Bulletin from Berlin 2

by George Jackson
copyright ©2006, George Jackson

Berlin has been the site of dance conferences, conclaves and competitions at least since Weimar Republic days in the early 20th Century. This year's Dance Congress Germany turned out not to just national. The official languages were German and English. Presenters and attendees came from around the globe. Held from Thursday evening, April 20 into Sunday afternoon, April 23, in the large, concrete, shell-shaped House of World Culture, it ran with remarkable efficiency and a minimum of fuss considering the many registrants. There were about 1,700 of them! The official slogan or theme of the meeting was "Knowledge in Movement" and scholars as well as dancers tried to "verbalize and embody" concepts that fit under that heading and its 9 subsidiary topics*. Sessions consisted of regular lectures, round tables, demonstrations, dance performances and demonstrations (live and on screen) but also in use were 3 novel formats. 

On opening night —  following the welcomes and two performances (William Forsythe's familiar male quartet "NNNN" and Sasha Waltz's new "Solo" for Vladimir Malakhov) —  a "Black Market for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge" took place. What is non-knowledge? It is not ignorance and later I'll try and likely fail to give a somewhat Aristotelian definition. "Black Market" took place in the big restaurant of the House of World Cultures, where an "expert" was seated at each of the many tiny tables. With over 100 experts to choose from, congress participants could, during the course of the night, sign up to consult as many as 3 of them, 30 minutes per expert. Germany's Russian superstar, Vladimir Malakhov, was one of the experts and the topic on which one had to converse with him was career transition for dancers. Another was the choreographer Joachim Schloemer, who held forth on interference between different types of experience. Jo Fabian, also a choreographer, one could consult about either how to avoid audience pre-conceptions or how to translate word texts into dance. Other experts, to pick a few, included Sabine Roth about the British Royal Academy's method of ballet training, Jeroem Peeters on a Botticelli drawing that he thinks contains the seeds of subsequent choreographic history, Yvonne Hardt on emotionality in Martha Graham's  and Yvonne Rainer's work, Prof. Dr. Rudolf zur Lippe on swarming, and Roland Gawlik on dance as entertainment. I broke the rules by signing up with someone I knew, Claudia Jeschke — professor of dance at the University of Salzburg, bringing along a third party — critic Andrea Amort — and talking more about dance reconstruction and Salzburg than Jeschke's official topic — dancers and age. The three of us hadn't seen each other in a while and I enjoyed the chat which eventually came around to how to prepare dancers for aging. 

"Sans Papiers" was a session that lasted several days. It sought to promote conversation. No notes or references to written texts were permitted. Six individuals with different specialties spoke with one another for three-hour stretches about knowledge production in dance and other disciplines. The audience was not allowed to ask questions. This format began to resemble Sartre's play "No Exit".

There were also rotating round tables with just two of six participants at the table at any one time. Panelist A would give a statement and B would challenge or ask questions, then B would speak with C doing the interrogation, until the last panelist would be questioned by returned A. Switching roles kept the proceedings lively.

Vladimir Malakhov by Sasha Waltz
You'd think that Malakhov led a monastic life, nothing but hard work and devoted service day-in, day-out with just a few winks of solitary sleep at night, from the way Waltz presents him in this "Solo". Wasn't it Martha Graham, too, who claimed that dedicated dancers led cloistered existences? A series of leaps and a sequence of turns near the start is all Waltz let us see of Malakhov's ballet technique. It looked up to snuff despite not being tested for endurance. In the rest of the piece he snatches some exercise, marks a bit of Act 2 "Swan Lake" (both Odette and Siegfried), mumbles to himself, bids goodnight to a couple dancers who cross the stage on their way out of the theater, soliloquizes more, starts giving himself a class and continues diligently on. Was what we beheld the loneliness of the long working dancer? Afterwards, a few folks found that "Solo" has more potential than "The Dying Swan". Were they including the music (credited to Edgardo Rudnitzky) that I don't remember?

William Forsythe
"NNNN" looked somewhat different on this occasion, as an item from the current Forsythe Company's repertory, than when I saw it last on Ballett Frankfurt's farewell tour. At first, this time, the four men were at it in a rougher way. I remembered more lyricism, which had linked the moves to such traditional dance practices as improvising, warming up and rehearsing. That dimension was absent. It had become a contact dance partly improvised. As the piece continued on its 19 minute course, a stronger buddies relationship than I'd seen formerly developed among Cyril Baldy, Amancio Gonzalez, Georg Reischl and Ander Zabala. Undoubtedly, to keep the piece fresh, Forsythe sanctions varied approaches by his dancers. The program listed Thom Willems music. There wasn't any, and I don't recall there having been any on the previous occasion.  

Colleen Neary on George Balanchine
Neary is in Berlin on behalf of the Balanchine Trust to stage an all-Balanchine bill of "Serenade", "Apollo", "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux" and "Ballet Imperial" for the Staatsballett. Her lecture-demo for the Congress on April 21 emphasized Balanchine's musicality, the richness of his step vocabulary and the works' stylistic variety - things hard to disagree with and not surprising to those familiar with his ballets. At this meeting, though, there were quite a few people for whom Balanchine is not standard fare. Wisely, Neary told stories about two popular European choreographers' admiration for the late master when she worked with their companies; they were   Bejart and Forsythe. She also told some legendary Balanchine and Stravinsky anecdotes. Throughout, Neary stressed the difficult task her generation — the last to work with Balanchine — has now in passing on the responsibility for staging the works to those who have not known him personally.

In the demonstration, two dancers from Neary's Staatsballett casts demonstrated short passages from her stagings. Both artists - France's Corinne Verdeil and Austria's Rainer Krenstetter — are young, finely-trained classical performers of potentially stellar caliber. They did not, though, look specifically Balanchine. Edge, angularity when called for, the contrapuntal tension between port de bras and legwork were not particularly apparent except for moments in a muse variation from "Apollo". (Similarly, I'd noticed the previous week that the Staatsballett's dancers weren't Bejart specialists.) 

"Reconstructing" Dore Hoyer 
Problems and pleasures in reconstructing "Affectos Humanos", the legendary series of solos by the late Dore Hoyer, last in the line of Central Europe's great expressionists, was the topic of a panel with Waltraud Luley (conservator of Hoyer's dances) and two attempters - Susanne Linke (the internationally known German modern dancer-choreographer) and Martin Nachbar (choreographer, performance lecturer). Yvonne Hardt moderated. "Reconstruction" in this case meant restaging and performing since there is film material of Hoyer herself doing the solos. All the panelists stressed that extreme dedication to the work and its world is necessary. According to Luley, the reconstructors should be so motivated that they will also want to use the Hoyer movement in their own works. Linke, who said that her body differed from that of Hoyer ("she must have had an extra rib") tried to imagine what it felt like to move as another anatomy. She demonstrated wrong and right approaches. Her way involved total immersion and she described the proper emotional state as boiling on the inside while remaining cool on the outside. When we saw her on screen in a passage from her reconstruction, the result was searing. Nachbar's re-creation, from what he showed on screen, wasn't a "performance" but remained a lecture demonstration. Parts of him - shoulders, arms, hands - imitated Hoyer's tensions.  He didn't, though, try to disguise his own temperament (thoughtful/set), humanity or gender to become an abstract extreme.

The opening lecturer on April 21, Sarat Maharaj, may have set my confusion at the congress’s theory sessions in motion because he had a much longer text than could be delivered in three-quarters of an hour and so had to omit what may have been crucial parts of his talk on knowledge and non-knowledge in the arts. Or was he only pretending to be pressed for time in order to provoke listeners to pay more attention and truly experience the gaps, the leaps, the lacunae of his communication? A satisfactory definition or clear example of non-knowledge eluded me in Maharaj's presentation. Did he mean ambiguity, indeterminacy or uncertainty in their common meanings? Or even literary ambiguity, indeterminacy in the physics sense, uncertainty as in statistics or logic's position that if knowledge exists then not-knowledge must too? Maharaj's vocabulary was colorful and fun: "unpacking" ideas instead of analyzing or even deconstructing them; the three venial Vs - the virtual, the visceral, and virtuosity as well as their thresholds and the limbo spaces between. Perhaps, Maharaj had something experiential in mind akin to Georges Bataille's resonance between meaning and feeling (when we learn something we gain factual knowledge but may also be moved to laugh about it or cry). The skips in Maharaj's talk were not only omitted text but he kept alternating between scholarly issues and his personal reaction to last summer's terrorist bombings in London and the official British response. What has this to do with dance? Apparently, Descartes' classic theater of understanding is outmoded but there exists a post-Cartesian laboratory where we can work on not what we know but how we know. That place par excellence is the dance studio! Maharaj gave a single example from dance theater — the Forsythe we had seen the evening before. That quartet was about labor, action and the body. Otherwise, he seemed to imply (and not a few following speakers made explicit) that what is really of interest to the bigger world is what happens in the dance studio and not what's shown on stage.

Gabriele Brandstetter, who followed close on Maharaj's heels, worried about and celebrated the non-scientific knowledge imparted by dance. She wondered how notation is possible when you can't step into the same dance stream twice. She revived the old notion of the kinesthetic (comprehending dance by how it feels, not how it looks). Rather than the traditional linear way of organizing knowledge she favored the "foreign body" response, a term used to summarize a type of cellular immune reaction. Brandstetter dismissed critics because they deal primarily in adjectives, the poorest part of language. She seemed to imply that what fascinates her in dance now is choreographers' relevance to chaos theory. A name she mentioned approvingly was that of Jerome Bel, in my limited experience an entertaining stager but I've yet to see him choreograph a real dance. On Brandstetter's heels, Inge Baxmann referred to rhythmic gymnastics and how it trains the body's unconscious movement responses. Jeschke, the Salzburg prof, made several fine distinctions such as: knowing how to execute a specific movement differs from experiencing how that movement feels. Dieter Heitkamp's lecture-demonstration on April 22 focused not on the muscles and bones of the dancing body but on the skin. Touching, applying pressure, tactile perception, feeling and being felt were actions and states that amused us in this participatory presentation. During the roundtable "Dancing in an Ocean of Communication", I kept wondering how the demand to communicate meshes with the artist's need to express or, at minimum, to produce. Someone else wondered whether swarming and herd-behavior imply a mass intelligence (or lack thereof). A choreographer complained that once a dance is declared to exist, its initiator looses authority over it and responsibility. Pina Bausch was paraphrased about movement making you smart and the body becoming a watcher. Bravely, Marianne Van Kerkhoven declared that this entire congress is guilty of overestimating dance as knowledge. 

The inadequacies of dance criticism were mentioned over and over again.  According to Erika Fischer-Lichte, the ephemeral nature of dance necessitates a sensually perceptive approach in (followed by?) three phases - separation (of the viewer from the dance?), transformation of the dance experience and then incorporation of the experience. She differentiated art from ritual because the artistic experience, although it can produce purgation, is temporary, reversible. Fischer-Lichte seemed to imply that her three phases were applicabe to anyone encountering a dance whether as performer, scholar or audience member. If criticism was out at the congress, being “critical” was in. Irit Rogoff, the individual I understood least in Berlin, dismissed criticism as fault finding in her April 23 talk. Critique is better than criticism because critique “looks in”; I'm not certain whether the looking is into the work of art, into the observer or both. Top dog is “criticality”, a sharing of experience and theory. In this view, the contemporaneous (a connection, a moment of recognition between your actual experience and something in the work of art) is crucial for the critical. There's also a productive tension between the deconstructing (unpacking?) of a piece of art and its "performability". Apparently, Rogoff wants to "inhabit culture in a relationship other than one of critical analysis". She referred to Hannah Arendt during her talk but afterwards told me that, of course, she doesn't use Arendt concepts the way Arendt would have. Irit can be very irritating. 

If we are in the era of the critical and the 2006 Tanzkongress Deutschland is representative, then these times have certain characteristics: a profusion of terminology, avoidance of satisfactory definitions, the disinclination to give examples. Several critical theorists bemoaned the necessity of still having to consider the work of art in their deliberations! No one, at the sessions I attended, walked the listeners through a dance. Dialogue with the past (its dances, theories, dancers and writers) was rare. The critical is observer-centric and concerned only with pre-existing coincidences between artwork and audience. With "Apollo" coming up in Berlin at the Staatsballett, how will a public primed by the critical consider it? I was in awe of “Apollo” again not long ago, for the usual reasons and a new one. It was a production** that restored forgotten meanings. The god sat in judgment of his muses, his eyes not following the path of their dance declarations. He looked past them, out into the audience and beyond with the blind stare of archaic statuary gazing as if into eternity. Although his focus was not on his immediate surrounds, Apollo sensed every move each of the muses made. Seeing this sent a chill down my spine although it matched nothing in my experience, nothing contemporaneous. It did remind me of things I had read in old texts and gave an inkling of what the ancients meant by deity, immortality, encounters with the other. I never expect to use this artistic experience other than in trying to understand humanity and its art. 

*Papers were grouped under the following headings: 1) the culture of knowledge, 2) work process and production structures (how dance is organized), 3) technique and education, 4) body knowledge, 5) dance medicine, 6) dancing with the audience, 7) dance as labor and commodity, 8) memory (history, reconstruction), 9) the critical.

** Jacques d'Amboise's 2004 staging of the Balanchine/Stravinsky "Apollo" for Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem with Rasta Thomas in the title role.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS.  In navigating Berlin during this first visit, I gratefully acknowledge the hospitality and help Darrel Wilkins, Signe Rossbach and Hartmut Regitz. My traveling companion, Costas, shared his insights and learned how to read maps.   

Photo of Vladiimir Malakhov in Sasha Waltz's "Solo" by Costas.

Volume 4, No. 18
May 8, 2006

copyright ©2006 George Jackson



©2006 DanceView