Anita Berber, Göttin der Nacht

Anita Berber poster

A ballet for large orchestra

This work had a curious genesis.  My phone rang as I was boarding a plane to Havana and an unfamiliar voice said my name is Otto and I would like to license Empress of Blandings for a ballet...and before I had a chance to say much more than "yes" the stewardess made me switch off.  International calls from Cuba...nah; but we did manage an exchange of emails and once I'd finished at la ISA I went to Hamburg to meet Otto and his twin brother Jiri, both of them international ballet soloists who were now breaking out into production.  Otto's girlfriend had played in the premiere of Empress and he had found the piece (and possibly my flailing around in the pre-concert talk) to be simpatico.  We hit it off at once and within five minutes they showed me a proposal for a new ballet; Otto Dix's famous portrait of Anita Berber was on the cover.  Almost without discussion, we decided to do it.  

The commission came from the Thüringer Staatsballet, based in Gera to the south of Leipzig. We had to work insanely fast and the next six months were a blur of late night scribbling, research into the disorderly life of our subject and - occasionally - blind panic when in a moment of lucidity I realised the scale of the task I'd set myself: 100 minutes of music for a Heldenleben sized band to a story that, though arresting, was in constant evolution.  We couldn't meet often because of our travels, and on those occasions when we managed to do so it was nearly always in a cafe somewhere in Europe; Hawelka's in Vienna or the one by the Hamburg opera or at some out of the way railway station.  I wish I could remember the name of the one in Hannover where we stayed up brainstorming till 3am.  The owner had the patience of Job.

It worked.  Most collaborations are negotiations between irreconcilable egos; this one just flowed and flew. I don't think there was a cross word the whole year.  I studied hard; dance music is a passion for me and if you want to do it well you have to understand how dancers think.  People were very indulgent in answering my endless questions and by the end I had evolved a strong sense of feet on stage influencing my writing. A Charleston rhythm permeated the piece as a sort of loose leitmotiv.  It had the rhythm of the doomed Berber's name, and as rehearsals proceeded a-NEEE-ta became a sort of company war cry: some of the dancers even had T-shirts with it printed on.

Anita premiered on June 16 and is still in repertoire in Gera and Altenburg.  If that's a bit far to travel, there is a trailer for it on YouTube which gives you a very good idea of the drama of the piece:  Listen here

Can I do another one, please?

Programme notes

Production photo


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