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Pushing the ballet envelope: Daniil Simkin

INTERVIEW! The Staatsballett’s new star Daniil Simkin on the politics of culture and combining classical ballet with cutting-edge productions.

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The Staatsballett’s new star Daniil Simkin on the politics of culture and combining classical ballet with cutting-edge productions.

It’s been a rough few years for Berlin’s Staatsballett. First, there was Nacho Duato, an intendant who never really won over the city. Then came the dancer strikes. The announcement of Johannes Öhman and Sasha Waltz as joint directors was supposed to mark a fresh start for the institution. But the ballet’s dancers responded with a petition against the appointment of contemporary choreographers to a traditionally classical company. In this respect, the hiring of Daniil Simkin as principal dancer was a big win for Berlin’s ballet. The Russian-born, German-raised dancer has spent the last 10 years with New York’s American Ballet Theatre – to much acclaim. Could Simkin be the saving grace of the Staatsballett?

Berlin’s not the first place one thinks of when it comes to ballet. What made you leave New York to come here?

In New York, time is money – and that reverberates through all aspects of life. You go there to prove yourself, to establish yourself as whoever you are in whichever field you are in. Here, you feel like you have more of a life. Schedules are a bit more lenient, there’s less pressure in the sense that the winner takes it all. And everybody I talk to is in love with Berlin. So when this opportunity came, I jumped at it.

Was this competitive atmosphere in New York a big factor in leaving?

I experienced everything I could in New York. But through these 10 years, I discovered the limitations of that environment. When many aspects of life are about money, then risk-taking is lowered. That’s why New York’s art scene in general is relatively conservative, I would say. Because it all goes back to one common denominator: money. When that’s not the case, there’s more leeway to creatively explore other avenues.

Are there new avenues you would like to explore in Berlin?

I love electronic music. The scene is so lively here that I would envision dance and electronic music to be more of a fit than it’s been so far. There are choreographers that use it but why wouldn’t we have a cutting-edge electronic-classical musician to create a new score for a dance piece? I would love to work with someone like Nils Frahm. That could be fascinating.

Do you think the Staatsballett is making a commitment to a classical style of ballet by appointing you?

I am coming in mainly as a classical dancer – that’s my strength. It’s necessary to hone your base, but also to stay hungry and stay open to new experiences. In a way, I could say that my hiring symbolises the message of this new Staatsballett. On the one side, we’re honing the classical heritage, on the other hand, we are creating innovative pieces and exploring the other side of the spectrum as well. I truly believe in his and Sasha Waltz’s vision of the company.

You’ve worked with Johannes Öhman before. Was this a big part of coming back here?

I’ve known him for about 15 years. We’ve met each other throughout our lives in different places and always kept in touch. We have a great rapport and trust because we’ve known each other for a long time. That was a big reason to come back. I truly believe in his and Sasha Waltz’ vision of the company.

What do you think about Waltz’s appointment to a traditionally classical company?

You have to take away emotion from situations like these and look at the facts: our repertoire is almost 75-80 percent classical. Through their work, both Johannes and Sasha have proven that they are saving the classical heritage. I personally don’t think it’s a bad thing. The ballet in Berlin should be a reflection of its environment. Here we have beautiful substance, yes, but at the same time, it’s a cutting-edge city. I don’t think one thing excludes the other. And that’s our mission as artists: to prove these critics wrong.

Both at the Staatsballett and the Volksbühne, there seemed to be frustration at the politicians appointing new intendants without the ensembles and companies themselves having a say.

In the end, it has always been the case that somebody up above makes a decision and you’ve got to live with it. I was not a member of the company when it happened, but I was told that there was a lot of anger, mostly because they received the news about the new appointment through the press, which generated a lot of questions. There was also a fear of losing the classical heritage, that the company would become just contemporary. This obviously wasn’t the case and once the new direction started talking with the dancers, these fears dissolved.

You’ll be playing Solor in the Staatsballett’s upcoming production of La Bayadère. What can we expect?

I’ve known the choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, for quite a while because he was artist in residence at the American Ballet Theater and we joined the same year, so I spent the last 10 years working with him. I’m looking forward to dancing it – it’s going to be quite an opulent show. The costumes look beautiful.

You’re also appearing as the Prince in The Nutcracker. Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka have based their version on the original scenery and choreography of Lev Ivanov’s original. Is classical ballet searching for authenticity?

There is this general direction of going back to the notes. Our bodies change throughout the times and we’re able to do certain things which we could not do back in the 1800s. Dancers and directors have pushed the envelope. But the question is: should we really dial it back and go back to how it was before? Will that be more authentic? Will that speak to the audience in our day and time in the same way? It’s a question for the audience members to decide when they see.

La Bayadère Nov 10, 19:30, Dec 26, 28, 18:00 Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Mitte The Nutcracker Nov 25, 16:00, 30, Dec 3, 7, 19:30 Deutsche Oper Berlin, Mitte