Christian Spuck, the German choreographer and artistic director of Ballett Zürich, told in an interview with IngoDance how he was staging the Orlando ballet that will premiere on March 24 at the Bolshoi Theater.
Orlando is not your first production in Russia, what did you do here before it?
About five years ago, I worked on my version of Anna Karenina ballet with the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater. My company also participated in the Dance Open festival in St. Petersburg with the Winterreise play. Three years ago, Ballett Zürich came to Russia to show The Nutcracker and the Mouse King at Dance Inversion festival here in Moscow, at the Bolshoi Theater. It is always a pleasure for me to visit Russia, and I am always impressed by the great role that ballet plays for the culture here.
What did you feel when you received an invitation to work with the Bolshoi Theater?
I was happy to receive an invitation to work with dancers of the world famous Bolshoi Theater. However, working with the Bolshoi is not only a great honor, but also a great responsibility. I realized it wouldn’t be an easy undertaking, but as soon as I started, I fell in love with the Bolshoi ballet dancers right away.
Do they perceive ballet differently in Russia and in Europe?
Russian ballet traditions are much older than in most European countries. In France, where the history of ballet actually began, they also have high standards, but I’ve always been a fan of Russian classical dance, which I believe to be the most graceful and beautiful. But the major thing is the huge role that ballet plays in Russian culture and society. You can find ballet everywhere here, and it's incredibly beautiful.
Is there a difference from a choreographer’s perspective?
Staging a ballet for the Bolshoi Theater is an extremely complicated task, because dancers here have a very busy schedule. They dance up to eight different performances a week. And I didn’t always have a chance to work with the artists I wanted to, and sometimes they were too tired to rehearse with me.
What was the reason for choosing such source material for your production?
I've always been a fan of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. She actually invented a new genre - biography of a person who didn’t exist, she made Orlando live for 400 years, she showed the development of the English language and literature of the last centuries with irony and brilliant reflections. Orlando is a book about time, poetry, love, revolution, gender, loneliness and many other philosophical issues and ideas. There are so many interesting topics and colors in this book that I’ve always wanted to see it on stage.
It was also interesting for me to combine a plot performance with a more abstract dance accentuating aesthetics and music. I tried to show the structure of a traditional performance, as for me the value of Orlando is not only in the plot, but also in the way this book is written. On the one hand, it is a philosophical novel about time. On the other, it is a light ironic book, despite the depth of all the thoughts it contains.
What were the most unusual or fascinating experiences when working on the play?
First of all, I was astonished by the power and beauty of the Bolshoi ballet dancers’ technique and pace of their work. They were surprisingly quick to master new choreography and caught on fast. I realized immediately that this company has a huge experience in absolutely different productions.
But, of course, the most unusual experience was that we were working during a global pandemic. If in the past someone had told me that during such an international crisis I would stage a ballet at the Bolshoi Theater, I would reply that was madness, that wasn't possible! But it happened somehow.
How did the pandemic make work on such a large-scale production more complicated?
It was a very difficult process. Two weeks after I had come to Russia, I got sick and had to spend three weeks in isolation. Fortunately, my illness wasn’t too serious, and the staff of the Bolshoi Theater and the hotel where I lived supported me in every possible way.
However, it is extremely difficult to stay absolutely alone in a foreign country, locked down in a hotel room for three weeks. During that time, I was thinking that Orlando was a book about loneliness. Orlando was often lonely. It was a peculiar coincidence that I, myself, had to experience loneliness too, although caused simply by COVID-19.
What do you think will be the reaction of the Russian audience to this production? Are you afraid that some of Orlando topics might be perceived as controversial or provocative?
I am always excited before premieres. I have worked on a production for two or three years, baring my soul completely on stage. Frankly, I have had certain doubts before I ventured to stage Orlando in Russia. But I discussed these issues with Makhar Vaziev (Ballet Artistic Director with the Bolshoi Theater - note by IngoDance) and he supported my idea. He said it was a great ballet topic and, with the right aesthetics and poetry, it could work.
I don't think my production will become controversial or provocative.
This novel is about the difference between sexes, where gender of the protagonist is easily changed: when the story begins, Orlando is a man, but later he wakes up as a woman. Virginia Woolf says that what matters is what kind of person you really are and not the gender you are attributed to. This is a beautiful thought that men and women are equal and that gender is ultimately irrelevant.