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Flash Review 3, 1-9: All the World's a Tanztage
Festival Provides Stage for Choreographers Young and Old

By Julia Ritter
Copyright 2003 Julia Ritter

BERLIN -- By now, we've all been taught that there are millions of differently shaped snowflakes and maybe even also heard the notion that Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow. As Berlin is dusted in tiny flakes and the temperatures across Europe plunge, Tanztage Berlin (Dance Days Berlin) kicks off this month, laying down a multitude of diverse and inspired performances before an enthusiastic audience at Sophiensaele.

Snow is a good metaphor for Tanztage, now hosting its twelfth edition, thanks to Barbara Friedrich, its founder and producer. The festival has come a long way since the early years, when Friedrich was warned no one would come out in January to sit in the drafty factory/theater spaces that regularly host alternative dance, particularly when their pockets were just emptied by the holidays. Forging ahead with a commitment to produce artists from Berlin and throughout Germany exclusively, Friedrich also began offering an opportunity to those she calls "the youngsters" -- students -- to take the stage. Now both the festival and the Program of Young Choreographers are wildly popular, with standing room only each night I attended last week. Friedrich is somewhat of a guardian angel in the Berlin dance scene, watching over and out for newcomers in a town busting at its seams with movers and makers. She understands the challenges facing emerging artists who need funding and presentation, yet who are stymied by a lack of press coverage, finding it almost impossible to get a foot in the door, literally and figuratively. Tanztage is an act of faith in the importance of experimentation by both Friedrich's team and the public.

Sophiensaele, a well-known venue in Berlin-Mitte that presents its own mix of performances throughout the year, is hosting the festival this year. I hiked up the stairs of the cavernous space (home to the worker's union before World War I) to see Hans-Werner Klohe's "Alone Within Alone," on a shared program with Nicole Beutler's "Sonntag." Uncovering the body's fragility in response to a speedy world, Klohe mixed up his choreography, finely etched whirls and sharp spokes danced by Alice Gartenschlager and Su-Mi Jang, with a score played out by vocal artist Christian Reiner. These three ardent performers first appeared together, their barely perceptible whispers accompanying a tension-filled attempt to walk downstage while staying constantly connected and changing their grips. Gartenschlager and Jang broke into crisp foot patterns and Reiner swallowed words, gulping them down greedily as here and there a renegade tone slipped out, sung in a clear tenor.

Reiner is a strong mover himself, yet most finely commands his voice, bending it to yield tight, constipated sounds and then letting all blow open with a throat-scalding tirade. Klohe roiled Reiner's vocal score into a turbulent stew, and coated his dancer's movements until they were rendered so heavy they had to toss themselves with exertion in order to reach two boxes of light, gracefully sculpted by designer Benjamin Schalike. Here Gartenschlager brought her head down lightly on each of her partners, and tried to listen for their next move. But they just toyed with her, singing a song she didn't know, keeping her at a distance although she sat right beside them. When they finally split, Jang fastidiously drew out the parts of her body, demonstrating their correct relationship to one another in a short funny solo while the two others teamed up to keep track of time with high-pitched notes. When Gartenschlager finally left Reiner, he suddenly malfunctioned, sputtering and spewing globules of noise. Klohe sensuously merged the two women like icy eels, polished and slipping from each other's grasp until they settled into a disturbing two-headed creature, with Jang's frighteningly blank face staring out at the audience. The figure creptits quiet way through the space, working against Reiner's utterances, now a vicious rant. The women creatures' progress was so quietly affecting that I wanted Reiner to shut up until it all came together for me to see that he was she and she was it -- all one in the form of a harbinger from some sad and angry world.

Beutler's "Sonntag," in the second half of the evening, was an experiment with women between the ages of 48 and 74 whom the choreographer met at a Tanztee, a meeting for lovers of movement and dance. These women, a few of whom have had professional performance careers, came forward with their proclamations of life, movement and desire, mixed with sections of stylized line dances. I'm not sure if this experiment worked -- the audience responded well but I couldn't help feeling self-conscious that I was forced to keep a respectful attention. More effective were three or so frozen moments that stretched unfettered by the performers or the audience. The complete silence was glorious and I was calmed by each second that passed, feeling like my mind and attention were rewinding for once, rather than always churning forward. Beutler had wanted men as well as women to participate in the project, and plans on trying again elsewhere in Germany.

Back to snow: Some know it as that fuzzy stuff that appears on the television, usually the result of a disturbance or weak signal. That kind of confused visual was certainly apparent in the work on the Program for Young Choreographers I was able to catch, featuring dance makers still understandably still figuring out what questions to ask of their bodies and what to do with the answers. While audiences cheered them all on, a cleverly wrought performance by Kristen Schmitt in Modjgan Hasheman's "Day In, Day Out" and the work of the group Chat interested me most. The four members of Chat, Anna Berndtson, Bruno Kucis, Ann-Marie von Loew and Verena E. Weiss, fought for concentration amidst disturbance in "All is Not Right," demonstrating the evening's strongest sense of structure in their work, which explored a world suddenly tipped sideways. They created a wonderful place of weirdness with bright-layered costumes, the whole resembling a snowy paperweight, all shook up inside. What is most exciting about the Program of Young Choreographers, besides the support of the audience, is the juxtaposition of these "youngsters" with artists nurtured by participation in previous festivals, revealing a clear progression of growth. If only for this reason, it stands as a clear affirmation of the importance of annual festivals as one way for emerging artists to gain experience and clarity of vision through public exchange.

Performances still to come at the festival include Josephine Evrard and Andreas Muller's "Der Schwamm," which features a world constructed of 6,000 sponges, and "Dual-Bodies," presented mid-festival by Walli Hofinger and the deliciously limber Ingo Reulecke. Don't miss video artist Heinz Kasper's bathtub running over with projections of five tiny, naked dancers, upstairs near the bar. Grab a hot gulhwein and take in the rest of Tanztage until January 25, 2003. Please click here for schedules and information.

Julia Ritter is an assistant professor of dance at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. She is working through a Fulbright Scholar Award in Germany for 2002-2003 and is the artistic director of Julia Ritter Performance Group.

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