Choreographing to Brahms' A German Requiem may seem audacious, or even an affront, but that is what Martin Schlaepfer has done for the Ballett am Rhein and it works… wonderfully.
Schlaepfer has directed the company, which he formed under the auspices of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, since 2007. The company is built up from more than forty, very individual, artists who present Balanchine and Cunningham, Robbins and van Manen, and new creations from Schlaepfer himself. The German Requiem is a challenge, certainly, both artistically and economically, with large forces in the pit, a 50-strong chorus, two vocal soloists, and the company of dancers. That adds up to about a hundred and forty performers on – or under – the stage. But when the combination produces something magical, as this does, it is a cultural investment to be saluted; I wasn't the only one with tears in my eyes at the end.
Of course, Brahms has already done half the work. His German Requiem is powerful when the timpani roar and touchingly pastoral when the piccolo chirps away, and at 75 minutes it is his longest work. What Schlaepfer manages to do is add to all this, not distract or destroy.
There is no mimicking in his choreography: as the orchestra arrives at its first major climax a large group of dancers run and jump around the stage with impressive force, yet when the section is repeated just a handful sit and gaze out into the auditorium, totally changing how the music is perceived and creating an interiority which was absent before. Maybe having the way of listening ‘dictated' by dance may frustrate some listeners, but this is no concert, and neither is it a pure dance work, a concept Schlaepfer understands as he has placed the chorus three metres above the stage, the dancers below, and below them in the pit is the orchestra; a true ensemble piece. From the dress circle there are three distinct strata: the orchestra and chorus glowing golden in the light from their music stands, with the dancers between them in black and white, doubled in number by a reflective black dance floor. A monumental sight.
Brahms distanced his Requiem from the Latin liturgy, using texts from the Scriptures in his native tongue. He said he could have called it “Ein menschliches Requiem” – A human Requiem – and indeed it is, and this is a quality which is reflected in the choreography. There are many touching moments: the entire company running around the stage, dropping to the floor one by one until a single dancer remains standing alone; a woman who desperately tries to arrive at an offstage destination to be thwarted by two male dances at each attempt; a dancer meditating on her foot transformed by a pointe shoe – the only one in the piece; all the dancers sitting with their backs to the audience to form a second audience watching the chorus in stillness; a couple moving together in harmony until he stumbles and falls, only to be encouraged by her to stand and join her again; and so on. Yes, this is very human.
Some of the movement is simple and calm, some of it theatrical and exciting – the men with their Martha Graham leaps – but at every moment the commitment of these dancers is total, and it arrives like a tsunami over the audience, modifying what existed before by its force. The quality of movement is refined and precise, like the detailed work with the point shoe, or the complex interactions between the dancers for sustained periods. The company are rarely together like a line of Swans or Shadows, but this must be intended, just as their costumes are all variations on a theme, and physically they form such a diverse group. Human not ethereal.
I think Brahms would have approved.
All photos by Gert Weigelt
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.