Remembering Silvia Kesselheim

Born 1942 in Hamburg, she trained as a dancer at the city’s school of opera and ballet then at the Royal Ballet School in London. Her first engagement took her back to her hometown, for the 1960/61 season at the Hamburg State Opera Ballet after which she spent five years in Stuttgart under John Cranko, creator of the ‘Stuttgart ballet phenomenon’, who rated her as a ballerina with excellent technique. Where they disagreed, however, was on her suitability for the role of the White Swan in Swan Lake and she switched to the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, (1965-71), where she soon made an impression. Klaus Geitel made a portrait of this ambitions dancer in his 1967 round-up and chronicle of the ballet year: “Silvia Kesselheim is a ballet-Campari, more bitter than sweet. A stiff drink. Sparkling rigour, pin-prick accuracy. A cultivar: working hard not to be liked. Admiration eyed suspiciously. A dangerous opponent for women of a more delicate nature. This Kesselheim will dance them off their pedestals [...] No nicety, no time for fake smiles. Silvia Kesselheim bites off a chunk of vamp and makes good use of it. A little irony, a little parody. Lean rage is her motor. It runs smoothly.” Described like this she seems ready-made for the Tanztheater Wuppertal’s work and indeed a few years later she found her way to Pina Bausch. First however she danced in Düsseldorf and in Darmstadt (1972-75, then by invitation), as part of Gerhard Bohner’s experimental project, where she shone in countless roles she helped create, in productions such as Die Folterungen der Beatrice Cenci (‘the torture of Beatrice Cenci’) and Lilith. Marion Cito, who she had remained friends with since their time together at the Deutsche Oper, suggested she come to Wuppertal and introduce herself. Pina Bausch was looking for distinctive, expressive individuals. Right from the start, Silvia Kesselheim was one of the most notable protagonists of Bausch’s dance theatre. Her performances in Kontakthof (1978) and Arien (1979) were instantly memorable. With her died red hair and a red painted pucker, she resembled a character from George Grosz. This seasoned ballerina was not cute, certainly not harmless. Her presence was a confrontation; her voice could take on a sharp, biting tone, when reciting children’s verse for instance. At the same time she could purr and coo, not without irony. Kesselheim had many sides to her, but remained herself at all times. In the 1980s she helped create Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei gehört (On the mountain a cry was heard) and Viktor, and Pina Bausch repeatedly cast her in revivals. Her version of the role Anna I in the Brecht/Weill double bill Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) was a triumph; Silvia Kesselheim could sing as well as act. In New York she was feted as the new Lotte Lenya. Pina Bausch also saw her star potential. But this choosy dancer didn’t wish to stay with the Tanztheater Wuppertal. As with Cranko, it seemed she never wanted to be where she currently was. As if she were always searching for new goals. Silvia Kesselheim died just a few months before Pina Bausch, on 28 April 2009 in Hamburg, but the dance world did not hear initially learn about it. She will be remembered as a dancer and actor of stature: rigorous and demanding – not least towards herself.

Translated by Steph Morris


Tanztheater Wuppertal - Pina Bausch