Ballet Companies in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland
Semperoper Ballet, Bavarian State Ballet, State Ballet Berlin, Stuttgart Ballet, Ballett am Rhein,
Dutch National Ballet, Zurich Ballet
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf
What kind of image distinguishes Stuttgart Ballet from Dutch National Ballet? Or the Bavarian State Ballet from the State Ballet Berlin? What is it the dancers – and their audience – identify with as their company? How do companies present themselves to the public? Such were my thoughts when seeing the Semperoper Ballet’s new image campaign, #WHYWEDANCE. I asked several major companies to send me images of their choice representing their respective company’s image.
Semperoper Ballet chose four of the sixty-one dancer portraits of #WHYWEDANCE. The new ensemble brochure presents each in full-page size. In addition they are spread via social media and on billboards and advertising pillars in Dresden. Aaron S.Watkin, in his eleventh year as artistic director, put the spotlight on his company this season whose face has changed since his beginning in 2006. Next to the dancers, Ian Whalen, the troupe’s photographer and multimedia expert, also shot Watkin and staff members. Names, places of birth, ranks within the company and the year when joining the ensemble come along with each portrait. In addition, every dancer sums up their motivation for the profession, the why and wherefore of choosing a career with dance in a single word.
For the Spaniard Raquél Martínez it is “VIDA” (“Life”), “ART” for the Englishman Joseph Gray. Seoul-born Sangeun Lee decided for “영감” (“Inspiration”) and Fabien Voranger from Aix-en-Provence/France “HONNÊTETÈ” (“Honesty”). The catchy phrases rather arouse more curiosity than deliver information but presumably that is intended. Complimentary video clips with danced solos meant to illuminate the mottoes will be filmed over time. Some are already posted on the company’s website.
Formerly black and white, the new portraits are colored surrounded by various pastel backgrounds. Coloring and exposure of light gives some faces an almost translucent appearance reminding me of Meissen porcelain figures. Taken together the portraits depict a colorful, yet cohesive group. Individual traits strike the eye, when focusing on single photos. Whalen’s close-ups seem especially close. They reveal the person behind the artist, pure and unvarnished, an individual that one could easily imagine meeting at such mundane places like the counter of the supermarket. But what a glow! Such sweetly candy-color backgrounds! That is certainly not a group of Everymen.
#WHYWEDANCE eliminates the distance between the artist on stage and the human being behind. Will that bring the art form closer to the audience? Or are dancers seen best from a proper distance to keep the ideal of unattainable beauty and perfection? Which age group feels attracted by what?
But in Dresden a completely different, non-balletic factor has to be considered. Pegida, the right-wing populist organization, demonstrates every Monday in Dresden. Often they cant their anti-immigrant slogans just in front of the Semperoper house. The new campaign sets an example against this xenophobia. Semperoper Ballet is internationally recognized and, together with the State Ballet Berlin, is the flagship of dance in eastern Germany. That is due to its artists. Artists from all over the world.
In Amsterdam, cultural diversity has determined the city’s atmosphere for decades. Equally international is Amsterdam-based Dutch National Ballet. Ted Brandsen, its artistic director, emphasized the range of nationalities within his troupe recently in an interview at the World Ballet Day. A welcoming openness pervades the Dutch National Opera house, home of the company. Openness, warmth and professionalism also radiate from the company’s website and its excellent video clips that usually accompany new productions. Its ensemble site gives an overview on the portraits of all dancers, making it easy for visitors to match the names with the faces they saw onstage.
Photographer Robin de Puy shot plain head-on portraits surrounded by a gray background. Clarity, directness and unpretentious perfection characterizes them. Colors are of minor importance, personalities are central. Of the latter, the company has strong ones. The faces are open, but not exposed. One remains curious about the person depicted but at the same time is kept from intrusion. Compared to Semperoper Ballet, their Dutch colleagues are portrayed as artists in everyday wear.
With the start of Igor Zelensky’s directorship, the company of the Bavarian State Ballet has changed fundamentally this season. Taking new dancer portraits was inevitable. The former ones by Sascha Kletzsch had been black and white, his recent ones are colored. Almost every dancer wears a black top, all backgrounds are blue, some photos are overexposed. No picture has depth but rather resembles a simple passport photo. The portraits are on the company website and presented in the new ensemble brochure which is included with the performance programs. Showing one photo next to another in rows of three between golden cardboard-covers, this brochure is a prime example of boring uniformity dressed in ostentatious shine. I doubt whether the dancers identify with this new look. It doesn’t represent who they are.
Usually, with new directors taking office, the companies take on a different character. This also happened to the State Ballet Berlin when Nacho Duato took over the reins in 2014. Back then a poster campaign with dancer portraits was launched in Berlin. Its close-ups caught a moment in class or during a rehearsal. The dancers, wearing rehearsal clothes, focus on something happening outside the image detail instead of posing for the camera. Dedicated working spirit prevails. “Here we go!” is in the air. Everyone looks ready to take responsibility. Those are men and women of action. “Ich bin das Staatsballett Berlin” (“I’m the State Ballet Berlin”) says the overprint. Could there be a more explicit statement of commitment and identification?
That this company sticks together has been proved by its successful initiative for better salaries last year and, recently, in their opposition against the appointment of Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman as Duato’s successors in 2019, which is still up in the air. The photos taken for the poster campaign have been used for the ensemble site of the company’s website too. Therefore logos, overprints and the black shading in the corners were removed. Though being blank they are less expressive.
Stuttgart Ballet is John Cranko, Marcia Haydée, Richard Cragun, Egon Madsen and Birgit Keil. But it is also Reid Anderson, Tamas Detrich, petite Georgette Tsinguirides and the current flagship-dancers: Friedemann Vogel, Alicia Amatriain, Jason Reilly and many others. So things get difficult when asking for a few photos to represent the image of the Stuttgart company. Maybe that is why the press office sent me images of two different campaigns. One shows black and white whole body photos of principal dancers, taken by Sébastien Galtier in the 2011/12 season. Dancers promoted to principal rank in subsequent years were photographed in a similar style by Roman Novitzky.
Galtier made the dancers pose in the opera’s paint shop. Of the three examples I received, Reilly and Vogel could easily be laid-back guys working as models. They are athletic but without the opera surroundings nothing would hint at their being dancers. But those two men don’t need a special introduction. Everyone in the dance world knows them anyway. Amatriain, by contrast, is clearly the ballerina. She keeps more distance from the viewer though, like the two men, she is looking directly into the camera. Some of those black and white photos are on the company website in the picture galleries of the respective dancers. As postcards, all are for sale in the Stuttgart Ballet shop.
The second, completely different campaign, was launched in 2015. It showcases the principals as “Superheroes” in science fiction costumes under fictional names directly or indirectly relating to individual skills. Little labels give the heroes’ real names and home countries. The idea for the campaign originates from the two little sons of Vivian Arnold, director of communications and dramaturgy. Ex-soloist Thomas Lempertz was in charge of the costumes; Bernd Weißbrod took the photos. The campaign is fun, especially for children. They love heroes. But how do grown-ups bridge the disparity of a comic hero image and the seriousness of a role in one of Stuttgart Ballet hallmark pieces? Captain Fantastic becomes Onegin? Elastorina becomes Juliette? Well, how that works seems part of the long-standing Stuttgart Ballet Miracle.
When talking with Chea Nila, the press aid of Ballet Zurich, on the phone about what images characterize the company, we agreed that they aren’t the dancer portraits. They are merely meant to inform one about who is who. “We are what we are doing”, she said. This the company presents in a unique way indeed. When passing by the opera house’s production posters, of which Chea Nila sent examples, everyone in the city of Zurich knows that they are the signature of either Ballet Zurich or Zurich Opera. The same clearly structured images build the front side of the website and are on the covers of the program books. Some of the symbols, chosen by the layout designers, go without explanation: the heart for “Romeo and Juliet”, the feather for “Swan Lake” (Ratmansky’s reconstruction) and the crown for “Leonce and Lena”, for example. But I remember having pondered over the connection between the three pieces of “Notations” and the phosphorescing ant. In any case, those graphics’ distinctive designs catch the eye. In Zurich the artists on stage take a back seat in favor of the art.
This August Alexandra Albrecht wrote about the small numbers of black dancers in ballet companies in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, saying that Martin Schläpfer’s company, the Ballett am Rhein, is exemplary in demonstrating the variety within a ballet troupe. Plurality of nationalities doesn’t matter for the feeling of togetherness, Albrecht declared. The company photo proves her right. Ballett am Rhein is a mixed group, likeable, good-humored and with team spirit. But individuality counts in the same way. Take a look at the single portraits Gert Weigelt took. He didn’t paint all with the same brush but revealed facets of the personalities lying behind. One gets curious to know more about those dancers.
Isn’t that an ideal starting point to establish a strong connection between a company and its audience?
|Homepage of Ballett am Rhein
|Homepage Ballet Zurich
|Homepage of the Bavarian State Ballet
|Homepage of Dutch National Ballet
|Homepage of Semperoper Ballet
|Homepage of the State Ballet Berlin
|Homepage of Stuttgart Ballet
|Raquél Martínez, #WHYWEDANCE, Semperoper Ballet © Ian Whalen 2016
|Joseph Gray, #WHYWEDANCE, Semperoper Ballet © Ian Whalen 2016
|Sangeun Lee, #WHYWEDANCE, Semperoper Ballet © Ian Whalen 2016
|Fabien Voranger, #WHYWEDANCE, Semperoper Ballet © Ian Whalen 2016
|Dutch National Ballet
|Daniel Camargo, Dutch National Ballet © Robin de Puy 2016
|Igone de Jongh, Dutch National Ballet © Robin de Puy 2016
|Michaela DePrince, Dutch National Ballet © Robin de Puy 2016
|Marijn Rademaker, Dutch National Ballet © Robin de Puy 2016
|Anna Tsygankova, Dutch National Ballet © Robin de Puy 2016
|Bavarian State Ballet
|Ksenia Ryzhkova, Bavarian State Ballet © Sascha Kletzsch 2016
|Osiel Gouneo, Bavarian State Ballet © Sascha Kletzsch 2016
|Prisca Zeisel, Bavarian State Ballet © Sascha Kletzsch 2016
|Séverine Ferrolier, Bavarian State Ballet © Sascha Kletzsch 2016
|Jonah Cook, Bavarian State Ballet © Sascha Kletzsch 2016
|State Ballet Berlin
|Iana Balova, poster campaign, State Ballet Berlin © Fernando Marcos 2016
|Alexander Abdukarimov, poster campaign, State Ballet Berlin © Fernando Marcos 2016
|Elisa Carrillo Cabrera, poster campaign, State Ballet Berlin © Fernando Marcos 2016
|Arshak Ghalumyan, poster campaign, State Ballet Berlin © Fernando Marcos 2016
|Jason Reilly, Stuttgart Ballet © Sébastien Galtier 2016
|Friedemann Vogel, Stuttgart Ballet © Sébastien Galtier 2016
|Alicia Amatriain, Stuttgart Ballet © Sébastien Galtier 2016
|Captain Fantastic / Jason Reilly, Stuttgart Ballet © Bernd Weisbrod 2016, Grafic by Discodoener
|Mercury / Friedemann Vogel, Stuttgart Ballet © Bernd Weisbrod 2016, Grafic by Discodoener
|Elastorina / Alicia Amatriain, Stuttgart Ballet © Bernd Weisbrod 2016, Grafic by Discodoener
|Poster for “Romeo and Juliet”, Ballet Zurich © Ballet Zurich 2016
|Poster for “Notations”, Ballet Zurich © Ballet Zurich 2016
|Poster for “Swan Lake”, Ballet Zurich © Ballet Zurich 2016
|Poster for “Leonce and Lena”, Ballet Zurich © Ballet Zurich 2016
|Ballett am Rhein
|Wun Sze Chan, Ballett am Rhein © Gert Weigelt 2016
|Chidozie Nzerem, Ballett am Rhein © Gert Weigelt 2016
|Camille Andriot, Ballett am Rhein © Gert Weigelt 2016
|Marcos Menha, Ballett am Rhein © Gert Weigelt 2016
|Ensemble, Ballett am Rhein © Gert Weigelt 2016