Berlin's 'Tanz im August' Festival

by Franz Anton Cramer

August, 2003 -- Berlin, Germany

It is to be the last edition of Berlin's most prestigious dance event under the current conditions. "Tanz im August," founded in 1989, has been directed since its founding by Nele Hertling, the grand old lady of all dance affairs in Berlin and indeed in Germany. After this year's 15th version, Hertling will retire from her post, leaving the curatorship to her younger colleagues Andre Theriault and Ulrike Becker.

They have been so far in charge of the "young sections" of the festival. It was their initiative to look for emerging choreographers around Europe to present them in special formats. Whereas Nele Hertling at the Hebbel-Theater was interested in the more opulent programmes: The Nederlands Dans Theater, La La La Human Steps, the Merce Cunningham Company, Trisha Brown, and the like.

This year, however, the choice has been downsized. The festival hosts Michael Laub for instance, with his weird and uninspired theatrical collage about Danish writer and dance-lover Hans Christian Andersen, whose 200th birthday is commemorated this year. He employs his regular style of make-believe, vaudeville and preposterous overacting, with only some rare dance sequences interspersed -- more in the manner of a quotation than a movement idea.

Laub and his artistic troupe have visited Berlin regularly. It is just depressing to see that they have not really developed in all these years. Laub, and even more so the Hebbel-Theater's equally long-standing guest artist, Cesc Gelabert, have given ample proof of the fact that a change in the artistic policy of Berlin's dance festival is really needed.

The brilliant soloist For Gelabert -- his 2002 production "Preludis" was invited to the Dance Programme of this year's Venice Biennale -- came with a shmock neo-expressionist show in two parts for his Barcelona-based company.

The first part vaguely dealt with the world's unspecified meanness. The dancers roamed about the stage, their mouths wide open as in a muffled scream, their eyes full of hollow horror, their figure tumbling, tossing and turning as if a big wind was to blow them all off the stage. In the second part the audience was confronted by a Cuban soundscape in which Gelabert's dancers were trying to be better salsa dancers than anyone else. However, they utterly failed and gave a poor show of cultural exploitation of the meanest kind.

Also on the programme was Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker with her solo programme "Once," and Wim Vandekeybus' orgiastic "Blush."

Many artists have been guests of the festival in former years, and none of them is a bad choice.  But the combination, the stagnant spirit of focusing on the familiar tires Berlin's dance community year after year. Also the community work is as poor as ever. No after-show talks, no public discussions, no usable information or interesting programme notes, no festival journal or any other kind of homogenising effort.

"Tanz im August" has fallen asleep -- despite the tight schedule with 26 shows in 14 days. It exhausts the professional dance-goers, and also denies the ordinary public the chance of really participating. Which is why expectations rise as to the new directorship's plans and ideas for the future.

Matthias Lilienthal, new head of the Hebbel-Theater, and his dance curator Bettina Masuch (she was formerly with Meg Stuart in Zurich) have not announced yet what their plans might be. However, Jochen Sandig, dance director of Berlin's Schaubuhne theatre (the home of Sasha Waltz and her company) has also expressed his interest in participating.

So there is, in sum, a lot of uncertainty. And there are many who firmly believe that the most unbecoming flaws of the festivals programme policy will find an end. Presenting emerging Eastern-European choreographers, for instance, has never really worked. They pass as some kind of freak-show, beginning only at 10:30 p.m. to go on until well after midnight. This must stop.

Promoting Eastern-European artists has been a well-intentioned issue at "Tanz im August" for some years. But by the very act of labeling them "Eastern European," they were always marginalized. A non-exoticizing way of presenting such work by artists from a part of Europe which is soon to become a member of the Union would be one of the major tasks for a new director's team. Just as, by the way, a non-exoticizing way of presenting dance at large would be a task for the future.

Dance is still largely feeding from the familiar only, and can find public attention only by remaining in this trap. Where it does not do so, it is considered an exclusive, in-group entertainment.  However, it would be a great achievement to communicate the variety and relevance of so-called contemporary dance forms to an audience that might not yet have had the chance to become accustomed to innovations of and within the performing arts.  The policies of the past have always insisted on the split between "good art of dance" (Rosas, NDT, Cunningham, Graham, La La La Human Steps and the like) and the "inferior" kinds. It is this split which the "old regime" is to be blamed for. Let's see whether a regime change will improve the situation.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

Please join the discussion in our forum.


Submit press releases to press@criticaldance.com

For information, corrections and questions, please contact admin@criticaldance.com