Letter from Berlin

By Gottschild, Brenda Dixon | Dance Magazine, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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Letter from Berlin

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon, Dance Magazine

"When you talk about Germany, it's always necessary to know that we are a federal country, and development in Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, or Berlin is, in itself, different," says Nele Hertling, who has been director of Berlin's Hebbel Theater since 1988. "It's not easy to speak about `German' dance. It is `Berlin' [dance], similar in Munich, very different in Hamburg and in the Rhineland."

Hertling's description of a decentralized nation-state is important to an understanding of dance in Germany. Politics have affected the progress and development of dance in Berlin, where the cold-war division of the city into East and West Berlin instigated an additional degree of separation. Despite a decade of reunification, the two sides continue to hold different political, philosophical, and aesthetic customs; it is not uncommon for the citizenry to refer to one another as "Ossis" or "Wessis" (East or West Berliners).

Following the close of the Mary Wigman School in 1967, there were no venues for contemporary dance in West Berlin. Dirk Scheper (secretary of the department of performing arts at the Berlin Academy of the Arts) and Hertling were instrumental in rekindling modern dance in the city. Building upon the legacy of Wigman, Rudolf von Laban, Kurt Jooss, and Gret Palucca, who, pre-World War II, forged an independent spirit outside the opera ballet tradition, Scheper and Hertling launched the Pantomime Musik Tanz Theater Festival, an international event held annually from 1973 to 1995.

"There's a special modern dance audience in [West] Berlin," says Scheper. "It's limited, but they are there." He explains that reunification spread thin the West's "special audience" as well as economic resources, as the East had little to offer in either respect. Furthermore, the new Berlin is experiencing a situation similar to that of dance communities on both sides of the Atlantic--shrinking funding sources and limited audience development as dance, and the arts in general, vie with other media for a piece of the financial pie and a sense of continuity.

Reunification also doubled the number of venues (and performances) available to Berliners, since East and West had developed separate opera houses, theaters, and ballet companies. For example, the West Berlin Arts Academy had been an autonomous institution that, according to Hertling, "supported another idea of dance than ballet." As of 1989 it was obliged to merge with its East Berlin counterpart, whose focus was not dance but areas such as literature and architecture. The outcome was that well-intentioned preoccupations with unity and reconciliation subsumed the Arts Academy's special status with regard to dance. In this and other instances East-West differences remain issues of political, economic, philosophical, and aesthetic proportions--cultural politics.

Fast forward to 1999. From August 12 to 29, Berlin was bursting with dance energy--concerts, workshops, panels, seminars, improvisation--as the twelfth annual "Dance in August" international festival brought world-class artists to Germany's new capital.

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