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Requiem – Dancing to Choral Music

Updated: Apr 12

Isabelle Métrope, Managing Editor of the International Choral Magazine

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan Dancers: Friedemann Vogel, Clemens Fröhlich, Anna Osadcenko, Martí Fernández Paixà, Christopher Kunzelmann, Jason Reilly © Roman Novitzky / Stuttgarter Ballett

It is 19:40 on a cold November night in Stuttgart, Germany. The opera house is sold out, 1400 people experience a ballet that shaped the local ballet school: Initials R. B. M. E. by its founder John Cranko, who died 50 years ago. The music is equally closely linked to Stuttgart: of all places, Brahms’s second piano concerto received its first German performance (after its premiere in Budapest) in what’s now the state capital of Baden-Württemberg, on 22 November 1881. While in the hall all eyes are already directed to the stage, at the artists’ entrance the singers of figure humaine kammerchor, the youngest of Stuttgart’s professional chamber choirs, are trundling in. Hang on – a choir? For a ballet?


In July and October 2023 in Stuttgart, a production called Remember me was put on. This was part of a series of events honouring John Cranko (1927-1973), dancer, world-famous choreographer and founder of the outstanding ballet school of Stuttgart which today bears his name. Alongside Cranko’s Ballet Initials R. B. M. E., Requiem was danced, a ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, created by him in memory of his friend John Cranko. Among the unusual features of Requiem is a musical one: whereas ballet music is usually purely orchestral, this ballet is danced to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem op 48 – a ballet with choral music. So what? Does the human voice as an unusual instrument present a new challenge? Which other dimensions does it carry with it? We asked Tamas Detrich, general artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, as well as Mikhail Agrest, musical director of the Stuttgart Ballet, Martì Paixà, first soloist at the Stuttgart Ballet and, last but not least, Franziska Klein and Simon Meder, members of the figure humaine kammerchor, for their impressions following on this experience.



Stravinsky stated that all music written up to the middle of the 19th century was dance music.

Music and dance have always been linked, but in the last few centuries, the role of music in ballet has been in continuous development. We asked Mikhail Agrest, musical director of the Stuttgart Ballet, for a little review.


“In the early days of ballet, music was only a modest servant, employed in a totally utilitarian manner. Marius Petipa said, ‘I only need 16 bars of this rhythm and then 8 bars of that one’. It was only a backdrop, in order to show up the virtuosity of a particular dancer. Things were similar in the opera of those days: Mozart composed several different arias for Don Ottavio in Vienna, in order to emphasise the strong points of a certain tenor. Thus, the musical integrity of the evening as a whole did not stand in the foreground of interest. Thanks to the splendid scores of Tchaikovsky, in the 19th century ballet music became more ‘symphonic’ and a fully fledged artistic partner. By the beginning of the 20th century, ballet led the musical scene when, thanks to the great visionary Diaghilev, several of the major works were commissioned: Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrushka, Sacre du Printemps, great works by Prokofiev, Ravel’s Daphne et Chloé. The great choreographers like Balanchine, Cranko, Neumeier and not least MacMillan used musical masterpieces as the basis of their marvellous ballets.”


When Diaghilev commissioned a work, ballet music was the result – dance was taken into account within the process of composing. When, however, the musical piece is there first, the challenges are of a different kind. For Denis Rouger, artistic director of figure humaine kammerchor, “All musical masterpieces possess the power to evoke emotions and can be nearly absolutely certain to carry along the audience with it, which, of course, is of interest to the choreographer. For many of these pieces, just listening to them demands a high degree of concentration. This, however, will be lost in part if – because of the choreography – the audience member has to concentrate too hard on seeing. Only the geniuses among choreographers are capable of treating concentration and music with consideration and – with their ballets – of expanding the artistic meaning of the work. However, this ‘exercise’ can also turn out to be dangerous; some pieces do survive this weakened state, while others never recover from it … “


Sacred music is rarely connected to ballet. In 1976, three years after the death of his friend John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Requiem to Fauré’s music is premiered. MacMillan left his mark on the history of ballet with ballets ranging from the dramatic to those telling tragic stories, often engaging with controversial subjects and inner conflicts. Requiem is one of the favourite works of Stuttgart Ballet’s director Tamas Detrich: “On the one hand it is abstract, but it still does tell a story of loss and hope. When Requiem was created at Stuttgart Ballet in 1976, I myself was a young student. Therefore, the work is also of personal meaning for me. It pays tribute to our founding father John Cranko, and singing plays a very big role in this piece.”

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan Dancers: Anna Osadcenko, Daiana Ruiz, Clemens Fröhlich, Mackenzie Brown, Christopher Kunzelmann, Alicia Torronteras © Roman Novitzky / Stuttgarter Ballett

The link between singer and dancer, breathing and flexibility

Dancers are far from used to ballet with singing. For Tamas Detrich “Singing adds a totally new component, one which in everyday work appears only rarely in this form. For the dancers it represents a different way of working and also a major challenge: a choir or a soloist ensure that every performance will have its very own individual character.” Even experienced dancers like Martì Fernández Paixà, first soloist in the Stuttgart Ballet company, can count on one hand the performances where he was allowed to dance to vocal music – usually just soloists. Paixà reports: “In my first season as an Eleve[1] the Lied von der Erde by Kenneth MacMillan was on the programme (which had been premiered in Stuttgart under the direction of John Cranko after the Royal Ballet in London had rejected a ballet to this music!). There, two female singers stand on the stage with the dancers. Also, in 2017, I danced in Tod in Venedig by Demis Volpi – that was a joint production with Stuttgart State Opera.” In both cases the singers stood on the stage and joined in some of the dancing. It is totally different when the choir is standing with the orchestra in the pit and when the task of shaping things together, breathing together, can be brought together solely through listening, feeling and the charisma and work of the conductor.

If you choreograph a score by Mahler or Brahms, you really have to follow the music because of its clear phrasing, its structure and its dynamics, in order to prevent dissonance between the visual and the acoustic images Mikhail Agrest

Martí Fernández Paixà enjoyed the additional dimension with all its challenges: “The human voice brings a different feeling with it, and a totally different type of inspiration to the stage. You also have to be a bit more flexible, as things may change every day, be it the speed or just the ‘feel’. With the soloists you could clearly hear that, during the run of the production, there were different castings – that was exciting, because of course everybody breathes in a slightly different way, placing different accents.”


Singers, dancers, instrumentalists – they all have to breathe, but they all do so in their own ways. While the dancers felt linked to the breathing of the choir, conductor Mikhail Agrest, who had to unite both ensembles as well as the orchestra into a shared flow, experienced matters in a totally different way: “Dancers and singers breathe in very different ways. It is very important to find a way in which to allow the music to flow and to breathe in a way that is organic for all involved, so that the result is perceived as natural by the audience.” However, participants as well as the audience very soon appreciated that dancers and singers strongly inspired each other. As Agrest says: “You saw it in the movements, heard it in the voices and saw it in the eyes.”


Singing in the orchestral pit

The choir initially learnt the work as usual in the rehearsal room. But as soon as rehearsals began with the troupe, much flexibility was required – suddenly the aesthetics of dance, movement and power were added to the sound. “This demanded, of the choir, a second step of special preparations,” says Denis Rouger, artistic director of the figure humaine kammerchor. Franziska Klein, a soprano in the choir, reports how she felt: “Again and again, we had to adapt our speeds to the dancers. Sometimes to such a degree, that the character of individual pieces totally changed. But it was fascinating because the music – at least superficially – had to allow the dance to dominate, but it was this very symbiosis that created something quite new, something that together worked marvellously well.”


It’s everyday routine for orchestral musicians, the exception for singers: while some of the soloists of the Fauré Requiem had already stood on the stage of Stuttgart State Opera in earlier productions, they, as well as the members of figure humaine kammerchor, had never before stood in the pit. “Of course, for a start it was simply exciting to sing in the pit with its special acoustics, a mixture of dry but nevertheless carrying,” says Franziska Klein. Also, the pit is constructed in a way that, on the one hand, the eyes of the audience are directed to the stage and the conductor can see both the instrumentalists (and, if relevant, the choir) as well as the action on the stage. However, it hardly ever happens that the people in the pit see the stage. For the instrumentalists it’s totally normal, as they always play and look in the direction of the auditorium. For the choir it was very unusual, particularly as – because of the limited depth of the pit – they were standing beside the orchestra rather than behind it. Thus there were two unfamiliar impressions: singing sideways in relation to the orientation of the auditorium, and not seeing the main action. “Of course it was a bit of a pity not to see ‘what it was all about’,” was the impression of Simon Meder, member of the choir. “However, there was the possibility of watching from the edge of the stage during the first half, when the choir did not yet have to sing, or attending a performance as a member of the audience on a night when one wasn’t on duty in the choir.”


None of the singers of figure humaine kammerchor had ever sung to a ballet before, and they value this experience highly. Breathing and shaping a musical phrase suddenly become optically perceivable, and the link to the human body – for dancers as for singers their actual instrument – becomes visible.


More of it!

All those involved agree – and so do many of the roughly ten thousand members of the audience who experienced Requiem: they want more of the same. More synergies, more inspiration through works bringing together different genres of art. More sparkling singers’ eyes when singing along with the dancers, more voice to which it is possible to dance in a deep and heartfelt manner. More Gesamtkunstwerke in which the sound of the orchestra, the human voice and dance meld together – that’s something conductor Mikhail Agrest would also like see: “I hope that more choreographers will have the courage to tackle great musical works for, together with an inspired choreography, this is an invaluable combination in order to create the most moving and artistically most enriching theatrical product that we as artists can offer our audience in such difficult times.”


Stuttgart Ballet has been world class for sixty years. With more than 70 dancers from more than 23 nations and invitations for guest performances from all over the world, the troupe is very much part of the international ballet scene. Its comprehensive repertoire delights lovers of classical ballet as much as it does enthusiasts for contemporary dance. A new era began in 1961 with the appointment of the choreographer John Cranko as director of ballet. When in 1969 Stuttgart Ballet made its first visit to the USA under the direction of John Cranko, American critics coined the phrase of the “Stuttgart Ballet Miracle,” making the troupe famous internationally. All Cranko’s successors followed his direction of travel and placed new creative impulses, keeping Stuttgart Ballet at the top of the ballet world. For the season 2018/19 the board of the Stuttgart State Theatres unanimously appointed the former first soloist Tamas Detrich as general artistic director of the ballet. He remained faithful to the line taken by his predecessors and cultivated in particular the tradition of new creations and the extension of the varied repertoire. To this day, Stuttgart Ballet with its visits to places all over the world is looked upon as a sought-after cultural ambassador. Through many years of hard work in communications and outstanding dancers as well as new productions, the troupe has awakened an enthusiasm for dance in the city of Stuttgart and the region which knows no equal. https ://


The figure humaine kammerchor is a young professional chamber choir dedicated to cultivating and supporting German–French song and choral repertoire of the 19th through the 21st century. Founded in 2016, the ensemble offers vocal music at the highest standard under the directorship of Denis Rouger, enchanting its audiences through a special choral sound, warm and homogeneous. Meanwhile the choir has become a fixture in Stuttgart concert life and is a regular guest at well-known concert series and festivals at home and abroad, including the Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele, the European Church Music Festival Schwäbisch Hall and the festival Les Rencontres musicales in Vézelay (France). The ensemble enjoys a close link with the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra as well as with the contemporary composers Philippe Mazé and Axel Ruoff. In addition, in 2023 figure humaine was engaged by the Stuttgart State Ballet. In co-operation with the music publisher Carus-Verlag there have already been two portrait CDs in 2018 and 2021, highly praised by the international press: Kennst Du das Land and … wo die Zitronen blühn. The third CD is due in the spring of 2024.

figure humaine Kammerchor © NB-Fotografie

Kammertänzer TAMAS DETRICH has been the general artistic director of the ballet since 2018, MIKHAIL AGREST director of music since 2020, MARTÍ FERNÁNDEZ PAIXÁ has been a member of Stuttgart Ballet since 2014 and first soloist since 2021. FRANZISKA KLEIN is doing works experience with Bavarian Radio and is also a journalist and freelance singer, among others in figure humaine kammerchor, in which SIMON MEDER, freelance choir conductor and organist as well as a student of singing at the Music University Karlsruhe, also sings.


ISABELLE MÉTROPE is a singer, choir conductor and managing editor of the International Choral Magazine. At university she studied applied modern languages, music management as well as musicology, choral conducting and vocal pedagogy. She sings as a soloist and in several professional choirs. /

Translated from German by Irene Auerbach

[1] Students at ballet school are referred to as Eleves during their practice training.

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