Founded in 1996, Tanztage Berlin is an annual dance and performance festival showcasing works by emerging dance artists working in Berlin. As the 2021 edition was pushed online by Covid restrictions, this year’s jampacked line-up featured a selection of shows produced over two seasons of blind navigation across the pandemic waves. A dozen live performances hosted by Sophiensaele, film screenings, talks, live streamings and online discussions – all epitomised the Berlin independent dance scene as it is: engaged, dauntless and fierce.
Unlike Britney Spears, festival artists do not conceive the end of times as a cosmic bang, but rather as an everlasting sense of impending doom
Hard times require hard dancing. This bold yet lucid title of the online discussion that closed off the festival encapsulates its general concept. In times when climate crisis, global pandemic, dramatic increase of inequalities coupled with political warmongering make the world look more doomed than ever, Berlin dance artists do not, or rather, cannot sit on the fence pretending that nothing is happening.
Mateusz Szymanówka, the festival’s curator, confirms: ‘When I began working on the festival in spring 2020, I was quite obsessively asking myself why one would like to dance in front of the audience when the world around us is collapsing?’ This interrogation is fittingly illustrated in the text introducing the festival by Britney Spears’s 2011 music video ‘Till The World Ends’, in which the singer throws a dance party amid apocalyptical landscapes, skilfully dodges meteors and debris while convincing the viewers to ‘keep on dancing till the world ends’. Unlike Britney Spears though, festival artists do not conceive the end of times as a cosmic bang, but rather as an everlasting sense of impending doom. Living in a state of chronic menace, they reconfigure past narratives, offer new strategies of survival and collective care, and navigate utopian futures.
In DOOM, a melancholic hybrid of a drone metal gig and an eerie dance celebration, Layton Lachman and Samuel Hertz escape eschatological narratives and their cynical artifices. Instead they devise ‘doom’ as a liminal space, or a mental playground, where all feelings and passions are welcome: grief, joy, melancholy and rage. The show dexterously veers from teetering solo dances and melodramatic guitar poses to calmer scenes during which the four performers form a circle to sing mournful chants, or just ride a bike in circles. DOOM’s finale, led by deafening guitar riffs, sets the dancers, chained to each other, in a sophisticated and furious duet. Although it seemed to me that the piece was shown in its shorter version (it has all common attributes of a durational performance), it left a long-lasting impression. By stripping ‘state of doom’ from its usual apocalyptic imagery and anxiogenic connotations, Lachman and Heitz prove that there is hope even in the darkest of hours, and that the end time is liveable and can be filled with joy and warmth as long as we keep our sense of togetherness intact.
(bb), a collaboration between dance artist tiran and musician Nkisi, who performs live on stage, also draws on concert aesthetics and explores the dialogue between experimental electronic music and the body. But its enthralling effect is largely due to one evocative image. The grandstand seating, rid of chairs and flickering in the strobe lights that are placed underneath, looks strangely alive. It reminded me strongly of a breathing and fog-spitting carcass of an abandoned theatre – a particularly powerful metaphor after months of closed theatres. Tiran’s presence is at first cautious. He slips under the grandstand and explores its metallic ribcage with a torchlight, then delivers a long impassioned monologue, listing virtually all the wounds of our times: ‘alienation, infection, depression, centuries of torture…’ But once tiran appears in front, he dives into a frenzied solo, his torso swaying and warping under tension, his arms cutting the air with sweeping rhythmical thumps. While his body bows and bends as if seized by fury, his howls and shrieks sink in hammering beats, flooding the space. Tiran’s gritty performance, and a rare synergy between his dance and the music score, produce an overwhelmingly powerful mood and an almost physiological sensation of pulsating rage that throbbed and itched with me long after the show was over.
In contrast, other artists aim to defy the prevailing grimness and come up with survival strategies that would offer us solace, allay fears and help navigate the troubled times without losing sanity. As potent alternatives to doomscrolling, the concepts of softness and slowing down are clearly gaining momentum, and dance stages are no exception. Djibril Sall describes their piece evening.haiku as an invitation ‘to slow down, be in nature, situate yourself and your situation within the grand scheme of things.’ Joined on stage by Sointu Pere, both clad in loose-fitting white clothes, they start swaying in rhythm, cheerfully smiling at each other. As their swaying routine changes rhythm and incorporates shoulder spins, rapid quivering and brief walking patterns, they even exchange short encouragements: ‘deep breathe in and out, relax your jaw, let your voice come out.’ The show steadily flows through metronomically regular shakings and hip sways to bracing club dance patterns and a final looped sequence reminiscent of modern dance – all warmed by Thais Nepomuceno’s smart light and lulled by a slightly haunting music score. Both performers exude chilled elegance and regal chic, and their show is as soothing and laid back as only a dance show can be – a perfect act to put your ruffled spirits at ease.
Judith Förster’s Showdown runs after bolder conceptual ambitions, and builds on a pile of references: neo-western movies, survivalist theories, and feminist writings by Monique Wittig and Octavia Butler. Together with Nanna Stigsdatter Mathiassen, Förster explores blurry boundaries between a duet and a duel, a fight and a hug, an encounter and a farewell. Surrounded by transparent reservoirs of coloured water, countless plastic tubes and cables, they unfold their slightly confusing dance script into a series of frantic solos and duos. Their Showdown eventually feels like a heavy transparent lid on a pot of boiling water: you can see and hear the boiling liquid under the lid – and it even cracks open for a split-second here and there from the force of turbulent water beneath – but for the most part, the lid stays teasingly shut.
Dance makers often set themselves theoretically complex agendas, but the dance material is sometimes too thin to clearly articulate them on stage
This sensation of promising yet withholding something has been chasing me throughout my dance-watching career. Dancemakers often set themselves theoretically complex agendas and rely on knotty concepts as dramaturgical triggers, but the dance material, however mesmerising and well thought out it might be, is sometimes too thin to clearly articulate them on stage.
At worst, this can lead to a hermetic and self-indulgent result. At best though, such fortuitous imbalance can produce an unexpectedly intriguing and multi-faceted work. Julia Plawgo’s solo show Non-Playable Character looks into ‘the experiential limits and cognitive dissonances of life in digital space’ and investigates the experience of disembodied life in cyberspace. Half-human, half-AI, Plawgo’s character probes the universe around it and adapts to it in incessant self-optimisation. Her slow and stomping steps reverberating through her entire body, constantly swivelling torso and sweeping arm gestures indeed bring to mind the awkward and slightly robotic gait of early video games characters. The rhythm of her steps is broken as she falls into a more energetic flow, bouncing up and down in angled and twisted positions. While the intentions of her character remain only obliquely suggested and the dramaturgical frame hard to grasp, Plawgo’s piece oozes radioactive strangeness. It is exactly this slight gap between the signifier and the signified that makes Non-Playable Character so uncannily magnetising.
One of the recurring themes of any recent dance festival remains theatrical representation and exploration, if not subversion, of its own codes and cues. In La Cosa Piel, Juan Pablo Cámara delves into the world of Latin-American telenovelas to unpack the codes and gestures of ‘drama queens’. In his witty and smart endeavour, he deploys a full range of tactics from tongue-in-cheek acting and melodramatic postures, to compelling visual allusions, spoken word, and even crooner-like singing. Cámara’s work is, however, far from being just a string of comic clichés. Bouncing back and forth between hiding and unveiling, grotesqueness and gravity, he lays bare not only the innate frailty of the ‘drama queen’ but also its toxic brutality. As he maintains intentional ambiguity about his character’s agency and motives, Cámara creates an eerie feeling of estrangement, that lends depth to the piece and leaves a bittersweet aftertaste.
While La Cosa Piel revolved around codes of drama rather than choreographic forms, virtually all other works presented during Tanztage Berlin heavily relied on dance in all its manifestations. This tendency is, however, recent. Szymanówka recalls that when he moved to Berlin in 2010, the local dance scene ‘was quite hardcore conceptual: artists with PhDs doing lecture-performances, choreographers and dancers working with stillness and darkness, and quoting Deleuze every other word.’ This period undeniably opened Berlin’s dance scene to different methodologies, but according to Szymanówka, the trend has shifted: ‘There has definitely been a revival of interest in dancing, especially among younger folks. There are still some people claiming that “dancers in Berlin don’t dance”, but it is far from the truth.’
Dancers in Berlin certainly do dance, and not only on stage. Traditionally tightly intertwined with the city’s bustling and politically engaged club scene, local choreographers and performers actively appropriate its distinct movement language, but also borrow its imagery: light effects, music style and even outfits. Ironically, Tanztage Berlin 2022 took place amid the dancing ban: a ludicrous Covid measure letting the city’s nightclubs remain open but banning its patrons from dancing. In this context the extreme infiltration of thumping beats, strobe lights and rave dance moves on stage might even seem fitting. But it is not an exaggeration to say that what was once perceived as a refreshing and defiant drift away from choreographic rigidity has recently become a routine gimmick.
Against the background of festival shows that made massive use of pulsating lights, sometimes disturbingly loud music and monumental soundscapes, a silent and poetic work stood out. In Dandelion II, her debut solo piece, queer deaf artist Rita Mazza engineers a startling fusion between sign language, dance which is at times reminiscent of Laban’s technique, and visual vernacular – a storytelling theatre practice popular in Deaf performance communities. Dandelion II is however greater than the sum of its parts. This unscripted encounter between different somatic practices brings out a staggeringly beautiful and evocative dance language. Mazza works with a remarkable economy of means (even Raquel Rosildete’s light design is crisp and refined), as any additional scenic element would have indeed been superfluous and distracting. Her unostentatious and generous piece celebrates the dance at its core – and proves that choreographic language, when stripped from scenic artifices, can be more poignant and expressive than words.
If hard times indeed require hard dancing, can dancing repair the hardship?
After the festival one question kept buzzing in my head. If hard times indeed require hard dancing, can dancing repair the hardship? In other words, does contemporary dance have necessary political potential and tools to impact our society? Szymanówka believes that there is a lot of important knowledge developed in the contemporary dance field that could potentially help us re-appropriate what we have lost to capitalism: our bodies, our attention, and a sense of community. But he is also aware of the limits of such impact: ‘As the queer-feminist rave collective Lecken wrote in their zine published in 2020: “If we are going to fight together, we must do more than dance together.” We can claim that what we do on stage is political, but we also need to engage with politics outside of the theatre.’
Contemporary dance as an art form can hardly ignite social and political change, yet it can tune in the present, and provide us with a vantage point from which we can critically question the future. Tanztage Berlin artists have emphatically proved that they rise to this challenge. ‘Morgen ist die Frage’ (Tomorrow is the Question) read, grinningly, a huge banner hoisted by the artist Rikrit Tiravanija on the façade of Berghain, arguably the most well-known Berlin dance institution. If tomorrow comes with a question mark, and if we are bound to stay with the trouble, then why not conjure better futures and, as Britney Spears urged us, dance ‘till the world ends’? ●