Ballet lesson

When a question mark meets an exclamation mark

Good ballet appears lightweight, as if almost floating, but it is in fact a rigorous high-performance sport. A trial training session with the Munich ballet star, Dustin Klein.

I meet Dustin in front of the rehearsal building on the Platzl (“Small Square”). Dustin Klein, 32 years old, one of the stars of the Bayerisches Staatsballett (“Bavarian State Ballet”). He is to show me what ballet is all about. This is a completely dumb idea, of course. Although I have been dancing for quite some time, until now however I have only ever done it in nightclubs, where I can remain invisible in the crowds and darkness. I enjoy bopping to a rhythm but know very well that this type of hip-shaking has got absolutely nothing to do with classical dance. Classical dance has always interested me and now I want to find out how these lightweight flying movements actually feel. I suspect this is going to be hard-going.

So to Dustin. Standing in front of me in a roomy parka and red cap, he looks like your average typical hip resident of a big city. However there is one difference: His movements are exquisitely meticulous, coupled in turn with very sincere, almost old-fashioned politeness – he has a firm, warm handshake, looks you straight in the eyes, and has a friendly smile – that I am almost slightly irritated. My experience of many young men is that they stomp through the world, legs astride, and tend to avoid eye contact. But that is not the case with Dustin who is discreet softness personified.

A puff of wind could blow me over, if the barre which I cling on to for dear life, was not there.

We go up to the rehearsal room. With its troupes in Berlin, Stuttgart and Hamburg, the Bayerisches Staatsballett is one of the biggest and best known ballet companies in Germany. Here the dancing is at top international level. Even the ballet studios are classy. They are situated on the Platzl, the Munich tourist hotspot with the Hofbräuhaus (beer hall) and the Alfons-Schuhbeck-Imperium (Alfons-Schuhbeck building). When you walk through the door of the Gründerzeit house (house built in the years of rapid industrial expansion in Germany), it is like entering another world. Young, very beautiful people glide silently up staircases, behind closed doors a piano tinkles or an entire orchestra belts out a waltz. Behind a white wing door, there is a rehearsal room: it is as big as two flats, has a stuccoed ceiling, huge windows that go down to the floor and the walls are all mirrored. “Casual training clothing” was stipulated, and so Dustin and I stand opposite each other in our tanktops, Dustin is wearing joggy bottoms with the word “Staatsballett” (“State Ballet”) stitched into the side seams.

The training begins with the roller. This is the notorious hard foam roller which nowadays is a permanent feature in any yoga or fitness studio. It is used to brutally mill hardened muscles and tendons until they are soft. Dustin lies on his back on the torture device, practically flowing over it, his shoulders touching the floor. I copy him but it feels like a warped wooden plank is being rolled over a tree trunk. At this point it has to be said that the only sport that I myself do is a type of gymnastics which I force myself to do four days a week on my yoga mat at home. To a certain extent I am quite proud of my push-up performance. To me ballet seems to be related to this form of exercise but as soon as I try the jerking rolling, my courage abandons me.

In the meantime, Dustin has warmed up. Here the room, heated to 22 degrees, helped, the warmer, the better. We begin with the basic positions at the barre.

First position: the feet are placed at an obtuse angle to each other. I can manage this. While I concentrate on my feet, Dustin very discreetly corrects my upper body. He pulls my shoulders back, and lifts my chin up. He says that I should imagine that there is a hoist in my torso. At the front of my body, at my stomach, the hoist moves upwards, at the back of my body, on my back, it moves downwards. I follow the instructions and it feels like my body is turning into a type of corset. Everything feels rigid and firm. I am coping but it is incredibly gruelling.

And this is just the beginning! Dustin asks me to go into second position. In this position, the feet are positioned in a straight line with the heels directly opposite each other. I turn my toes outwards. “Stop, don’t move from your knees, if you do, you will do them an injury,” says Dustin, “The opening must come from the hip.” I only manage this with a great deal of effort and my hip will still be hurting in the evening. “Now think of your upper body again,” Dustin reminds me. I lift my chin up and remember the hoist in my stomach. I stand there like a completely immobile, contorted mannequin. A puff of wind could blow me over, if the barre which I cling on to for dear life, was not there.

This is the image most associated with ballet rehearsals: girls, and more rarely boys, practising at the barre, always repeating the same exercises. Actually, this robotic form of learning does not look like much fun. Dustin started to dance when he was seven. He has a very ready answer to the question which is so self-evident to me – why, particularly as a boy, you would choose this sport and not football, for example, and what’s more in Landsberg where he grew up. “As a child I was almost hyperactive. Dancing focused my physical energy.” And he did not feel like an outsider among girls. Dancing was quite simply his thing and no further explanation was required.

He took his first steps in his mother's dance school. Then he went to London to the Royal Ballet School and took the decision to become a professional. Of course it is all a super-tough world: the competitive pressure, the few good roles coveted by all. One of Dustin’s finest hours was when (at this time he was already dancing with the State Ballet in Munich), he was selected by the legendary Jiří Kylián for one of the few roles in the modern classic “Gods and Dogs”. “I definitely wanted to be a part of it but so did everyone!” Today, too, he still has an internal casting to undergo. “I no longer get so worked up. That is the good thing about age: You gain experience and self-confidence. The young people who are just joining the company have this unbridled energy.” He himself knows that he – from a purely physical perspective – has already passed his peak. What Dustin does is a high-performance sport. Why should ballet be any different from football or racing cycling?

But with the best will in the world, I can’t see any deterioration in his physique. What we were doing up until that point – the basic positions, then the corresponding pliés, bending our knees, the tendu, the stretching, tossing our legs (jetés) (in Dustin's case way over his head, whereas I only managed about as far as my hip) – all of this totally exhausted me. The constant body tension makes me sweat. For Dustin these weren’t exercises, it is just the way he moves in the room. Shortly afterwards, he will show me what his actual repertoire consists of.

Dustin specialises in contemporary dance – his movements are sweeping, cover the entire room and are always very focused. For the layman his dancing and his own choreographies, which are causing quite a stir at the State Ballet, seem like precise coincidence, arcs of tension which run the risk of derailing, but then recapture themselves at the crucial moment. The modernity of Dustin’s approach also seems to shimmer through in his classic roles. If, for example, you see him in the role of Count N. in the “Lady of the Camelias”, it seems as if there is a force working in Dustin which is cast in exact movements but always wants to go beyond this. It is clear that this form of body control is completely beyond my capabilities.

Dustin specialises in contemporary dance – his movements are sweeping, cover the entire room and are always very focused.

That I still feel to a certain extent at ease at Dustin’s side with my modest attempts at the exercises, is due to a simple trick: the mirror. The mirror is of course there to help you make your movements more precise. You see yourself mostly upright and with a front view – that is just what mirrors do. From this position, which to a certain extent is two-dimensional, I seem to make a really good impression. It’s the mannequin effect again: Chest out, chin up, arms stretched high, all of it seems accurate to a certain extent.

But then I look around me and view Dustin from the side. His posture is completely straight. His throat is an exact extension of his spine, whereas mine tends to pitch forward somehow at an angle. Viewed from the side, beside Dustin I seem like a tortoise beside a superhuman, like a question mark beside an exclamation mark. When I raise this with him, he replies: “I have been doing ballet since I have been seven years old. This of course shapes your body.” So it is wonderful when directly after this class, we get back into our shapeless winter coats which gently conceal any imperfections.



Text: Paul-Philipp Hanske; Photos: Frank Stolle

Interesting, too: Dustin Klein not only has an exciting career as a ballet dancer, his workplace is also breathtaking: Das Nationaltheater.


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