A clear-cut with tradition characterises the opening programme of the Staatsballett Berlin’s new season. The double bill featuring Stijn CelisYour Passion is Pure Joy to Me, and Sharon Eyal’s and Gai Behar’s Half Life is a move towards the contemporary, if not beyond the contemporary. The swap from ballet slippers and pointes shoes to bare feet and socks is a clear sign of the transition in the artistic direction from Nacho Duato to the highly contested duo Johannes Öhman and Sasha Waltz (from 2019/2020). To reassure all those who were sceptical, it is a great start of the season.

Staatsballett Berlin in Celis' <i>Your Passion is Pure Joy</i> © Jubal Battisti
Staatsballett Berlin in Celis' Your Passion is Pure Joy
© Jubal Battisti

The evening opens with the work Your Passion is Pure Joy to Me by the Belgian Celis, also director of the Saarland Staatsballett, and features dancers who are new to the company – the new direction enlarged the company from 84 to 93 members – notably Jenna Fakhoury, Johnny McMillan and Ross Martinson. On songs by Nick Cave and music by Pierre Boulez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Krzysztof Penderecki, the work sets faith in the most difficult of times as a central theme. On a bare stage with a slightly inclined white floor, an extremely long-limbed woman in a white camisole and grey pencil skirt dances intensively to Cave’s Love Letter (2001). Her strong and grounded movements embody the music. A man joins her, though lost as he is in his own solo. Caught in their existential turmoil, soon all seven dancer, in colourful costumes, are to seen on stage in aesthetics reminiscent of Waltz’s works. Somehow influenced by Cave’s songs, the movement acquires a sarcastic dark taint: besides the correspondence between music and movement in timing and quality, at times, details anticipate the lyrics. Movement is foregrounded over form, and when it is recognizable as in a long sustained à la seconde, it is as if saying to demonstrate that the dancers are still capable of the classical technique bravura. It is a mouthful of visual input that I am unable to sort. I struggle despite the beautiful movements and emotions created by the dancers to find a key of interpretation beyond the one or the other fleeting image. There are too many interesting moments to be able to connect the dots. Many sigh around me. The selection of music does not help either: apart from the dancers’ transport on Cave’s songs – where the lyrics allow for more – the movements are similar throughout the different parts.

In this programme, Celis' work is followed by Eyal’s and Behar’s Half Life, a mesmerizing minimalist human kaleidoscope. While the curtains are still closed, techno-like music starts pounding like a heart rate.

Staatsballett Berlin in Eyal's <i>Half Life</i> © Jubal Battisti
Staatsballett Berlin in Eyal's Half Life
© Jubal Battisti
Then, a woman and a man on stage are seen repeating the same movements endlessly, the light hitting them at an angle and producing a dramatic chiaroscuro. She is shuffling forward going nowhere and he is moving the right leg from one direction to the other with a pelvic thrust. From the right corner, in a painstakingly slow entrance, the group comes in and joins the woman. From then onwards, it is a variation of seemingly similar, endlessly repeated movements on the beat, or across it with one dancer leading or in contraposition to the group. The work is a tableau vivant that slowly changes, symmetrical in its asymmetry. The image evoked is that of an organism composed of many units such as a swarm of bees but also of a pulsing, somehow contorted body. All elements are varied to the exhaustion with movement sequences explored in different contexts. It is through time that one slowly realizes that one dancer in the middle of the group is mysteriously towering over the others on demi pointe. The motif is taken up again by a woman carried on someone’s shoulders, or the brilliant sequence of endless jumps hardly without preparation to which an earlier phrase is added with nonchalance. The dramatic chiaroscuro and the contorted bodies are made clearly visible by the revealing costumes – the dancers wear tight skin coloured costumes that surprisingly leave the men more exposed than the women as their buttocks are in full sight – conferring a baroque touch to the whole. The new dancers welcomed in this piece are Ross Martinson, Johnny McMillan and Daniel Norgren-Jensen.

The ensemble has adjusted extremely well to the contemporary movement material – it was the first time both choreographers worked with the company – and the evening rightfully deserved a standing ovation which served as a sign also that the audience is ready to go beyond classical ballet, and even beyond contemporary ballet. Sometimes it is better to have a clear cut than to have lukewarm transitions. Only time will tell if it was a good choice.