Describing Dance, Inscribing Biography: Or, how personal can ballet be?

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Describing Dance, Inscribing Biography: Or, how personal can ballet be?

Autor: Franz Anton Cramer


On closer consideration of the intricate issue of invention and interpretation, certain questions arise. For instance: can any dancer be ‘just a dancer’? Where, in this case, does she store her `everyday’ personality? How does she develop her personality (in view of the years spent dedicated to her art and technique), and how does this personality interact with her stage presence? Would the latter be hypothetically possible if she were not a trained dancer? Approaching from a different angle, one might ask: can classical ballet steps and movements be executed without a subjective stance? Do these movements ‘belong’ to ‘the dancer’s life’, or are they an attached value? In other words: just how do personal biography and ballet really interact? These are questions which are now and again asked, directly or indirectly, of the genre and its constitutive elements. But to my knowledge, they hardly ever form the subject of ballet dance itself. Complex as the issue may be, it is muted, or suppressed, when it comes to performance. These questions are negotiated somewhere else — in rehearsal, training, auditioning, performing — never in (classical) choreography. Dance makers, instead, tend to affirm their igniting, creative, inventive power and impose ‘their’ dance as a ‘piece of work’ on the interpreter, or executive of the dance. (She may sometimes be honoured with being ‘the choreographer’s muse’.) It is one of the harshest criticisms expressed against Old School dance practice that the personal input of artists is not only not enhanced but, more often than not, subdued or even crushed by the institutions’ hierarchical structures. They seem to allow for professional glory only, not for personal impressiveness. Glory, however, has a strong tendency to eclipse the artist behind the dancer. Notions of glorification, stardom or mystification of the dancing persona obfuscate that which would be individual dance. The more classical, exemplary and ‘consummate’ a ballerina, the less she seems allowed to ‘be herself’.


This impasse within classical dance culture provided the starting point for a biographical project by German choreographer Christoph Winkler. Alongside the reluctant star, Berlin State Opera ballerina of 22 years Bettina Thiel, with whom Winkler has worked in the past, Margaret Illmann, an internationally active Australian ballerina of great renown, was also involved in the creation of Lebenslang (Life-long). The piece, which premiered in Berlin in November 2002, deals with the aspects of biographical content in movement, stage presence and communication. Before devising the choreography, Winkler held in-depth interviews with both artists(3). Differences in their respective personalities became obvious in almost all respects: Thiel ‘always knew that I wanted to be a dancer’; Illmann ‘was perhaps 24 when I made my first real decision to do something for my career in dance’. Thiel is reluctant to talk; Illmann muses without end. Thiel is very clear about memory and the elusive aspect of specific movements; Illmann speaks more about the structures and principles of acting/performing. Both insist, however, on the functional way in which movement becomes their own: a half-instinctive, half-rational process of appropriating movement —or the ‘information of a classical piece’ (Illmann). Both have precise and surprisingly convergent, ideas about the interrelation between the ballerina and her steps; about who informs whom. ‘It is me who brings life to ballet’, says Thiel. ‘The basic steps of classical dance are my material which I try to inform; ultimately it is me who is on stage, not classical dance, it’s my personality. That’s why I insist more and more on being able to dance the way I want to’ [my italics]. Similar opinions are formulated by Margaret Illmann: ‘It depends on what you want out of a performance. I want to take something back with me, a visual or an emotional journey . . . some people fear this, they say, That’s not right, that’s not ballet, for someone to have a personal influence . . Illmann emphasizes the personal, or individual treatment of one’s actions: ‘You can do the same steps, but you can give it modern intent. That’s why sometimes I have been called a modern ballerina. Because we live now, we do not live in the past and it is just by being who we are that these subjects [dealt with in narrative ballet: love, hatred, jealousy, betrayal] and steps still exist today.’ As for the moment of performance, both artists claim to enter into a state of heightened consciousness. ‘After performances, I very often have the sensation as if it all weren’t true. It feels as though I had danced in a dream and woken up only after the performance’, says Thiel. Going by her testimony, the execution of movement is best realized in a state of forgetfulness: ‘I don’t think about technique on stage. The body just does it by itself. This is probably why it often seems like a dream. So rehearsing and technical work, in a way, is working to forget.’ Which seems to fit neatly with another so-called repressive feature of classical dance culture. Ballet’s ideal of immaterial weightlessness seems to affect the dancer not only physically — offering a blithe, as it were, pneumatic encounter with the ‘metaphysical essence of dance’. This effect of cognitive and dissoluble pleasure and self-awareness in becoming ‘one with the evasive, ethereal being of dance’ is asserted by Illmann and Thiel alike: ‘You feel quite a lot, you feel the wind that you stir up while dancing’ (Thiel). And Illmann contributes: ‘I remember the wind rippling my costume under the star-lit sky’ [my italics]. In addition to this, Illmann emphasizes the more rational aspect, insisting on the ‘act of understanding’ the movement in order to ‘make it hers’: ‘I try to the point that it becomes natural in me.

So it’s not like I change the steps. I wanted to make it natural for me as opposed to doing classical ballet and suddenly changing who I was. I wanted to understand it [movement] enough that it looked and felt comfortable for me’ [my italics]. Movement should fit her like a garment: Tor me, understanding is very important . . . to be able to get not only into a movement but to make the movement part of me. So that I didn’t have to be a fashion victim. You know what I mean, it’s the same thing in fashion:•ou can either wear clothes and you see the clothes, or the clothes complement a person. I wanted dance to be in me, a mutual complement to fit into its own regime, not to “wear dance”‘ [my italics]. Given these instances, the accepted divide between devising and interpreting dance seems more of a dearly held simplification than an empirical fact. Indeed, the appropriation of canonical movement appears to be quite closely linked to an intensely subjective understanding. When Illmann says, ‘There is always a sense to everything we do in the long run. Maybe we see [the sense] later,’ might this belated emergence of meaning, in the case of ballet dancing, be simply the fulfillment of form in a strictly personalized execution? ‘Over years of specific training, your atoms change to become one with what you do all the time, to enable you to do what you do, to refine yourself, to try to attain the unattainable perfection in what you do. Everything becomes aligned towards that movement, that way of working,’ states Illmann. So might talk of the ‘consummate interpretation’ of repertoire roles be understood as this kind of personal plenitude; as ‘that way of working? Do dancers become ethereal from the inside, in their atoms, as it were?


In its sheer technical endeavour, ballet dancing must necessarily exist as a highly personal reality, an unalterable facet of the dancer’s identity. In fact, it is in this personal rendering that ballet comes into being; it cannot do without it. Such individual interpretation could be considered a sort of aesthetic fingerprint in which tradition, training and truthfulness form a whole, form dance art. Common opinion, on the other hand, is heavily opposed to this understanding of the art of dance. Modern and contemporary dance, especially, is largely based on the opposing premise that subjectivity, truthfulness and personal fulfillment can be achieved only by constantly overcoming tradition and learned technique(4). Only in the act of shattering that which was and by unfolding that which is within, can dance have the right, the power and the potential to be personal — annihilating itself and its history at the same time. Such thinking favours the ever-new externalization of so-called individual truths over the expressive articulation of formal knowledge (see Huschka 2001, 2002). Not only Martha Graham declared past techniques to be outdated with her new, all-American modernist dance (5). More modest dance agents, as well as proponents of radically performative modes of thinking, are also unable to regard a ‘classical’ work as being truly relevant, as being more than a moving museum. So is there still a use for canonical material in contemporary work? Can it be used at all, or should choreography and movement be perpetually ‘new’ so as to suit today’s bodies and ballerinas better, more snugly, in more intimate and relevant ways?


One of Christoph Winkler’s main concerns is to make just that possible. He affords significance to both canonical and personalized techniques, working with the dancer herself on the one hand, and the structural, inherent questions of dance on the other (6). Winkler looks for ways of reducing the spectacle of step sequences and their consequent glamour, virtuosity and executive hierarchy in movement. In its place, he proposes a sort of condensed version of personalized dance material, without denigrating classical heritage. In FAQ (1999), a 20-minute study with and for Bettina Thiel, Winkler tried to ‘dig through’ the layers of training and examine those fields of energy ‘inside the atoms’ so as to excavate the sectors of Thiel’s body that are ‘still unaffected’ by training. The piece works largely on a low-scale discovery level for both public and dancer. In it, movement imagery and sensation, pure execution and melancholic introspection are constantly intersected in a sort of whispering soliloquy. In Lebenslang, Winkler’s staging of the personal is more explicit. He conceived of an individual movement parcours in a traditional choreographer’s manner, in which both dancers can profile their very different personalities. He thereby creates a multi-layered universe in which the movement capabilities and movement history of both dancers appears as a kind of reservoir, or treasury, from which to draw, in order to demonstrate their respective personalities in a way which goes beyond customary stage presentations. Illmann and Thiel constantly shift between the registers of ‘performance’ and ‘confession’, of ‘representing and ‘being’ — not in the usual way of stepping in and out of a character or situation (both are so deeply immersed in their dancing-self that it would be impossible for them to ‘undo’ their dancerly existence), nor by simply mixing movement phrases, excerpts of repertoire roles and spoken inserts. Instead, Lift-long shows the intricate connection between movement as a phenomenological way of being and the biographical inhabiting of such movements. Lebenslang starts motionless, with excerpts of recorded interviews slowly fading into action. Thiel is first to ‘present’ broken motions, remnants of classical posture, but ‘read’ through disarticulated hips, bent knees, lost effaces and the like. It is an innovative way of presenting presence, with much less readable imagery than usual in classical ballet. Sudden outbursts of swift enchainements fade out into calm walks, with the dancer’s gaze lost in space, then concentrated inwards again. Illmann, the more glamorous of the two, is more concerned with her port de bras and a kind of decomposed grace. Her rhythm is swifter, if more syncopated. There are more moments of ‘halo poetique’, as Marcel Marceau would call similar non-narrative dramatic postures (arms spread wide above the head, gaze wandering somewhere out in space). Executed with such unexcited patterns and such analytical inner vision, classical movements and enchainements appear like utterances, words or phrases. It is as if the moment of decision has become manifest: one feels the decision to do a particular movement at a particular point in time and a clarity of line which is not canonical but hermeneutic; as though the `forgetfulness’ were forgotten. Then Illmann puts a list of questions to her colleague Thiel, who answers matter-of-factly. The last question is: `How does it feel to have danced for so long at the same theatre?’ (Thiel started her engagement at the Staatsoper Berlin on 1 August 1980, and continues to be principal dancer there in the season 2003/4.) Instead of answering, as she did before, Thiel makes the dramaturgically most audacious `move’ in Life-long. She simply turns away and starts — moving. Her material now is floor figures, bent postures, kneeling positions. The beauty in classical dance becomes biographical statement right before our eyes — not explicitly, but visibly, ostensibly contextualized, as the performative situation on stage turns from an ‘artificial’ given to an ‘act of truth’.

Winkler, the choreographer, who is strictly against any kind of explicit movement, talks about an `intellectual landscape’ or ‘context’ which deter-mines the spectator’s view of a given movement, rather than of ‘expressive landscapes’ in which movements are made for the specific purpose of conveying an authorial meaning.? In a later sequence of Lift-long, Winkler has both dancers sitting calmly on the floor while Illmann recounts anecdotes about her glamorous professional life: memories of joy and despair, of hopes and pain. All this ‘very real’ content is not at all accompanied by motion. Then Illmann performs a short passage of pointe work in which the effect it has on gait, posture, and scope of movement becomes obvious. Pointe shoes have both a foreign and at the same time `easy’ characteristic. They have a logical effect on Illmann’s moves. Pointe accentuates what she does; it is part of her, in an `atomic understanding’ so to speak. Movement, the more artificial the better, after being reduced and stripped bare of all ornamental values, serves as a complement to, or extension of, language. In turn, language is accepted as another means of self-presentation, equivalent to moving. The finale has both dancers in similar, sometimes even identical movement sequences, but without the attempt ever made to dance ‘synchronously. In presenting the same material — the same role or the same enchaînements— especially after the one-hour piece, they demonstrate the very differences in interpretation which stem from a difference of biography and of personal handling of movement. The finale then `goes wild’, full of counter-accents, intricate rhythmical patterns and interrupted lines that resist, or rather, exceed all classical logic. `Of course my work is about “movement”, but not necessarily about the “classical line of beauty”. In the context of all the conceptual work being done everywhere, many are quite glad that I still do “movement”, that I am interested in dance — in someone going on stage and moving, coming up with a language without automatically being old-fashioned,’ says Winkler [my italics]. Classically inspired dance in particular meets with a lot of doubt and reservations on Germany’s contemporary scene. ‘Today, when you work with movement the way I do, you start to feel guilty. And even more so when you bring pointe shoes to con-temporary dance venues . . .!’ However, referring to the making of Lift-long, Winkler comments: ‘You can’t “impose” something on these two persons, nor can you forbid them to do what they want. Some gestures and movements would be just impossible for them. The first thing one has to understand is the system everyone brings with her to the work of dance. It is with that material and with the inner reasons for the existence of such systems that I do choreography. Any “contemporary” choreographer should work with and for two artistic personalities of that calibre: certain questions about the “nature of movement” just cease to occur!’


With this method of devising movement, Winkler tries to step out of the traditionally arranged hierarchy. Of course, it is common practice for choreographers to create ‘on’ a specific dancer. What Winkler is trying to do, however, is to keep the role as choreographer, i.e. as external inventor of movement, but adapt his invention to the bio-graphical, personal stance of the two dancers in question: to build an exterior space for their interior dancing. He thereby hopes to find, or amplify, the moment when a movement ceases to merely fulfil the demands of a system and begins to celebrate its identity. From this point of view, Bettina Thiel’s and Margaret Illmann’s personal and personalized renderings seem able to transcend the mere representational, executive or interpretive aspects of `traditional dancing’. They do not explain themselves or their moves. But they are visible as inhabitants of their own work, and thus of their own self And they expand that intricate act of ‘presenting and watching’ which always suggests, combines or confuses, the two mutually exclusive realms of restraint and creation, of sensibility and mechanics, of understanding and elusion. It is the personal, i.e. biographical, contribution dancers make to the phenomenon of movement, to the realization of arcane or traditional forms, that infuses their actions — and ballet — with life, understanding and beauty. On these grounds, it seems that this element of the personal is the missing link or, rather, the performative bridge over the phenomenological gap between the being and non-being of dance.


Christoph Winkler’s Life-long, with ballerinas Margaret Illmann and Bettina Thiel, can be understood as the formulation of a new balletic vision of movement: one which is not contained in pure tradition nor is commanded by the external power of ‘the choreographer’, but which responds fully to both the cultural, or generic, tradition and to its personal, or biographical rewritings. A form, in short, that demands attention and expert skill, and which, according to good old hermeneutics, enters into a dialogue with those who are prepared to speak. It is in that sense that dance can be speechless while remaining eloquent. In fact, that might be the truly specific feature of dance/rs: They do not necessarily need words in order to make themselves understood. They have movement.


  • 1. ‘My impression often is that many of those active in classical ballet don’t care at all about the contents, as long as they just see “classical dancing”‘ [my translation] says Christoph Winkler, the Berlin choreographer in question here.
  • 2. A dance, it must be stated, is usually conceived of by `another’, namely ‘the choreographer’. Balanchine claims: ‘I approach a group of dancers on the stage like a sculptor who breathes life into his material . . . I can feel them like clay in my hands’ (Balanchine 1951: 38, my italics).
  • 3. Excerpts of the interviews with Illmann and Thiel were given to the public before the show. The quotes are taken from this photocopied material. Thiel’s contribution is in German; the translation is by me.
  • 4. In Germany it is, of course, primarily the aesthetics of Tanztheater that have rallied against technical and systematic prerogatives for an ‘art of dancing’. Most protagonists (Pina Bausch, Reinhild Hoffmann, Urs Dietrich, among others) have had various kinds of classical and modern training but try to undo this legacy in order to gain ‘originality’.
  • 5. In fact, modernism always works towards an eschatological fulfilment of its own prerogatives without ever asking what may lie beyond. Future contemporaneities do not seem to be provided for at all in this scenario.
  • 6. Christoph Winkler, born 1967 in East Germany, was classically educated and active in various fields, such as sport and DJ-ing, before turning to choreography. Since 1998 he has created more than 20 choreographic works, ranging from 5-minute solos to full-length group pieces. His recent major productions are FAQ (2000); Wandering Problem (2000); Berst (2001); Fatal Attractions (2002); Lebenslang (2002); Jerusalem (2002); Hinter den Linien (2003).
  • 7. In his piece Fatal Attractions, Winkler works with this principle in a spectacular way: he combines rigorously choreographed dance with three spoken scenes from William Shakespeare’s Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedy of Titus Andronicus and real-life confessions of apotemnophile patients (people obsessed by their desire to have parts of their body amputated). Dance in its essence never has an illustrative function, but is largely deter-mined from the spectator’s perspective by the information given textually.


  • Balanchine, George (1945) ‘Notes on Choreography’, Dance Index 4: 30.
  • – (1951) ‘Marginal Notes on the Dance’, in Walter Sorel! (ed.) The Dance Has Many Faces, New York: Cleveland, pp. 31-40. Huschka, Sabine (2001) Merce Cunningham and der Moderne Tanz. KOrperkonzepte, Choreographie and Tanzasthetik, Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann.
  • – (2002) Moderner Tanz. Konzepte, Stile, Utopien, Hamburg: Rowohlt.