Muse: Sabine Kupferberg
The story of Sabine (...A work in progress...)
The year 2006, was the year, in which a very special anniversary
of Sabine Kupferberg had passed silently and unnoticed. Not even
Sabine was aware of it!
It was namely in 1956, when she set her tiny feet onto the
“big stage” of the Municipal theatre in Wiesbaden for the first
time. Her face was painted black and her shoes were pointed,
because she was performing the tiny role of the “Moor”, who
finds the lost handkerchief at the end of Richard Strauss’
“Der Rosenkavalier”. Not only that she made a very good
impression on the people who saw her, but more importantly
her first “theatrical experience” overwhelmed her and profoundly
influenced her entire stage career.
The depth of her experience will be better understood, when we
realize, that the protagonists of that famous production were
none less than Christa Ludwig and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf!
A jump to 2006
After an unparalleled career as a professional dancer for
38 years (7 years Stuttgart Ballett under John Cranko and
31 years Nederlands Dans Theater, largely under the direction
of Jiří Kylián), instead of celebrating her longtime loyalty
to NDT and her unique artistry, her new home, NDT III, an
especially created group for senior dancers of which she was
a founding member, was dismantled for lack of money, lack of
fantasy and because of poor management.
Sabine was told to leave NDT. End of her career? Certainly not!
Sabine is one of these artists who are unable to imagine life
Promptly after this unfortunate and shocking episode she had
participated in the making of a film entitled CAR-MEN
(choreography by Jiří Kylián, direction by Boris Paval Conen).
She appeared in this film as the archetypal character of Carmen
with her ex-colleagues of NDT III and showed that her talent
has many more facets than previously understood, and should be
explored in the future.
Jump back in time
20 April 1951 at 15hrs 20min, Sabine is born in Wiesbaden,
and although Sabine’s father, Christian Adalbert Kupferberg,
was the owner of a famous champagne brand, there were no
champagne corks flying through the air for that occasion.
But instead a shroud of secrecy was preferred to surround
the birth of Sabine – and that – for a good reason: Sabine’s
father and her mother, Anneliese Götze-Heiligenstedt were both
married to other partners (both already with children).
So, there is no doubt that Sabine was born not only as a
“love child” but as an unlawful child too.
In order to prevent a major scandal to unfold, this “love child”
had to be kept away from public eye. It was decided that Sabine
will be kept under the hospices of an orphanage which was lead
by a friend of Sabine’s mother.
This potentially tragic decision had also certain advantages.
It is true that Sabine has hardly tasted her mother’s milk,
and has hardly been justly punished by her father’s hand.
Instead, Sabine had all of a sudden some forty friends of
different ages and different fates, a diverse and interesting
caboodle of children who have called the orphanage “their home"...
Sabine’s parents, who were in the process of separating from
their current partners, came to visit her occasionally.
When they were close to successfully divorce from their partners,
Christian Adalbert decided to take his wife to be, Anneliese,
for a ride in his Cabriolet automobile… And it seems so, that
when real tragedy strikes, it strikes with such ferocious force
that it leaves all involved marked by it for the rest of their
lives. Sabine’s mother fell out the fast moving car and crashed
her head on a milestone... she died instantly. Maybe, this didn’t
leave such a deep scar in Sabine’s consciousness then, as she
was only five years of age at that time. This terrible story
had a totally different effect on Sabine’s father. He has never
really recovered from that unforgiving shock, and most probably,
many of his future actions were subconsciously influenced by it.
Sabine was now officially a ‘half orphan’. How to cope?
A new twist of events: Sabine is adopted by the director of the
orphanage, Barbara von Bassewitz. She was a trained pianist
and was able to understand Sabine’s artistic talent to a certain
extend. Sabine was given music lessons (like all the other
children) and later she was given the opportunity to take dance
lessons. This was a fulfillment of Sabine’s mother’s wish,
who (according to the words of Christian Adalbert) was the
most wonderful waltz dancer (“...to dance with her was an
Sabine got probably hooked on dance form the very start. Soon
she became one of the “most important” dwarfs in a production
of “Snow white”, and it didn’t take her long to convince the
fiercest critics, that she was a force to reckon with, when
she appeared in a peasant “Trampel dance”.
But when she finally appeared as the Moor in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’
(next to already mentioned colleagues Schwarzkopf and Ludwig)
everybody knew that Sabine was unstoppable!
After the early triumphs the question arose: What next?? Well,
the next should always be the “very best”. But the problem is
that the “next best” might not be able to substitute the present
glory. Never mind. The minds of Sabine and Barbara (her foster
mother) were set on the “very best:” The Stuttgart Ballet.
Stuttgart at that time was the Mecca of Dance; it was something
like the marmalade inside a doughnut (provided that you don’t
get a doughnut with a hole in it!)
Sabine and Barbara, with the support of Christian Adalbert,
decided to go for the marmalade. After hearing from the
directress of the school for which Sabine auditioned, Ann Woolliams,
that her school was not a sanatorium, Sabine’s self esteem was
somewhat dented, but the fact that she was accepted to the famous
John Cranko School in Stuttgart was great, fantastic and overwhelming.
After spending some time at the school the all important day came...
It was the day to face the master of that time, John Cranko,
who alone was to decide if you are good enough to become a
member of the famous “Stuttgart Ballett” or not ?!?!
Only a few words about John Cranko. He was a man of extraordinary
talents. He was deeply human, and showed enormous understanding
for all people around him. He was of South-African origin.
Unfortunately he died tragically much too young (1973 at the
age of 46). Too young to meet Nelson Mandela, an event which
would have truly fulfilled his life and reaffirmed his deep belief
that humans should never be judged by the color of their skin,
but by their merits, and that we all are born equal.
Back to Sabine, 1969: When Cranko spoke with Sabine after the
audition, he felt that the better choice for her would be to
become an actress rather than pursuing the ‘via dolorosa’ of
He has recognized clearly that Sabine had the ability to express
more than whatever a classical company might be able to offer her.
He also said that he didn’t think she was equipped enough to dance
the major roles, which would provide her with satisfactory emotional
“But”, he said, “I will take you” and Sabine said: “Yes I will...”
And so started a unique career of the dancer/actor Sabine.
She might not have reached a status of a great star, but her
exceptional talents, her honest appearance and her human
presence on stage has deeply moved many people around the world.
Her endless curiosity and ever-present whish to experiment has
moved many boundaries of dance and theatre.
From the start it was very clear that her ability to express
her emotions and to master mimics, posture and movement quality
according to the character or personality she had to portray,
was unique. This gift was, is, and always will be present in her.
In 1997 it lead to a creation of a film called “Woman with 1000
faces”. Although Sabine’s beginnings with the Stuttgart Ballett
were modest, she never failed to be a ‘center of attraction’,
an instigator of some kind of mischief or just simply someone
who likes to connect to people in many diverse ways. She is a
In the early seventies she became acquainted with Jiří Kylián,
the ambitious “choreographer to be”. They sniffed out one another
for quite some time, but finally, after the untimely death of
John Cranko on the terrible flight from the United States to
Europe in the summer of 1973, they have decided to move together,
and try their luck. In her ‘Stuttgart time’ Sabine has appeared
in many productions. Some more important, some less, some created
with her, some not. Some featuring her in more prominent roles,
some in lesser ones. But time was young, exciting and full of
When the Nederlands Dans Theater was on tour in Stuttgart as a
guest company in the seventies, the directors of NDT had their
eyes on Sabine. They wanted to give her a contract... until it
came to their ears that she shared her life with some strange
individual who thought that he was a choreographer. So they
never made her the offer (the “individual was Jiří Kylián).
When in 1975 the Nederlands Dans Theater made an offer to Kylián
to become its artistic director and when he stated that he wanted
to take his partner Sabine Kupferberg along as a dancer, the answer
was clear and simple: “it’s o.k., we already know her for some time,
and we always wanted to have her in our company...”
Sabine and Jiří move to The Hague, Holland. Luckily they were
young (she was 24 and he 28), as the beginnings in the Netherlands
were anything but ‘rosy’. After the departure of Glen Tetley and
Hans van Manen, the company was “free-wheeling”, living of its
past glory. Uncertainty was in the air, the dancers were confused
The flat where Sabine and Jiří lived for the first 3 years
was a place behind a space in which NDT dumped the sets and
props which were no longer in use. The climate in the Netherlands
was not very inviting (weather and people including). But yet,
there was excitement in the air and the sense of CHAnce, CHAnge
and CHAllenge. One of the bigger challenges was the fact that
Jirí was determined that Sabine would become just another
dancer within NDT with no privileges whatsoever, although they
have not only experienced many creations together but they were
lovers... This formula was bound to create difficulties between
the two of them and on many occasions it certainly did. But, on
the other hand it laid foundation to the new ethics of the company
which would not allow favoritism, nepotism or corruption of any
kind. But however wonderful this concept really was proves the
“star-lit bumper-ride career” of Sabine, which was now ripe and
ready to take off.
To give a true account of all the twists and turns, which Sabine’s
path took while with NDT, is not easy. But one thing is sure:
it was never boring, and certainly extremely colorful...
Emotional and passionate as Sabine is, she threw herself headlong
into this pool filled with all kinds of fish – carps and trouts,
several piranhas and barracudas – groupers and eels were sighted
here and there a red snapper turned up. Only Sabine did not yet
know, what kind of fish she was...
But soon, Sabine’s curiosity, and feeling for adventure have slowly
begun to give her profile more definite features. Through many
personal and professional experiences, sublime and disastrous,
she started developing a profile of highly personal characteristics.
Her life between the age of 24 and 55 was totally dedicated to the
idea which NDT had represented under the direction of Jiří Kylián.
That meant opening the company artistically and commercially to
the entire world – in practical terms it meant: inviting the very best
choreographers to share their knowledge, philosophy and artistry
with NDT, and then share these works with people around the world.
This formula, which was unusual at that time, had supplied the
dancers of NDT and its public with highly original repertoire.
This philosophy has enabled the company to present these works
just about anywhere in the world, including an Israeli Kibbutz
or the Paris Opera.
Sabine was confronted with very many contradicting ideas and
beliefs. She was like a sponge soaking up the dishwater as
well as the crystal clear water from a mountain stream. She
drank everything, and with a little help of her kidney, she
tried to filter out all the unnecessary. Her confidence and her
integrity grew, as many years of very diverse experiences have
followed. Until - one day – the inevitable feeling had come,
the feeling, that it is enough , and that you have no more space
in the place where you grew up. This was the case with Sabine
in 1990. She decided, that the time was up, and that she had to
move on in her life. She was 39 years young !
Sabine’s decision was not negative – quite the contrary, she was
happy to have participated and to have contributed to something
as unique and extraordinary as the developments in NDT in the
1970s and 1980s but at the same time she was ready to part with
it and to set sail to new shores. Only - the “New shores” were
much closer then Sabine could ever anticipate. One year later
Jiří Kylián has decided to create a new ensemble within NDT,
called NDT III – a unique company, reserved only for dancers
between “40 years of age and death!” When this idea was born,
it created somewhat of a sensation in the dance community and
although it was created for “senior dancers”, it had something
fresh and youthful in its character. Many of the leading
choreographers have expressed their generous support of this
Amongst the list of choreographers, who have created original
works for these dancers appear names of some true “heavyweights”
of the international dance scene: Hans van Manen, Mats Ek,
William Forsythe Christopher Bruce , Ohad Naharin, Paul Lightfoot,
Maurice Béjart, Nacho Duato, Martha Clarke, Maguy Marin,
Carolyn Carlson, Meryl Tankard, Michael Schumacher, Robert Wilson
and many others...
They have understood, that these dancers have other things to
say than their younger colleagues. They were given the opportunity
to make use of their personalities shaped by time, experience
and by life itself. The choreographers gave these dancers the
possibility to stand on the stage again with the dignity of their age.
It is surely true to say, that Sabine found her real artistichome
here, because in this newly created repertoire, she was able to
make use of her ability to express her inner world in a very unique
and personal way.
So finally the prophetic words of John Cranko came to fruition.
Sabine became a dancer-actor. In its 16 years of existence NDT III
have performed in 28 countries. Many choreographers, composers
and designers have created a repertoire counting 53 works to date.
The company has received several prestigious international awards.
Although since the summer of 2006 this much loved ensemble is no
longer in existence, Sabine’s creativity will certainly continue
for many years to come.
List of countries in which Sabine has performed:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada,
Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, England, Finland, France,
Greece, Hungary, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Iran, Israel,
Italy, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Nederland,
Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, South Korea,
Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey,
United States of America .