Ruth Berghaus was born in Dresden on July 2, 1927. She studied dance and choreography with Gret Palucca, a Mary Wigman student and member of the Bauhaus movement, before attending advanced classes at the German Academy of the Arts in Berlin. Like the opera directors Joachim Herz and Götz Friedrich, she was a student of Walter Felsenstein and influenced by Brechtian ideas.
From 1951 to 1964, Berghaus worked as a choreographer and opera and theater director at the Deutsches Theater, the Deutsche Staatsoper and the Berliner Ensemble. In 1954, she married composer Paul Dessau and directed his work, which was closely connected to Brecht’s theater work. In 1964, she gained international recognition for her choreography of the battle scene in the Berliner Ensemble’s production of “Coriolanus,” in which she combined acting and dancing in a radically new way.
Berghaus headed the Berliner Ensemble from 1971 to 1977. She engaged Heiner Müller and in 1973 directed the premiere of his play “Zement” (“Concrete”). She later attempted to implement unique and new ideas for the theater; when Berghaus’s plans met with resistance, she left. In the following years, she worked in major European cities staging works by Mozart, Richard Wagner, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Her production of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Frankfurt am Main in the mid-1980s became a cult event and the performance of the last opera in the series, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, 1987), received a 75-minute standing ovation.
For over three decades, Ruth Berghaus developed body language and movement techniques, which she taught and incorporated into her opera and theater productions. She was known for her magical, suggestive images, the striking use of sets and costuming, and complex patterns of metaphor and symbolism. Her radical, personal approach inspired both controversy and admiration throughout her career. Berghaus—praised by The New York Times as a “modernist choreographer and opera director and a leading theatrical figure in postwar Europe”—died on January 25, 1996.