Ballett Am Rhein choreographer Martin Schläpfer seeks meaning in Mahler with his explosive, dynamic work, Seven – a confrontation 20 years in the making.

It’s 19955 and Martin Schläpfer has just created his first two ballets. A dancer and teacher for many years, he has finally turned his hand to choreography – one piece set to Brahms, the other to Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. The reaction from press and public has a profound effect.

“The Brahms piece did very well,’ recalls Schläpfer, “but the Rückert-Lieder got trashed. So I never created work to Mahler again, I was so hurt.”

Fast forward 20 years, and much has changed for the Swiss-born choreographer. Taking over the reins at Dusseldorf’s Ballett Am Rhein in 2009, he re-invented the company both
in terms of performers and repertoire. Gone was the structure that saw some dancers labelled ‘principal’ or ‘corps de ballet’ (all 47 dancer are now ‘soloists’) and gone were big story ballets such as Giselle.

Instead, Schläpfer and his company now concentrate on shorter, less narrative works from the 20th century, along with his own creations – including a highly successful return to his 1995 nemesis, Gustav Mahler.

Choreographed in 2013, and about to have its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival this year, Seven is a dramatic, powerful work set to Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Virtuosic pointe work sits alongside dynamic contemporary movement, created in response to the sweeping, evocative score. Abstract references to World War Two pepper the dance with both poignancy and aggression, all the while remaining accessible to a wide audience. Somewhere along the line, Schläpfer learned exactly how to handle Mahler.

“That first piece in 1995 was probably symbolic with too much pathos,” says Schläpfer. “Seven is my first piece to Mahler since then, but now I have a lot more experience – and I am also much more courageous.”

It is works such as Seven which led to Ballet Am Rhein being crowned ‘Best Company of the Year’ in both 2013 and 2014 by Tanz Magazine – and rightly so. Schläpfer’s unique choreographic style is steeped in classical ballet tradition, for which he has unending respect and admiration. But from there, he makes it his own and creates what he terms ‘ballet art for the 21st century’.

Specifically, he feels that ballet must communicate with an audience, and, with Seven in particular, he explores the idea of exclusion and the questions about life we all share.

“In every piece you do, you must ask yourself, why another ballet?” says Schläpfer. “Because there’s absolutely no need for another ballet in the world, so you have to ask yourself that question. It’s easy to excite people, because the dancers are very physical and beautiful, the lighting is nice, but I think we need to communicate. If we don’t manage to do that, then there is absolutely no point in doing it.”

When & Where
Ballett Am Rhein, Seven, Edinburgh Playhouse, 20-22 August, from £10 Tel: 0131 473 2000
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Words: Kelly Apter   Photography: Gert Weigelt

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