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Mehr Martin

Mainz [Germany] Ballet Artistic Director Martin Schläpfer

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

[I spoke with Mr. Schläpfer over the telephone for an upcoming book on teaching ballet, and he kindly agreed to let us use the biography portion in “Ballet-Dance Magazine".  This is an edited version of that conversation.  A delightful interview subject, you will see that he is deeply committed to the art of ballet!]

What was your initiation into ballet?

I was a Swiss boy from a small Swiss town where art was not a big part of growing up in my family. It was my primary school teacher, Theodor Holzer, who brought me to ice skating when I was about 12. I did ice skating as a hobby only, became pretty good at it and was asked to join the skating club in my home town St. Gallen. Private skating lessons were too expensive.

At 15 and a half, at the annual showing of our work – set to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony –  Marianne Fuchs, a local ballet teacher, saw the performance on the ice and asked me to join her ballet school. My father was neutral on the subject – my older brothers, however, were opposed and suggested to him that he let me go and try one class and see whether I liked it. I loved it right away! 

Marianne Fuchs was a very gifted, yet unorthodox teacher. She had just a small private school. I also went to regular school during this time, of course, but found that ballet classes were eating into my regular school work – it was hard taking ballet class every day and keeping up my studies. I wanted to dance more, but my father was absolutely against my wanting ballet to become my profession. However, Ms. Fuchs was smart and signed me up to compete for the “Prix de Lausanne” – this after only a year and a half of training. After winning a prize, I earned a year of study at a prestigious ballet school, and so I chose to go to the Royal Ballet School in London.

How was that?

It was wonderful to go to a big city. I was naïve, shy and underdeveloped in dealing with big city life and it toughened me up. The Royal Ballet was in an exciting period, with dancers like Lynn Seymour, Jennifer Penny, and Merle Park, among many others. I was placed into seventh level and after three months was put into Terry Westmoreland’s graduate class. It was a very good year. I would have liked to have stayed but couldn’t because of visa issues.

Back to the Continent?

My first performing job was in Basel where I had been hired by Heinz Spoerli After 1983, I went to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada for one year. I got to perform a lot. The Company was still under the direction of Arnold Spohr. I learned a lot and it exposed me to the huge amount of touring RWB did, to which I was unaccustomed.

I recall you were on the cover of “Dance Magazine”...

Yes, at the age of 22; January 1983. I was actually very insecure as a person, but had a lot of power as a dancer. A couple of my early career highlights were having Heinz Spoerli create his “Pierrot Lunaire” for me in 1986 and being cast in “Grosse Fuge” by Hans van Manen.However, as a man and human being, I grew up too late and out of confusion stopped dancing far too early – I needed to search and learn to become a more balanced personality.

You are regarded as one of the best teachers in Europe. How did you get started in teaching?

I didn’t choose teaching. After I stopped performing, my father – who was still a big influence in my life, and who could be fairly demanding – suggested that I open a ballet school and I promised him I would, which seemed to satisfy him as it was a business as well; something he could understand and relate to. I built a beautiful studio in Basel, but knew I needed guidance to become a good ballet teacher.

I took up the study of music geared to dance accompaniment, as I knew the ballet training was really also a dialogue between meter, dynamics, and colors given by the musician – and of technique. I was hungry to learn from Harriet [Cavalli – a famous accompanist for the ballet]. Anne Wooliams was also very helpful. She had a school in Zurich and I would teach twice a week under her guidance. I liked her artistic approach to teaching even if I could not agree to all the ballet technical beliefs she insisted on.

I learned to integrate all the different influences, to be open to continuous learning, to question, and to make it my own. I never worked harder before in my life – doing the teaching but also the books, the cleaning, and laundry on Sundays! I kept working with Harriet on music, too, during this time.

Like so many novice teachers, I taught classes that were too complicated. It took me about 10 years to become a decent teacher – in my eyes at least.

What happened next?

David Howard told – and convinced me – that I was too young to stop performing and so I went to New York where I took classes from him and got myself back into shape. I took many auditions but didn’t get placed. I went to Bern which was open to me as a dancer. I only stayed one season and resigned again. My search kept going until 1994, when I was asked to become Artistic Director in Bern.

There were many who didn’t think I could do it, as I had no choreographic or significant directing experience. To me, teaching, choreography, and dancing are not so different – a “gap” between them never really existed for me.

What did you do? Let’s talk about your choreography, particularly since you are the principal choreographer at Mainz...

I began by importing famous choreographers, which started a foundation for a solid repertory. I began making ballets, yet it took six or seven years for me to gain confidence in my own choreography. I relied on my innate instincts and exposure to good ballets to keep things in line!

I am Choreographer-in-chief and provide about 50 percent of the ballets. My work then, naturally, gives the company a character.

How dance companies are run – and perhaps as importantly, funded – is quite different between Germany and the U.S. Can you describe this a little?

The subsidy we get is fortunate, as the dancers and staff have secure positions. This security provides a freedom for me to do things that “burn under the tongue.” We have box office pressures here too, but not like you have in the States. I feel that maybe there is a danger in being so safe in our system, that as an Artistic Director, I need to “unquiet” things – not necessarily for the sake of being new, but to keep the movement impetus alive; not to get the company sleepy or complacent. Yet, I think I would not want to work in the American system because of the power of the Board of Directors!

Let’s talk more about choosing repertory and your own choreographic process.

The direction of my own works and programming choices is dictated by guest choreographers. I have to fill in the gaps, so to speak, in order to make “good” programs.

I usually try not only to portray the music literally. I also try to sense what lies underneath, melody, color and dynamics in a composition. About one-third of my programming has to be to contemporary music. We live today and need to work also with music of today.

Old ballets that we now revere and are considered “traditional” were products of their time, weren’t they?  Even “Sleeping Beauty...”

We need to be connected to contemporary life!

I’m not a conceptual choreographer – I usually start with the music. William Forsythe was an inspiration for me – how he opened doors for me, choreographically and how he reacts – or doesn’t – to the musical structure. I feel that I’ve really changed in the last two years. I read and think a lot – this underlies your work and gives it a subtext that is perceived. I hate pieces that are clear – I like mystery and question marks. You can imagine I don’t do story ballets too often!

How much do you collaborate with your dancers?

I used to “prepare” for choreography much more but now prepare myself mostly musically with perhaps a couple of dramaturgical motifs worked out in advance. It’s now more of a give-and-take process with the dancers. I’m used to creating with dancers, yet my “vision” is definitely dominant.

I have my own strengths and directions – I can’t be Pina Bausch! I’m always apprehensive before an initial rehearsal but I loosen up as we go along. I work in short rehearsal periods. And I let the dancers go if I find that there is no flow or if I feel I’ve done all I can do for that day. I won’t “hack it” for four hours.

Let’s go back to your teaching...

I teach most of the Company classes. We do have a ballet school here in Mainz that was pre-existent before I arrived. It’s not a professional training school, although the standard is high enough for a non-professional setup. It’s to bring dance to younger generations. I don’t direct the school; it’s a window to the public for me.

My own teaching is geared to professional dancers. In addition to the influences on my teaching that I mentioned earlier, I was greatly influenced by Peter Appel, and, when I went back to New York in 1990/91, by Gelsey Kirkland, and as I said, David Howard.  I don’t necessarily teach an orthodox class either. I put tremendous emphasis on musicality, dynamic changes and elasticity of muscle usage. It’s perhaps more American than European in emphasis.

If you don’t have rhythm in your dancing, there is no life. I play a lot with rhythms – I use fives and sevens, as it’s important for dancers to be used to reacting to a big range of musical variety. I’ve found that most ballet technical problems can be solved musically.

I caution teachers who work with highly gifted students to be aware that these students may be in a “danger zone” – vulnerable. That they don’t and shouldn’t have to go through a tortured dilemma, but that they do require guidance.

Mainz may be unfamiliar to people. What’s it like and what’s the support and audience like for ballet?

Mainz is a city of about 200,000 and occupies a large area in the upper Rhine. It’s very close to Wiesbaden and near Frankfurt. Ballet is very popular – our evenings sell out and without offering story ballets. Audiences here want – and virtually demand – new work. This is very European. I also recognize the importance of developing a tradition and following – and this demand for the always new can place us in danger of losing the works of the past – our tradition!

I’ll be leaving Mainz in 2009, as I feel 10 years in any one place is enough and it’s good to move on to new challenges.

Schläpfer was announced as Artistic Director of the ballet at “Deutsche Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf-Duisburg” at a press conference in October 2007.

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