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The Artistic Director and House Choreographer of the Zürich Ballet, Christian Spuck, is among many other things an incredible storyteller. Never one to shy away from dramatic subjects or complicated plot lines, he has built an extensive repertoire and reputation on his ability to extract and distil prominent themes of a literary work and express them articulately through physical narrative. Each of his productions throws a curve ball to the traditional ballet status quo.
ICONS: Could you share a little about your life before dance?
Christian Spuck: I grew up in a small German village. Everyone in my family played an instrument, and we occasionally went to the theatre, but never the ballet.
As a teenager in those days, everyone was required to go to the army for a certain time. If you didn’t want to go then you had to do civil service work instead. So, for almost two years I did civil service work in a psychiatric ward in a Frankfurt hospital. That was the same time William Forsythe was working in Frankfurt and I went to see all his performances. Watching Forsythe’s work made me realize that ballet could be very philosophical, cryptic, and self-questioning. He was deconstructing ballet and putting it back together and it fascinated me.
I began to attend private ballet classes after work in the psychiatric ward where I met Kathryn Bennetts and Anne Woolliams who encouraged me to train professionally. So at 20 years old, and already an independent adult, I joined the Stuttgart Ballet School. Suddenly I was in class with 13 and 14 year old kids everyday. At that time I didn’t even know the ballet positions and the students laughed at me – it was actually terrible. A friend convinced me to keep going even though I hated it. In the final school year a choreographer from Stuttgart Ballet choreographed a piece for us and that’s when it all suddenly made sense for me.
ICONS: Is that when you knew you wanted to be a choreographer?
CS: At that time I actually wanted to be a dancer in Frankfurt Ballet, but I never thought I was good enough, so I never auditioned – I know it sounds strange. I went instead to work with the avant-garde Needcompany, where I did a lot of acting and even danced on pointe shoes. Later, I joined Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s, Rosas in Belgium. While it wasn’t the happiest period of my life, I consider it as my second education because I learned a contemporary way of moving I was never taught at the John Cranko School and was required to choreograph a lot myself.
After a year, I went back to Stuttgart and co-founded a dance company together with Marco Santi. I was responsible for administration and dealt with politicians, public funding, organizing productions, and managing the dancers. When the freelance dance scene got complicated, I auditioned for the Stuttgart Ballet where I began creating my first works for the Young Choreographers program.
Then when Reid Anderson took over as Director company, he fired me! It was actually the ballet masters, Kurt Speker and Melinda Witham who stood up for me and convinced Reid to reconsider. I’m still grateful that they believed in me as a dancer and supported me as a choreographer. Reid gave me another chance and immediately took one of my choreographies into the company’s repertoire. After that it went really fast, Reid asked me to make one new production every year and then made me House Choreographer.
ICONS: You’ve been referred to as ‘The Imaginative Modernizer of classical ballet.’ Does ballet need to be modernized?
CS: I think it’s important to first have an understanding of what classical ballet is before you start pushing boundaries. You have to really know the history. What did Hans van Manen, Forsythe and Balanchine do with classical ballet? Building on history is the only way that people like Wayne McGregor or Marco Goecke are born. Some choreographers today are in a way denying what has happened with ballet by going back to the traditional, entertaining and pretty qualities associated with ballet without questioning anything. I think Art should always question itself. Otherwise it’s like taking a medium warm bath - ‘I know this and this is comfortable.’ The moment art is comfortable it’s not art anymore. Art should never be comfortable. It should have a twist. It can be exciting, nice or touching. It doesn’t have to be painful or provocative, but it shouldn’t be exactly what you expect. Not something that you see and then it’s over – done.
What we are trying to do at Ballet Zürich is figure out new ways to use the ballet language and mix it with other styles in order to find the right characters to tell stories differently on stage. Quite often in story ballets the story is only used to present beautiful dancing. I believe that dance is a beautiful and strong language and I want to use that language to tell the story. Let it express the terms of the conflicts and the human beings presented on stage. I want to know why we are doing this and what we are trying to say. I think asking ‘why’ is the only way to move forward.
ICONS: Many of your full-length ballets are inspired by literary or operatic themes. What attracts you to complex narratives and big productions?
CS: I started with 20-minute ballets like everyone else. In the beginning I struggled to find my own language and style. When I did my first big production, Lulu, for Stuttgart Ballet, a friend said to me ‘Spuck, it’s a great show, with wonderful dance and music. But let’s be honest… it has nothing to do with the original play.’ I’m so grateful to this friend because he really taught me to look carefully at stories and dig into what they are trying to explain. Since then I’m really drawn to big productions.
I like to make work, which is emotional for the audience and also for me personally. I enjoy creating figures and developing the conflicts facing these figures on stage. I often spend years preparing productions. Searching for the right music to combine and reflect the characters and the story with a certain funny or emotional impact. It’s like a huge puzzle you can create. I believe a performance should give the audience something to think about. The viewer can be irritated, or drawn in emotionally, or even inspired. The worst outcome for me would be if the audience said ‘Oh, that was really pretty’ and nothing more. I’m finding a lot to explore with big productions because they are more complex – they are scratching on something.
ICONS: How do you create a balance between being a director and a choreographer?
CS: I think choreographer and director are two different jobs. I’m privileged to work with an ensemble of 50 dancers and to create direction for them through the productions I chose and the choreographers I invite to work here. The really fun part of being a director is when the dancers and choreographers work together and something special happens. My hope was to create an environment where choreographers want to come back again and again.
As a choreographer, I have to plan almost four years in advance. I’ve been working on the new Nutcracker for almost two years now and at the same time I’m working on full-length productions for the coming two seasons. The productions overlap, so it involves talking to the composers and set designers for current and future productions simultaneously while directing additional performances (like Anna Karenina coming up in Moscow) plus preparing tours - sometimes it gets crazy. Yet, I enjoy it immensely!
Right now, I’m actually where I always dreamed to be…but that also scares me. Thinking about the next five years - Shall I continue on the same path? Use the same choreographers and ideas that have worked so far? I’m aware that things could change - not everything can always be on a high. So I’m trying to break boundaries, go further and invite people here who will push things forward. I’m going to take even more risks now.
ICONS: You just created a new Nutcracker production. Why?
CS: The original story of The Nutcracker is completely different from what it eventually became in Russia and the United States. If you read the original book, Nussknacker und Mausekönig by E.T.A. Hoffmann it is actually an adult story and a horror story. It’s very creepy and it’s very weird.
When Tchaikovsky composed the Music for The Nutcracker he premiered it together with the opera, Iolanta. They took the libretto from Alexandre Dumas who changed the original Nutcracker story into something really superficial.
A regular Nutcracker production does not represent the depth of the original story. The conflict is left out - it’s just pretty - but nothing is explained on stage. For example, why is there a war between the Nutcracker and the mice? Or why is the second act just divertissements with different nationalities? I wanted to go back and discover the message and context of the original story by really digging into the details.
ICONS: What can we expect from your new Nutcracker?
CS: It’s going to be very theatrical, and it’s going to have its dark moments. I really recommend reading the original story; it’s so much more exciting than the libretto from Alexandre Dumas. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book, everything evolves from Drosselmeyer telling Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat.
Drosselmeyer is a character who can play between worlds; he can go into dreams and he can create fantasies. He has a particular darkness because he can manipulate people. All the processes that Marie goes through have something in common with Alice in Wonderland because she is seeing the world differently, but is also inspired by reality.
The production is structured on three levels - The world of Marie and the Stahlbaum family, the story of Princess Pirlipat, and the fairy tale world of sugarplums that the Nutcracker brings Marie into. The set by Rufus Didwiszus is something between a revue theatre and an old living room with a tinge of circus. It’s a stage on stage, so we are playing with different levels. Based on what I’ve seen so far the costumes by Buki Shiff really make a statement. I can say that hopefully it’s going to be a fun production.
ICONS: What role do you see for choreographers in the future of ballet?
CS: The future of ballet is through choreographers, not only through amazing dancers. When I see what dancers can do today compared to in the past it’s amazing. But if there are no choreographers who are interested to work within this art form, as reflective artists, then there is no future. It’s only the choreographers who can move the art forward and keep it alive. We must support choreographers whenever we can.
More about Christian Spuck
Born in Marburg, Germany Christian Spuck trained at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart and began his dancer career with Jan Lauwer’s Needcompany and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas. In 1995 he became a member of the Stuttgart Ballet and from 2001 to 2012 he was named House Choreographer of the Company. In Stuttgart, he created fifteen world premieres, including the full length ballets Lulu, Der Sandmann, and Fraulein von S.
Spuck’s choreogrpahic works have been performed by dance companies worldwide. His creations The Return of Ulysses for the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Woyzeck for The Norwegian National Ballet and Leonce and Lena performed by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Aalto Ballet Theater, and The Stuttgart Ballett all recived critcal acclaim. His ballet, The Children, performed by the Aalto Ballet Theater was nominated for the Benois de la Danse. The first performance of Poppea // Poppea, for Gauthier Dance Company was voted one of the ten most successful dance productions worldwide by Dance Europe Magazine and was awarded the German Theater Prize, Der Faust and the Italian Danza / Danza Award.
Having also worked extensively with Opera, Spuck created Gluck's Orphée and Euridice for the Staatsoper Stuttgart (2009), Verdi’s Falstaff at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden (2010) and Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (2014). Most recently, he returned to the Deutsche Oper to direct The Flying Dutchman (2017).
Since 2012, Christian Spuck beame the Artistic Director of Ballet Zürich in 2012. Since that time the company has performed his Romeo and Juliet, Leonce and Lena, Woyzeck, Anna Karenina, Der Sandmann and Verdi’s Messa da Requiem as a co-production with the Zürich Opera.
Interviewer: Jessica Teague,
Editor in Chief: Camilla Acquista
Photography by Die Arge Lola, Gregory Batardon
All right Reserved, November 2017, Dance ICONS, Inc.