manen would agree with me, because for him dramaturgy and choreography are identical.

A lot of other choreographers will claim that this is the case for them too. Because they are their own dramaturges, they believe they need no further help. But there are very few choreographers able to think dramaturgically, at least like a Neumeier or van Manen who do think that way. Tetley, for example, could make clearer, more understandable, more reasonable and straightforward ballets if he collaborated with a dramaturge.

Un­doubtedly, though, he and most of his col­leagues don’t want this. They pre­fer to pose riddles because they don’t want the viewers to rea­lize that they have no­thing to say. To be clear and com­pre­hen­sible the crea­tor must be able to think clearly and un­der­stand the con­tent to be con­veyed. Tet­ley I con­sider to be an im­por­tant cho­reo­gra­pher but an ab­so­lu­tely awful dra­ma­turge, and so are many of his col­ leagues.

In addition to being the thin­ker-in-charge who ligh­tens the cho­reo­gra­pher’s pre­pa­ra­tory work­load, the dra­ma­turge should also be the pro­gram maker, the one who shapes the re­per­tory. This fun­ction I con­sider ex­tra­or­di­na­rily im­por­tant, which up to now hasn’t been rea­lized at all abroad, not even in such progressively oriented companies as Netherlands Dance Theater, Ballet Rambert, and London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

In our country, too, few people have understood this necessity, even during the course of Neumeier’s programs in Frankfurt and Hamburg. Such dramaturgy is needed to get away from a meaningless stringing together of unrelated pieces in a triple bill. But “ballet mixed pickles” is the daily fare everywhere.

It has been like this ever since Diaghilev introduced programs of several short ballets. To compile meaningful, correlated, and compatible ballets into a coherent program requires astuteness and imagination, talents that dis­tin­guish a dra­ma­turge. To build a pro­gram around a single com­poser might be the ea­siest ap­proach, like the Stra­vin­sky bal­let eve­nings one sees every­where and most re­cen­tly even in Wup­per­tal. How­ever, there, Gleede and Pina Bausch almost forced a the­matic con­nec­tion with their “Sacre du Printemps” title. Perhaps not every­body un­der­stood it im­me­di­ately, but Gleede gave con­vin­cing rea­sons for it in the play­bill.

Or take the “Hom­mage à Balan­chine” pro­gram of Balan­chine and Rob­bins at the Paris Opera or Béjart’s Boulez pro­gram at Bal­let of the 20th Century. Of course, such a the­ma­tic ap­proach quickly be­comes out­worn. Va­ria­tions are cer­tainly pos­sible, like Béjart’s “Suite Vien­noise,” in which he pre­sen­ted bal­lets to music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern.

Also conceivable are deliberate confrontations of composers of different periods. Why not Handel and Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, cori spezzati (divided choirs) pieces of the Venetian School of Andrea Gabrieli and stereo- and quadrophonic pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen? Why not certain groups like the composers of the Mannheim School or Les Six? One has to have imagination and knowledge. These are only a few principles for arangement, decidedly musical-dramaturgical. I cannot understand why Düsseldorf, with one of the world’s highest quality ballet-music repertories, doesn’t work more deliberately in this direction.

Yet, preserve us from such programs. After all, a ballet stage is not a dissatisfied concert hall, where dovetailed concert programs are also rare. Neumeier showed that it could be different, that thematic and dramatic links are possible, like his programs with collective titles, “Invisible Boundaries” and “Pictures 1, 2, 3,” or his contrasting winter-summer bill of Le Baiser de la Fée and Daphnis and Chloe or his two variations on the impossibility of love in Don Juan and Sacre. All this should only hint at achieving – even in a program of several pieces – a thematically coherent statement instead of those balletic mixed pickles.

There has to be imagination, and if the choreographer isn’t capable of it, there has to be a dramaturge to make this special program concept comprehensible in workshop performances and in the playbill. It would no longer be possible simply to replace one ballet with another, but this is the least problem in our celebrity-centered scheduling.

As for the public benefits of dramaturgy, which should be a service for the audience, it has degenerated to the mere production of playbills and all kinds of flyers, offering not even correct information for the ballet and, because of the sheer inability to say anything about ballet per se, seeking refuge in making wordy, music-theory remarks.

Public relations for dramaturgy are necessary. There are specific tasks regarding ballet dramaturgy, and anyone interested in what can be accomplished should be aware of the Hamburg State Opera’s and Dance Forum Cologne’s workshops and information events. The other type should disappear.

Then there is dramaturgy’s function in regard to repertory. Basically, it is an extension and continuation of program dramaturgy: long-term design of the repertory, aimed at giving the schedule of a company an individual stamp by highlighting specific works. This depends on the choreographers and their choreographies. New York City Ballet, with its all-Balanchine and all-Robbins programs, is naturally the example par excellence. In a somehow different way this is also true of Béjart in Brussels and Neumeier in Hamburg. To a certain extent it was the case at the Stuttgart Ballet during the Cranko era. There can be no talk of this at The Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, La Scala, or American Ballet Theatre, despite the MacMillan emphasis among the English.

Obviously the em­pha­ses of the sche­dule fol­low the de­sig­nated cho­reo­gra­phers. In ad­di­tion to the chief or re­si­dent cho­reo­gra­pher, a few com­ple­men­tary guest cho­reo­gra­phers should be en­gaged – re­pea­tedly en­ga­ged – instead of coming up re­pea­tedly with new guests, only because one of them was suc­ces­sful else­where or their name is the flavor of the month.

In this regard Cranko pur­sued a very heal­thy and also a dra­ma­tur­gic policy by aug­men­ting his own bal­lets with oc­ca­sional con­tri­bu­tions by Ba­lan­chine and Mac­Millan and no one else. I ab­so­lu­tely cannot dis­cover a common thread or any sense or dra­ma­tur­gic pur­pose in the policy of the bal­let reper­tory at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bavarian State Opera, and Vienna State Opera up to now. In West Berlin, Gert Reinholm’s aim seems to be to welcome into the Deutsche Oper a diaspora of St. Petersburg ballet classicism.

Here in Stuttgart, the policy appears determined by neither dramaturgic nor other identifiable guidelines. It only proceeds from one premiere to the next, neglecting the classics. However, I’m surprised at how the dancers and audience resign themselves readily to this, instead of pressuring the directorate to change this unacceptable situation.

Admittedly, the repertory of a big ballet company is preprogrammed to a large extent with the classics, with pieces by one or more resident choreographers or by amicably associated guest choreographers. For Stuttgart I wish there could be occasional attempts to restore a historical piece, like Asthon did with with La Fille Mal Gardée or The Two Pigeons. I can imagine similar attempts with ballets by Jean-Georges Noverre or Étienne Lauchery in Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg, or Schwetzigen, or a whole series of such attractive historical highlights, not only for the Stuttgart area, but also for Munich, Berlin, and, of course, for Vienna.

Historical know­ledge is nee­ded for this and that’s exac­tly what most of today’s cho­reo­gra­phers lack. They can reach back at best to the Don Quixote pas de deux and Giselle. An em­pha­sis such as Bonn places on its con­tinu­ously cared-for Bour­non­ville re­per­tory is an ex­cep­tion. Even there, a dra­ma­turge with his­to­rical know­ledge could give the bal­let direc­torate, the cho­reo­gra­pher, and the bal­let master con­si­derable help.

I dream of a dra­ma­turge who develops with a cho­reo­gra­pher an en­tirely new form of bal­let, cap­turing each time a very spe­cific and pre­cisely dated social climate at a de­fined geo­gra­phi­cal place – such as Roland Petit de­line­ated in Les Inter­mit­tences du Coeur, which deals with the de­ca­dent Pari­sian so­ci­ety of the sa­lons in the fin de siècle sur­roun­ding Marcel Proust. This comes full cir­cle back to pro­duc­tion dra­ma­turgy.

So there are plenty of tasks for ballet dramaturgy, even if it doesn’t exist. Right now there is no ballet dramaturgy used deliberately as an instrument to support the ballet and finally force it to grow up and develop its inherent potential. Naturally, it is much more convenient simply to live for the moment, from one performance to another, from one premiere to the next, and to let things slide by. I’m still convinced that ballet has yet to discover the chances open to it in the concerted ensemble of the contemporary arts. Dramaturgy could crucially aid in this progress, even if some people consider it only the figment of a frustrated ballet critic’s imagination.


A note on Horst Koegler (1927 – 2012) by translator Ilona Landgraf:

Koegler's opinion of John Cranko changed over the years. He later watched Onegin with much delight and the Tchaikovsky potpourri was no longer a thorn in his side. I'm sure that he would also have revised his statement about choreographing at a desk at home rather than together with dancers in the studio, where the main creative process takes place.


The text was published first in Ballet Review, 42.1, Spring 2014.

  1. Ensemble of the Nederlands Dans Theatre, “Mutations” by Hans van Manen and Glen Tetley, May 11, 12 and 13, 1973,  © Islington Local History Centre, Finsbury Library

Choreographies by John Neumeier (by courtesy of the John Neumeier Foundation, Hamburg)

  1. Marianne Kruuse (Marie) and Truman Finney (Günther), “The Nutcracker” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1971, © John Neumeier Foundation, Hamburg
  2. Maximo Barra, Marianne Kruuse (Marie), Truman Finney, Max Midinet (Drosselmeier), “The Nutcracker” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1971, © John Neumeier Foundation, Hamburg
  3. Truman Finney (second from left), Maximo Barra (fifth from left) and ensemble, “Daphnis and Chloe” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © German Theater Museum Munich, Archive Fritz Peyer
  4. Marianne Kruuse, “Daphnis and Chloe” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © German Theater Museum Munich, Archive Fritz Peyer
  5. Fred Howald (Don Juan Tenorio) and Persephone Samaropoulo (The Woman in White), “Don Juan” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  6. Max Midinet (Catalonón), Marianne Kruuse (Aminta), Fred Howald (Don Juan Tenorio), “Don Juan” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  7. Fred Howald (Don Juan Tenorio) and Persephone Samaropoulo (The Woman in White), “Don Juan” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  8. Fred Howald, Maximo Barra and Persephone Samaropoulo, “Le Baiser de la Fée” by John Neumeier, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  9. Persephone Samaropoulo and Fred Howald, “Le Baiser de la Fée” by John Neumeier, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  10. Beatrice Cordua (The Chosen One), “Le Sacre” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  11. Max Midinet, “Le Sacre” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  12. Max Midinet and ensemble, “Meyerbeer” by John Neumann, Ballet Frankfurt, 1974, © German Theater Museum Munich, Archive Fritz Peyer