Dance criticism in Berlin

A scholar's perspective: Pirrko Husemann

Sarma 17 Nov 2004English

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Since a few years, Berlin hosts one of the most effervescent dance and performance scenes in Europe. There is creativity and experiment and exchange, but the current discussions and complaints about money and cultural politics just seem to trouble a clear perspective and sense of collaboration. Moreover, one particular debate appears to be forgotten: that on criticism and critical reflection on dance. Looking for a common ground to open a debate, Jeroen Peeters spoke with four people that have a strong interest in discourse, out of different professional perspectives. How do they regard dance criticism in Berlin? Peeters’ analysis was published on the occasion of the Tanznacht Berlin 2004 (‘Brainstorming… on the forgotton debate of dance criticism in Berlin’). What follows is an extensive version of the written statement by the scholar Pirkko Husemann, in response to Peeters’ questions.

As a dance and theater scholar from Frankfurt I come to Berlin regularly to see dance performances and festivals, to do workshops and to attend lectures and conferences or to meet with affiliated colleagues from dance theory and practice to exchange and work on collaborative projects. So my picture of the German capital of dance and its representation through criticism is the one of an involved part-time participant observer and frequent visitor. Accordingly, my relation to the particular cultural politics, journalistic criticism and academic discourse is rather indirect.

Thinking of the Berlin based dance scene, the first striking characteristic for me and many other outsiders from the international dance scene are the city’s enormous output, the seemingly inexhaustible engagement of the local artists and the variety of places, organizations and institutions that deal with and support contemporary dance in theory and practice. Fascinated by the density and high activity of this center I tend to idealize Berlin’s situation, though. Like in other German cities, dance and theater are still considered as the dinosaur of the arts (aesthetically and institutionally) and therefore the first ones on the list to be subjected to political and financial decisions.

A more accurate look at the situation also reveals an imbalance between the number of artists working in the field and the means that enable and promote their work. Therefore the danger to fall through the net of market, critique and theory is particularly present. Questions regarding financial funding, coverage in the local media or appreciation and support from the field of academy dominate the scene. This might be one reason (but maybe also a good excuse) for the defensive survival strategies of the different fields. Theaters have to find a balance between experiment and bestsellers, artists leer at international co-producers to be able to do their projects, journalists try to earn a living by writing consumer information that brings the public to the theaters and scientists are busy with establishing and defending their own terrain in competition with other disciplines. Be it the general financial misery or just a wide spread shortsightedness, there is a striking lack of collaboration between the involved agents of the dance scene that is symptomatic for Germany in general, and particularly obvious in Berlin.

If the involved artists, producers, critics and theorists focussed more on confrontation and exchange than on distinction and defence, this could ideally result not in a senseless dispute about money or competence, but in a accumulation of forces, a striving for shared aims and 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 beyond or between the usually separated territories. For dance criticism in particular this would mean first of all a clear and relentless self-critical reflection. Moreover it would call for an investigation of artistic practice and concepts, a consideration of the producers’ and programmers’ respective profiles and a strong backup with theoretical discourse. Not more and not less. It is absolutely possible, but there is still a lot to be done.