The dancer sweeps and glides across the stage, carried by her partner. When they separate, she reaches toward him with a melancholy resignation. Finally, she is left alone, looking out to the dark space above the heads of the audience. This is how the pas de deux in Uwe Scholz’s Oktett ends.
“When Uwe choreographed the Oktett pas de deux, we all knew that he was making a statement of his own experience. I remember that we all said, ‘the girl is definitely Uwe.’ I think that he was so full of ideas–had so much to give, but ultimately he was alone.”
Today, when Roser Munoz stages an Uwe Scholz ballet, she doesn’t just show steps. After thirteen years dancing under his directorship in Leipzig Ballet, the movements to his ballets have woven into the fibers of her physical being. Now, she just has to close her eyes and hear the music, and she knows how to move. “Uwe always encouraged us to be ourselves onstage, and not to play a role like a princess or a fairy. I try to express the same idea to dancers today,” she says, her eyes sparkling with admiration.
“He let the music dictate every decision he ever made in his choreography,” Munoz tells me as we sit in Schiller Cafe across from the Staatstheater Cottbus. She is here preparing the repertory program Im Fluss der Zeit (in the course of time) for the theater’s 2016 season, which opens with two pieces by Scholz: the trio from Rachmaninov, and Mendelssohn’s Oktett, for fifteen dancers.
From 1977 until his death in 2004, Scholz produced dozens of remarkable ballets for companies throughout Europe. Because of his ability to show the music visually in his dances, his greatest achievements are works using music’s most revered symphonic masterpieces.
I am interested to learn about Munoz’s experience as a part of Scholz’s creative process. To begin with, she gives me some background to how both Scholz and she ended up in Leipzig: Scholz grew up in the Stuttgart area in the seventies, dreaming of becoming a conductor. He was Jewish, and Munoz imagines that he must have felt considerably isolated in a place with an eliminated Jewish heritage. He trained at the Stuttgart Ballet School, and was hired by Marcia Haydee to join the Stuttgart Ballet in 1979.
After a few years, Scholz stopped dancing in order to choreograph full time, even though he was also an impressive technician. (It was a wunderkind era in Stuttgart for choreographers: Forsythe, Neumeier, and Kylian also began experimenting in Stuttgart at this time.) “Everyone in the company wanted to be in Scholz’s ballets, even at the beginning,” Munoz explains. “He knew how to show dancers at their best, and it always felt great to dance his work.”
At age twenty-six, Scholz was offered directorship of Zurich ballet. “It caused huge conflict because he took some of Stuttgart’s best dancers with him when he left,” says Munoz. She adds that running a national company was a huge undertaking for such a young man.
It was in Zurich, Munoz explains, where she first met Scholz. After growing up in Spain and spending two years in Saint Petersburg at the Kirov Ballet School, she auditioned in Zürich, where Scholz was then-director. He invited her to join him in Leipzig, where he would be taking a new directorship (1991).
Munoz describes her first impression in Leipzig: “It was crazy joining a ballet company in east Germany just after the wall fell. I didn’t speak a word of German, and it was really intimidating at first.”–Now in rehearsals, Munoz speaks English, German, French, and Spanish (there aren’t any Russians in the production) depending on the nationality of the dancer. It’s hard to imagine a time when she couldn’t communicate.
“When I came in May (of 1991), the company was preparing a huge premier, Die Schöpfung (the creation). I stood in the back and learned every position. All of the dancers had such diverse bodies and styles–it was so hard to imagine fitting in.”
Munoz describes Scholz’s corps de ballet: “they weren’t always the most skilled dancers–but they were so well rehearsed that they could execute what he wanted perfectly. It was amazing how well they carried his ballets.”
There were two huge advantages for Scholz that made Leipzig the ideal place for him. First, the Leipzig stage is enormous. Second, Leipzig is home to the Gewandhaus Orchestra, a group famous for interpreting great work since Bach’s world premiers. “It was the ideal situation for Uwe,” Munoz explains. “He had this huge stage and this incredible orchestra–he could do anything he wanted!”
Munoz describes how Scholz developed his movement style: “He studied the score–and not just the notes, but also the levels of the instruments, and relationships of the sounds; all of these determined where the dancers were placed in relation to one another onstage, and what they were doing. If there was a repeat in the music, Scholz would ask the dancers to repeat the steps. I remember him saying once, ‘I know it seems lazy to repeat a section, but the music is forcing me to do it this way.’”
What Munoz describes makes complete sense. Watching an Uwe Scholz ballet is like seeing a musical score come alive. And it’s not an animated, imposed, plastic reproduction; instead, it’s an expression so full of energy, honesty, and realness, that it often leaves the viewer breathless.
“Uwe was a mentor to me,” Munoz remembers, “and for some reason, he trusted me, and gave me freedom onstage. But I was one of the lucky few. Most of his dancers stuck strictly to his choreography guidelines.”
Munoz explains that the dancers were always working until the very last minute. “For the premier of Breukner Symphony, there were still holes just before the premier. I remember that the theater boss walked out of the general rehearsal, furious that the piece still wasn’t finished. But we always found a way to make it work in the end.”
“Scholz was a private man who was in his head all the time,” Munoz explains. “He had this genius ability to understand the music and make it visual. But with his mind working so hard all the time, I think he had a very difficult time shutting off. It must have been so overwhelming for him. I think he usually felt lonely, and wished he could just be normal.”
Munoz also tells about times when she saw Scholz expressing true happiness. “It would be past 10 o’clock at night, and we would still be in the studio working together to make something beautiful.” Inside the work, she explains, Scholz found his release.
Scholz died suddenly in 2004, and the rights to his ballets went to his mother, Munoz tells. Since she was sick and unable to manage anything, most of Scholz’s ballets weren’t performed outside of Leipzig, Stuttgart, and Zurich (where each company owned their own rights) for almost ten years. Only recently, a trust has been founded, led by Scholz’s brother. Now a selected few of Scholz’s trusted dancers, including Munoz, are responsible for staging his work around the world.
“It’s not easy,” Munoz confesses. “There’s very little usable film record to begin with. Plus, each theater has a slightly different version, based on the size of the stage.” Munoz studies the existing footage, and tries to recreate the most authentic version possible.
When I ask her why Scholz’s work isn’t performed in America, Munoz tells about one memorable exception. “In 1995, we were part of a United Nations event in San Francisco where dance companies from around the world performed. The critics recognized Scholz’s work as some of the most interesting choreography they had seen.”
The process of exposing Scholz’s ballets to a bigger body of companies is slow, Munoz explains, because there are so few people able to preserve hem. “It will take time,” she says, “but we are gradually able to show his work to new parts of the world.” It is because of the passion and care that Munoz and her colleagues take in staging Scholz’s ballets that we can be carried away by these moving masterpieces.
In the fourth movement of Oktett, the finale, the soloist boy steps into a balance at the front corner of the stage, his arms raised overhead. His focus is turned downward in calm concentration. The music soars while he slowly lifts his leg up and back, suspended in an endless arabesque. As the notes underneath scurry and build, six couples burst from the wings, running behind him into two parallel lines. They stand in joyful anticipation, facing their partners. With the final notes of Mendelssohn’s score, the solo boy opens from his balance, his chest pulling him toward the front wing. The couples bow their heads, running past each other and into the wings–and blowing the solo boy away with them.