Brainstorming… (Eng.)

on the forgotten debate of dance criticism in Berlin

Tanz made in Berlin 11 Dec 2004English

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Contextual note
This is the original, unabridged version of the text that was commissioned by Tanznacht Berlin 2004 and published in English and German in the catalogue Tanz made in Berlin.

Since a few years, Berlin appears to host one of the most effervescent dance and performance scenes in Europe. Fantasies about some common identity of ‘Berlin dance’ provide an outsider with a strong sense of community, which seems to fall apart though as soon as you project it back into its local milieu. After few conversations with people involved, any supposed common ground turns into a real battle ground, were local companies and arts centres fight for funding and recognition, were production and diffusion of performances is a struggle. It’s just waiting for the contract killer in Jochen Roller’s dark vision of the dance world in Perform Performing, perhaps not even until 2045. Yes, there is creativity and experiment and exchange, and yes, Berlin might very well be a dance metropole, the current discussions and complaints about money and cultural politics just seem to trouble a clear perspective and sense of collaboration.

What’s the matter? That’s too big a question, but one particular debate appears to be forgotten: that on criticism and critical reflection on dance. While the poppy magazine ballettanz publishes a special on Berlin and FAZ’s dance critic keeps bitching on everything which is too ‘conceptual’ or too unsettling in its ‘stillness’, it is strange that there is few local interest in an enhancement of dance criticism. Isn’t a critical accompaniment of new artistic tendencies necessary to account for the diversity, hybridity and complexity of their endeavour? To provide a discursive context as well as to stimulate a general climate of discussion, reflection and exchange? Lively and experimental as the free scene may be, it risks to end as a zombie when cut apart from interested audiences due to a lack of work on communication and contextualisation. Here is a responsibility for all parties: arts centres, festivals and producers, newspapers and specialised magazines, universities, artists. As critic and editor of Sarma, the issue of criticism in Berlin highly interests me, especially since Sarma is currently preparing a Berlin platform. Looking for a common ground to open a debate, I spoke with four people that have a strong interest in discourse, out of different professional perspectives. How do they regard dance criticism in Berlin?

The scarce and random coverage of Berlin dance and performance in local and national newspapers is a problem, the way it is done even a bigger one. Subject to a general media crisis, in which popular discourses are flourishing and readers are regarded as consumers of information, criticism on contemporary dance has a problem. There is a rift between the expectations and formats of the newspapers and the whimsicality new dance stands for, which all too often yields comments soaked in prejudice.

“Criticism in its ideal form would create discourse, translate the discourse created in and by dance into the public sphere, and open a continuous dialogue between art and understanding,” states dance critic Franz Anton Cramer. “It would be less about taste and its hierarchies, and more about viewing and contextualising. However, most dance criticism in Germany’s major national newspapers, is totally in contrast to this vision, and it is precisely this style, or practice, that newspapers want. So there seems to be a sort of negative public consensus about the kind of criticism needed. This is appalling, of course, but it tells a lot about the situation of the media, and of the public domain in general.” According to Cramer, Berlin needs new channels or a self-governed magazine, “to gain independence from this kind of hierarchical, totalitarian criticism.”

Unaffected by internal newspaper policies, choreographer Martin Nachbar is less cynical and spots even a fair amount of ‘proper’ criticism in local newspapers. Still, he often finds the attitude old-fashioned: “Newspaper critics serve mostly a traditional kind of journalism, which does not only claim independence and distance, but puts itself totally outside the dance scene. There are few interviews, critics hesitate to enter into dialogue with artists, they don’t follow their process, but always write yet another review. In Brussels or Frankfurt, were I used to live and work before, the situation is different, there is a healthy sense of openness and complicity.”

Furthermore, Nachbar observes also serious differences in the critics’ visions on choreography, which leads up to opinions rather than understanding. “A narrative approach of choreography and a cult of the beautiful body are still much stronger than choreography understood as discourse. But this phenomenon is also at work within the art scene itself. Familiar with new reflections and theory on dance are often dancers and choreographers that studied abroad. A lack of up-to-date dance education in Berlin is also part of a larger problem.”

Distance is also what Pirkko Husemann, dance and theatre scholar from Frankfurt, experiences: “Theory and practice are everywhere in Germany very much separate. Scientists are busy with establishing and defending their own terrain in competition with other disciplines, they consider journalism and arts a completely different world. Dance departments at universities take no effort to coach critical writing: courses in dance criticism might help to stimulate the interest of students to learn it, now they simply don’t have the opportunity. If the involved artists, producers, critics and theorists focussed more on confrontation and exchange than on distinction and defence, this could ideally result in an accumulation of forces and a striving for shared aims. Perhaps even in a structural transformation, that could turn the usually separated, but interdependent fields of dance, market, journalism and academia into a strong community of collaborators by forming more or less temporal and institutional forums.”

At this moment in Germany, the strong opposition between voices that support experimental work and those who embrace a conservative poetics isn’t very productive. Critics defend or reject part of the scene and refuse to sit in the same panel, magazines such as ballettanz are eager to polarise: dance scene and public area are more or less split into two co-existing worlds. (Read for instance the discussion on Wiebke Hüster’s outpourings in ‘Postmoderner Tanz – nur noch ein Feld für Masochisten?’,, September 2003.) Despite reflections upon difference and otherness, they hardly seem to infect writerly practices. A discourse analysis of some critical oeuvres is maybe a research idea for Gabriele Brandstetter’s dance studies department: how come that critics raised with the work of Pina Bausch develop such different positions?

And the arts centres, how do they contribute to a new climate for reflection? Tanz im August organised during several years criticism workshops, Tanzfabrik has monthly discussions on new work, HAU launched with the Context festival even an integrated initiative. “The Context project of HAU was a rather successful attempt, since it sought to convey not only a clear vision upon dance, but also to elucidate it in a mixed programme of performances, lectures and discussions. Which also gained a serious interest from spectators,” tells curator Petra Roggel, currently co-artistic director of Kaaitheater in Brussels. How would she aim to transcend isolated events and the comfort of the familiar? “A governmental programme is probably too massive, I rather believe in units that function on a small scale. They are flexible to develop new formats of collaboration, to enter into new alliances with partners and look for alternative ways of financing. I’m thinking of the festival imPACT 04 in Essen, or westend 04 organised in Leipzig by Heike Albrecht. She doesn’t stop questioning her working methods, which forms an integral part of her interest in critical discourse. Probably also collaboration on an international scale is a way to leave behind the perpetual local struggle for identity and recognition.”

Dance and discourse aren’t stable and autonomous entities anymore, as they were in the era of modernism. Don’t we need a different kind of criticism, a different practice of exchange and collaboration, of proximity and distancing? It is important to keep fighting for the existing public spaces for criticism, to point out to the media their responsibility concerning qualified and committed criticism. Still, Franz Anton Cramer’s suggestion to set up an independent medium is important as well.

Sarma, on line platform for dance and performance criticism, wants to take up this challenge by launching in 2006 the BB Chronicles, in collaboration with Damaged Goods. Aim is to invite regular correspondents to give an insight in the topology of two dance communities (Berlin and Brussels), linking artistic analysis and socio-criticism. Aim is also to provide an instrument for a scene to observe itself in a critical way, to map current tendencies and lingering questions, all this with regard to the particular complicity of all the actors involved. And, to deal with the imaginary discursive vacuum around dance production, through listening to existing but dispersed undercurrents of reflection and make them more prominent. Meanwhile, the brainstorm must go on, surf to Sarma’s forum to take part in the discussion, launch ideas and read more comments (