Ballet and Wilderness

Pas de deux with a sycamore maple

by Till Meyer

"Less aesthetic and more natural please." These were choreographer Martina La Ragione's instructions to the dancers at a gathering of spectators interested in sharing the development of her project in June 2019. And when the command "break up the lines again" was given, the artists of the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich knew immediately what was meant.

Prerequisites for a choreography in the wilderness

“Less aesthetic and more natural please.” These were choreographer Martina La Ragione’s instructions to the dancers at a gathering of spectators interested in sharing the development of her project in June 2019. And when the command “break up the lines again” was given, the artists of the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich knew immediately what was meant. The small group, who had mysteriously emerged from the forest as a harmonious entity broke apart wildly; some flowing with soft movement and others with erratic staccatos. According to La Ragione, the traditional qualities of classical ballet, which the young dancers are accustomed to perfecting, should “develop new forms of beauty through their interruptions”.

Martina La Ragione’s work as a choreographer and dance teacher is perhaps already familiar to Munich audiences through the projects ‘Anna tanzt’ and ‘Heinrich tanzt’, which saw the Bavarian State Ballet collaborate with local academic schools. In her hometown of Bologna, Martina works at the Art Factory International (AFI), a renowned dance platform from former Forsythe dancer Brigel Gjoka. Her reputation on the freelance European dance scene precedes her and only recently she performed with Tanztheater Wuppertal in Pina Bausch’s «Seven Deadly Sins» touring internationally. Martina La Ragione returns to work with the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich this spring to continue creating her work «Tanzende Faune» (Dancing Fauns) which features as part of the ‘Ballet and Wilderness’ project at the visitor centre of the “Haus zur Wildnis” deep in the Bavarian Forest National Park in Lower Bavaria. Four weeks later «Tanzende Faune» will also be seen at the Carl-Orff Festival at the Andechs Abbey near lake Ammersee.

The occasion for creation of «Tanzende Faune» is the 50th anniversary of the Bavarian Forest National Park, the first of 16 National parks in Germany. The choreographer’s instructions of “less aesthetic and more natural” is in the spirit of the National Park Director Dr. Franz Leibl: “Fifty years ago, we decided to give priority to a more natural development within the National Park. Climate change and bark beetles created a new forest nature. Apparently people need time to get used to such new aesthetics. The fact that the artists of the Junior Ballet support us in this is a great gain, like the jackpot in a lottery”.

The first experimental “choreographic building blocks” were placed by La Ragione in the “Hans-Watzlik-Hain” of the National Park in June 2018, between firs, spruces, beeches and sycamore maples of different ages, sizes and qualities: young and elastic and old, huge as well as holed, dying, rotten and decaying, including Methuselah trees between the ages of 300 to 400 years old, which later in the evening around the campfire inspired Ivan Liška to consider: “How do we deal with someone or something that has been around for four hundred years that is constantly trying to speak to us? Respect, combined with humility and possibly, satisfaction or happiness; well, perhaps this is a good approach for a wilderness choreography…!”

The first rehearsal was not about huge fir trees, but included a few small and young sycamore maple trees, which the dancers held onto with one hand and swung around. And while some of the trees were giving way elastically this allowed for the dancers to reach toward the soil with their other arm. Later in another scene, a huge old fir tree did manage to find its way into focus, towards which the group ran and looked like a flock of chickens seeking refuge under the wing of the mother hen. The dancers then congregated together building a two-story triangle with their bodies against the gigantic trunk, as if wanting to give the old tree additional support and yet finding solace beneath its ancient existence.

Some of the young artists were dressed in costumes that reflected human history in singular timelapse: from animal skins of early human times, towards tulle and silk brocade from the Baroque period, via dresses evoking the myths of fairy tales, to the long tutus of romantic ballet, and finally to the synthetic jersey fibres of modern dance theater. The contrasts to the surrounding nature couldn’t have been greater. While this may also have triggered moments of déjà vu with some of the viewers, especially considering that in our imagination delicate fairy dress belong in the forest as much as on the theater stages. Déjà vu moments of a completely different kind were certainly triggered by the lurking, low crouching predatory-like movements that some of the dancers tried out at the behest of Martina La Ragione.

On the day before the forest rehearsals began, the young artists ventured into various native habitats such as the primeval forest, lakeshore, bogs, and forest meadows, hearing stories about their unique and mysterious inhabitants. National Park Director Franz Leibl himself took the opportunity to guide Martina La Ragione and the group of 15 young dancers through the Park for a day. Thanks to Leibl’s tales, the artists discovered the mysterious dynamics of wild nature: where dead and dying trees become a source of life and where rare fungi, lichens, insects and birds thrive in the face of natural decay. One of the impressive messages from the wilderness was that such cycles of thriving and perishing ensure particularly stable and species-rich forests. 


The ensuing discussion around the campfire and the overnight stay in the National Park’s wilderness camp was an integral part of the overarching concept of the ‘Ballet and Wilderness’ project. An official letter of intent, signed only a few weeks earlier (May 6, 2018) by Ivan Liška and the then Bavarian Minister of the Environment, Marcel Huber, stated: “The partners of the project orientate themselves upon the tradition of ballets like «Giselle» (1841), «Swan Lake» (1877) but also «Afternoon of a Faun» (1912) which made the borders between the natural kingdom and the human world more permeable, a finding that Charles Darwin put into circulation in 1859 in scientific form: ”To cover wildness around us and within us and to be reaching outwards”. These basic ideas were also the inspiration for the ‘Ballet and Wilderness’ project. The project began in 2004 with the Bavarian State Ballet and the Bavarian Ministry for the Environment as cooperation partners. In 2014 the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich under Ivan Liška’s artistic directorship took over the continuation of the project.

At a first briefing in June 2018, Martina La Ragione made it clear that she, as a representative of “contemporary dance”, did not necessarily consider herself bound to the “traditional lineage of ballet”. However, the idea of “permeability between the natural kingdom and the human kingdom” certainly held an attractive basis for the development of her work.

Once the contractual foundations of the intended choreography had become concrete, in February 2020 Martina La Ragione was able to begin jotting down her thoughts on the project with her own powerful poetic language: “To dive into nature was a sacred, powerful and moving experience. The excursions led us to discover the beauty of the landscape not only with our eyes but with all our senses through the colors, the sounds, the ancient and at the same time amazingly fresh taste of endless death and eternal rebirth. It was breathtaking to feel this with not only our body and minds but to absorb this wholiness together with the powerful reality of the environment”.

She continues: “The inspiration and starting point of my choreographic research was the desire to be a part of this miracle, to which we inevitably belong in a discreet and almost imperceptibly unconscious way. My aim is to recall with reverence and respect the beauty of reuniting with something so original and archaic, which is deeply stored within our DNA.

Based on this spectrum, I wanted to create a choreography in which the divine is celebrated, the ritual of the fusion of human and animal bodies together. The sensuality and the strength that arises from this fusion, and ultimately leads to transformation and ecstasy seemed at once to me best suited to Carl Orff’s music and his composition “Tanzende Faune”.

Orff’s early work from 1914, is described in his own words as a “disguised dance piece for the stage”. Dance connoisseurs may notice the title’s similarity to the ballet “L’Après-midi d’un faune” (Afternoon of a Faun), which happened to premiere only two years prior, danced and choreographed by the legendary Waslaw Nijinsky to the impressionist music by Claude Debussy.

However, Martina La Ragione’s faunes have little in common with the lascivious and lonely faune from Nijinsky’s Ballet. Rather, they find their role models in archaeological and art historical evidence of chimeric creatures with different names such as Pan, Satyr or Faun, which continue appearing throughout our cultural history. When looking back as far as the 30,000-year-old cave paintings from the Stone Age one can detect among the mammoths and bisons depictions of flute-blowing human-animal creatures.

The real background of the dancing faunes is an ancient myth that still resonates with many indigenous peoples. According to which hunters try to put themselves in their prey’s place before they can get close enough to kill them. In the documentary “The Great Dance – A Hunter’s Story”, a hunter from the San people in southern Africa says: “If you track an animal, you must become an animal, you feel a tingling in the armpits when the animal is close. Tracking is like dancing. Because your body is happy. It is telling you, the hunting will be good. You feel it in the dance. When you are tracking and dancing, you are talking with God”.

It has long been proven that there are similar mechanisms in modern, non-hunting people. The evolutionary researcher Edward O. Wilson could show in his “Biophilia Hypothesis” (1984) that we have an ancient, archaic heritage in our psyche, an affinity to other living beings in nature that is due to genetic kinship. In a recent work from 2006, the biologist John Vucetich and the philosopher Michael Nelson came to the conclusion that tourist excursions into the wilderness also increase this affinity – provided, of course, the excursions are experienced physically and not with aids such as cable cars or e-bike!

The uplifting feeling of being in the wild, which Martina La Ragione compares to “ecstasy”, has the same neurological basis as dance: endorphins are released through combined stimuli. While this mood arises in stage dancing primarily through the combination of music and physical movement, the mix of nature and movement is responsible for this in the wilderness. According to Vucetich and Nelson the physical experience of wilderness and the accompanying mindfulness and focus, would often strengthen empathy for the fellow travelers. In a wilderness setting this strengthened empathy would often include humans and nonhumans alike and especially wilderness itself.

A parallel emerges. Dancing means representation of relationships of humans, not only towards each other, but also to the spaces in which they move about, their “environments”. Both sources, Wilson and Vucetich/Nelson recognize that people’s relationships with the surrounding and often dangerous wilderness does not always trigger positive feelings, but sometimes negative ones such as horror and fear. Theatre folk (and also psychologists) know of course that horror and fear often triggers catharsis, i.e. purification of character. In other words: whoever ventures into the wilderness might often emerge as a better person.

How can all this be reconciled with the terms “sacred” and “divine” used by Martina La Ragione? In contrast to all animals, we humans can feel empathy with other living beings. This godlike ability, which enables us to take care of the welfare of other, distantly related creatures, distinguishes us from all animals. That habitats of these animals are “sacred” in their own way, that is, they deserve our respect and restraint, is particularly evident in a wilderness setting.

The fact is that the current corona epidemic, which has claimed a particularly large number of victims in Martina La Ragione’s homeland, has delayed the rehearsal start by a few weeks. It gives the original idea of “permeability between the human and animal kingdoms” a current and tragic explosiveness. We humans can be infected with diseases from animals such as the rare bats and pangolin offered for sale in Asian markets. They are only very distantly related, but nevertheless related to us! A respectful handling of these fellow creatures and their living spaces is necessary. Art, and certainly with it the dance, can make a contribution to this.

Translated by Lisa-Marie Bowler