The ballet world rippled with intrigue when it was announced that Staatsballett Berlin’s artistic director, Nacho Duato, would be replaced in 2019 by a duo of Johannes Öhman (current director of the Royal Swedish Ballet) and Sasha Waltz (who heads her own company, Sasha Waltz & Guests). A co-directorship raised eyebrows, but it was the appointment of Waltz, a decidedly avant-garde choreographer whose expertise lay in dance-theater around whom controversy swirled. It was nothing short of a bold move to appoint an individual without a background in classical ballet as a director of one of Germany’s most prolific classical ballet companies, and a move that some speculated was politically rather than artistically motivated. Not everyone was thrilled with Waltz’s appointment, least of all the dancers of Staatsballett.
Staatsballett’s dancers have sat back to let the situation play out. Instead, they have taken matters into their own hands, protesting Waltz’s appointment with an online petition, videos and on and offline campaigns to draw attention to the matter and urging for the decision to be reconsidered. Staatsballett’s dancers organized a successful strike pat disputes in 2015, negotiating for better salaries. But this time, as dancer representative and corps member Elinor Jagodnik elaborates, it’s not just the welfare of dancers that seems to be at stake, but the future of Staatsballett Ballet as a beacon of ballet in Germany.
C&V SESSIONS WITH ELINOR JAGODNIK
When did you join the company and how did you become a dancer representative to be one of the voices of the dancers?
I joined Staatsballett in August 2006. I actually never wanted to be a dancer representative, but a few years ago we started to really have troubles with some contract problems. Our dancer representatives at the time would always ask would it be possible for things to be a bit different, so that for the dancers it would be easier to dance. We would ask for maybe more free time because we are dancing in three different opera houses, so if we would have one rehearsal at one opera house, we needed at least 30 minutes to drive to the other opera house. We would have to do it on our break and we would not have time to have lunch and things like that.
But we were always told no, in the labor contract it’s written that it’s possible to work like this and like that, so you don’t get what you want. So the dancers decided that it would not be possible to work like this anymore, and we all got into one union in Germany. This union said okay, we’re going to now work for you, but they said we need dancers to facilitate the transitions between the dancers and this union. It happened that it was the first month of [Nacho] Duato’s directorship, so of course nobody wanted to do that. Because, you know, it’s not the best impression you want to give when a director is coming. So we just decided that we would have a list of all the dancers, and we would choose eight people so that it wouldn’t be one person doing the job alone. It became less scary that way. Anyone who wase chosen would have to do it.
So it was a random selection or did people nominate dancers?
We had a real election, and whoever who was be chosen by most of the people would have to agree to be a dancer representative. So that’s how I was chosen with seven other people! Well, with time, some people decided to resign because it was really scary. Nacho really didn’t like it. Although it was nothing against him, he took our protests; he kind of personally, so many people decided to take themselves out. So it it was only me and few other s left.
I was reading the petition and the news statements you had to give. It’s a lot of responsibility to be the voice of the company.
Yes. But because we had two years prior where I was already doing so much with the union, I learned many things and it also gave me more confidence about how to deal with all this stuff. Also, we succeeded with our first protest. It gave us a lot of courage and confidence and that’s why when it came to that we knew what to do.
I know a lot of people who follow ballet and are interested in ballet have already heard about the situation with the appointment of the co-directors and the petition, but what we hear is mainly from news outlets. From your perspective and the dancer’s perspectives what is the situation like? How did you find out and what was your initial reaction to this whole thing?
The evening before the press conference, nobody knew about anything. And then it came on the newspapers that Nacho Duato’s contract wasn’t renewed, so that was the first thing that we heard; we read from it the newspaper in the evening.
So you weren’t told beforehand? You just found out in the press?
No, we found out online. We had a meeting with Duato, he came and said, well, as you probably heard I wasn’t renewed, Then people started to ask if he knew who was going to be the next director. He said no, they didn’t tell him. During that moment some people checked online and realized that it was already written that Sasha Waltz was going to be one of the new directors. People got such a shock.
I had goosebumps because it was so shocking, Everybody was shocked. It was written. Sasha Waltz, and it’s the last name you would think of. That everybody was shocked – the ballet masters, Nacho, all the dancers.
I knew that the press conference would be at 12 noon. I had no invitation but I was allowed to go inside. I just took my car and drove there as fast as possible.
I readthat a big issue that you have with Sasha Waltz’s appointment is that she’s a very, very contemporary sort of choreographer and director, and Staatsballett is a classical company. What is the biggest fear for the dancers?
Well, first of all I would like to say that Staatsballett is classical, but we are not only this.
Yes, you have a wide repertoire.
Yes, some places wrote that we are against modern ballet. That is so wrong. If you say to any dancer here right now at Staatsballett that we only do classical ballet, they would all leave. They would protest the same way.
We had [Ohad] Naharin and we had [Mauro] Bigonzetti. We are open and we love modern.
The thing is Sasha Waltz is on the contemporary side, but the kind of thing she’s doing is dance theater. Dance theater is not even a contemporary ballet; it’s dance theater.
This phrase was created on purpose to explain what the type of things she was doing. Not because of her, but for this kind of art, to show that it is in opposition to ballet, it’s something else. It has a special name, and this is what she’s doing.
She has a company. If you look at her dancers, they don’t need to train every day. It’s a way of expression where you don’t need that high level of training and really detailed work on specific things. They don’t need the specific muscles that we all have worked on through the years. That’s why for us, she’s not representing contemporary. She’s representing dance theater. Dance theater is a way of moving and expressing yourself, but it’s completely different to classical or even modern ballet.
The biggest fear is that she has never danced ballet before. She has no idea what ballet is. Someone said she saw her first Swan Lake three years ago, four years ago. You know what I mean? She has no clue about ballet, so how can you respect her as a director? She would work with us, decide about the cast, tell us what to do in the studio without knowing having any idea about ballet. Why would this person know how to direct us? It has no logic.
Staatsballett Berlin Dancers Petition for Change
I imagine it’s hard enough when a choreographer with no ballet experience works with a ballet company, because he doesn’t fully know what the dancers can do. It’s even trickier when it’s a director and she’s overseeing the casting, the repertoire, the direction.
Yes. And they’re writing that she has the experience with Paris Opera [Ballet] and Mariinsky Ballet. Well, she set one ballet there. So anyone who sets one ballet for classical dancers is a classical ballet expert? No. It does not mean that if you set one ballet that you have knowledge about classical ballet.
So how do you feel about the other co-director Johannes [Öhman]?
Well, we had never heard about him before. So when it came online that it was Sasha Waltz and Öhman, everybody was, like who is Öhman?
One of the dancers that danced before in Stockholm said, ‘oh I know, he is a director in Stockholm.’ So we did our research, and we realized that he is actually more on the modern side. If you check the repertoire in Stockholm this year they have five or six productions, two classical productions that are not even really classical.
So it’s a little bit weak for the person who is supposed to represent the classical side of the company to be actually more for modern. Especially compared to a big name like Sasha Waltz, who is definitely going to be the first name in the company.
Right, especially because she’s a German native as well.
She’s very famous, she’s a German. We also heard that in their contracts that she would have the last word. In case they don’t agree on something, she would then choose.
Yes, even the co-direction itself is a very usual situation.
It’s the ignorance of the political people who made this decision. They were like, ‘oh yes, let’s take Sasha Waltz, she’s my best friend, she’s famous in Germany.’ And then maybe someone said, ‘oh you know she’s has no idea about ballet.’ they were like. ‘oh! Let’s find somebody.’
And they didn’t even think how it would concretely work in the day-to-day situations. We heard that they had been asking other personalities of ballet that are maybe more famous with more expertise in ballet, and everyone refused because they saw no sense in being a co-director with someone that comes from another world. And Öhman was maybe the only one to agree to this arrangement.
From what I read there may have been some political motivations for appointing these people because I think there’s a reelection coming and Sasha Waltz is very popular. Most of us aren’t very familiar with the politics in Berlin and the politics in Germany, so what would be the big incentive to appoint Waltz?
It’s a bit complicated, but I can try to explain. Our mayor [Michael Müller] is not only mayor, he is also cultural senator. So he has two positions. People around Berlin have been very, very critical about his position as a cultural senator because he’s not a cultural person.
The person before was very into culture that’s why it was fine that he held both positions. But Müller, he has never seen a ballet before. He never came to see us. He has maybe other good qualities, but culture is not one of them. He had this position anyway. It is the highest position. Before the election there was word that people would like him to stay mayor, but give away this other position. And he wanted to keep it, so he decided to make a last really big move with this co-directorship appointment just two weeks before the election. So that maybe people would finally see that oh yes, he made something great, and maybe he would save his position as cultural senator.
Sasha Waltz is very famous in Germany and she’s German. If you speak to most of the people that have no real idea about ballet, they would tell you, ‘I don’t understand that much, but why don’t you want her? She’s famous.’ That’s what a normal person who has no interest in ballet would say. And all the other ones would know abouy ballet would say, ‘oh no definitely not, she doesn’t fit this position.’
So Müller thought why not? She’s famous; she’s German. It’s a great move for me you just before the election. I mean, I’m sure he regretted it after, but it was too late. But he also he thought this would make us dancers happy, but it didn’t work for him. So he thought he would make cool, like you know a big move would keep his position as cultural senator. Now the election has passed and there is a 90 percent chance he won’t stay. He will have to give up this position anyway.
(Ed: Klaus Lederer has succeeded Michael Müller as cultural senator of Berlin.)
How has the public reaction been to this whole situation? Have people been supportive of your protests?
Yes. Our public are not only supportive, they are asking us to do more and fight even stronger. They are so against this appointment; they are just giving us all their support.
It shows that the arts is very important in Berlin.
Very important. They feel like something is taken out from them. I understand, it’s like with Staatsballett they have the biggest ballet company in Germany, and suddenly it’s going to be given to one person who has no idea. They support us 100 percent.
Elinor Jagodnik as a Snowflake in Yuri Burlaka’s and Vasily Medvedev’s “The Nutcracker”
Credit: Carlos Quezada
I was reading that you guys, the dancer representatives, had some contact with Waltz and Öhman. Is that correct?
Well there was the press conference and a few days after, we put the petition online. After a week they realized that it had become a big thing, so they decided to organize a meeting with the dancer representatives and Öhman and Sasha Waltz. Unfortunately, Sasha Waltz couldn’t come that day.
Yes I read about that.
But all of our questions were about her and her projects and point of view and stuff like that. And Öhman was kind and friendly, but he also could not answer almost any of the questions. They also thought that only the dancer representatives were against this appointment. They didn’t believe that it was 100 percent of the dancers against it, so they asked us to meet again a week later with Sasha Waltz and with all the dancers in the company.
We agreed to that, and then a few days before this meeting they asked us to put together the questions and send them over so they could prepare the answers.
We were shocked – why would they need to prepare answers? We just wanted to have an open discussion. We said, well if you want to prepare, then we want to prepare as well, so please send us your concepts and plans so we can prepare our questions. And they said, ‘oh there are no concepts, nobody ever talked about concepts.’ We were like okay, so what are we talking about actually? We said well, then maybe we should just cancel this meeting and wait until you have a proper concept, so we can discuss something concrete, and so we cancelled.
And have the come up with anything? Have you heard that there’s anything more concrete?
No. They sent us an open letter, which they also sent to journalists, that they would keep the repertoire 50 percent classical and 50 percent modern, like what they have been telling us the whole time. But this is not a concept, this is just a few words. And then they even made a big mistake, because they said they would keep classical ballets like Snow White. I guess the first example of classical ballet is Snow White!
That’s a big mistake from them, that’s it. Since then we have no more contact.
How much of this do you feel is part of a wider situation about how ballet is being treated in Berlin? Because I know that you’ve had to go on strike because of wages and now you this issue. Do you feel that people don’t respect ballet and respect the dancers? Or do you feel like it’s just a one-off thing?
Well yes and no. They have been used to treating dancers like this because we are the weakest ones in the whole opera house, always. Because our contracts are just one-year contracts. All the others, like the orchestra, the opera singers – some of them have life contracts and we have only one-year contracts every time, all of us.
So they are not used to dancers speaking up for themselves because usually we are all scared – when we open our mouths, it’s so easy to get rid of us. They don’t need to explain why if we are fired, they just tell you your contract is not renewed, that’s it. They didn’t need to explanation, so people were always scared to open their mouths.
But now we are somehow all together and all so strong together. I mean this is a big thing, but I can’t say it’s because they don’t respect us. I think they just never thought about respecting us. Because they were never questioned about their methods, they always did things that way and no one complained; so they thought it was fine.
So now you are trying to build that respect and have your voices heard.
But it’s not even something we do consciously. If we were told that we would be getting an amazing director, we would not say anything. We would of course be disappointed that nobody told us beforehand, and that we are always the last ones informed, but we would be happy to get a great director.
We didn’t start this protest to be more respected. We started to just contest this decision, which is just crazy.
Do you ever worry that by speaking up that your job will be in jeopardy?
I mean, I would be the first one fired that’s for sure! Sasha Waltz already said she wants me out.
So yes, I’m worried. But at the same time I’m thinking that I’m already 32, and somebody has to do this. I would be so sad if ten years from now I said to my children, ‘I was ballet dancer in Staatsballett’ and they were like, ‘what is that?’ It’s such a pity. We are a big company. Maybe one day we will get to the really highest level of, but now we are just cut from everything.
Everyone is worrying of course. Like when we made the [Save Staatsballett protest] video, people were thinking twice, should we do this, should we not do this. But at the same time we are not losing anything, because once Waltz comes, we don’t want to be here. So people are thinking, okay, if I don’t do anything, she will come and I will leave. If I do something, maybe I have a chance to change things. We have a small chance to change things.
Staatsballett Berlin Dancer’s Petition Video
This mood is terrible because people are so disappointed, in a way. They don’t know if they should keep on hoping or not. It’s quite difficult also for myself as well.
Sometimes I’m hopeful and I think, ‘oh we have a good chance.’ And some days we hear some news and we are like, ‘oh my Hod will we actually manage to ever get what we want?’ I’m not sure.
We all dislike this mood. It’s not nice.
You don’t know about the future, you don’t know if you have to move, you don’t know if you have to again start a new life again, find a new company. It’s not a nice situation.
And the appointment is going to take place three years from now, so it’s three years of uncertainty.
Three years of not really something, not really nothing. Maybe what you dance know will not count in two years, so you’re thinking why am I doing this, actually? And for Nacho it’s terrible. It has never been like that before.
Besides the petition, are you guys doing anything else that to make sure that people are talking about the situation?
Well that’s what we try to do with this video, which has been seen I think more than 11,000 times, which is good.
We are thinking all the time about taking new action, but it’s not easy. But at the same time we are doing a lot from behind the scenes, which I can’t tell you about. But we are in political discussions from behind and we doing all we can do to get to what we want. And there are two ways, the official way and we have the unofficial way. But this the dancers don’t know, I can’t say, but you know we are going different ways.
Do you have hope that you will succeed? Do you feel hopeful?
Some days more than others. I have to tell you honestly, sometimes I feel hopeless. But then I have so many people coming to me like, ‘no it’s great what you are doing, we going to manage I’m sure.’
I have hope somehow because I feel that the public, the critics, the dancers are all against this, and so I think we will manage. It’s just that our problem now is also that the mayor who made this decision may not stay cultural senator, but he’s staying mayor. And so we need to manage to do in a way that he doesn’t lose his face. So we need to think about that now. Like in La Scala, [Mauro] Bigonzetti also just stepped out by himself. That would be the best actually, we would manage from behind that by with some pressure, Sasha Waltz would step down by herself.
I read that it’s a very prestigious and financially advantageous position to be in, for her to be director of this company.
Of course. But she has her own company but it has not many subventions, not so much money. Two years ago she was supposed to get 500, 000 Euros, for example, and they didn’t give it to her.
When we talk to the politicians we are always suggest that they should give her more money and you should push her own company. If she can stay in her own company and get more money and get more subventions, then maybe she would be satisfied. I mean maybe not, of course. At least they should give her more money to do what she wants to do and then maybe she will less need to take over the Staatsballett. So we are trying also that and that would be a good solution for her. I mean of course it’s not just money, it’s also the power, it’s the position as director of Staatsballett.
But many people thought that after seeing so many people protesting against her, she would just step down by herself. I think actually no one would like to take over a company knowing that everyone is against you, but she somehow is still wanting it. But maybe she will get tired. I mean how much can you fight? She’s going to come to this position knowing that everyone is against it. It’s not nice.
It just doesn’t sound like it would be good for anybody, it’s like nobody wins.
I think for her too, I think she deserves more for herself.
I think as an artist she should feel like, ‘okay no, I’ll step down and keep doing own stuff.’ But she still keeps on going.
Many people say it’s because she has this husband and he’s actually her manager and he wants it so terribly. He worked all his life just for that and he was the one making the connections for her to get this appointment and he’s just pushing. I think if she would listen to herself, she would already be out of it since long time, but he’s probably pushing it.
But you have support from so many places because you know, people on your side, then it means that there’s a good reason for the government to do something about it. I know that a lot of like prominent alumni of Staatsballett have also talked about this.
Even John Neumeier just give a statement for us. I think it means something, that ballet people opened their mouths for us. People don’t like to get in trouble because they know the ballet world is so small. They think, maybe one day I will have to deal with Sasha Waltz again, and I don’t want to get in trouble. But many people spoke about this and I think it shows how important this is.
Petition Page: Change.org
Special thanks to Patricia Zhou for making this interview with Elinor possible.
Header images originally by: Kevin Pouzou & Yan Revazov.