Martin Schläpfer

Martin Schläpfer

Swiss Grand Award for Dance 2013

Martin Schläpfer was born the son of a farmer in 1959 and grew up in the Appenzell region. At the age of 15, he switched from figure skating to ballet. He was discovered by ballet teacher Marianne Fuchs from St. Gallen during an exhibition performance. Just two years later he was chosen as the best Swiss dancer in the Prix de Lausanne and used the grant he received to spend a year at the Royal Ballet School in London. He was then recruited by Heinz Spoerli for the Basel Ballet. It was the start of a dazzling, ten-year stint for the charismatic soloist. 


In 1990 he set up his own school in Basel and was appointed director of ballet at the Stadttheater Bern in 1994, before George Delnon brought him to Mainz in 1999. Under his directorship, his newly formed ballettmainz joined the top rank of German ballet ensembles. The 2010 “tanz” yearbook described his achievement in what it termed this “provincial backwater of ballet” as a “balletic miracle”, and noted that, since 2009, he has been performing the same feat for a second time in Düsseldorf/Duisburg. 


With almost 48 dancers from 20 nations, the Ballett am Rhein is one of the largest ensembles in Germany. Attendances at performances average 90 percent, and staff turnover in Schläpfer’s company is almost non-existent. His talent lies not just in the great musicality from which he draws his choreographies, but in his ability to inspire his ensemble. With over 70 performances per season on the two stages in Düsseldorf and Duisburg, he has developed a new repertoire policy that has proved a hit with audiences and the media alike. 

In his largely multi-part ballet evenings, he presents 20th-century masterpieces with a particular focus on contemporary dance. His own works are in the tradition of abstract neoclassicism, but he looks beyond them to deliver repeated choreographic surprises. 


He is, by his own admission, “a little bit of a maniac”. In his quest to create “dance art for the 21st century”, sometimes in defiance of prevailing trends, he is driven but at the same time measured, assiduous and very precise. 


He is already credited with reinventing ballet, following in the footsteps of George Balanchine and Hans van Manen. After his very first season, Martin Schläpfer was named “Choreographer of the Year 2010” by the magazine “tanz”, and the Ballett am Rhein has since received the “Company of the Year” accolade on a number of occasions. “Here, ballet matures into a global format”, was the verdict of Nicole Strecker writing in the 2012 “tanz” yearbook. Martin Schläpfer has received numerous awards including, in 2003, the Spoerli Foundation Dance Prize; the Prix Benois de la Danse presented in Moscow in 2006; and, in 2009 and 2012, the German theatre prize Der Faust for his choreographies “Sinfonien” and “Ein Deutsches Requiem”.   


Esther Sutter Straub, chair of the Jury

“With his Ballett am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Martin Schläpfer has reached the pinnacle of international choreographic development. Yet for all that, his feet remain firmly on the ground – a reflection of his sensitivity and awareness of all around him, and of his dedication to his dancers, whose individuality, for Schläpfer, always takes centre stage. As a choreographer, Martin Schläpfer maintains the delicate balance between high artistic aspiration and profound humanity with the same ease that characterised him as a dancer.”