Staatsballett Berlin announced today that artistic directors Sasha Waltz and Johannes Öhman intend to step down at the end of 2020, despite having only held the posts since 2019 and summer 2018, respectively.
According to a company press release, Öhman is leaving to accept a directorship at Swedish contemporary dance presenter Dansens Hus. Waltz has chosen to depart at the same time rather than become sole artistic director, though she will continue to be artistically involved with the company through 2021 as a choreographer.
When the pair's appointment was announced in September 2016, a full three seasons before then-director Nacho Duato was expected to step down, the news was met with consternation by the company's dancers. They alleged that the decision was a political one (the mayor of Berlin is in charge of filling the post, and was then facing re-election), and was made without respect to the company's needs. While Öhman had previously served as the artistic director of Royal Swedish Ballet, Waltz is an avant-garde contemporary choreographer working in the tanztheater tradition. Fears for the survival of the company's classical tradition led the dancers to begin an online petition and stage official protests.
Staatsballett Berlin in Alexander Ekman's LIB
Jubal Battisti, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin
Things had largely died down by the time they took the helm, with Öhman beginning in 2018 (a season earlier than expected) and Waltz following in 2019. "After we met [the dancers] and answered, like, 50 questions, there was a big change and an opening up. Now it's a different atmosphere, there's a strong engagement in the company," Waltz told us in fall 2018, shortly before officially taking up her post.
Today, it seems that Waltz's plans to balance the troupe's classical and contemporary repertory have come to fruition. The performances scheduled for the rest of this season show a fairly even split: Swan Lake, Giselle and Alexei Ratmansky's historical restaging of La Bayadère alongside works by contemporary dancemakers like Sharon Eyal, Jefta van Dinther and Alexander Ekman. Will the next director or directors share Waltz and Öhman's commitment to bringing contemporary dance into Germany's largest dance institution—without losing its classical tradition? Only time will tell.
Update: On January 27, Waltz and Öhman released individual statements regarding their decisions to withdraw from their co-directorship. Öhman clarified that accepting his new position was a personal decision, and, regarding the transition process, stated that he believes they "have laid the groundwork for a constructive and transparent procedure to ensure the wellbeing and artistic future of Staatsballett."
Waltz expressed pride at the company's evolution under their leadership but confessed herself surprised by Öhman choosing to terminate their joint directorship. She stated, "I regret his decision. I don't see that under these new conditions a sole artistic direction would make sense on my part. In 2016, I agreed to take on a leadership role, but only with a partner who represents the classical heritage and who will allow me to continue working as a choreographer. Out of a sense of responsibility for the future of the company and the needs of this complex structure, I am making my office available."
Öhman will remain at Staatsballett Berlin through January 2021; it is currently unclear whether Waltz will withdraw then or at a later date, though the choice of one to depart automatically triggers the dissolution of the joint directorship. The 2020–21 season has already been planned by the pair and will be announced in March.