Hans van Manen, who was born in Nieuwer-Amstel in the Netherlands in 1932, has a unique aesthetic which makes him one of those style-defining ballet creators of the modern era that we find continually astonishing. His ballet “Live”, set to piano music by Franz Liszt, is an icon of dance history and until recently belonged exclusively to the company for which Hans van Manen created it in 1979: Het Nationale Ballet Amsterdam. For its first performance at the Wiener Staatsoper, the Dutch choreographer has put his ballet in the hands of Martin Schläpfer, thus allowing the work to be performed by another ensemble. This opening up of the work is like an initiation, the experience of a historical work which is as relevant now as it was then – and not least because we, the audience, are ourselves a part of the whole.
Martin Schläpfer's response is very much a contrast to Hans von Manen's intimate miniature, which has only two dancers, a cameraman and a pianist. “For the start of my time as the new Director and Principal Choreographer of the Wiener Staatsballett, I want to embrace risk, I want to move forward, working with the entire ensemble and the magnificent Staatsoper orchestra and bringing together the dance element and the musical element right from the start”, he explains. As the musical basis for his new work he chose Gustav Mahler's 4th Symphony, which was completed in January 1901 and forms a conclusion to the “Wunderhorn” triad – a composition whose cheerfulness is only apparent, for the idyll is disturbed from the outset and even the Finale with its “heavenly joys” is by no means a transcendent vision of a heavenly paradise, but more like an angry joke.
The music of Gustav Mahler has been part of Martin Schläpfer's life from his early years, and has framed his career as a dancer in two outstanding productions: in 1979, in his ballet “Wendung” set to Mahler's “Rückert Lieder”, Heinz Spoerli wrote Schläpfer's first big leading part specially for him; in 1989, at the end of his solo career, Martin Schläpfer danced “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”, which was created by Maurice Béjart for Rudolf Nureyev. Being fully aware of what a challenge it is to respond to Mahler's gigantic symphonic architecture in terms of dance, as a choreographer Martin Schläpfer then avoided the composer for many years.
When in autumn 2013 he finally decided to choreograph a piece for the Ballett am Rhein using the music of Mahler's 7th Symphony, a piece of balletic world theatre dealing with modern man's feelings of longing and loss and rejection came into being which has thrilled audiences at guest appearances in Taiwan, Moscow, Bilbao, Munich and the Edinburgh International Festival. Since that time, Martin Schläpfer has come to realise that he will always be in thrall to Mahler's fascinating sound worlds, which exist on the threshold between the Romantic era and the Modern, with all their sudden shifts, huge crescendos and withdrawals into dreamy alternative worlds which not only seem to be diametrically opposed to reality but also seem to be always vulnerable. With the world premiere of “4”, which is set to Mahler's 4th Symphony, there now follows a further Gustav Mahler ballet, for this is a score which “with its enigmatic and noble beauty and its sometimes insidious hints of paradise, then almost cunningly breaking out into new territory, seems somehow predestined”, for his first Viennese project.