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The Norwegian choreographer, director, and filmmaker Jo Strømgren has created an idea for the choreography based on the life and work of Gustav Mahler. He called it Memories of Mahler and decided to stage it in the composer’s home – the Czech Republic. The new ballet was produced in the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava and the premiere took place on 2 December 2021. The audience had the opportunity to hear movements from Gustav Mahler’s symphonies and songs, as well as pieces by the viola player and contemporary Norwegian composer Bergmund Waal Skaslien.

It was a brand new experience for the ballet company in Ostrava as the choreographer developed the ballet in association with the dancers, engaged them in the production, scenes, and characters. The show was prepared in Ostrava this winter and spring. “My attitude to each choreography evolves but I also follow my intuition and search for new challenges. It was back in Ostrava when I looked for the stage concept for Mahler’s music. I want to capture the feeling that his music is dreamy, deep, and makes people think. I want to present Mahler as a person, but I am interested in the roots of his music and the time he lived in. When he composed his pieces in Jihlava where he grew up, heard his aunt chatter, heard gypsy songs… I am intrigued by his childhood, what questions he asked, what he had to deal with. The ballet tells a story about people in the street, scenes from ordinary life, and inspiration for Mahler’s compositions,” the Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren explains. Every viewer can see their ancestors, something from their family’s life, and can travel to disintegrating Austria-Hungary in their imagination. The choreography Memories of Mahler works with symbols and imagination. “The first part of the show features an excerpt from the old radio broadcast with a Jewish song from Krakow sung in the dialect. It is a peek into Mahler’s times and the fact he was Jewish. Thus, I used this music instead of describing the facts literally,” says the choreographer about his mind and creative process.

“Mahler’s music is very attractive nowadays. Its contents, intellectual and emotional spirit form the unexpectedly contemporary gate to the postmodern era. This may be the reason why Strømgren chose abstract and associative dance as the basis for his choreography to entice emotions, feelings, memories, and perceptions. The whole is presented as a series of moving shots that resemble the way we remember our memories. The connecting element of the production is a character of a typing man. Somebody who returns somewhere and begins to tell stories from the past. It can be a writer, Mahler, choreographer, or anybody of us because everybody keeps returning somewhere,” says Lenka Dřímalová, the head of the NMS ballet.

“My time is yet to come,” Gustav Mahler used to say. He was a famous conductor and music director of opera houses. He managed the opera in Vienna and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he staged Smetana’s Bartered Bride with Ema Destinnová for the first time in 1909. The time of his music came many years after his death. Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan recorded his symphonies and promoted them all around the world. The choreographer has chosen the most famous movements from Mahler’s symphonies recorded by Berliner Philharmoniker and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The ballet features the famous Adagietto from Symphony No. The composition became famous after it was part of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) and the movement has been used in many other fields and has become Mahler’s most popular piece. Mahler started to compose Songs on the Death of Children in 1901 and was inspired by Friedrich Rückert’s poems. “Mahler is a composer for thoughtful individuals, his music is convenient for our time. It is nostalgic, romantic music deep undertones,” says Jo Strømgren. The choreographer accompanied Mahler’s music with Bergmund Waal Skaslien’s pieces that were recorded by the NMST opera orchestra, some excerpts have been provided by the composer himself.

The NMST ballet stages Memories of Mahler on the 110th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. “We hope it will be considered the homage to Mahler’s music and region where he was born and spent his childhood here,” says Lenka Dřímalová.