Choreography is never a one-way street: A conversation with Jörg Mannes

by Deike Wilhelm

Jörg Mannes was born in Vienna in 1969. Between the years 2006 and 2019 Jörg was the Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer of the State Theatre in Hannover. During this time he created individual 38 ballets, mostly full-length evenings for up to 30 dancers, which played to almost consistently sold-out audiences. Munich’s audiences may already be familiar to Jörg’s choreography through his creations «Der Sturm» (The Tempest) and «Wohin er auch blickt» (Wherever he looks) for the Bavarian State Ballet in 2007 and 2010 respectively. The following interview took place in the middle of March via video call.

DW: Jörg, you are currently choreographing «Unsterbliche Geliebte» (Immortal Lover) set to Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto for the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich. You were originally born in Vienna and up until last year you were Ballet Director of State Theatre in Hannover. During your thirteen year reign as artistic director you managed to achieve a lot for dance in Hannover, how did your love for ballet begin? And how did you start dancing yourself?

JM: That’s quite funny actually. As a child I had a postural deformation so my parents sent me to a form of gymnastics that I didn’t quite like. They then enrolled me into a private ballet school however being the only boy in the class I was still not the happiest. It was only when the Ballet School of the Vienna State Opera was looking for new students that my parents signed me up and that I started to like ballet – I was eight years old at the time. My parents asked me each week: “Do you really want to continue?” and I always answered: “Yes.” 

DW: What did you love about dance?

JM: It always used to change. As a child I didn’t like to sit still for very long so when I started at the ballet school it was just great. I loved the technical challenges and found I wanted to master the different steps and the jumps especially. I was very ambitious. Later on, I really loved partnering the most and that continued though in my choreographies – until today I still enjoy creating partnering work the most.

DW: And did you ever ask yourself as a child if you wanted to dance professionally?

JM: No, this was never something I asked myself. At some point it just became clear and by then it all seemed to work out just fine. When I was sixteen years old, I received a contract with the Vienna State Ballet, which equated to the job security of being a public state official – it all seemed to work very well for me at the time. After dancing with the company for three years, Nureyev came and offered me a scholarship to study at the Paris Opera which I accepted, staying there for half a year – that was really impressive.

DW: At that time Rudolf Nureyev was the Director of the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris. How did you find life in Paris and were you able to work with Nureyev personally?

JM: Yes, it was when I arrived in Paris and started to train with the company each day that Nureyev told me: “I want you to do two trainings per day”. I was doing classes with the company and the school and being taught by Nureyev himself, who from time to time was also giving me corrections. Although I learnt a lot, it was gruelling and somehow a crazy time. It was also the period when William Forsythe had only just created his piece «In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated» for the company, an experience that really changed the style of the company. I will never forget the moment when I was working at the barre and in front of me was a weird bobbed haired lady dressed in black with training. I thought to myself: “Oh God, what is she doing?” It was only later when I realized that I had been training directly behind Sylvie Guillem that I understood the importance of that period. The way they were moving at the time appeared completely alien to me and it was absolutely fascinating and really new back then.

DW: And after those intense six months in Paris, did you go back to Vienna?

JM: Yes. Sometime later Heinz Spoerli came to Vienna to create a new production of «Pulcinella». I was originally casted in the second cast and ended up having to jump in which went quite well. A while after that Spoerli called to tell me that he was to become the ballet director in Düsseldorf and asked me to join him as a dancer. At that time it was quite unusual for a dancer to leave the job security of Vienna but I ended up moving to accept a contract as a solo dancer in Düsseldorf with him.


DW: You spent five years in the company with Heinz Spoerli and another two with Youri Vámos after that. During that time you also began to choreograph. How did that come about?

JM: Purely by coincidence. Heinz Spoerli had offered the dancers a choreographic workshop and I myself signed up, not necessarily because I wanted to become a choreographer but because I wanted to understand more about how the other side worked. During that workshop I created a pas de deux set to a Mozart adagio and ended up re-setting it for Vadim Pisarev and Inna Dorofeeva, two dancers from our company who had gained an international reputation for themselves. They asked me whether they could dance the pas de deux for one of their upcoming performances at the “Gala des Étoiles“ in Montréal. As I was completely unknown as a choreographer at the time the organisers requested we send them a video of the work. We then found out that another dancer – Vladimir Malakhov – had already planned to use the same music. That required me to create a new pas de deux for them and since we had some spare time I continued to create a few different pas de deux that they subsequently danced at galas around the world. By this stage my name as a choreographer was becoming better known and as a result I was invited to both Indianapolis and to the Bolshoi-Theater to create new pieces for their companies.

DW: At some point you quit dancing to continue choreographing. What was it that fascinated you so much about choreography that you took this decision?

JM: On stage I was always quite shy and perhaps it was just that I preferred being backstage more. In that regard I was never someone to hog the spotlight but was more reserved. Perhaps that’s why choreography seemed a better fit than continuing to dance myself. It allowed me to stay further in the background instead of simply producing myself. And more and more possibilities to create choreography seemed to open up naturally. First I created the pas de deux I mentioned before, then came smaller pieces building up to a significantly larger production in Indianapolis. Following my time in Düsseldorf I worked as a freelance choreographer for two years before applying as a ballet director – for which I wrote letters to each of the directors around Germany. 

DW: And it just happened like that? Completely of your own initiative?

JM: Yes, and I even received two offers! I accepted the job in Bremerhaven because I really liked their application procedure. The director of the theatre was great: he invited each of the selected applicants to give both a training and a rehearsal to the company. Each of us were treated equally. The dancers of the company were given the final choice of whom they wanted to work with most, and they decided to take me. It was really nice because it wasn’t a hostile takeover since the dancers themselves had appointed me. With only nine dancers it was a really small company and I stayed with them for four years.

DW: And did you choreograph yourself there?

JM: Yes, I did everything. Together with my wife, who was doubling as my assistant and dancing with the company, we were the press office, we developed poster designs and we answered the telephones – there was nobody other than us and that made it really exciting. From the beginning on it was great to have been so involved with everything from the ground up. Looking back at my daily schedules I wonder how I was able to manage all of that.

DW: And then you went to Linz…

JM: Yes, and I only stayed there for two years. It was quite a special time as when I began in Linz I already knew that Michael Klügl, the director of the theatre at the time, was going to take me with him to his new post in Hannover two years later. In some ways it was also a bizarre state of transition and my first full-length creation for the company «Fremd bin ich eingezogen…» (As a stranger I arrived here…) used Schubert’s songs to transform that experience into art. Those familiar with this specific song by Schubert, which the Austrians of course were, will know that the text continues with “…a stranger I go hence”. So, two years later I became ballet director in Hannover. The situation was completely different compared to Linz and Bremerhaven mainly due to the larger size of a company of thirty dancers. Aside from the annual premieres we built up a lot of things in the thirteen years that followed and were able to experiment with many new projects. These included youth participation projects, hosting a dance congress and developing the dance festival “Ostertanztage” which grew incredibly over the time. It was an active, intense and productive period.

DW: Looking back on the ballets you have created are there certain themes, common threads or particular movements that surface like a pattern amongst them?

When I look back at my ballets I’ve noticed how they really changed and developed in relation to the dancers and possibilities available at the time and that it was in fact a particular production that became a kind of common thread over time. It was when I had watched Stephen Frears’ film adaptation of “Dangerous Liaisons” and read the book that I knew I had wanted to create it as a ballet however I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to realise this as a guest choreographer. So as soon as I became the director in Bremerhaven I created it and further adapted it in Linz and as a guest choreographer in Karlsruhe. Finally, once I arrived in Hannover, I created a completely new version of the piece that had nothing to do with the old ones. Everything was new – the music, the costumes, the choreography – and that was my desire, that was my topic. It became a very complex and intense piece and one that was really good for my development.

DW: You are known as a passionate narrator. Do you draw your inspiration primarily from the different themes or the stories and is the plot particularly important for you?

JM: My interest and goal in developing narrative through dance is not simply to design a series of steps, but to touch the audience, to give them a particular feeling and to sweep them away. My fascination for storytelling is that you can build up the arc of a story and break it again, and while you can do that using various means with abstract pieces too, storytelling just becomes a lot of fun. We had a very mixed audience in Hannover and what some of them “swallowed” in regards to my choices in music might not have worked as well in another environment. For example, in «Besuch der alten Dame» (The Visit) I used numerous pieces from Nine Inch Nails which seemed to thrill the audience, even the older ones. And then in the new version of «Dangerous Liaisons», which saw a commissioned score from Stockhausen student Mark Polscher, there were elements of early music from Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Friedrich Handel sensitevely interwoven. That’s how it works well and how it was always fun for me. But aside from strictly focussing on narratives we also created musically-focussed evenings too.

DW: Were those evenings focussed purely on the music or did you integrate elements of narrative within them again too?

JW: In my opinion as soon as you put a dancer on stage there is a plot because they themselves carry with them their own personal biography. If you leave them naked without giving them the representation of a role then they will automatically become themselves. The story of the individual dancer will always be present and in this regard pure abstraction cannot exist. Even in an abstract ballet you tend to work in a similar way. There are clearly defined structures and while you don’t have the plot line to follow, there are still themes to build up and destroy. Or perhaps you build things in a parallel context either to make a connection between them or to smash them apart. So even if it might be reversed in a way, the abstraction automatically tells you something – you can’t not tell anything on stage.

DW: And where do you get your inspiration from?

JM: It’s different every time… and if it were the same each time, I would probably be less stressed – but that’s also the thrilling thing. Sometimes you hear a piece of music and become fascinated by it which allows ideas or associations to develop from the music itself. Other times it’s certain stories or themes that seem to inspire me. In any case, you’re always on the lookout for an association of some kind.

DW: Munich’s audiences perhaps are already familiar to your work through your new creations for the Bavarian State Ballet however now you are creating for the young dancers of the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich. Is working with dancers of this age new to you or something you have done before?

JM: Although this is the first time that I am working with a junior company they are still professional dancers that each carry with them their own experiences in certain areas. What I find nice working with dancers of their age is that on one hand they are technically very good but there is still a lot that is uniquely themselves in what they do. They are accustomed to executing things perfectly but haven’t quite developed a routine of hiding behind themselves which always seems to happen at some point. Even in life, we all end up playing a kind of ‘role’.

DW: How did you begin working with the young dancers?

JM: I have developed several themes and tested various ideas including the isolated representation of themselves through various sequences of movement. And I began testing their abilities through partnering as this is something that cannot be taken for granted. Most dancers only begin true partnering when they arrive in a ballet company because the physical development of their bodies is always fluctuating during their training years. But the good thing is that the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich has a wide repertoire exposing them to the demands of partnering and the dancers have already gained a lot of experience in this area. This was comforting for me because partnering is something very close to my heart and I haven’t encountered any major obstacles there.

DW: Do you present the dancers with specific sequences of movements or do you do workshop ideas in which to draw from yourself?

JM: Up until now, I’ve been giving suggestions and then picking upon what they offered – a lot of input comes naturally automatically from the dancers and I like that dialogue. And that actually the most fascinating thing about choreography, it is never a one-way street. What I think of is one thing and what my physical possibilities show is another. What the dancers see in that is something else again and what they then realise through their own physical possibilities becomes something completely different yet again – and this is where the truly beautiful things originate from.

DW: Almost like “chinese whispers”?

JW: Exactly like that! It’s almost like “silent mail”. In the end, something completely different emerges and that’s the interesting thing: You only begin to choreograph when you start to listen and see what emerges from the dancers themselves. My role as a choreographer is to adapt to the dancers, to look after them in a way so that they present themselves at their best… and, in another way, teasing them to achieve that potential.