In creating Death and the Maiden, Stephan Thoss chose to look at death in a new light. “Normally, death is bad, the black shadow in the background. We are safe when death is really far from us. When he comes closer, we start to shake. But my idea was to see death as part of life.” Inspired by the Eastern concept of yin and yang, Thoss explored the idea of there being a duality, like black and white, in all aspects of life. “Breathing in gives life, breathing out is like dying. In the day we wake up; in the night we sleep. Sleep is a rehearsal for dying. The seasons are the same: autumn and winter for sleep, springtime and summer for waking up. We need the balance between these two things. When we understand that death is part of life, then we are not so full of fear.”
Sometimes, says Thoss, we are safe with death, safer than without him. “When it’s time for
me to go, death will be there to take me. If I know sleep and night and winter, I know death.”
“I really finished the piece a long time ago,” says Thoss. He explains that in Dresden, where he makes his home, he spent hours and hours listening to the music, sketching little stick figures on sheets of paper—his personal notation system—and mapping out the ballet’s structure. He decided precisely where to place the tables, doors and windows; how many dancers would be onstage at a particular time; and exactly how they would move. When he arrived in Montreal, he was well prepared. Then he stepped into the studio to work with the dancers and began making changes—many changes—to his ballet. A month before the premiere, he still had half the ballet to rework, which meant that he had to choreograph three minutes per day. “It’s a little bit stressful,” he admits, with a rueful smile.
It’s good to be very prepared, says Thoss, yet not have things fixed in stone: to be relaxed and flexible. Because he makes changes in the studio during rehearsals, the dancers feel involved, that they are contributing to the choreography.
One day, Thoss glimpsed a dancer at the back of the studio, improvising and capturing precisely the feeling conveyed by the music. When Thoss incorporated the dancer’s movements into the ballet, the dancer realized that she had inspired him and was pleased. Says Thoss, “This process is very nice. In the end, you have a piece that is created for this company and with this company.”
Shelley Pomerance — Journalist, lecturer and host of the pre-show talks