“Stop,” said Christian Spuck. The music died, and the dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin paused mid-swirl, still holding one another around the waist. “Ladies, gentlemen, very nice,” Spuck said in modulated tones. “Let’s try it another way.”
Spuck, 54, is the brand-new artistic director of the Staatsballett, Germany’s largest — and currently most beleaguered — ballet company, and the dancers were rehearsing a scene from his full-length ballet “Bovary,” based on the Flaubert novel. On Friday, the work’s premiere will mark the opening of Spuck’s first season.
It’s a pressurized, full-steam-ahead debut. But Spuck, a former director of the Zurich Ballet, retained his trademark calm and courtesy in the rehearsal two weeks ago, as he kept an eagle eye on the dancers and gave directions to rehearsal assistants, stage technicians and musicians.
He will need that preternatural calm in Berlin. The Staatsballett has struggled to find its footing since it was founded in 2004 as a money-saving amalgamation of the reunited Berlin’s three ballet troupes. Until 2014, the Staatsballett kept a conservative classical approach under the direction of the Russian star, Vladimir Malakhov. Then came the Spanish contemporary choreographer Nacho Duato, whose four-year tenure brought critical disapproval and dancer strikes over pay.
When Sasha Waltz, a prominent German contemporary choreographer, and the former Royal Swedish Ballet director Johannes Ohman were announced as Duato’s joint successors, the company dancers protested. Ohman and Waltz left after a year, in 2020, and Christiane Theobald, who had been the deputy director under Malakhov and Duato, took over as the company’s interim director, just in time to field a scandal over accusations of racism and bias in the company.
“There are huge challenges here,” Spuck, who is German but speaks fluently in English, said the day after the rehearsal, in his spacious office at the Staatsoper. “But I like to be challenged, I like confrontation, I like to be exhausted. I kind of need it.”
Spuck recalled that when he told Reid Anderson, his former boss at the Stuttgart Ballet, that he was taking an artistic director job, “he offered me a box of tissues, saying, ‘You will need this.’ It’s true. You deal with a lot of emotions.”
Spuck’s path to ballet was unusual. He grew up in Kassel, in what was then West Germany, with almost no exposure to dance until around 16, when he saw a Stuttgart Ballet production of “Romeo and Juliet” on television. “I fell in love,” he said. But his parents “said I had to finish school, go to the army, then I could decide,” he said.
He chose to do community service instead of the army, working in a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Frankfurt. Already 19, late for a dancer, he started going to ballet classes and attending performances of the Frankfurt Ballet, where he “got the big shock of William Forsythe,” Spuck said, referring to the American choreographer’s groundbreaking explorations of ballet technique and conventions.
He met Kathryn Bennetts, a répétiteur at the Frankfurt Ballet, who advocated for him to be given a place at the John Cranko School, a dance academy in Stuttgart. “Although he didn’t have much training and was old for a beginner, he had all the physical prerequisites for a dancer,” Bennetts said. “I thought he had a chance.”
Stuck struggled through “three painful years” alongside much younger students, he said. After being told he wasn’t technically strong enough to join the Stuttgart Ballet, he found jobs in contemporary troupes, including Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas. Later, he co-founded a small dance group in Stuttgart with a colleague and started to choreograph short pieces.
He was finally accepted by the Stuttgart Ballet and danced there until 1998, then became the company’s resident choreographer from 2001 to 2012. With commissions from other companies, including the Norwegian National Ballet and the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Spuck gradually established himself as a choreographer with a gift for creating convincing narrative works, which he also parlayed into the world of opera, directing productions including a well-received “Faust” in Berlin.
He was “taken aback,” he said, when he was approached about running the Zurich Ballet, which had been dominated for 16 years by the Swiss choreographer Heinz Spoerli. But his tenure there was a resounding success. He introduced Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, Crystal Pite and other contemporary choreographers into the repertory, created 10 ballets of his own, and built a loyal public as well as a strong relationship with his dancers. (Fifteen from the company in Zurich followed him to Berlin.)
In Berlin, Spuck has more dancers — currently 79, more than double the Zurich ensemble — to manage, but less money and more complicated logistics. A consequence of the 2004 amalgamation is a requirement for the Staatsballett to perform at three Berlin opera houses, which “is a huge juggle,” Spuck said, involving negotiations with three administrations and three orchestras.
The company was also still in a state of unease after the shocks of the leadership changes and the racism furor, Spuck said. “People here have had a difficult time over a long period,” he said. “There are trust issues, fear in terms of doing something wrong.” He added that the company had instituted a code of conduct and hired someone to address diversity and discrimination, and had taken on its first nonbinary dancer.
“What the company needs now is stability,” said Manuel Brug, a critic for the German newspaper Die Welt, “and Christian seems to have a vision of where things should go.” Understanding the German opera house system and “having strong connections to a German inner circle” will be advantages for Spuck, he added. Brug said that he was nonetheless ambivalent about Spuck’s own choreography.
“He is clever at finding different composers for different layers of a story, and finding a contemporary way, a bit movie-like, to tell his tale,” Brug said. “But, for me, there is not much individuality in the movement.”
Spuck admitted that he is not preoccupied with movement invention. “I’m not really good at that,” he said. “I like to direct,” adding that, in his productions, “it’s the way the music, scenery and movement come together that make an impact.”
Although his five-year contract stipulates he choreograph three to five productions in this period, he said he didn’t intend to prioritize his own work in Berlin. He was “on a hunt,” he said, “to find choreographers who can bring a perspective of our time to classical productions.”
“My wish,” Spuck said, “is that this institution is going to be a creative place. I would like to move forward with history.”