Martin Schläpfer’s Ballet “7”

Text by Anne do Paço – English translation by David Tushingham

“I fled from the city and sank to the ground exhausted in front of the cliff, where I rested as long as a drop of life which was deeper than a thousand years.”

Else Lasker-Schüler

Dancers in heavy boots and dark overcoats arrive after a long journey in a world which might become their new home. In a trio between two men and one woman their energies are intensified and discharged in a striking scene between intimacy and parting. Music and dance combine in a psychological portrait of obsessed individuals.

Another such driven personality was the composer Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), whose 7th Symphony was chosen by Martin Schläpfer as the musical score for his ballet “7”. “Mahler didn’t stick it anywhere for long, he was persecuted and restless everywhere. Work was always calling, either his own composing or the opera. No pleasure! No rest! He thought he would live forever!” Alma Mahler writes of her husband in her “Memoirs”: “He often said: I am triply homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew anywhere in the world. One is an intruder everywhere, wanted nowhere.” In his compositions Mahler repeatedly sought an artistic way out of his existential dilemma, yet there was a closely deterministic relationship between the realities of his life and of his art. Certain ideas and motifs, themes and musical configurations are transposed from one work to the next, creating not only a dense network of the most varied references, but also a musical and conceptual Mahlerian cosmos.

The life and works of the leading symphonist would provide plenty of material for a new dance piece. However, Martin Schläpfer takes a different course in his ballet 7, following the dramaturgy which he has consistently developed and given new accents to over several years, and with which his name is now firmly associated of a collage-like association of the most varied images: contrasts flow into each other organically allowing an energy all of their own to be created on stage; excerpts of the world can follow a sort of dreamlike logic but collide harshly with each other and yet they can be welded firmly together within the overall atmosphere of the piece. For the viewer a scene is opened in which the strange can suddenly appear familiar and vice versa, in a manner similar to that described by Botho Strauss in “Reflections on Marks and Lines”: “There are movements, glances, and ways of delivering a sentence which displace us in the fraction of a second. The effect is like one of those famous déjà vus, which arouse the impression that one has already visited an unfamiliar place and is aware of the event which is about to take place immanently. However, these deeper distractions lead us into a genuinely unknown world of lost connections which one has never experienced either waking or dreaming. One then has the feeling that one has stepped into an intransigent world entirely devoid of pace, in which time remains hidden, elegantly folded, in thin layers, like the strata of geological formations.”

Just as Mahler speaks many “musical languages”, picking up cadences from one musical environment and reworking them – from the sounds of nature through folk songs, signals, quotations and echoes of other artistic music to the flickering of acoustic surfaces in which time seems to stand still – so Martin Schläpfer’s choreography also speaks many languages of movement and allows highly emotional, gestural and in their narrative character quite concrete images to encounter pure dance scenes. By using boots – alongside pointe shoes, soft ballet shoes and in one brief sequence bare feet – his dancers, both male and female, recurrently appear as heavy, earthly creatures stamping their afflictions into the ground in anger – and more: it also raises the interesting question of what happens to a ballerina as soon as she wears boots. One answer is provided by the erotic and extremely risky “duel” between Marlúcia do Amaral and Bruno Narnhammer in the second movement. Martin Schläpfer then discovers contrasting and more lyrical aspects in his two ballerinas Louisa Rachedi and Doris Becker: one fragile and vulnerable, repeatedly losing her footing in a solo watched by a trio of violent men, the other attractive, loved and desired, yet trapped in a world of illusion as if she is behind glass. In a solo for Paul Calderone, George Balanchine seems to have turned into Martha Graham – but with a Schläpfer-like ferocity where by the end all the dancer can do is collapse in upon himself. All that is left is a jittery creature thrown back upon his own devices with shaky knees.

Time and time again Martin Schläpfer allows grand dance gestures to collapse in upon themselves so that the tableaux in the symphony’s fifth movement, where the party scenes of “Sleeping Beauty” are apparently echoed in their virtuosity power and clarity, also seem like a défilé on a floor in which cracks may appear at any time. Here classical ballet forms are not only taken further for our time in a style so typical of Martin Schläpfers, they also become a sign of a grace which derives its beauty from an awareness of its own contingency.

As with the dance vocabulary, the visual worlds created are not limited in period: the archaic world of the Old Testament stands next to playful Romanticism and the uncanny grotesque, 1920s variety meets the childishly naive but also a strict classicism. During rehearsals the name Marc Chagall is repeatedly mentioned in relation to the flight to the stars at the beginning of the work in which Marcos Menha and Martin Chaix Mariana Dias manage to escape from the world for a moment before they are separated. At other moments the viewer is struck by associations with different pictures, for example Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, in whose silent yell the snapping mouths of Yuko Kato, Wun Sze Chan and Nicole Morel seem to grow to the grotesque sounds of the song Mahler quotes “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes” – a trio of a demonic darkness which also runs through other sequences like the nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch.
Martin Schläpfer creates a humorous and satirical set piece on the theme of bourgeois happiness in the doll’s house idyll of the 4th movement between the two pairs of dancers Marlúcia do Amaral and Marcos Menha and Julie Thirault and Bogdan Nicula, into which strange dream figures performed by Yuko Kato, Andriy Boyetskyy and subsequently Camille Andriot flutter through a window accidentally left open – imaginings which are promptly wiped away again by the two couples.

Other images take us to the margins of a hostile society in which people are not only deported, stoned and robbed of their freedom, but are able like the profiteers on both sides in Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table” to make “capital” out of the hardship of others. Images of loneliness, destitution, violence, servitude and the search for home form the basis of a piece which intensifies more and more into a dance on the volcano. With a “Journey to Jerusalem” the existential play on exclusion transforms into fury. What is left is a dancer in pointe shoes – the fragile image of a ballerina on the edge of the abyss.

“To me writing a symphony means constructing a world with all the technical means available” – Mahler commented on his own work. In Martin Schläpfer’s ballet the world becomes a stage on which the challenges of life are literally embodied – both with seriousness and with humour. The rejections and the cracks remain intact and are not covered up. Wandering towards the fixed destination of home is no longer placed in opposition to the experience of vagrancy but finds itself within it.

© Ballett am Rhein Düsseldorf Duisburg. Program booklet – b.17.
Season 2013/14, Düsseldorf, October 2013.
Colorado MahlerFest XXIX – Reprinted by permission.