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


How to become a librettist, by Stephen Plaice

The Guardian: Tuesday 24 February 2015 16.30 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 14 February 2017 18.45 GMT

What is the librettist’s role in opera? The job is much more than creating the words to go with the music. Usually, the librettist produces the substantive ideas that inspire the composition, including the dramatic structure, characters and scenario of the opera. This role was obscured at the end of the 19th century when, post-Wagner, opera houses and audiences began to see the musical drama as the sole product of the composer’s imagination.

The status of the librettist declined and the role was largely picked up by those who had little experience in the medium and scant knowledge of opera dramaturgy. Whereas until the end of the 19th century there were writers practiced in the art of libretto writing and thoroughly schooled in the repertoire, in the 20th century, it was left in the hands of dilettantes.

There were some notable exceptions: WH Auden, for example, who knew and loved opera and understood how distinct libretto was from poetry. Benjamin Britten – because he had such a great understanding of musical dramatic structure – was very discerning in his choice of librettists, even if he didn’t always remain loyal to them. Aspiring librettists should acquaint themselves with Britten’s work if they want to understand modern operatic storytelling.

In the 21st century there are signs that the status of the librettist is being revalued, and that a generation of writers is emerging with a renewed understanding of the dramatic requirements of the genre. But how does one become a librettist today?

Where to start

Opera is experiencing a fringe explosion, both in Europe and the US. Always a medium slow to embrace change, opera now has its own counterculture, 50 years after the advent of the fringe in straight theatre. In the past 10 years, new companies have sprung up like topsy.

Once you have found a like-minded composer and developed a treatment together, try to identify a company you might approach with the idea. This means going to see their work first. Don’t submit on spec.

Opera is very collegiate. Go to open-workshop performances, like those run by Mahogany Opera Group, and join in the post-show discussions. You need to make these connections. The Tête à Tête Festival, held annually in London, commissions and showcases new work, and genuinely fosters first-time writers and composers.

Don’t get too depressed in the first stage and orchestra rehearsal, when you hear your favourite line has disappeared

Enlightened opera house education departments and music academies occasionally offer short courses – such as the Jerwood opera-writing course run by Aldeburgh Music every four years – which pair up composers new to opera with writers keen to explore the genre. Now the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in conjunction with the Royal Opera House, is offering a one-year intensive MA within which the students are similarly paired to create a chamber opera for public performance. The course follows, as closely as possible, a professional production process, from page to stage, and encounters all the difficulties inherent in the process.

Poetic, but not poetry

If you try to read librettos as poems or plays you will be disappointed. They will appear thin and often prosaic. They are not intended to stand alone as works or art; they have to be seen in the context they serve. A skilled librettist will know how to leave space for the music to flourish. To see how libretto works, you should see and hear as much repertoire as you can. Opera has traditions that must be understood before you can break the mould.

Brevity is to be cultivated wherever possible. “How wordy you are … use few words … few, few but significant,” Giuseppe Verdi wrote to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave. It is a plea almost every opera composer will recognise. Nothing will demotivate a composer more than a 100-page script dropping into his or her inbox. Successful librettists must learn to edit themselves ruthlessly and always serve the development of the character and the story. In short: deploy wit, not alliteration.

I’m often asked: should text always be comprehensible to the audience in opera? Some composers use text simply as the catalyst for composition, but most take care to make text comprehensible. Like so many other aspects of opera, text combined with music involves compromise. Don’t get too depressed in the first stage and orchestra rehearsal when you hear your favourite line has disappeared behind the blare of the brass section.

Use few words … few but significant - Giuseppe Verdi

Another frequently asked question is whether a librettist is involved in the production process itself. Opera houses encompass huge endeavour, so learn how the house works and what jobs people do in it. You may be one of the creatives, but to everyone else you are another cog in the machine. In early rehearsals, you need to be on hand to clarify the intention of your characters and plot – even mundane things like pronunciation. Singers and directors are very grateful for this.

Opera is a cruel medium for composers and writers because you have to get it right so far in advance. Once everything has been set and orchestrated, very little can be changed. Come dress rehearsal, dead librettists are vastly preferred to living ones who have just spotted a line they would like to change.

But when you and the production get it right – when your words are sung and your scenes and characters engage an audience and move them to tears and laughter – it’s the most exhilarating experience a dramatist can enjoy.

Stephen Plaice is writer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.

Donec id justo non metus auctor commodo ut quis enim. Mauris fringilla dolor vel condimentum imperdiet.
— Hope K.



Another frequently asked question is whether a librettist is involved in the production process itself. Opera houses encompass huge endeavour, so learn how the house works and what jobs people do in it. You may be one of the creatives, but to everyone else you are another cog in the machine. In early rehearsals, you need to be on hand to clarify the intention of your characters and plot – even mundane things like pronunciation. Singers and directors are very grateful for this.

Opera is a cruel medium for composers and writers because you have to get it right so far in advance. Once everything has been set and orchestrated, very little can be changed. Come dress rehearsal, dead librettists are vastly preferred to living ones who have just spotted a line they would like to change.

But when you and the production get it right – when your words are sung and your scenes and characters engage an audience and move them to tears and laughter – it’s the most exhilarating experience a dramatist can enjoy.

Stephen Plaice is writer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.


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After living in the States for nearly two decades, Leigh Barrett decided to come back to SA – and fell in love with her homeland.

I left South Africa in 1998 – not for any of the usual reasons people use to leave South Africa, but simply there was another world out there. I packed up my 5 dogs, and hit the plane to New York. We meandered across the continent eventually landing in a town I’d never heard of before: Eugene, Oregon. Aside from a two year interval in Los Angeles (a ghastly place overall), this laid-back, casual and friendly hippie enclave was my home until February 2016.

There was a long period of culture shock, trying to adapt to life that in odd and subtle ways was very different. I had some fun with that, at times: Americans might not believe we live in huts, but you could confuse them by saying zebra meat is black and white all the way through!

A chance meeting at a local public radio station resulted in a surprise gig. I’d worked in TV and print in South Africa, but radio was a first for me. When a stranger called to me from across the room and asked if I wanted to present Women In Music, I wasn’t about to tell him I had no idea what that was. The next week, I was a radio DJ, and I spent the next 12 years having fun on the airwaves. I presented weekly music shows, where more South African music was played than had ever been heard there before. A second radio station offered me a timeslot where I created a weekly news show focusing on Africa, and it became the ‘go-to’ place to find out what was happening on the continent.

Beyond my unpaid radio gigs, however, I found life less than satisfying: initially, I had tried to utilize my South African television documentary production experience, but local TV in America is limited and the most creative I could get was to make sure the camera was pointed in the right direction. I had to pay the rent somehow, so I used my basic knowledge of QuickBooks and delved into bookkeeping. Of course, I was bored stiff. Did life really come down to breathing and doing anything to pay the rent?

I spent two years unemployed when the economy nosedived in 2008, eventually finding a position in the finance department of a global software giant. My job was mostly spent being a listening companion to my manager, whose staff had been outsourced to India. So, for the next 5 years, in return for a salary with benefits, I spent a couple of hours each day listening to her recount the minutiae of her uninteresting life. It was, in some respects, the perfect job: I had all the time in the world to start focusing on what I really wanted to do, and Facebook opened the door to that very opportunity.

I connected with a woman who had a foundation focusing on humanitarian issues, and when she asked me to create podcasts on some of those topics, I jumped at the chance. It wouldn’t pay anything, but I started to relocate my passion as I researched, wrote, interviewed, scripted, and audio-edited shows. They were well-received, so she asked me to write articles for the Journal she was publishing. Again, I dived in. It was still unpaid work, but I didn’t really mind – my “real” job kept the rent paid, and I was feeling that fluttering in my gut that told me I was on the right path.

And then, my cushy job went away in corporate restructuring. I wasn’t surprised, but it started to sharply focus my mind towards that question of what life really is. One morning, I awoke with a thought of absolute clarity and deep certainty: it was time to come home.

It had been a long 18 years since I had left. And while I’d kept up with the news, reports cannot truly convey the reality of a place, even one that was once so familiar. I had always rejected the idea of coming back before, concerned that perhaps I had changed too much to ‘fit in’. A laughable concept – I’d never “fitted in”. An introverted outsider since birth, society had never been a comfortable place for me.

A well-hidden bridge, winterton, KZN

A well-hidden bridge, winterton, KZN

I cast myself into South Africa with a solo road trip that extended to almost six weeks. I journeyed from Johannesburg, through the Free State, the KZN Midlands, Eastern Cape, Garden Route, and the Karoo, before finding my feet in Cape Town. I navigated dongas, ditches, tyre blowouts, potholes, incredible hospitality, some of the best food and coffee I’ve ever had – all the while dealing with Shirley, my car’s GPS who never seemed to have a clue where we were. And I fell in love.

For 18 years, I had followed American politics closely and seen, first-hand the disillusionment of so many who understood what had happened to their country, but ceased to care. In South Africa, we play our politics out in the open. We are not an acquiescent people. We shout, we scream, and we break things when we feel we must. We demand democracy. The issues we face – corruption, state capture, mismanagement – are to a large extent considered “Tuesday” in countries like America. In South Africa, we rage against them. We have a vibrant, healthy democracy and we fight for it, every day.

On my way to Cape Town, I envisaged my new job. The gut-fluttering I’d felt before made it a “no-brainer”. I wanted to focus on the humanitarian and current affairs stories that don’t always get the attention of the news media. March saw the launch of Perspective: Africa, an idea born while I was on some highway Shirley called “off road”. It contained several excellent essays on the mining battle playing out on our Wild Coast, simply stunning photography, and various op-eds and articles from people in different parts of the world who also love this continent. The fact that it’s possible to produce this level of publication, with no financial backing, no advertising, and no money of my own to support it, is beyond my imagining.

Just over a year ago, I made the decision to come home to live a fulfilled life. Now settled in a studio apartment above a garage on a little vineyard, I take stock of the list of experiences, gifts, skills, and talents I have developed over the years. It may happen that I’ll need to find a boring bookkeeping job soon – but this is South Africa! Opportunities abound, and my love for this country knows no limits.

This may be one more leap into the unknown. But what I do know with unwavering certainty, is that I am so fortunate to be back – and this time to offer all I have to this extraordinary country.

First published in Fair Lady Magazine, February 2017
Re-published on Homecoming Revolution newsletter

Click here to read about the full road trip and see more photos: NIUME BLOG

Artisanal Journalism

The phrase “artisanal journalism” has been doing the rounds for a few years now, and most often the analogy is made to cheese. It makes sense, in a way. Cheese has always been the prime reference point when considering artisanal foods. Just as there are a multitude of levels of cheeses: from the unspeakable notion of cheese-in-a-can, to the fine art of producing the perfect Camembert, so does journalism fill a variety of levels. And “artisanal reportage” is nowhere near a “tweet-in-a-can”.

In an age of soundbite reporting, when the general media feels the need to encompass only the most basic data in 150 words or less, leaving those who actually WANT to be informed about the world with a growing frustration, data-driven news reporting will always have a place. People do need to know what happened on their street, how many were impacted, the results of an election, and so on. On the other side of the coin, investigative journalism is a luxury few can afford. Spending inordinate amounts of time diving down rabbit holes to get to all the facts of a case is time-consuming, and important, but is often difficult to do in the broader, commercial market. So, what lies between soundbites and investigations? With media companies relying more heavily on freelancers to sustain their business model, the new breed of journalist is now filling a niche that is as varied and delectable as the multitude of cheeses available in almost every nook and cranny of the world.

Utilizing hard news data and investigative reporting to assist in the production of artisanal journalism, freelancers can offer each market a unique and, to risk overstretching the metaphor, tasty meal to audiences. The same talented writer who can research and create an informative long-form essay on the dangers of climate change, can also deliver a profound work on the advantages of travel to a new holiday destination. But, instead of making the article accessible to every audience, everywhere, occasionally dumbing it down to result in little more than “chewing gum for the brain”, the “niche” becomes the important focus. Directing writing to a particular audience, tapping into an existing consumer base who can appreciate the deeper and often more intellectual aspects of the topic, becomes the writer’s purpose.

Being versatile in today’s media market means being able to tell a story on various platforms: print, digital, audio, video, and all their sub-sets. Sourcing the information and being fully engaged in a topic, the writer also become their own editor, without the old-fashioned hierarchy that used to fill newsrooms. Honing skills in this way does not make an editor obsolete, but it does mean that without that chain of command, and given a certain autonomy, there is a higher value placed on the writer’s reputation. When a writer is less able to hide behind the hierarchy, the better ones will start to rise from the masses of people who only think they can write well.

Print is still popular. Despite almost everyone and their uncle having access to books, magazines, and newspapers on their phone, tablet or other gadget, there is still a high demand for the printed word. Perspective Publications still sells more journals through print, than the cheaper digital option. But, even as the daily news available at the local supermarket is the go-to source for the facts, and only the facts, ma’am, the new option extends to a publication that can take a longer, wider, deeper, perspective of a story. The journalist, potentially unbound by an hourly deadline, can source all the available information, and compile it into a larger, “big picture” story, which allows readers to fully understand the context. In other words, “artisanal journalism” really means “knowledge-based”. It demands a high degree of writing, a more nuanced presentation, a demand for objectivity, and a readership that is keen to be informed.

As we progress through the 21st century, and the world grows smaller and closer, the issues that were once only read about deep in the folds of a newspaper, are now on our front doorstep. The “artisan journalist”, usually a freelancer struggling to bring readers the information they need to know, is commonly found in the most unsung niche: the humanitarian media. These journalists endeavor to place the world in context: why does a Saharan sandstorm affect people living in South America? Why does it matter to someone in America that someone in Sierra Leone contracted Ebola? And they’ll tell you why it matters to a Canadian that Syrian refugees are fleeing death and destruction, or how a blossoming Arab Spring affects South Africans.

The ability to explain, not just the profound impact of that sandstorm, but WHY you need to know about it, is a gift given by the writer to the general population. It takes talented and skilled individuals, with an ability to inform and educate, to bring a nuanced and complex world to a reader who wasn’t aware they needed to know the information. The best artisanal journalist is a storyteller, and the world needs more really great storytellers.

In The Land of Blood and Honey - by Leigh Barrett

There’s something magical about watching a movie on the silver screen. You give permission for the story to envelop you, to get lost in the scenes, to become a character.

And then there are the films where one needs the sanctuary of home, to absorb without being in it, because the intensity of the experience leaves one appreciating the safe comfort of one’s home.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is one such film. Not available in my local theaters, I curled up in an overstuffed armchair and relied on the “One Demand” menu to transport me into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut.

It’s a tough, emotional journey, drawing one through the tangled, complex love story made even more complicated by the historical reality of the Balkans. The romance between Danijel, a Christian-Serb (played by Goran Kostic) and Muslim-Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjonivic) plays out as a metaphor for a country beset by ancient prejudices, double standards and the universal application of violence against women and one’s own neighbors, to support (in this case Serbian-Christian) male hegemony.

Jolie paints Danijel a complex character – gentle and sensitive, yet victim of an Oedipal complex as he tries to follow his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija) into the Serbian army and xenophobic-inspired killing. Danijel is popular with the men he leads, turning into a Muslim killer before our eyes, and we see him constantly wrestle with the conflicting roles he plays. As the viewer squirms away from the violence of neighbor against neighbor, and feels revulsion when faced with the General’s hateful views towards the Muslims of his own community, as we also feel sympathy for the man caught in a situation beyond his control. One aches for the soldier who tries to protect his love, his prisoner, from his own people.

“Why couldn’t you be born a Serb?” he asks plaintively, gently stroking her face.

Ajla is a more passive character – something of a surprise to me, considering the strong, powerful women Jolie usually elects to play as an actress. Ajla is a metaphor for all the women caught up in this testosterone-fuelled war. In the few moments where she shows her inner strength, we can believe she will endure, if she simply stays quiet, submissive. It is this subtlety in Jolie’s writing and direction that is remarkable. Too often, especially with an actor-novice director, the actor cannot help but be the unseen star. But Jolie steps away, allowing the story to speak its own truth.

The film includes a by now well-known scene: a row of Muslim prisoners, emaciated, watching the camera blankly as it pans past them. Those stares sear our consciousness and fuses with the same eyes we’ve seen in footage from Nazi concentration camps, Darfurian refugees, starving East African children.

As politicians try to deny the existence of these situations (Bush 1’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Thomas Niles: “We don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.”), we become increasingly aware of the weakness in our leaders and the international community in dealing with a situation like this, favoring the protection of their political careers over getting involved in protecting fellow humans.

The former Yugoslavia was a complicated beast: a federation of 6 Republics: Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and the larger and more problematic three, Serbia (mostly Orthodox, but with a large Albanian enclave in Kosovo); Croatia (mainly Catholic, but complicated by Serb-dominated Karjina); and Bosnia, with a large Muslim population and nationalistic Serb-Croatian minorities.

Prior to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of Bosnia had been Orthodox Christian, albeit with regular conflicts with Rome. That lack of strict orthodoxy may well have contributed to opening the door to Islam when the Ottoman Empire powered through the region. Conversion of about one-third of Bosnia’s Christians to Islam appears, however, to be more a matter of survival and expediency than any spiritual awakening.

For more than three centuries, Christians were routinely subjected to rigorous oppression: hefty poll taxes, unable to carry weapons, barred from wearing green, the color of Islam. They were required to dismount when a Muslim passed; they were not allowed to build a better residence than a Muslim neighbor; churches were to be built low and modest, and certainly with no church bells. Non-Muslims had no legal status and could not testify against a Muslim. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty of blasphemy – a Muslim’s accusation could not be countered.

By the time the indignity and humiliation resulted in numerous uprisings against the Muslim overlords, the anger had settled blood-deep. As much as the Hapsburgs were seen initially as liberators, their continued pandering to the Muslims did not help the nationalistic fervor that was growing.

In a telling scene in the film, a conversation between Danijel and his father: “This land is soaked in Serbian blood. And now they want us to live here under Muslim rule? In a Muslim state?”

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a time where at least on a superficial level, wounds appeared to have healed. But, in constructing as fair a balance as possible between the groups, the resultant peace merely served as a band-aid to the centuries-long resentment.

Numerous uprisings between the parties, all claiming to be more historically aggrieved than the others unsettled Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, and by 1992, when the European Community recognized Bosnia as an independent state, tensions erupted. As Serbians tried to take control of Sarajevo, and the country stepped closer to the abyss, the cruelty of Serbian anger grew, as they unflinchingly attacked women and children, and bombed hospitals – a signal of what was in store.

The reign of terror, the rape camps where women, and children as young as 3 or 4 years old, were violated in tens of thousands, left no doubt that nothing short of ethnic cleansing was on Serbian minds. In some areas, a home owner’s ethnicity was painted on his front door – Serb homes were left untouched. Muslim and Croatians homes were destroyed. Non-Serbs were forced out of their jobs. In at least one instance, hundreds were locked in a building which was then burned down; many hundreds were rounded into cattle trucks and left for days, with masses of children and the vulnerable adults dying.

While Serb forces were driving out nearly 2 million Bosnians, the UN relief agencies refused refugees access to safety – acknowledgement of their plight would make them accomplices to the cleansing.

The most powerful weapon in a war is the media. Much of what happened was due to political manipulation of the media from all sides.

Both Muslim and Christians indulged in vampiric hominems, instilling fear and driving all sides closer to war.

One journalist said, “You Americans would become nationalist and racists, too, if your media were totally in the hands of the KKK.”

The propaganda was relentless, and the fear of what could happen became the impetus for what actually happened.

The UN peacekeepers sent to Bosnia in May 1992 were refused permission to use force beyond personal protection. Wagging a finger at a patriot intent on killing is no way to keep any peace, and UN and NATO soldiers were mocked, with some taken hostage in a clear message of contempt for the international community.

DANIJEL: You think the rest of the world will ignore this? I don’t. The UN has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia. They will not turn their backs on all of this.

VUKOJEVIC: Of course they see everything, but they will not attack us. They won’t do anything…. Bolster your men. And finish cleansing this area.

This mirrors a real moment, caught on tape of a Serb Commander of the VRS (Army of Republika Srpska), ordering the shelling of the UN-protected “safe zone” of Srebrenica:

“That’s it, man. I see the hard one. Let’s lash out at them…. Push it now. I want to hear the Wolves howling. Charge! NATO Pact won’t do anything to us… Take your best positions…”

From Radislav Krstic, Chief of Staff of the Drina Wolves, outside Srebrenica: “There are still 3,500 parcels I have to distribute and I have no solution.”

And later, from the Muslim enclave of Zepa, “Kill them all – not a single one must be left alive.”

The infamous assault on the town of Srebrenica has been written by many. The desire by General Mladic to stop the pipeline of arms into the UN-run town, defended by Dutch peacekeepers trying to protect thousands of Muslim refugees, resulted in the shocking genocide that finally catapulted the war onto front pages globally. Non-combatant Serbs, including women and children, were butchered, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and the fortunate few to escape that horror were brutally raped as peacekeepers stood by, unable to defend the victims.

Finally, the world paid attention. Whether Srebrenica was attacked as a way to score points in the propaganda war, or whether it was resolved ethnic cleansing of Muslims, can be debated. Certainly, neither side had clean hands in the war to this point.

Perhaps the term “ethnic cleansing” is a misnomer. The ethnic groups had been living in relative harmony for a long time, despite the underlying tensions. This appeared to be more cultural, communal, and religious.

Indira Hadziomerovic said in Sarajevo, 1992: “We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other’s babies. What is happening to us?”

Trying to cloak genocide behind a wall neatly labeled “humanitarian crisis” reflects a leadership driven by fear. In an attempt to relegate the Balkans to irrelevance, James Baker described it as a “European problem”. A “European problem” allowed America to divorce itself from the reality of being a part of Europe. A myopic vision of history meant Americans seeing the Balkans as an isolated, European issue, rather than a contribution to the stability of Europe, and by extension, America. The fates of all countries are tied together, and the relationship between Danijel and Ajla is symbolic of that connection.

The film being available “on demand” proves a point: even at the height of the genocide, few in the general public were really interested in what was happening. The disinterest was probably as much from not understanding the complicated scenario of Croats-Serb-Muslim-Christians, and the inability to word what was happening into a soundbite, as it was the near-xenophobic view many embrace by thinking that what happens “over there” is none of their concern.

The unflinching conclusion made me grateful for that overstuffed armchair, as I sat, doing something I never normally do: watching every credit as it rolled past, unable to move, reluctant to return to the world, relieved that I didn’t need to step over empty popcorn boxes, to join the throng of people in a sane, safe shopping mall.

Instead, I sat stunned. Absorbed. Moved. Quiet. Grateful.


This review was previously published in MIPJ: Volume 1-June 2012


The Place I Dance - by Leigh Barrett

Disclaimer: I have two left feet. I cannot dance. The rhythm exists in my head, but for some unfathomable reason, it never quite reaches down my legs, getting hung up somewhere in my throat as I hum along, inevitably out of tune.

I blame my imagination. My head is so filled with the vision of the sound, I think perhaps that is what sucks up all the energy.

As a child, growing up without television, and relying on the radio to be the theatre of the mind, it was several years before my mother started taking me to every musical film and Broadway-style extravaganza that came through our nearest city. By then, my imagination was in full flight and every tune I heard played in my head as a stage production or “video”, even though this was decades before VH1 was a twinkle in cable television’s eye.

I really thought I was “normal”, that this was true for everyone, so never considered writing down these images.

Once film, stage shows, and videos permeated my consciousness, all that was left was a feeling of either being wonderfully entertained, or a dissatisfied feeling of, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it like that.”

And then, I went to the ballet. I don’t remember the first time, but somewhere along the line it must have settled inside my veins, and the music I listened to became more focused dance videos. I recall hearing Robbie Robertson’s “Showdown at Big Sky”, and “seeing” an ensemble, clothed in black, dancing wildly on top of one of those extraordinary, red hoodoos you find in the Utah desert as a helicopter flew above, circling overhead as they danced.

There was no narrative to it, just people experiencing the anthemic power of the music, and expressing the emotion of it in a setting that engulfed these tiny and insignificant human figures. But, it was also the human figures that brought the majesty of the desert to life. Imagine my surprise when I finally saw the video, and noticed some of the rock formations (not quite the same as I imagined), and colors, in Robertson’s own vision of his song.

To this day, it is my imagining that comes to mind every time I hear the song.

But, I cannot dance.

For years, virtually the only music I played in the car or at home, was William Topley. I was obsessed with his rich, deep voice, the stories he told, the poetic lyrics, and the images and movies I saw in my mind transported me in each song. But, it was an evening at the ballet, watching friends of mine playing their music to a story of Zorro, that a lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew it was time to transfer those images to paper.

“Prince of the Deep Water” took over a year to write. I had no idea how to do this, how to write a dance production when I am neither dancer, nor musician. But, some of the world’s finest writers have found themselves in the same position. Stephen King, I would hope, is not a serial psychopath as many of his characters are.

So, I set about listening to every recorded song of Topley’s, many times over, identifying the common threads that run through the lyrics. Cover songs were discarded, although I did keep songs based on poems like his adaptation of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. Songs that fell outside the “threads” or were in a genre out of place with the majority of songs, were also cut, and a shortlist of 76 songs formed the foundation from which to work. From there, I narrowed down the story. The story is not Topley’s. The story exists in my mind, and my task was to find his words that fitted that story. Since I cannot alter the lyrics, or change the music, the process can be likened to a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

That song says this… but in order to fit my narrative, I either need to reinterpret the lyrics, or change the story. And there goes my day, fitting, refitting, changing, re-imagining, until it falls into place.

So, with two left feet, and a singing voice best left in the shower, I find my place in a world that lives between the two.

Musicians connect one note to the next.

Dancers connect one movement to the next.

The librettist connects the dots of the musician and the dancer, and creates a reason for both to complete each other.

To engage, to hear, to see, to believe: that is what I do.

Frederick Ashton said, “I think the great asset of ballet is that it can heighten beyond words certain situations and give a kind of poetic evocation…”

Bringing a lyricist’s words to another level, transforming them into action, is as important as a dancer’s ability to physically manifest the emotions of the words.

"When a man of genius arranges the letters to form words, and connects the words to form sentences, (dancing) will cease to be dumb; it will speak with both strength and energy; and then ballets will share with the best plays the merit of affecting and moving, and of making tears flow, and, in their less serious styles, of being able to amuse, captivate, and please.” (Comte d’Essex, Act 4, Sc 3, by Thomas Coirneille, 1625-1709)

The thrill audiences have in watching “the Nutcracker”, one of the most famous of narrative dances, has long been ignored by choreographers who have instead focused on the abstract dance. I can understand why. Dance can emote and transform music, but a strong narrative is very difficult to write. If everyone could write a good story, there would be many more F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Tolkiens, and Wildes. There aren’t, and many attempts by highly gifted choreographers to write narrative dance have failed as audiences lose interest as a story flatlines, or the dancer loses the plot.

Recently, Paul McCartney, arguably one of the most successful songwriters in several generations, discovered the difficulty of narrative writing when he wrote a libretto for New York City Ballet, and one of the kindest reviews called “Ocean’s Kingdom”, “that sinking feeling”. The New York Times called the writing, “trite”.

A fantastic choreographer can direct emotive and passionate energy into movement, and create shades of meaning through physical expression, but the artistic sum of the performance requires far more than that.

 As we head deeper into the 21st century, a greater awareness of our surroundings is happening. We are no longer isolated in our communities or country, no longer oblivious to the world.

“Painting and dancing have this advantage over the other arts, that they are of every country, of all nations; that their language is universally understood, and that they achieve the same expression everywhere. (Jean Georges Noverre (1727-1810)

Noverre was a little before his time, and reading those words now, is illuminating. More than ever before, we are confronted by images from around the world, our knowledge grows, and social media has made is possible to connect with people from places we would never have dreamed of speaking to before this age.

With these connections, we grow, and our society grows and changes as a result.

We know about the Nepalese earthquakes in great depth, Hurricane Katrina, Asian and African child brides, climate change and the threatened island nations; we know about regions of violent conflict, and obscure groups who inflict their extremism on people in countries most have difficulty finding on a map.

While dance hasn’t reached the point where people can see news events on stage in a large-scale global way, what it can do is identify the impact on the individual. Dance can tell the story of a person with PTSD; dance can tell a story of slavery, and of conflict. Dance can provide narratives that impact, increase our awareness, touch an audience, and also entertain.

As the world grows smaller and more connected, there is a demand that we learn from each other. To my mind, the best way to learn is through our creativity: using music, dance, and other art forms to tell our stories. Giving an audience images, sounds, and knowledge that they remember long after the curtain comes down.

By seeing the music, we can know. We can understand. We can grow.

 “…and then ballets will share with the best plays the merit of affecting and moving, and of making tears flow, and, in their less serious styles, of being able to amuse, captivate, and please.”

Narrative Dance Theatre - by Leigh Barrett

By Leigh Barrett

For many decades, narrative dance was largely replaced with abstract dance, most notably by Balanchine. Since the beginning of this decade, however, story ballet is making a welcome comeback - audiences love stories, after all. For centuries, narrative ballets have been a major drawcard for ticket-buying audiences, hence the longevity of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and many dance versions of Shakespeare’s tales.  The ability to transport an audience to another world, give them the opportunity to invest emotionally in characters, needs a good storyline.

In her article, “When ballet loses the plot with narratives”, Judith Mackrell writes, “Dance can be a breathtaking medium for narrative, delivering emotion and character with greater physical impact than words. But it’s also limited in the amount of plot it can carry.”  To dance stories means to tell stories to an audience.  One of the struggles recent narrative dance has faced is an awareness that not everyone can tell a good story, and as brilliant as many choreographers are at transferring the emotional content to the dance, there are times when the plot does get a little lost in the telling, leaving audiences with bouts of boredom or confusion. Mackrell writes, “Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they will never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical.”

The productions in this catalogue are designed to engage the audience as well as the dancer. In some, the lyrics assist in the telling of the story, but it is up to the dancer to interpret the story the librettist and the lyricist has created.   The music has been chosen to represent the musician’s catalogue of work, and as distinct as these singer-songwriters are, the opportunity exists to introduce their music to a new audience, and dance fans can be presented with new and unique productions. 

These libretti reflect a fuller theatrical experience not often seen on stage in a dance format.  Musical theater is not new, but the concept can now be transferred to the dance performance.  These are onstage stories that are not fairytales, but rather a reflection of humanity.  The characters are not one dimensional, but rather complex, emotional, often flawed, and always striving. 

From pirate tales with unconventional family structures, to examining how conflict can impact the psyche, these productions are carefully researched and written to take the audience along on an engaging journey with characters in whom they can invest emotionally.