Danced Devotion: A Night on the Bald Mountain

by Deike Wilhelm

Energetic music, passion, drama, ferocity, unbridled energy and a great deal of storytelling through music. This is how one could succinctly describe Modest Mussorgsky's composition "A Night on the Bald Mountain."

On the barren mountain, witches dance at night – we have come to refer to such gatherings as the Brocken. Spanning cultures, this ancient tale persists: annually, witches gather on the mountain to commemorate their Witches’ Sabbath at the Witches’ Dance Square. On one hand, the subject matter of Modest Mussorgsky’s programmatic orchestral work, a composition which he revised several times during his lifetime and which only premiered after his death, sparks countless fantasies and contains numerous myths, fairy tales, ideas, and symbols which revolve around the theme of witches. On the other hand, there is a dark history of persecution and witch hunting, where between forty and sixty thousand women fell victim in Western Europe alone. Thus, this topic provides ample material for numerous fantasies while also becoming a topic laden with historical baggage and unfortunately not one free from negative associations. Amidst our current sensitivity to issues surrounding power dynamics, the role of women, and gender roles in particular, the theme is indeed complex as is the heightened awareness of power relations in a male-dominated society. Engaging with this music artistically requires imagination, curiosity, mindfulness, and perhaps a great deal of courage as well.

Witches dance at night on the mountain. Passion, vulnerability, life energy, neglect, connection to nature, and unbridled vitality. These are stirring ideas, not devoid of a certain eroticism. But what are the witches? Perhaps they are primarily figures, images, or stereotypes – born from men whose interest stemmed from fascination, fear, and fantasy? Throughout history (and still today in other cultures, as recently experienced here in Munich at the Museum of Five Continents exhibition), wise women have often been described as witches by outsiders. Laden with countless images and ideas and often stigmatised for their knowledge and connection to nature, these women gather herbs at night for example, as certain plants only develop their powers then. Women who are in tune with other women, women whose bodies, with their wonderful ability to conceive and bear new life, are a great mystery, and women whose womb wisdom and spirituality lead to the deepest of sacred knowledge. With the possibility of being inaccessible to men in this form, this easily fascinated and yet frightened a male-dominated society with tingles and shudders simultaneously.

Choreographing to Modest Mussorgsky’s twelve-minute piece of programmatically driven music is no easy feat and is probably why, until now, this orchestral work has not been danced to – at least not outside Russia. So it’s no wonder that Eric Gauthier initially hesitated before agreeing to choreograph a new work to this music. Despite his love for the piece of music, along with his curiosity and desire for a challenge, he was fortunately encouraged to overcome his doubts. Ivan Liška together with Allan Bergius, musical director of ATTACCA Youth Orchestra, chose Mussorgsky’s composition to offer as many young musicians the opportunity for their artistic development and this large-scale work offers just that. Ivan Liška describes it as highly dramatic, almost “like a tornado” and it was Liška who entrusted Eric Gauthier with this new creation after seeing his recent work in the neo-classical form. Eric Gauthier is known as the “rock star of ballet”, whose personal mission is to spread his love for dance with people across borders. Currently, he can be seen in front of the camera as the charming host and dance expert in the ARD documentary series “Dance Around the World,” which transports viewers into the dance scenes of cities like Tel Aviv, St. Petersburg, and the Netherlands – definitely worth watching! Within a few years, Gauthier has made a significant leap from being one of the Stuttgart Ballet’s audience favourites to the internationally acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of one of Germany’s most acclaimed dance companies. Founded in 2006, Gauthier Dance//Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart regularly collaborates with internationally renowned choreographers and was recognised as a highlight in the German dance magazine tanz’s 2022 yearbook by both critics and audiences alike. The success of the company is not only due to Gauthier’s charismatic charm but also to his direct approach to addressing the audience and presenting dance evenings that continually inspire. Gauthier is not unknown to Munich audiences, as the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich has been performing his humorous piece «Ballet 102» since 2018.

With his «Night on the Bald Mountain», Eric Gauthier has created an ensemble piece for five couples. The ballet consists of ten different pas de deux, each with their own movement vocabulary, leading to an incredible variety of movement forms. The different pas de deux are interspersed with unison ensemble sections, which contrapuntally hold the work together. Thus, the musically driven, intense, and dramatic piece of choreography manages to impress with its overflowing repertoire of movement. Dynamic and neo-classical in style, Eric Gauthier allows the dancers to find their movement forms in an idiosyncratic, obstinate, and yet very individual manner. On pointe, yet never in the language of classical ballet, one almost imagines seeing flying broomsticks when the women glide across the stage carried by their partners. The men support, enhance, and amplify the movements of the women leading them in lifts across the stage. “The men are like a reflection of the mountain,” says Eric Gauthier, “they amplify the women so that they can make these huge movements and lifts and in the end, the men give a part of themselves to the women.”

In his work, Eric Gauthier focuses clearly on the women, with their strength and character he depicts almost idealistic images of women who exude self-confidence, obstinacy, grace, and yet a gentle femininity as well. Women who perceive and need their partners through the pas de deux, as they can only fully unfold their great potential together with them. The men lift and carry their partners through the space, mirroring and complementing their movements. Alongside these strong women, the continuous powerful presence of the men is striking. “I imagine that the male energy – the mountain energy – complements the strength of the women so that together, a superpower develops.”

The new creation also evokes the longing for a symbiotic connection between humans and nature. Perhaps this unique bald mountain rests throughout the year. Perhaps it is only brought to life by the dance of the women once a year. The women need the mountain. They need nature, just as the mountain – or nature itself – perhaps also needs us humans. The women connect with the mountain, the men are respected and amplified by it. Together they ultimately create something new. The men give the women a part of themselves in order to create something new – the mountain. Associations, emotions and poetry remain. Creation and invention can only be achieved together thus, this new work is rightly also an ensemble piece – a choreography that requires not only couples, but also a community. This community consists on the one hand of all five couples, but on the other hand, it is also a community of women, with their closeness and connection. Touching against this background is also the role of men, a central element of the collective strength and essential in the joint creation. As spectators, we experience a multifaceted variety of unique, clear, mature and self-confident women, of relationships and the connections between man and woman, of dance, of humanity and nature. After we are initially introduced to them as independent, strong women it becomes particularly touching when the women show themselves as being intimately connected to their mountain. They share their vulnerability with the mountain and in the end ultimately with us as spectators.

Even in today’s times, characterised by a great sensitivity and attention to issues of gender injustices and power dynamics, the artistic exploration of witches and women can indeed be a challenge. Eric Gauthier, however, works clearly, directly and touchingly to highlight the independence of a radiant femininity that never loses its gentleness alongside its insistence. Gauthier stays close to the strongly programmatic nature of the music without precisely narrating its content. He departs from the classical language in favour of his own narration, which tells of women and men, human and nature, the strength and gentleness of women, the devotion and constancy of men. One almost feels as if they are experiencing a harmonious ideal – a new world – where a perfect symbiosis between man and woman, human and nature, is lived together. They dance together. They create together, just as the mountain emerges as the final image of the ballet – a small mountain that grows into a towering giant in the shadow of its own silhouette.