Bulletin from Berlin I

by George Jackson
copyright ©2006, George Jackson

The Place
Great cities change incessantly. Grasping them whole challenges artists and thinkers. Berlin is often said to be the most difficult metropolis because it totally frustrates its observers. This city has centers but no core. Much of it resembles a construction site. Even where work has been terminated, there is a sense of incompletion. One has the feeling that rebuilding could resume instantly.

Architecturally, the disparity between individual structures and street or neighbrhood style amazes. Take the Potsdamer Platz, bombed in World War 2 and a barren thereafter, bisected by The Wall, that great divide between East and West, Communism and Capitalism, Control and Freedom. Since the triumph of the West and Reunification, Potsdamer Platz has become a hub of development. Avenues lined by new commercial and governmental edifices radiate from the square. I first saw it at twilight when the buildings were already lit, from within or from the outside and often ingeniously. These shining shapes stood silhouetted against a sky that was still luminous, each strucuture exemplifying a different architectural idea. Not all of the ideas were bad ones, yet the area as a whole seemed inhuman: there was no give and take, no formal or material relationship between one building and the next. With few people around at that hour, my impression of this place's alienation intensified. Every structure seemed to be a robot waiting to switch on as soon as darkness fell.

Even in full daylight Berlin's new houses don't cohere, except for the graffiti that coat their lower portions. These wall writings and picturings are in diverse languages and bright colors. They are done with care and feeling. If they last, they'll be future evidence that humans lived here after all at the start of the 21st Century. Architectural appearances aside, the city accomodates Germans, resident Turks and visitors with seeming ease. The transportation network — underground trains, speed trains, streetcars, busses — facilitates criss-crossing the expanse of Berlin and its suburbs. The museums are many and their holdings spectacular — from the miles of paintings and imposing archeolgical finds to Marlene Dietrich memorabilia, from tiny medallions with the profile of Moses Mendelssohn to the inimitable Nefertiti bust.

The Theaters
Berlin's theaters are enviable for what the stages of the bigger ones can do. Even the 1741 opera house (now known as the Staatsoper Unter den Linden) that Frederick the Great commissioned from the architect Knobelsdorff, has an updated orchestra pit, stage and backstage while retaining much of its neoclassic contours outside and in the public areas inside. The splashiest effects were at the Friedrichstadtpalast, said to be Europe's largest revue house. The "Casanova" having a long run there is raunchy to the point of being crass. Its acrobats, trapeze artists, underwater ballet, chorus line, ballet troupe and singers burst onto the scalloped stage that serves the diversest demands of the performers plus those of mobile scenery and 3D projections; Kim Duddy's choreography is obvious but pleases the crowd, and dance director Roland Gawlik's forces are good looking. At the other end of the scale are under-the-attic, bare bones spaces for dance such as Tanzfabrik and Haus am Ufer 3. At the former on April 16, Susanne Martin, who has a knack for mime, did the male lead in her "Julio" . At the latter on April 18, Christina Ciupke and Nik Haffner did or did not do minimal movements to instructions given by them and their English translator, the beautifully enunciating Priscilla Be. Ciupke, flexible and slim, looks and moves like a dancer and I wish she had done more. Haffner, formerly with William Forsythe at Ballett Frankfurt, seems out of shape. I failed to discern either in German or English the "powerful interaction" that the pair intended to establish between spoken language and the body in this piece they titled "Subtitles".

Bejart's Wagner
"Ring Around the Ring" is Maurice Bejart's choreographic commentary on the four operas of Richard Wagner's cyclical "Der Ring des Niebelungen". The ballet takes 4 hours, 20 minutes to perform, not counting the single intermission halfway through, after "Die Walkuere". Bejart deploys dance (ballet, as well as his Mudra modern movement with its distinctively inhaling/exhaling torso, and also stylized actions such as parading, fighting, gesturing), music with its live or taped renditions, narration that is similarly live or taped, plus scenic effects. He does it in a shrewdly structured way. It seems that Wagner, before the first stagings of his "Ring", used to give lecture demonstrations of the work, sometimes by himself sitting at the piano and chanting the text or with the help of a singer or two and perhaps a couple of other instrumentalists. The ballet has the immediacy and intimacy of a lecture-demo, yet gives glimpses of the grandure that full stagings of the operas generate. Often the action starts at basics — such as a ballet class exercise done by dancers in unadorned tights and leotards on a sparse stage while a simple rendition of a melody is played on the piano. As events of the Niebelungen saga unfold, the dancing develops. The original single steps are elaborated, contrasted or fused with the other modes of movement, and the piano becomes a bravura instrument or cedes to a fully sung and orchestrated recording. Bits of costuming are applied to the dancers' practice wear as needed. Intensified means are employed at climaxes and use is made of the full armamanetarium at Bejart's disposal only rarely.

The ballet's musical portion is most commendable. It is all Wagner, with no African drumming such as Bejart added as overture to his Beethoven's "9th" or Tibetan music such as he interwove into "Les Vainqueurs", his ballet of Wagner's "Tristan". Elizabeth Cooper and Phillippe Godefroid did Bejart's musical dramaturgy for "Ring", Cooper also serving as on-stage pianist and singular chorus. In the latter role, both with her composure and occasional emotionality, she contrasted effectively with the narrator, Michael Denard, as broodingly aloof in his leather jacket as the mature Jean Marais in late Jean Cocteau movies. The musical recordings used were either by the Berlin or Vienna philharmonics under conductors Furtwaengler, Karajan, Solti or Tennstedt.

Choreographically and dramatically Bejart's treatment of the four operas differs, perhaps more so than Wagner's. "Rheingold" is a thematic collage of movement and theatricality. "Die Walkuere" is thru-choreographed and emotionally resonant, "Siegfried" is sportive and male dominated, "Die Goetterdaemmerung" is theatrical and didactic/ritual. "Ring" kept me fully engaged through the first half. At the intermission I felt very positive, especially about "Walkuere" which ends with Wotan's farewell to Brunhilde, a powerful duet about father-daughter love and loss. It was the richest new choreograhy I saw while in Berlin. Brunhilde, as a Valkyrie, had danced on pointe. As punishment for disobeying Wotan's command (although carrying out his secret wish) she must take off her toe shoes. Mortal now, she moves in a free style that is muscularly rich. After intermission, in "Siegfried" and the first portion of "Goetterdaemmerung", there are enthralling moments but the choreograpy seemed thin overall and I grew impatient with "Ring Around the Ring". Bejart, of all people, should have been able to invent more complex male choreography. The finale of the work, though intentionally static and moralistic, is grandiose.

Members of the Staatsballett Berlin poured great effort into "Ring". Most of them, however, are normal ballet dancers and don't adequately show the breath-controlled torso movement with which Bejart signals intensity and passion. Despite this, there were some fine performances. Ronald Savkovic was wickedly mercurial as the fire god, Loge (a role he shares with company director Vladimir Malakhov). Artem Shpilevsky's Wotan was imposing. Nadja Saidakova's Brunhilde, after she becomes human, seemed most noble and eloquently forelorn. As a Valkyre, Saidakova had pushed herself to extremes. In the grotesque role of Mime, the Niebelungen dwarf, Vladisav Marinov had the chance to contort himself intriguingly. The others, though, didn't dance big enough to be epic. Cooper and Denard, in their special roles, were right and received the loudest applause.

The sets and costumes by Peter Sykora adhered admirably to Bejart's scheme of starting simply, adding just enough to suggest the necessary Wagnerian iconography, and only splurging at the end. It was a brilliant touch to clothe the gods in the original 19th Century opera designs when they return in "Goetterdaemmerung" to watch the main action, as was the destruction of their castle, Valhalla, by having the balcony on which they stand helplessly immobile crash from its height. In a program essay, Bejart writes that he sees freedom vs. the rule of law as the central issue of Wagner's "Ring" and that this conflict is also the focus of his own commentary. Perhaps. What I have found to be key in both Wagner and Bejart is the expression and interaction of passions.

"Ring" was commissioned from Bejart in 1990 by the late Gert Reinholm, when he was director of the Staatsballett Berlin's main predecessor troupe. It was restaged in 2004 and is a favorite with the Berlin public. The performance I saw was on April 14 at the Deutsche Oper, architecturally a safe-modern house. Would any American company have the guts to put it on? Perhaps, Suzanne Farrell's — if she had the forces.

Sasha Waltz
"Gezeiten", possibly translatable as "Betimes", is the season's big new work by Sasha Waltz, who is to all appearances Berlin's preferred contemporary choreographer (the term "modern dance" isn't much in use here). It takes her 20 member company, Sasha Waltz & Guests, 100 intermissionless minutes to perform "Gezeiten" at the Schaubu"hne am Lehniner Platz (Showstage at Lenin Place, converted in 1978 from Erich Mendelsohn's 1928 streamlined cinema) where I saw it on April 17. This theater is a very adaptable venue with scenic capabilities essential to the piece. Waltz's topic is desparation, which she introduces with a dance prologue that generates some of the movement themes used subsequently. However, "Gezeiten" develops as theater (to my eyes behavioral motion is not dance). A token moment of dance occurs again as a coda at the conclusion.

In the dance prologue, Waltz examines balance, using both solo bodies and paired bodies to explore possibilities. She also plays with groupings that form not instantly but as accumulations. The short but definite time spans it takes to build them seemed to derive from cadences by Bach, performed by a cellist sitting on a platform to the side. Although there's a casual, workout-at-the-gym aspect as company members seek equilibrium with a partner poised on their back or on a hip or alone, the effect of the dance is formal. It is as if Waltz had taken apart a portion neoclassical choreography and in reassembling it had spread it out along the time axis. There were hints of theater in the dance scene, such as the taking off or putting on of clothing items and some behavioral shifts between partners, but no inkling of the gravity to come.

The cellist and his Bach disappeared during the course of what followed, I'm not exactly sure when but not right away. No question, though, that baroque music and what we beheld were more and more at odds as Waltz staged a series of scenes about people in calamities. The causes of the disasters were diverse — physical forces, disease, dictatorship — but not spelled out in detail by the stage effects. The specifics appeared in the behavior of the protagonists.

Waltz is an accute observer of humanity, both of individuals and the group response. With the clarity of a Breughel, the daring of a Goya and sometimes the irony of a Grosz, she shows people at extremes. They resist or crumble while a few are able to ignore the worst. Somehow society recovers despite the decimation of so many people. At first in the dramatic scenes I thought I saw movement themes from the dance prologue reappear as the characters on stage sought survival strategies, but I could no longer find that formal connection as one overwhelming situation followed another. In her stage directing, Waltz is exceptionally able to focus simultaneously on the individual and the group. Perhaps abbreviating one or two scenes would have enhanced the impact. The stage picture (by Thomas Schenk and Waltz, lit by Martin Hauk) plays dramatic roles, akin to the deus ex machina, messenger and monster of classic drama. "Gezeiten" is not principally dance but it is powerful.

The Audience
Nowhere is there one audience. Some people in Berlin will not go to see a ballet company perform no matter how unclassical the choreography while others are wary of anything that isn't ballet. Yet there is a difference between these camps and their counterparts elsewhere. Berlin likes Bejart much more than does London or New York, not that the latter two have seen his work lately. Forsythe, Waltz and Jerome Bell are held in very high esteem by Berlin dance goers. More new dance is available in Berlin than from the past, even from just yesterday, and that shapes taste.

To Be Continued
Berlin Bulletin 2 will report on the Dance Congress sessions and related performances/demostartions by Malakhov-Waltz, Forsythe, Colleen Neary-Balanchine and Susanne Linke/Martin Nachbar-Dore Hoyer. It was impossibe to see all the dance in Berlin during my visit, April 13-24. Performances I missed were Jerome Bell's, Eszter Salomon's, Joachim Schloemer's reportedly nude duet with Graham Smith, the Staatsballett in Cranko's "Eugene Onegin", a Forsythe videoinstallation, Jo Fabian's interactivity and lots more.

Volume 4, No. 17
May 1, 2006

copyright ©2006 George Jackson



©2006 DanceView