Nine girls are at the barre; the lady at the piano is playing Franz Liszt. Alicia tautens and stretches her body, giving it an impressive presence, and preparing herself for the movements and routines that she will execute with an air of lightness and elegance. Their teacher, Vera Potashkina, from Moscow, watches each move like a hawk. Alicia’s chin is held high, with just a hint of the arrogance one so flippantly associates with a ballerina’s look. Her hair has been tamed into a chignon, which makes her eyes look that much larger. Austere, critical. Nothing now exists but the music and her body, and the finishing touches it will receive in anticipation of the final examination. There’s no sign of the shy, friendly 18-year-old who just five minutes ago was recounting how she came to be in Stuttgart and at the John Cranko School, to help smooth her journey to the world of the ballet stage.
“You are welcome to take photographs in the school,” says the lady on the phone. “Actually, we’d rather photograph the two … at the factory.” There was a laugh on the other end of the line. “Would that be all right? It’s not going to be very warm. And we’ll need them all day.” “Of course. And maybe the two of them could have a ride … in a
Alicia García Torronteras is from Córdoba, Spain. As a child, her first love was flamenco, before she discovered classical dance. At the age of 14, she was chosen over thirty other applicants to train at the Madrid Conservatory. At a certain point, Alicia’s dream of turning her vocation into a career meant that it was time to move on. Where to? She had heard of the John Cranko School, but … Stuttgart? Together with her parents, she visited this unfamiliar city in an unfamiliar country. She found it a bit chilly here—and found the school fascinating. She floated through the entrance examination.
“Suddenly I was surrounded by other young people from all over the world,” Alicia remembers, her eyes widening. “Japan, the United States, Italy, Brazil. This hodgepodge of languages. It was really crazy.” Two years later, there is absolute certainty. Alicia has been accepted as a company member of the world-famous Stuttgart Ballet. You can already admire her on stage in performances of Giselle and Krabat. The price she pays for this is training, training, and more training. She sees her parents perhaps twice a year.
“We all share a bit of homesickness,” says director Tadeusz Matacz. “That makes us strong.” Matacz can look back on his days as a principal dancer in Warsaw and Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany, where he later worked as a ballet master and choreographer. Since 1999, he has presided over the John Cranko School and is responsible for young people from 22 countries. They sacrifice everything in order to dance. “We don’t do this for the money,” says Matacz. “We’re among the last of the idealists. Dancers never complain.”
The troupe creates a stir at the
You have to be able to tame their energy. Dimitri Magitov, a German of Ukrainian extraction, is a teacher who knows the secret of achieving this. He takes a casual but systematic approach to training the youths under his charge, who come from Brazil, Chile, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Music by Beethoven fills the air of the rehearsal room, and a brief instruction from Magitov suffices to channel all of this energy in the right direction. The students leap high and wide—they’re more impressive than athletes. Once they really gain momentum, they occasionally have to put on the brakes to avoid getting too close to the wall.
Yet Martí still stands out, even in the midst of these exceptional young dancers. Together with the Brazilian student in his class, he will be joining the Stuttgart Ballet as a member of the company. Just as Alicia is doing, he is already dancing at the Stuttgart State Theater in Giselle and Krabat. His body language reveals that he’s not inclined to complicate matters. He says, “I’m here to dance. That is what I do. Ten hours a day. I don’t do anything else.”
He is a Catalan, brimming with confidence. Martí Fernández Paixà, as well as his two brothers, got off to an early start in dance. Martí began with hip hop music and jazz dance. Classical ballet, which he studied at a private school, became increasingly important to him. Three years ago, he took part in a major competition held in Berlin. Tadeusz Matacz, who was on the jury, asked Martí, “Would you like to come to Stuttgart?”
Martí was taken by surprise, but after thinking it over for a day, he accepted. For Matacz, moments such as this give him a true sense of achievement. The director first met many of his students at competitions held all around the world. He is a sought-after juror and often on the road. He notes, “Talented dancers are rare. We’re not running a mass production operation here with mediocre dancers. Rather, we—and other prestigious schools worldwide—are vying for supremely talented students.”
A photo shoot is a nerve-racking experience, even for ballet dancers. There are all the discussions about dance routines, the waits, the getting into position. Alicia poses on landings, dances routines with Martí. That’s how it goes all morning. “Take a break, Alicia, have something to drink!” “What should I do?” asks Martí. “Do you see that diagonal over there?” asks Rafael, the photographer. “Could you maybe …” Martí laughs and does the splits against the steeply sloped wall. Body control such as this is just amazing. “Martí, watch your arms. Push your back properly into place,” says Tadeusz Matacz. Alicia slips into her down jacket and observes her dance partner at a distance. Asked, “Have you seen Black Swan?” Alicia gives a weary smile. “Oh yes,” she replies. “A film. A Hollywood film. Much too much exaggeration. It has nothing to do with ballet as it really is.”
Following his appointment as director of the Stuttgart Ballet in 1961, John Cranko, a native of South Africa, attracted great names in ballet, including Márcia Haydée, Birgit Keil, Egon Madsen, and Richard Cragun. Cranko launched sensational tours of the United States, France, Israel, and the USSR, and firmly established the international renown of the “Stuttgart Ballet miracle.” In addition, he created a training school for young dancers that was closely allied to the company.
West Germany’s first ballet school opened its doors in 1971. Located in a former publishing house, the school offered classes ranging from basic training to professional qualification. The two upper levels, or “theater classes,” soon acquired the status of a state ballet academy and technical school. Cranko died in 1973, and the school was named after him the following year. New construction is now underway, and
And now, on top of everything else, it’s starting to rain. The thin straps of her costume don’t protect Alicia’s shoulders. Unconcerned, she stands en pointe and in position. “Take a break, Alicia!” “No, no. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” A
A dancer’s body is his or her instrument. Tadeusz Matacz says this with the equanimity of the professional, with the experience that comes from being the director of the John Cranko School. He continues, “A dancer must be prepared to spend years in shaping his body to perfection. He has no other choice. He doesn’t have the option of, say, a violinist who purchases a Stradivarius to enhance the sound of her playing.”
No matter what, it takes eight years before you’re ready for the stage. And that means starting early, long before puberty. First, the muscles of the feet must be trained and stabilized. At some point they will be called upon to lift and support the entire body from a tiptoe position. Matacz says, “Classical ballet and pointe work are inseparable.” And then there’s flexibility. “Ballet is one of the most complex and physically stressful types of movement there is. You have to want to do it, completely. Talent alone is not enough.”
It’s growing dark. One last photo. Rafael clicks the shutter one last time. That’s it. Eight hours, and it’s a wrap. The mood couldn’t be better, despite the cold and rain. “You two are fantastic,” says the photographer, and there’s a round of applause. Martí gives everyone a farewell hug. Alicia smiles and adds, “Thank you very much!” Because dancers never complain.
Outstanding training for outstanding achievement
The program for this talent pool includes instruction in practice and theory at the preschool level (up to age 9), basic training (up to age 16), and the academy (up to age 19). There is a residence hall as well, but there is no longer sufficient space to house all students eligible for this option. Logistics can go only so far. The new building (see rendition above) will include eight large rehearsal rooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and a separate area for physical therapy. These optimal conditions for dancers will benefit director Tadeusz Matacz in the competition for top-flight talent. “An up-to-date school is yet another incentive to come to us,” he notes. The building, estimated to cost around 45 million euros, is scheduled for completion in 2018.
By Reiner Schloz
Photos by Rafael Krötz