Dance, Forever: Highlights from Berlin's Tanz im August Festival

Celebrating its 30th year, the international festival showcases the relationship between the city's art scene and its contemporary dance cousins

BY Hili Perlson in Critic's Guides | 28 AUG 18

It is hard to imagine the art scene in Berlin without contemporary dance. A veritable hub for the art form, the city exercises a strong pull on international dancers and choreographers to which many Berlin-based artists working with movement, performance and ‘situations’ are indebted. Berlin’s relevance in the international dance community began at least 40 years ago with the founding of the Tanzfabrik, a workshop and stage for contemporary dance, continuing a decade later with the inaugural edition of the festival Tanz im August and, finally, 25 years ago, when Sasha Waltz – probably the choreographer most recognized with the German capital – founded her company Sasha Waltz and Guests, anchored in trans-disciplinary collaborations. All three celebrate important anniversaries this year.

Dieter Hartwig, Double Portrait, 2018. Courtesy: Tanz im August

On the opening night of Tanz im August’s 30th edition, ‘Für Immer Tanz’ (Forever Dance), the festival’s artistic director, Virve Sutinen, and Annemie Vanackere, who directs the hosting theatre Hebbel am Ufer, announced from the stage of the Berliner Festspiele that government funding has been secured for the next four years. For the first time, to festival can plan more than a year in advance. (The yearly festival takes place at HAU’s three houses as well as other stages across the city). The second impassioned applause during the opening speeches was elicited by director of the Ballet de I’Opéra de Lyon, Yorgos Loukos, who explained that the company, whose performance was about to kick off the festival, nearly didn’t make it to Berlin due to a series of flight cancellations, and had arrived by train only an hour earlier – they unanimously decided to warm up in their wagon rather than cancel the performance.

Showing no signs of fatigue, the company performed three pieces set to Beethoven’s most controversial composition, Die Grosse Fuge (1825), by three generations of women choreographers: American Lucinda Childs, Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and French Maguy Marin. Each chose a different recording, with Childs opting for an orchestral rendition rather than string quartet. The resulting variations offered a slightly didactic time-travel through developments in postmodern dance. Child’s minimalist take on classical ballet, which she created especially for this triple bill in 2017, plays with cumulative variations and repetitions of a finite repertoire of movements, commenting on ballet’s fixed gender roles: male dancers are sometimes merely supporters of the more virtuoso female ballerinas, with female dancers sometimes ‘hooking’ onto the males’ upturned arms. De Keersmaeker’s version, from 1992, eliminates those roles and dramatizes the use of the floor for rolling, falling and buttressing, making for a head-spinning, literal knock-down, drag-out with the challenging fugue, which Beethoven composed when he was nearly deaf. The most sombre of the three, Marin’s is performed by four female dancers clad in red, everyday, above-the-knee dresses. Often dancing in unison and rarely facing the audience, they are linked to one another, yet each seems to be alone, trapped in the same battle. Presented in a colour ostensibly linked to hypersexuality and objectification, the dancers afford the audience a view from the outside of a sexualized parallel struggle, and leave one wondering what would happen if they’d unite. Although created in 2001, it’s hard to resist associating this raw desperation with the #MeToo movement, and the necessity in repeating and furthering its cause with each generation, for as long as it takes. 

Björn Säfsten, Landscapes of I, 2018. Courtesy: Chrisander Brun

The opening weekend also saw the German premiere of Swedish choreographer Björn Säfsten’s delightfully unwavering Landscapes of I (2018) on the more intimate stage at Sophiensaele. The minimal set design consists of a bright yellow cube defined within the theatre by heavy yellow curtains with rows of yellow chairs arranged for the audience on the bright yellow floor. The dancers, who mostly perform solo against the monochromatic set, are dressed in fashionable athleisure gear in shades of blue – a colour combination that says both Swedish flag and cheap furniture.

Säfsten is one of several choreographers in this year’s programme whose practice crosses over to the context of art (others include Alexandra Bachzetsis, Adam Linder and Isabelle Schad). His latest piece is no different, and much credit should go to the three excellent performers on which the evening hinges, Sophie Augot, Ilyas Odman and Will Rawls. A humorous yet unsparing study of minutiae, each twitch, facial expression, quiver of the voice and blinking of the eye is choreographed and scripted, resulting in a vertiginous, seductive loop of human artifice. The choreography is described as questioning what is real, fake or truly personal in this age of heightened self-awareness and constant performativity, and it succeeds in doing so while avoiding the pitfall of becoming a jeremiad. Using no additional accoutrements but what’s already there – a curtain, floor, chairs – and no music but the performers’ own voices and breathing, it is thrilling to see how much can be achieved with little.

Alexandra Bachzetsis, Private Song, 2018. Courtesy: Nikolas Giakoumakis

The abundance of representational possibilities contained within the body’s movement in space and time was a main theme in the retrospective of performances by German choreographer Isabelle Schad, titled INSIDE OUT, which was spread across three levels of the exhibition space at Kindl – Centre for Contemporary Art. For three hours, viewers could move around the space to view pieces created between 2012–18 as well as a video work from 2000–03. Schad’s practice is concerned with the body’s ability to become, temporarily, form in itself, which she achieves through repetitions and variations: the piece Turning Solo (2017), for example, consists of a dancer pivoting on the heel of her bare foot for the entire duration of the dance while using her upper body to slip in and out of two layers of clothing; Pieces and Elements (2016), performed by 12 dancers, is centred on one rotating movement of the torso with interlocking arms held over the head, repeated with such perseverance that it appears as if the body is incapable of feeling pain or exhaustion.

The 30th edition of Tanz im August, ‘Für Immer Tanz’, runs in various locations, Berlin, until 2 September.

Main Image: Lucinda Childs, Ballet de Lyon, Grandes Fugues, 2018. Courtesy: Stofleth and Tanz im August

Hili Perlson is a writer, art critic and fashion journalist based in Berlin.