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Performing Space and History: Theater der Welt ’96

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater, Vol. 27, Nos. 2 & 3 (double issue), pp. 147-154.

Anyone walking out of Dresden’s main train station to attend this year’s Theater der Welt—the first to take place in former East German territory—immediately saw that the 1996 festival was unusual. Life-sized posters displayed Dresdeners standing on piles of stones, dressed in outfits one might find in K-Mart if it had a Bondage & Domination section, donning frumpy masks and capes, and awkwardly toting medieval instruments of violence. Beneath each portrait stood a different response to artist Bettina Flitner’s question, “Imagine you were the avenger from Dresden. What would you avenge?”

The respondents, from a little girl to elderly men and women, all lamented the social changes since unification. One woman dubbed herself the avenger of senior citizens and dreamed o bursting through the roof of the Bundestag, holding aloft her sword, stamping on the ground, and proclaiming—probably in reference to the discrepancy between eastern and western pensions—“I find this unjust!” Another imagined burning down the shop that recently fired her and her husband; yet another grieved over the closing of a youth club and fantasized about shutting the mouths of scornful, laughing politicians and taking over. The posters’ ample white space encouraged graffiti-feedback: “Avarice is your only motif!” or “And if the Wessis withhold their yearly 200 billion DM?,” and the inevitable exchange of “Bring back the GDR!” versus “GDR: Never Again!”

The portraits and the anger they expressed—and provoked, as evidenced by the graffiti scrawled on almost all the displays—were just one non-theatrical part of program director Hannah Hurtzig’s unconventional theater festival. Hurtzig is a “West” German who describes herself as a “freelance producer, dramaturg, author, and impresario.” he had worked a five-year stint as artistic director of Hamburg’s “culture center,” the Kampnagelfabrik, and was program planner for Munich’s Beck Forum Foundation. Her eclectic background became echoed by Theater der Welt’s interdisciplinary repertoire of dance, performance art, installations, art exhibits, happenings, ballroom dance, and puppets, as well as its festival center alongside the Elbe, which consisted of temporary structures that changed daily and a central tent for cabaret performances, music groups, and nightly disco dancing. But little could have prepared her, or anyone, for the mixture of apathy, skepticism, and scorn that greeted the decision to hold Theater der Welt in Dresden.

One German critic told me the festival was almost not held there for fear that the Ossies would interpret the move as colonizing and patronizing. Such a reaction would have been both understandable and, to some extent, justifiable. When Germany was divided, almost every cultural institution in the West had an analog in the East; after what is commonly known as the Wende (or “change”), the West obliterated rather than merged with its Eastern analogs. From the East Berlin theater festival (die Berliner Festtage) to the school system, down to the current plan to remove the image of the little walking man that adorns east German green traffic lights, the ways of the West have been imposed on the East peremptorily. It is not surprising, then, that when Hurtzig shared her initial ideas with members of the Dresden Staatsschauspiel, a representative of the theater shot back: “Do you think you need to show us what world theater is?”

Hurtzig came to match this aggressiveness. When I asked her if she was disappointed by the low turnout of international journalists, she said no, she had a different goal: “To conquer a city that wasn’t a place for this kind of festival.” This challenge, she told Theater der Zeit (which used to be the major theater magazine of the German Democratic Republic), became an occasion to call the usual festival structures into question and solicit projects that would have a specific relation to Dresden itself, to win Dresden oveer by allowing the city to have a strong presence in the festival. She solicited projects such as the Flitner public installation, as well as various pieces relating to the early modernist theater lab at Hellerau and an outdoor performance that used the ruins of the Frauenkirche, a church destroyed by the Allied bombing at the end of the war.

The German critical establishment’s reaction to Hurtzig’s idea was chilly, to say the least. There was absolutely no coverage of the festival in the regular editions of Der Spiegel, while Der Spiegel’s special monthly supplement carried only a hostile preview which quoted the press release’s claim that “the East, Sachsen, and the history of Dresden have shaped the concept of this festival”—and then quipped, “That not only sounds like a threat, it is one.” Franz Wille, writing about the festival in the leading theater monthly, Theater Heute, mocked Dresden for its “aloof” reaction to Theater der Welt, claimed that the festival coordinators distributed inflated ticket sales statistics, snidely observed that all the conversation in restaurants and hotel bards revolved around the 7th Congress of German Medical Doctors or the soccer playoffs, and said the idea of making a “Theater der Welt for Dresden… seemed right from the start to be an impossible task.” Another West German critic I spoke with seemed thoroughly amused that, one week before the festival, only 3,000 tickets had been sold and the festival administration was overcome with panic.

But most of the audience members I spoke with at the various events were enthusiastic locals. The press office’s estimate of a 92% attendance rate looked more or less accurate. Maybe Franz Wille was staying at the wrong hotel—I didn’t even know there was a medical conference in Dresden until I read about it in his article. Not that the festival was a complete success—there was no shortage of mediocrity—but the failures were part of an ambitious project, an attempt to distinguish Theater der Welt from the international festivals that have sprouted up all over Europe and to make it in to a significant even for its host city.

The events at the festival that couldn’t really be called “plays” gave it almost everything that made it memorable: an exhilarating, oddly collegiate air of the local along with the international, of the historical as well as the “avant-garde,” of the inclusive and exclusive potential of contemporary art. It was “theater of the world” in the sense of world theater and the world as theater. Theater der Welt transformed space and history into festival performers. Most effective was Les jours ordinaries, an installation in the magnificent ruin of a theater at Hellerau by French artist Christian Boltanski and lighting designer Jean Kalman, who has worked with Peter Brook, Peter Stein, and Robert Lepage. Boltanski excavates memory—it says so in his bio—and after you see his work you have some idea what “excavating memory” means. Hellerau’s theater began as a laboratory for the landmark collaboration between Emile-Jaques Dalcroze and Adolphe Appia, a cultural nexus which captured the imagination of a range of artists, including Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw, Mary Wigman, and Isadora Duncan. The Hellerau colony itself was a socio-cultural counterparadigm that aspired to and emerged as a tight community of international significance. Here, in a workers’ colony with five times as much undeveloped as developed land—a “garden city”—Dalcroze’s eurhythmics grew from a means of musical exploration to a source of theatrical inspiration, and Appia quietly engineered the first abolition of the proscenium arch and raised stage since the Renaissance. In 1937 it became a Nazi SA barracks, and from the end of the war until 1990 it served as barracks for the Soviet army, under whose aegis it degenerated into the ruin of today—one that provokes intense nostalgia and cries for renovation from an international corps of academics, artists, and architects.

Much of the strength of Les jours ordinaries comes from the building’s history: from the groaning floorboards, so warped in some places that they arch upwards into the room like a sculpted wooden wave, to the old mural at the top of one of the staircases, depicting a massive, Socialist Realist statue commemorating the Battle of Berlin—a hulking soldier cradling a child in one arm and, with the other, grasping a massive sword that has just crashed through the swastika at his feet. Boltanski and Kalman’s visual and aural additions acted as grace notes or small interpretive touches to Hellerau’s intrinsically evocative chambers: the floor of the first stairwell, littered with a faded rainbow of dying flowers; the hallways made labyrinthine by rows of hanging white sheets; the sound of someone practicing piano behind a locked door; a dark corridor where one walked between rows of giant, roaring fans while dimly lit light bulbs swung gently overhead; another stairwell littered with discarded clothes; a lane of bright light ending in an open closet, where it reflected off a small heap of discarded, dusty light bulbs. Boltanski and Kalman amplified the elegiac qualities of the building but stopped just short of sentimentality; their interest lay not so much in the glory of the past but in its inaccessibility—non in the results of excavation, but in the winding and elusive nature of excavation itself.

As for more conventional theater, the most successful productions were those that mirrored the processes of Boltanski, Kalman, Parr, and even Flitner: taking the specific, the local, the small, and exploring it inventively enough to highlight the general, the international, the larger issues and emotions at play. By far, the most provocative were Christoph Marthaler’s Stunde Null, which imagined a retraining camp for German politicians just after World War II; Eimuntas Nekrosius’ staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters; and, less successfully, Mou Sen’s follow-up to File Zero, an anecdotal, often unengagingly hermetic look at life in China, The Hospital. Conversely, the productions that immediately grasped for hugeness, for spectacle, for Myth and Concept, failed most egregiously: Tomaz Pandur’s handsomely staged but utterly hollow tale of incest between Gilgamesh and his mother, the Babylonian queen, Samuramat; and Robert Lepage’s facile The Seven Streams of the River Ota, less epic than schlepic, through Hiroshima, Theresienstadt, AIDS, assisted suicide, adultery, and Zen Buddhism. If only Ota were an hour or two longer, Lepage could’ve added the Gulag, the Khmer Rouge, Bosnia, breast and prostate cancer, and CIA activities in Guatemala. Some directors have no moxie.

Eimuntas Nekrosius and Christoph Marthaler, by contrast, accomplished much with little. Nekrosius’ actors cavorted between psychological realism and symbolism, and relentlessly subverted expectations of how their characters would move or speak: Masha and Irina danced about as Olga announced, “Father died a year ago” in a tone of happy reminiscence instead of melancholy, and the festivities of Irina’s Saint’s day took precedence over all other causes for sulking. When Vershinin arrived from Moscow, the sisters bounded up to him and tried to swallow the cigarette smoke he exhaled—for perhaps the smoke contained molecules of the Moscow air. Later, as Irina spoke in Act II about life slipping by, about being stuck in a muddle and growing old, she rolled a circular dining table, which she had already turned over sideways, around and around, faster and faster, and then suddenly dove onto the path of the massive, thundering object, now transformed into the wheel of some juggernaut of Fate, of Inevitability, of literally crushing boredom, from which, at the last second, Masha saved her. irina’s sentiment, usually conveyed with smallness and stillness, if not lethargy, suddenly became agitated, large, ominous.

Many of Nekrosius’ images played with the idea of stationary movement, circular orbits around a fixed point. When Tusenbach took leave of Irina, he delivered his lines, head down, into a shiny white plate that he had just licked clean of food, his last meal; he then spun the plate on the table like a top, and Irina was left alone, cupping her hands to her ears to shut out the sound of the plate’s inexorable movement towards stillness. In the final silence, Irina began to roll her head around her shoulders, mimicking the plate’s spinning, and fainted. Nekrosius’ style took getting used to—after 20 minutes, I still thought the production was going to be a disaster—but once the adjustment was made, Nekrosius gave the play’s events a sense of magnitude and the actors’ interpretation a sense of unpredictability that is rarely associated with Chekhov.

Both the Nekrosius and Marthaler productions seemed to signal a backlash against Robert Wilson-ish set design. Cheap, feces-brown, wood-paneled walls, barren of doors or windows that might provide an escape, framed Stunde Null’s classroom from hell—or, more accurately, post-hell. Stunde Null, “Zero Hour,” is the name Germans gave to the time immediately following their defeat in World War II and, in that sense, Marthaler was focusing on a distinct time, place, and people, grappling with a history and a transition that cannot rightly be compared to any other. The actors’ speeches were originally delivered by the like of Konrad Adenauer and Kurt Schumacher, and Marthaler’s mockery of these politicians, of their nostalgia, self-pity, and not always convincing contrition, aimed specifically at Germany and German history. But in lampooning the filigree of democratic politics—handshaking, waving to the public, making eye contact, rolling out the red carpets, empty oratorical flourishes—Marthaler’s satire implicated a number of cultures where the trappings of democracy take precedence over democracy itself. Eventually, the comedy of Stunde Null descended into slapstick, reducing the politicians-in-retraining to a motley lot of clumsy clowns who couldn’t even unfold the cots they had to sleep in. Once the men had unfolded their beds and finally settled in, “Frau Stunde Null,” who had overseen the men’s training, went round to tuck them in and sing a word of parting. “Security,” she chimed to one, “Freedom,” she chirped to another—Frau Stunde Null’s way of saying, “Pleasant dreams.”

When German critics mocked the “parochial” nature of Theater der Welt or used the festival’s focus on the local as an excuse to ignore it, they betrayed ignorance of the lesson at the heart of the festival and of Dresden itself. The history of Dresden is the story of the small writ large, most dramatically so at Hellerau which, in spite of its distance from the center of the city, Hurtzig cannily and cleverly used as a central venue, for Pandur’s Babylon, for an adaptation of Nijinsky’s diary created and virtuosically performed by the Volksbühne’s Herbert Fritsch, and for choreographer V.A. Wolff’s xyz—Bewegtes Opfer. Appia’s stage designs were monumental, but Appia always believed that monumental design only made the presence of the individual all the more important. Unfortunately, Pandur and Lepage, the most internationally renowned artists at Theater der Welt, utterly ignored the minute complexities of the individual in favor of grand spectacle. The worry, then, is not that the next Theater der Welt, which will take place in Berlin in 1999, will be too focused on Berlin, its past, and its concerns; it is rather that the critical chill towards the 1996 festival will result in a sprawling, impersonal 1999 festival of traditional theater and “big names only,” an orgy for critics and the Salzburg-Wiener Festwochen-Bayreuth jet set. This year, Hannah Hurtzig made Theater der Welt a truly international festival: placing Dresden in a world context and providing audiences with an opportunity to learn not only about this year’s crop of hot artists, but also about a community and its history.

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