Thirty years ago, the young German choreographer Sasha Waltz founded a small contemporary dance company in Berlin. The newly reunified city wasn’t exactly a hub for modern dance, but when the wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989, Waltz, then living in Amsterdam, felt compelled to go there. “It wasn’t an artistic choice,” she said recently. “But it was such a unique moment. I knew I wanted to be part of this transformation.”
She called the company Sasha Waltz and Guests, and, on Thursday, it began a three-week, 30th anniversary celebration — a notable achievement for an independent contemporary dance troupe. Over the decades, Waltz has had a substantial impact on Berlin’s cultural life and established an international reputation for her large-scale, visually arresting work, which draws on both the dramatic, often surreal imagery of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater and the pared-down abstraction, and focus on pure movement, of American postmodern choreographers.
“Sasha is one of the major artists to have come out of Germany over the last decades, and her approach, which is quite radical, has been really influential,” said Alistair Spalding, the director of Sadler’s Wells theater in London, which has presented Sasha Waltz and Guests since the early 2000s. “The movement is always about a specific relationship between bodies and theatrical space. There is a real architecture to her work.”
Since the early 1990s, Waltz, with her husband, Jochen Sandig, has founded two interdisciplinary cultural spaces in Berlin, directed the Schaubühne theater alongside Thomas Ostermeier and Jens Hillje, toured the world and presented works in museums, city streets and disused buildings, as well as in opera houses and theaters. (Waltz and Sandig also have two children and run a youth dance company.) In 2016, Waltz was appointed, along with Johannes Ohman, to lead the Staatsballett Berlin, the city’s ballet company. The duo took over in 2019, but their tenure lasted only a year: Ohman abruptly departed, and Waltz returned to her troupe.
In a wide-ranging interview, Waltz talked about the lessons of the Staatsballett experience, her early years in Berlin, the evolution of her work and what’s next. Here are edited extracts from the conversation.
What was it like when you first started in Berlin?
It was both easy and difficult. There was the opportunity to work in big spaces for very little money. But there was also no infrastructure at all, and not much of a dance community. I did a series of works I called “Dialogue” and invited dancers, musicians, artists to participate; that was the foundation of my first work, “Travelogue: 20 to 8.” We started to get tour dates, and around that time, I met Jochen, and we formed the company with five dancers. We called it Sasha Waltz and Guests because we wanted to emphasize the interdisciplinary.
Our cheap rehearsal spaces kept being sold, and in 1996 we found the Sophiensaele building in Mitte. It was the middle of nowhere at the time, and we didn’t get funding for a long time, but we could afford to run it and welcome other artists because my first piece was touring and successful. We got piecemeal grants for a sound system and lighting, and started from scratch. Slowly it became established and the city recognized it.
You were invited to co-direct the Schaubühne, one of Berlin’s most prominent theaters, in 1999. What drew you to that?
The chance to have 13 dancers under contract, workshops to make sets and the possibility of large-scale productions. There was also the dream that I would work with actors and text. We also all had to run the theater, which was very complicated. But it was a very fruitful time artistically for me. My early pieces had a social realism, a funky narration, characters and detail which you could see up close. Here, I had a huge stage and a much larger public, and my work became more abstract and visual, closer to installation and sculpture.
Did your movement language change?
Yes, I was trying to create movement that was about larger choreographic forms, constellations of bodies in organic formations. I think I created a style during that time at the Schaubühne, and I began collaborations with artists which also imprinted a certain aesthetic. It was creatively a very rich time, although exhausting to be an artistic director at the same time. I was the only woman, with young children; it was very intense.
After leaving the Schaubühne in 2005 you started to work with opera and ballet companies. Was that a pivotal moment?
It was. I was getting opera offers and had suggested bringing more music to the Schaubühne. There was a decision not to do that, so I did “Dido and Aeneas” with the Akademie für Alte Musik. I could create one big artwork, not divide singers, dancers, orchestra; that was very inspiring for me.
The next year I did my first piece for a ballet company, “Fantasie” for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Then Brigitte Lefèvre and Gerard Mortier came to me with the idea of doing the Berlioz “Romeo and Juliet” for the Paris Opera Ballet. That was really important; it opened up a new musical oeuvre, romantic music, and it was a very rich collaboration with the dancers. In 2014, Daniel Barenboim asked me to do “Tannhäuser,” which was incredibly hard, but so rewarding; the music took me so deeply into a new language. I did Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” in the same year. I needed a break from opera after that!
You were also touring with your company, and had founded a new interdisciplinary arts space, Radialsystem, where you are still based. Why did you decide to take on the role at the Staatsballett too?
I think I had a vision of what that position could mean for the contemporary dance world, and for an opening up of the ballet company. I wanted to bridge the gap between classical and contemporary, and I was also thinking about the chance to build a repertory for contemporary dance. We don’t have that the way ballet does, and so much is lost. But I also wanted to maintain the classical canon, and it was my suggestion to bring in someone from the ballet world to steer that.
I think in the end the organization wasn’t ready for that vision. Although, actually, the company has kept a lot of what we did, the way it ended, with Johannes leaving, was very painful for me.
What I took away from the experience is how precious independence is to creative work, and how much I value what I had built up with my company. Within that structure we can create interesting and challenging work that says something about how we live together, and the problems and crises that we are living through. Dance has the power to help and heal in difficult times, and in my own structure I can give space to that.
And what’s next?
That’s the big question! I am still interested in continuing what I started at the Staatballett, creating a contemporary repertoire with other artists. We are still Sasha Waltz and Guests — it’s not just my voice.
Personally, my challenge, always, is to delve into the unknown and talk about the now. It’s painful, you have to face your fear and jump. But we are the performing arts: We have to give form and body to what we are feeling and living.
30 Years Sasha Waltz and Guests
Though Sept. 17 at Radialsystem and the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, in Berlin; saschawaltz.de.