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Uwe Scholz and the Leipzig Ballet

Ten years after East Germany collapsed, Uwe Scholz has succeeded in putting Leipzig Ballet on a firm footing.

___ When German choreographer Uwe Scholz accepted the artistic directorship of Leipzig Ballet in 1991, it was the opportunity to shape an ensemble from the ground up that had proved most attractive. Three years earlier, when he was artistic director of Zurich Ballet, the then thirty-year-old Scholz had been invited to set a work on the Leipzig dancers. It was to be a trio danced to a Rachmaninoff suite for two pianos. Seated now in his office high above the nonstop construction site that is Leipzig these days, Scholz remembers the experience as something akin to entering virgin territory. "Working with these dancers was unbelievable," he says. "They hardly knew my name, and they had seen nothing, since there was not a single video recorder in the house. But they were so open and hungry for the movements, which were difficult for them and so different from how they had been trained." ___



___ When Scholz took over the Leipzig company, he found a company left dispirited and in shambles after the abrupt collapse of East Germany and its system of state-supported arts. Dancers who had formerly expected a half-salary pension after a fifteen-year career faced an uncertain economic future. Worse, audiences had disappeared. The previous regime had insured full houses by allocating heavily subsidized or free seats on a rotating basis to various industrial concerns. All of a sudden, people could no longer afford to attend ballet. "A theater that can accommodate twelve hundred would have audiences of maybe fifty," Scholz recalls. ___

___ As the city was rebuilding itself after years of neglect, Scholz set out to restructure its ballet company. He was instrumental in establishing a nonprofit support structure for the existing government-run ballet school and in securing private sponsorship for its spacious new headquarters. Although the school was officially integrated into Ballet Leipzig in 1993, entrenched interests and established bureaucracies prevented Scholz from becoming its director until the fall of 1997. ___

___ The fifty-five-member company has become a truly international troupe. It now contains dancers from the former Eastern bloc, Western Europe, and South America, along with three Americans (Christine Jaroszewski, Damien Diaz, and Melissa Allen) whom Scholz brought with him from Zurich. Egon Madsen of Stuttgart Ballet has joined the company as ballet master. Not surprisingly, the competition from abroad initially created tension with the East German members. "It was difficult for dancers used to lifetime security to come to terms with the pushy foreigners whose attitude toward performance was so different from their own," Scholz remembers. "The conflict between the Ossies and the Wessies that the rest of Germany experienced, and the hatred of foreigners, which was one byproduct, we had here, too." ___

___ Not by accident, Scholz introduced himself in Leipzig with The Creation, his 1984 setting of Haydn's oratorio depicting the bringing of order out of chaos and the fashioning of man. It became the signature piece of the company, which has performed it on eleven tours in the last six years; last May it received its sixtieth performance. "It's the one piece that presenters request all the time, even if we have to perform it with tape," Scholz says. ___


___ The Creation reveals a bold overall design that grows fluidly from the music. Scholz overlays visually intriguing patterns, peels out spiraling duets and solos, and splits the cast into multileveled architectural groupings. The choreography is spacious, airy, buoyant; its vocabulary, while classical, reflects other influences. In this piece, as in many other Scholz ballets, the figures of an individual man and woman emerge out of the ensemble as symbols of hope born out of love. The idea of rebirth is a constant in his work. This kind of unabashed quasi-apotheosis of human potential, or, as Scholz puts it, "at least the possibility of a new way of life," is rare in serious late-twentieth-century art. Scholz admits, "I am so out of step with the times I sometimes embarrass myself." ___

___ With more than ninety ballets to his credit, Scholz at the age of forty is certainly one of the most prolific European choreographers working today. His works have been commissioned and are in the repertories of opera ballet companies in Milan (a full-length Le Rouge et le Noir for La Scala), Florence, Madrid, Zagreb, Santiago, and Vienna, as well as in Netherlands Dance Theatre, Bavarian State Theater, the Royal Ballet of Winnipeg, Ballet British Columbia, the Ballets de MonteCarlo, and Stuttgart Ballet, which this past December took his Firebird into their repertory, with Malakhov dancing the title role. An excerpt from Pax Questuosa, Scholz's plea against prejudice, was performed at the 1995 UNited We Dance Festival in San Francisco. ___

___ There was very little in his background that predestined a career in the arts for Scholz. He grew up in a small town outside Darmstadt, "with three hundred people and six hundred cows," he says with a smile. "I have two brothers who are deliciously unmusical. I guess it was one of those cases where the parents, who see the little kid dance every time he hears music on the radio, think they have a Nijinsky on their hands and send him to dance class." For a while he thought he might become a conductor because he loved the way they are able to shape the sound coming out of an orchestra. Rather astonishingly, Scholz didn't see his first ballet until he was studying at the school of Stuttgart Ballet. It was John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet. "It's the one ballet I have never choreographed," he explains. "I still have Cranko's balcony scene inside me." ___

___ A scholarship to the School of American Ballet brought the budding eighteen-year-old choreographer to New York City. He lasted five months. "It was all very fascinating and, of course, this experience exploded my horizons," recalls Scholz. "I admired that intensely Apollonian radiance emanating from Balanchine's works, but it did not provide solace to my heart." Scholz explains that strangely old-fashioned word, solace: "I expect art to give solace, to give comfort, to hold you and help you [to live]." So he went home to Stuttgart, to "the warmth of the Cranko choreography and the warmth of the family spirit, which at that time still existed in the company." ___

___ Some of the culture shock and loneliness that Scholz experienced in New York City may have found its way into his Amerika (1994). The work opens with a young man sitting on a park bench against a horizon of skyscrapers; his companions include a hooker, a jogger, a Salvation Army worker, a businessman on the phone, and a homeless drank. Amerika starts on a Blade Runner note with the usual stereotypes of American culture that Europeans so love to skewer: Uncle Sam, Miss Piggy, Mickey Mouse, dancing hamburgers, and brain-numbing television. But gradually Scholz expands and abstracts his cartoonlike approach until what began as a pop ballet becomes a rather serious affirmation of a new humanity that literally rises from the bowels of the earth. His score--an assemblage of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Philip Glass, Charles Ives, Edgard Varese, and John Zorn, as well as songs recorded by Whitney Houston--shows him at his most eclectic and inventive. He sets some of these borrowed pieces so skillfully that they seem to have been commissioned for him. ___


___ This intense musicality, possibly his greatest asset as a choreographer, has led Scholz to create any number of large Massine-like ensemble works, "ballet symphonies" set to Schumann, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Bartok, and Prokofiev. One premiered last year was set to Mozart's "Great" Mass, K. 427, and compositions by other composers. He says these ballets are "never abstract. They always deal with the human condition. What I do is unscrew my Scholz head and let the music enter so I can find out what lies behind and underneath its surface." He calls it discovering the composer's "landscape of the soul." ___

___ In November 1996, for a gala celebrating Reid Anderson's becoming artistic director of Stuttgart Ballet, he choreographed a solo for Vladimir Malakhov to Pierre Boulez's Notations I-IV. "I wanted to see how far this dancer would push himself, how flexible he still was, or whether he had become perfectly content to simply function within what he knows best," says Scholz. The score is a densely structured contemporary piece without perceptible harmonic or rhythmic progressions. How did Malakhov learn the music? "In the beginning," Scholz says, laughing, "I got some very big Russian eyes. But he is so musical, I simply played the score over and over again. It was fascinating to see how fast he caught on to this not-easy music." The result is four angular vignettes in which the dancer is asked to make lightning-quick changes in response to emerging strands of music. Remarkably, after seeing the dance, one finds that the music suddenly makes sense. ___

___ Scholz was offered the directorship of Berlin Opera Ballet four years ago, but he turned the job down, preferring to continue building what he had started in Leipzig. Although he won't spell it out, it's clear that what he has in mind is to make Leipzig a center for the study of ballet in Germany and Eastern Europe (Leipzig is closer to Prague than it is to, say, either Hamburg or Frankfurt). The city fathers praised him for staying in Leipzig, and the Lions Club awarded him a medal of merit. Then they decided to save money by abolishing both the opera's musical theater and the ballet. The musical theater supporters went to the street and collected 20,000 signatures, but Scholz vetoed such protests. "That's not my style," he says. ___

___ Instead, for May 1996, Scholz choreographed an all-Bach evening for a gala celebrating the anniversaries of Leipzig's established cultural institutions: the five hundredth for Saint Thomas Church Choir (the one in Bach's own church), the three hundredth for the Opera, and the two hundred and fiftieth years for the Gewandhaus Orchestra--and the fifth for Leipzig Ballet, Scholz notes with a smile. In complete secrecy--the dancers only learned about it the afternoon of the performance--Scholz had prepared his biggest coup de theatre yet. When the chorus began to sing the chorale Ich hatte viel Bekummernis ("I had many sorrows"), the dancers stopped performing and lined up at the back of the stage, women in front, men behind. As the hapless, increasingly confused conductor kept going and the oblivious chorus kept singing, the women dancers one by one sat down, took off their pointe shoes, and deposited them in a pile at the edge of the stage. ___

___ "I told the dancers to do it very slowly because I did not want the audience to think it was part of the choreography," says Scholz. The music finally came to the end, but the funereal pile kept growing in total silence as dancers in costume from Coppelia and Swan Lake joined those already onstage. Finally, Scholz himself lowered the curtain. "I made sure that there was no one else there to do it prematurely," he said. The resulting half-hour ovation and the screaming match between the opera director and the mayor at the gala party earned enough European media coverage to save the company. ___

___ A compromise was reached. This year Scholz will have to reduce the company by five dancers (down to fifty), a situation he considers barely tolerable. "That's my absolute limit," he says. "You can't do Swan Lake with twelve dancers. I'll stay, but not if they don't give me the tools to do my work." ___

Dance Magazine, January 1999


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