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A Dignified Dance

The Scotsman’s Dance Critic Kelly Apter talks to Martin Schläpfer about his epic choreographic response to Mahler’s enigmatic 7th Symphony.

The word ‘abstract’ can attract negative connotations in the dance world. Yet often, it’s the most powerful way to convey a message. For Swiss-born choreographer Martin Schläpfer, the creation of his powerful full-length work, Seven, wouldn’t have worked any other way. 

A series of segments, some playful, others aggressive or poignant, Seven is an atmospheric work inspired by World War Two. But, as Schläpfer explains, with a subject matter that emotive, depicting it literally can lead to problems.

‘There are little stories throughout,’ he explains, ‘but in order not to become pretentious, you have to stay abstract. It’s a theme which, in theatre, we cannot go near the reality. That’s very important, out of dignity for what happened.’

As viewers, Schläpfer allows us to find our own narrative for each scene, be it a loving couple saying goodbye or a large ensemble moving in sharp unison. Often, the mood is dictated by the score – Mahler’s multi-layered Symphony No. 7. Sometimes, however, what the dancers wear on their feet also impacts on our reading of the piece, with footwear regularly changing from pointe shoes, to bare feet, to heavy boots.

‘I always think of what shoes to wear,’ says Schläpfer. ‘In Seven, it has to do with the different situations and colours in the music. For example, I find the third movement very dark, very odd, so of course you have to think of shoes.

‘I like the pointe shoe because it not only takes you up in a vertical manner, it’s also a very positive instrument for the woman, it makes them strong.’

Although he had his own specific narrative in mind when creating the work, Schläpfer recognised that there is a universality to much of what he portrays. In particular, the highly theatrical climax, reminiscent of a children’s game of musical chairs where those not quick enough are left out. Something that will strike a chord in all of us.

‘I use a Jewish motif, especially in the first movement in terms of people being excluded,’ Schläpfer explains. ‘And in the scene I call ‘America’, where there is a theme of saying goodbye, and an abstract Nazi figure luring somebody away. Also at the end with the ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ – but these things don’t just go back to the Second World War, that’s something that’s here today and it’s probably an issue of every human being.’

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