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This is Dec. 17th in my dance inspirations advent calendar. Opened already: December 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th 15th 16th

One of the advantages of dance being a silent art is that what two people sense or read in each other, and the ethereal conversation that happens between dancer and dancer, dancer and musician, teacher & pianist is so much more interesting, poignant, fleeting, deep and moving than anything one might say with words. As a musician in class, you often end up reading people and ‘talking’ to them and they with you, with music. You might never actually talk to them, but at some level you’ve had a musical encounter more direct and meaningful than a thousand conversations.

Maybe I read it all wrong, but when I first met Klaus, who was ballet master at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (now subsumed under the Staatsballett-Berlin), I got the feeling that maybe he got a bit tired and overwhelmed by the predominantly English culture that had taken over there. Rehearsals were conducted entirely in English, there were only a handful of Germans in the company, and with a couple of exceptions, most of the foreigners couldn’t be bothered to learn German. As an example of how bizarre that situation was, one pianist there had spent time and money in her native Azerbaijan learning German in preparation for the move to Berlin, only to be berated by one of the anglophone staff because she ‘only’ spoke German (rather than English).

I decided I was going to surprise Klaus, make him laugh, and maybe even cry, by redressing that imbalance through music. I was already pretty well versed in some chansons through having worked with the wonderful Gertrude Thoma in a cabaret group called Brecht to Brel (Nicholas Mead was the Brel side), but this time I went all out to find anything and everything that was wonderful about German popular song: the Comedian Harmonists, Max Raabe, Zarah Leander, Marlene Dietrich, Paul Lincke, Blandine Ebinger, Friedrich Hollaender, Hans Albers and many more. As the musical conversation began with Klaus (and oh, what fun it was), so he would add in more names & songs, until the humour and the references and allusions became so esoteric, I think probably only we understood some of them.

And through that, I discovered that Klaus was one of the wittiest and warmest people you could hope to meet. In one of my last classes there, I managed to get a German song in for every single exercise at the barre, a different one for each side, except for grands battements en cloche, for which I could only muster something Viennese. As we were having the customary cigarette in the corridor in between barre and centre, he came out with one of his funniest one-liners, spoken, as always in his seamless collage of RP and cod-Berlinisch). The precise syntax escapes me now, but it went something like: “Incredible. You managed to play a whole barre with German songs. Ah no, am Ende hast’de was österreichisches dazu…….angeschlossen, sozusagen.” He covered his face with ‘oh-God-what-have-I-said’ shame and then peeped out with a wicked smile from under his hands. I guess the nearest translation would be “It was all a German barre, except for that little Austrian thing you er…. annexed at the end”. Classic contemporary German humour, which is just too subtle and complex to travel.

Through our musical conversations, I discovered Klaus the artist, the man, the dancer. I was amazed to discover from him that he had been a principal in MacMillan’s Concerto when it was first created, with a pretty significant duo with the principal girl in the beginning of the third movement. As I remember the story, he unfortunately did something terrible to his foot the night before the premiere, and so that duo didn’t happen – and was never put back in (which is why the poor girl has to do so much on her own at that point).

A fascinating and wonderful man. Apart from being thankful to Klaus for helping me to build a large German repertoire, I owe much of my sanity in my Berlin period to his warmth and humour.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist