The Caricature of the ‘Strong Woman’ and its Monsters
For me, the central theme of Melanie Lane’s work appears to be the decision to work with two professional female bodybuilders, to display their particular physicality and the related practice of movement. Rosie Harte and Nathalie Schmidt are experts in self-staging. The poses, facial expressions and playful gestures we’ve seen in bodybuilding competitions seem to have become second nature to them. As a spectator, I can satisfy my curiosity, take in every centimetre of these bodies in their skintight costumes and allow myself to be seduced by their abilities.
The performance begins in dim lighta. A body can be seen under an oversized glittery black sheet. The flowing fabrics creates a landscape in the stagea area, while a second body in a nude suit liess curled-up on the floor. The covered body begins to move slowly into poses, morphing the fabric to the bassy, expansive soundtrack by Clark, sparking an abundance of sensations in me. The images change from Greek statues, gestures of physical power, to a live event of body-shaping.
As the piece goes on, the performers move through various stage pictures and worlds. They float through a shimmering fabric universe as superheroines with sparkling eyes, posing as Amazons with spears, or dancing to a pop track with barbells. The hiss of exhalation to activate the deep abdominal muscles, the painstakingly slow tempo of tensed muscles, or the counting and commentary on their own movements render these impressions strange, and alter them over and over again. It makes me think not only of images of ‘strong women’ in popular culture - the Superheroine, the Amazon - but also of the presumed monstrosity of these bodies.
I like the fine, articulated work with objects and materials, such as the giant glittery blanket - a recurring element in the piece. In my view, Melanie Lane found appealing ways to put Rosie Harte and Nathalie Schmidt’s particular bodies into the context of ‘strong women’. But during the course of the piece, I wondered which are the bodily attributes that are being propagated as feminine here - the long hair and fingernails, the glitter and the heavy make-up? Are they counterbalances to the ‘masculine’ muscles? The strategies for breaking through traditional gender stereotypes that I know from a queer, feminist context seem much more complex, more elaborate. We did away with the Sexy Superheroine vs. Monster dichotomy a long time ago, didn’t we?
One moment stands out for me. The performance takes place in HAU 1, a large, classic theatre stage - but the audience is seated on the other side, and behind the stage is a giant, empty auditorium. At some point in the middle of the piece, Rosie Harte puts on a sparkling cape and turns around towards an imaginary audience. She murmurs, whispers and screams an unintelligible message to them. Then I think, “Aha!” We are behind the scenes of a bodybuilding competition and get to see these two people’s thoughts, hopes, and fantasies! The choreographic view as a camera behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this motif is lost as the piece continues.
This thought is enough, however, to lead me to reflect on the role of choreography and the relationship between choreographer and performer. Here, choreography is like an invisible hand that makes its characters dance right before the audience’s eyes. I keep wondering what the choreographer’s motivation was for exploring these bodies. What is her opinion of ‘strong women’? Maybe I’d feel less compelled to search for an answer if the choreographer had made her position more transparent, and I could read the choreography not so much as a regime of representation of certain images of femininity, but rather as a negotiation space, a dialogue between choreographer and performer.
Rose Beermann is a choreographer, performer and dramaturg from Berlin. The relationships between fitness, dance and media representations of female bodies are central subjects of her work.
Many projects that break stereotypes and put contradictions side by side face the problem of keeping those clichés alive - and even fortifying them - through constant repetition. This seems to be the problem with Wonderwomen. In order to ‘connect athleticism and femininity’, as promised in the advertising copy, you first have to think of them as separate, and not compatible, entities. How often, after all, do we try to connect masculinity and athleticism?
I went into the theatre with this sceptical underlying feeling. My main thought during the first act was: Why must a piece about strong women involve them crawling around aimlessly, making loud breathing noises? Personally, I would have been fine with not understanding the piece, due to my meagre affinity to the theatre, yet even my more knowledgeable companions - all of whom, incidentally, are ambitious fitness and martial arts practitioners - also communicated their unease with this scene. Luckily, this act does not make up the entire piece - the protagonists move their bodies into an upright position, and perform synchronised strength exercises in presentation poses, accompanied by shining glitter and spotlights.
We interpret this as a story of self-discovery and resurrection, in which an aesthetic, glorified existence arises from the protagonists’ aimless existence. This is a classic story that speaks to our experience, but the way it is told here is not exciting. Interesting negotiations take place between the lines of the success stories usually told about women - or equally, with other groups marginalised by society - who excel in areas not intended for them. Between these lines there are multifaceted stories of solidarity and competition, of breaking norms and adaptation, of self-empowerment and self-deprecation. Here, the subject matter of Wonderwomen might have offered some more potential, but this wasn’t taken up, or wasn’t recognisable - at least not to me. One image I did find exciting during the piece was when both actors lifted a long barbell together. For me, this represented breaking away from the things usually associated with bodybuilding. It was a picture of togetherness rather than individualism and opposition. It disappeared in a flash, however, and a moment later, they pulled the barbell into two short poles and began - against one another? comparing themselves to each other? competing with another? - performing classic barbell exercises in unison.
The girlish, almost male-gazey soft-porn poses of the performers annoyed us. Is muscular women wantonly playing with their long hair meant to be the link between femininity and athleticism? Maybe it was supposed to be ironic? To hint at the absurdity of the bodybuilding industry for female participants who have to prove their femininity as well as - if not despite - their muscle mass? Unfortunately, the irony was lost on us.
Corinna Schmechel has been a competitive boxer and trainer for 10 years. She is also a PhD candidate and visiting lecturer in Sociology and Gender Studies, focussing on the body, gender and sport.
Two women share history and practice. Training, discipline, and experience are embedded within their bodies. I feel connected to their journey, for the highly trained body is part of my own history. Perhaps my longing to engage with these bodies comes from a desire to re-connect, remember, and re-interpret the all-consuming regime of deep physical training and its effect. This piece is one part of a series of works where I attempt to design choreographic spaces for the performative negotiation of highly trained bodies. A professional ballet dancer, a teenage dance student, exotic dancers, a boxer, and now two female bodybuilders. In this series, I am looking for possibilities to reach beyond what trained bodies can achieve and to find potential for a future body.
I am drawn to female bodybuilding for its intimate relationship with the body, the resistance to the female image portrayed in society’s dominant narrative, and the possibility of physical transformation. I cannot deny how I fetishise the female muscular body in its immediate representation of both power and obsession. However, this fetish became largely neutralised through my encounter with these women. I grew to see beauty in the articulation of their architecture and a softness in the sensitivity of their personhoods.
It is a collaboration, a dialogue and a learning process - a blind date that shares the language of breath, texture, negotiation, and the supernatural.
Nathalie Schmidt and Rosie Harte – both highly successful in their sport – are proud, confident, and relentlessly determined. Apart from their bold individualities, they have their sport, lifestyle, and gender as cis women in common. Their hunger for process, progress, and achievement charms me. Their communication of personal choice is contagious and bewildering to me. I see a reclamation of the female performing body – a future body.
First encounter: we speak about gender, diet, drugs, training, competition, shape, glitter, online presence, partners, femininity, power, vulnerability, and super heroes. I eat what they eat. I train how they train. I pose how they pose. I think I’ve broken my biceps. I experience power, plus pain and instability. The diet alone ravages the mind; it prods at its weakest points as the body experiences euphoria.
Nathalie and Rosie generously expose their hesitation to perform in a contemporary dance context. It’s their first time expanding their performative language from static poses and 90-second stage appearances to a 60-minute performance. There is an opening sequence where their vertical, bodybuilding postures from competition are negotiated horizontally, requiring them to call upon their tools of resistance training in response. The discovery of acute muscular control in movement becomes a modality. They assist and support each other through endurance and transformation. They become each other’s personal trainers. They become competitors. They become mythical. Their athletic journey amplifies.
Rosie and Nathalie are activists. They live their femininity despite harsh public resistance. Hair flicking, flirtatious, sensual, flexed, hard, soft, pink, maximal. Is it irony or a genuine choice? I feel the public resistance. It’s delicious in its division — some see porn, others fall in love. Is this a moment for self-projection?
I watch them in flux between power and instability. I glimpse super heroines; their manes suspended in flight, bodies glistening under liquid fabric. I observe the rupture of power, the acknowledgement of pain, the transparency of breath, and the fragility of endurance. Their trajectory is both brutal and hypersensitive. Wondrous. Wonderwomen.
Melanie Lane is a choreographer and performer based between Berlin and Melbourne. She is the choreographer of Wonderwomen.
Wiederholung und Differenz _ Three Duets. A choreographic triptych / Tanzcompagnie Rubato
Three Imaginary Dialogues Between Recipient (R), Maker 1 (M1) & Maker 2 (M2)
R: Is it bad to say that your age made me feel strangely protected?
M1 & M2: [laughing]
R: Maybe it made me feel less excluded?
M2: How old are you?
M1: [interrupts] Do you mean you felt less excluded because you’re the same generation as us?
R: No, no, it’s more that I felt let into some kind of intimacy …
M2: … which you, as a recipient, were maybe only able to experience due to your age. [laughs]
R: … ?
M2: … experience the intimacy … due to your age.
R: Why did you call this evening a ‘triptych’ and not a ‘trilogy’? The term comes from painting, right?
M1: Yes. It’s three-fold.
M2: Hinged together.
M1: Three parts integrated into one unit.
R: Aha. So, ‘triptych’ describes the connection between the three duets of this evening? Hinged together, rather than loosely related?
R: What is the hinge?
M2: What was it for you?
R: Oh, me? … Well, I was very much aware of the reference in the programme notes to Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, where he suggests that both difference and repetition have a meaning independent of the idea of sameness … I haven’t read it, but isn’t that what he suggests?
M1: Roughly, yes.
R: So is that the hinge?
M2: Is it for you?
R: Oh, me? … Well, your Repetition and Difference was done before, in 2015, so there is repetition on that level too, besides the obvious use of repetition as a compositional tool. Personally, I’m more drawn to the act of re-viving an older work.
M1: One could argue that everything we do in life is a repetition … connecting past and future.
R: Hmm … In your case, I am drawn to a certain quality which I assume comes from your extensive repetition in collaboration.
M2: What kind of quality?
R: It’s hard to describe … I see it especially in you, while you perform.
M1: In me?
R: Yes. It’s there in both of you, but it was very immediate when watching you.
M2: What kind of quality was it?
R: It’s hard to describe … ‘transcendence’ maybe. Something transcends immediately.
M2: I think you’ve been told that before.
M1: Yes, maybe.
R: And I saw all these strikingly beautiful photographs of your body of work on the internet for your 30th anniversary. I had no idea!
M2: Thank you!
R: It explains why those German Ausdruckstanz and Tanztheater icons came to mind. I only realised it during the third duet, when I thought of Dore Hoyer’s …
M1: Afectos Humanos?
R: Yes! I was impressed by how much your movement vocabulary varied across the three duets. And how your commitment to use dance as an expressive force, sometimes an expressionistic force, persists.
M1 & M2: [together] Thank you.
R: So, the questions one explores throughout one’s artistic career must relate to the time one was born and raised, mustn’t they? Isn’t it really just one question? Isn’t that the thing which makes a body of work so … [gesturing, searching for words] interesting, if this question transcends? And doesn’t the maker keep reiterating the question to the point it seems redundant to the recipient? And even if the maker is aware of this redundancy, they keep repeating it because they know there is more to discover. Isn’t there always more to discover?
M2: Is there for you?
R: Oh, me! Yes, I think so, yes!
Hanna Hegenscheidt is a choreographer and teacher of Klein-Technique.
I sit in the dark, atmospheric music soothes me. A man and a woman are dancing in the monochrome light. Their movements are simple. Rhythmic. Their heavy breaths set the beat. Even though the first part of the performance has a Chinese name, it makes me think of the dances performed by my daughter’s father, an African dancer. Maybe all traditional dances are similar? They are, after all, all based on the human body and the ways it expresses itself ... my thoughts wander ... and are then brought back by the intense sound of breathing as the couple dance next to each other, separately. They follow each other, copy each other. They barely touch each other. It reminds me of long relationships: the monotony, the routine, the protesting, the rage, the learning, the changes, the letting go. The movements that I take to express rage and protesting are my favourites. They are humorous in their theatricality; I laugh.
The second part is more passionate, like a flashback. Getting to know each other, being crazy for each other, finding out who is the strong one and who is the soft one. The movements are woven into each other, unconditional attraction interchanging with powerful repulsion. I think about intimacy and fun. I am happy when I meet my partner later and try to show him one of the difficult, interwoven dance movements. At the end, both repeat a gesture from the first part. They point together in the same direction ...
In the last part, a colourful wall installation gives the room its character, and the music intensifies. Everything is cheerful. The couple dances playfully, freely, independent of each other. When they approach one another, they are careful and tender. Even when they turn away from each other, they remain in contact. In their uniqueness, playfulness and freedom, they are closer together than ever before. I find this part the most entertaining and the least emotionally taxing.
I think about the couple, about myself, my work, my relationship with my partner. I have been a dentist for 30 years and I’ve been in enduring relationships. If I do something with love for a long time, it gets easier, more detached, freer. At work, my experience of repetition is not monotonous, but rather an opportunity to learn and observe myself. I like seeing how easy things are for me and how unafraid I am to make a mistake. Challenges are no longer threatening but inspiring. I can draw from a wealth of experience and try out new things with curiosity. In fact, I can say the same about my relationships. When I was 20, I never would have thought that 30 years later, I would be even more inquisitive, more inspired and more fearless.
The dancers seem to be a couple that don’t just share their work, but also their lives. The dynamic of the performance reflects my experience in a way that uplifts me, allows me to indulge in a moment of insight, gives me the sense of being at one: at one with the collective experience of life, comforting and calming in its repetition, encouraging in its difference.
I feel free.
Dr Annegret Presting-Koité works as a dentist in Berlin.
That’s right, we work together as a dancer-choreographer couple and we live together – and have done so for more than 30 years! This configuration can only work when the acts of Repetition and Differentiation consistently find themselves in a state of interpenetration, and where change is the only constant … and, both artistically and privately, if daily life and art are two different – but not entirely separate – realms. The question of how artistic processes and life processes, how artistic unity and personal difference can coexist over a long period of time is a topic that Wiederholung und Differenz (Repetition and Difference) deals with.
According to Deleuzian philosophy, something can only be repeated if the thing itself is an original. He also holds that, through repetition of the original, something new comes into being. Given the fact that this text was written in China, and that we’ve had an intensive cultural exchange with China for over 20 years, it is interesting to see things from a totally different perspective and consider the meaning of ‘original’ from a Chinese (linguistic) point of view. When translated back into English, the Chinese term literally means ‘genuine trace’. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han wrote on this subject: “In it (the ‘genuine trace’) there resides no promise. There is nothing linked to it, either in terms of reaching goals or posing mysteries … it allows no existing work of art to have a definitive form”. The original Wiederholung und Differenz, made in 2015, is a bridge between both these ways of thinking. By using material we’ve already used before and adapting it to our ever-changing minds and bodies, and by using existing movement-material from a foreign culture (namely, Chinese folk dance) and transforming the aesthetics of it into our European bodies, what is produced is not a copy of the original. It is, rather, a new original, one possessing no completed form.
The 2017 revival of the piece continues with the repetition of this process of differentiation from the original. This chance to show the work again was, for us, the bringing back to life and the new life of earlier creative processes; diving once more into three distinct making periods, each with their own movement qualities; the recollection, in body and mind, of movements, rhythms, pathways, and timings; the variety of each different body position. In 2017, our memories were overwritten by lived experience. We discovered the piece anew, understood afresh the coming together of the three parts. It was nothing less than a description of life through three examples, or – in keeping with the metaphor of the triptych – in three panels. We, the dancers, were the hinge. Although we are older, it was easier this time. To quote Anne (Writer 2): we’ve continued to learn, things were easier for us, we were less afraid of making mistakes.
Hanna (Writer 1) asked us whether artists keep on asking the same question all through their (artistic) lives. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles pointed out that: Things are brought into motion by ‘Love’ and ‘Strife’, at other times, they are at rest. Possibly, this is the theme we repeatedly turn back to, work with, participate in. The fact that we have brought our artistic and private lives together over such a long time intensifies the ‘force-field’ this topic exerts over us. It changes with every repetition, because we ourselves change, as do our life circumstances. Our ongoing practice and life experience, along with the physiological process of ageing, change the way in which we deal with this theme. What has not changed, however, is the investigation of the Body and Movement, and the expression of Process. Even our theoretical research always leads back to the Body.
Many older audience members, with longer life experiences, will be able to access Wiederholung und Differenz. But what about the younger viewers, those who could be our children ... What do they see? What do they feel? What do they experience? Are they able to experience Repetition and Difference in the same way as the older spectators do?
Jutta Hell and Dieter Baumann are artistic directors of Tanzcompagnie Rubato, and choreographers and dancers ofWiederholung und Differenz _ Three Duets. A choreographic triptych.
The Empire Strikes Back: Kingdom of the Synthetic / Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends
There is something about the weight of things, bodies, how they hang or drop, sway or billow out, how they are lifted. How are they lifted?
Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends presents us with a peculiar revue - a “voyage through the history of the future.” It is hard to imagine what shape this body will take as the premise removes an understanding or need to understand the temporal plane of this current existence. What is the history of the future? A conundrum as one is prone to think of the future, stay in the present, and respect the past. Billow outwards, not in devised directions. So accept this performance as such - as a proposal of things to come, of bodies to come, have already come to perform.
This is a ragtag gang pioneering an obstacle course, an ode to / in awe of Science Fictions. There is childlike audacity, ascending, building blocks and scaling, down, images offered: Star Wars, Space Odyssey, Faye Wray wrapped in the arms of a King, Life on Mars and Bowie, that freshly fallen familiar, to name an immediate few. With those fictions, those historic hands offering views of the future - we, no, one, begins to unfurl in a stream, no, a flurry, a fury of questions. Sing song syllabic simple. Heavy hang in complex symbol. To whom with whom for whom. By them by you by me. And then and now and then.
Ponder future histories. When the sounded cymbal settles and the haze clears, history sits squarely in a throne room, or a storage room with a throne placed amongst parcels and packages - a solid pit in fleshy surroundings.
Drop in where fallen fruits lie. Sway on shifting terrain to say statements loud in silence, pitting human against machine, as rhythms, mechanic, take over. But body difficult weaves through pitch-black plinths uneasy.
To point to the future, one acknowledges the hand that points, the body of which feels rooted in something long since gone, perhaps to return, perhaps to hold. The word can be bold. The vision can be clear. The future can be slick, well-oiled, a hydraulic system to suspend gravity, weight. But the hand will remain unsteady, scratching surfaces, jagged nails on jagged edges. That body, in troubled footfalls, falters. So they are lifted, suspended over views.
An astronaut wears a harness, a suit handmade, clipped into a rope on a pulley by the hands of another. The sound of strain as the body rises and pulls, an uneven breath accompanied by the irregular hand over hand that ties off, later let down. The body lifted, in future, distinctly in human process.
As others rise, as lights rise, this body sways soft in a soiled throne, stomach centre in tumble cycle. There is something about the weight of things, bodies, how they hang or drop, sway or billow out, how they are lifted, unsure of the future of history.
Enrico D. Wey, currently between New York and Berlin, makes things. Sometimes they perform with and for others.
The Empire Strikes Back: Kingdom of the Synthetic, a dark one-and-a-half hour piece by Ariel Efraim Ashbel and friends, transmits an anti-humanist discourse starring monkeys and astronauts, Neanderthals and techno-humans, Hanna Arendt and Sun Ra. It’s a theatre spectacle that works with effects, intensities and anti-logocentric agenda. It plays with mere representations as if they were magic, yet is still disillusioned with narrative and literalism. It envisions a form of theatre which is enabled, and which succeeds in escaping the snare of what came to be known as 'total theatre'. Ashbel’s piece is unburdened by genres, escapes purist conceptions of craft and fine tuning, and is noncompliant with the theatrical ideals of its time, such as interdisciplinarity, embodiment and ephemeral performativity.
Empire mixes together Afrofuturism, constructivism, science fiction, techno-culture, dance, music and theatre into a psychedelic ayahuasca brew as it transmits the experimental vibe of the 1960s. Ashbel’s agenda turns Belgian director Jan Fabre's idea of theatre on its head: Fabre is a lover of skills and disciplines, he strives for the separation of artistic mediums, for the ability to excel and progress. While both Fabre and Ashbel are conceptually framed by post-dramatic movements, Fabre remains loyal to the historical origins of drama, to a sense of coherency and literalism – and the interplay between them. Ashbel, on the other hand, re-senses those messages to present us with a sensual object that is structured through intensities and vibes.
Ashbel could be viewed as a post-modern neo-hippie improviser who has read too much Gilles Deleuze, but a closer observation exposes the anti-humanist passion which fuels his art (and heart). The sources and references he uses in Empire aren’t a map or index to read the piece, but rather pure visual effects. For example, Arendt’s political formulations on the problematic relationship between man and machine in the modern era are screened on a narrow black board, recorded and played Twin Peaks-style in reverse; David Bowies’ voice is fragmented into multiple singers that sometimes only animate the activity of singing, and Daisy, Hal 9000’s swan song from Space Odyssey: 2001, is sung by a ready-made technomorph in the closing sequence.
The musical score, by Yoni Silver, was the most miraculously treated medium for channeling Empire’s anti-humanistic message. Silver, who also plays a live clarinet solo on stage, designed a mesmerising soundtrack which corresponds to the levity of the performance with its pseudo-quotation-mark framing and aerial subject matter. The musical contribution culminated in a closing sequence in which Colin Hacklander of noise duo Hacklander/Hatam approached centre stage to deliver a dreamy drum solo, signaling the end of this ritualistic happening called performative art. It seems that art for Ashbel, de-coded from logo-centric apparatuses of meaning and from encapsulated subjects performing texts and subjectivities, is ritualistic in nature, and should be practiced and imagined as such.
Unlike Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch or Romeo Castellucci, Ashbel’s theatre gives across a sense of 'coolness' and lightness that penetrates every image. It treats the historical avant gardes as a palette committed to their multiple effects, not to their ideological meta-structure. It has no intention in shock or presenting a Bacchanalia of the subconscious. It has no special interest in Greek or Aristotelian formulations of theatre. It could just as easily be performed on Broadway or serve as a special effects unit in a Hollywood blockbuster. But instead, it insists on the theatre as a public space, in times when all public places are occupied by capital. It is probably what Miles Davis meant when he coined his 1957 album title Birth of the Cool.
Shir Hacham is a performance theorist and a PhD candidate in philosophy at Tel Aviv university.
art (and heart)
the premise removes an understanding or need to understand
In the process of making Empire, after we'd collected materials and once the visual and musical frames were more or less defined, the team sat facing a wall of colorful sticky notes. We looked at the collection of ideas, songs, images, physical exercises, and performative situations. Many of them related to references we've enjoyed exploring, some of them stemmed from improvisations and physical brainstorming, and we couldn't make sense out of it. It didn't come together in a way we could identify, and yet there was something there that FELT right. Honoring sensation not as ranked “above” intellect but rather as a generative force that encourages conceptual rigour, we went with that feeling and took on the challenge of keeping it weird by following the logic that the materials presented to us. Understanding and the need to understand might be removed in the sphere of Empire, or maybe new routes are being paved towards the idea of “understanding”, extending its borders to include sensorial articulations.
Accept, enabled, a fury of questions, uneven breath, irregular hand, levity
This composed situation is about accepting confusion, about formulating a questionable proposal that is strong, clear, and sometimes offensive, raising a fury of questions, while remaining open and abstract. The uneven breath and irregular hand are enabling the levity of Empire's body.
an ode to / in awe of, mere representations as if they were magic
I'm interested in presentation much more than representation, and I think by taking the “re” out – forgetting about repeating, reenacting and appropriating – the process of construction can become magical.
committed to their [historical avant-garde's] multiple effects, not to their ideological metastructure, it insists on the theatre as a public space, sensual object
“Public art” or “political art” can be obscure, abstract, and vague. That obscure object of desire is what makes me curious and excited. I don't fully “understand” Empire, but I know that it's a labor of love, trust, and care. It's not about learning something new or becoming a better person. Knowledge production is a bodily procedure. Knowledge is being produced by bodies, through bodies, for bodies. Recently I've noticed a linguistic lapse people use all the time: “my body” does/says/feels this or that (“my body is telling me something”, “my body aches”, “my body is tired” etc.). It's as if we are certain about some separation between “my body” and “me”, as if the two were distinct individual entities who can converse and negotiate. Without getting into what exactly that other “me” is – not my job, thank god – I realized I don't want to use this language anymore. Empire, and my work in general, is to a large extent devoted to the project of enjoying, making fun of (without irony), and ultimately wishing to annihilate that dichotomy and the order that comes with it. However, as we don't wish to be exclusively destructive (or exclusively anything, and certainly not avant-garde as Shir precisely noted), my work is also about proposing something else. Shamelessly ambitious and I guess provocatively enjoyable, it's a celebration of what we can't put into words but can put into gestures, images, and moments – the ritualistic happening called performative art.
All italicized quotes are from the responses to Ariel's piece written by Writer 1 and Writer 2.
Ariel Efraim Ashbel makes performances between theater, dance, music, and installation. He is the maker of The Empire Strikes Back: Kingdom of the Synthetic.
In the Chaos of Emotional Truth 1
The weather is beautiful and the trees are in bloom. On the corner of Fidicin Street I see a hand-painted sign: Call Centre plus gifts, groceries, textiles, drums and sculptures as well as African Art. There are about five men in front of it, talking. A few doors down, in the courtyard of the English Theatre, the atmosphere is electric. Voices are murmuring in English everywhere. I note that, as a white person, I'm in the minority here. I feel a wave of psychedelic chords inside; the poster on the wall reminds me of the hypnotic New York band TV on the Radio. Stepping into the foyer, I find an exhibition, documentation of deaths in police custody in Europe, particularly that of Oury Jalloh. The shouty slogan Oury Jalloh was murdered! that I had seen on a wall in Görlitzer Street in 2005 rung in my ears. I read the facts eagerly.
The doors open. The ensemble is already on stage, relaxing, playing board games on wooden tables and benches. To me, they are wonderful. As powerful as an avant-garde band. I sit up front on the left, beside me is a social worker from Afghanistan who is this evening's interpreter for young refugees. He asked me if the performance had started. I answered that, for me, something even bigger had already begun outside. He looked at me in a kind, confused way. Lighting change. We fall silent and the ensemble behaves just as though they are going to perform a play. I am aware of the artificiality of their play. Aren't we just sitting in a theatre?! Were the psychedelic chords actually only in my head? What's in front of me on the stage seems banal to me — a character wants to tell us her story. This sort of performance is at times reminiscent of a naturalistic Broadway production, and at times, in the epic accents, of Brecht. The story moves forward without uncovering any real conflict. Dramatic punchline: there was a fire at a police station, and a migrant in custody there died. Panic is acted out. For me in the audience the air is so thick I could cut it with a knife. I have to get out. Intermission. During the break, I read more about the initiative In Memory of Oury Jalloh Association who are battling to file murder charges. Mouctar Bah, friend of Oury Jalloh, founder of the association and inspiration for the figure of the supposed narrator, is standing at the association's info stand. Lost in an emotional truth vs factual truth muddle, I go back into the theatre. There, I hope for a paradigm shift to take place: I yearn for an outbreak of realness or a 'meeting-like collective event' in the sense that Brecht saw his plays. Maybe the refugees could get up on stage now, and talk about their lives in Germany? But the best thing would be if Mouctar Bah came on stage and took over his own role. He did do this, with tears in his eyes, but only during the applause. And for these tears, we, along with the Afghani interpreter, gave a standing ovation.
Later, when I walk back past the call centre, I imagine that the men sitting there are playing The Most Unsatisfied Town by themselves, as a game without spectators, an experimental exercise for mutual understanding about institutional racism - not the reality on stage but the game on the road. A play that teaches with fragrant blooming trees as the set design in the background.
1 A visceral, heartfelt connection that arises between reader and character or characters through the unfolding (and possibly the resolution) of an invented, narrated conflict, a connection so powerful that the reader perceives reality and truth in what is known to be pretend, known to be fiction. Source
Agathe Chion is a theater director, performer and writer from France living in Berlin.
A decade is a long time to remember the details of a stranger’s death. But the facts in the case of Oury Jalloh are simple enough. On the evening of January 7th 2005, Jalloh burned to death inside a jail cell in Dessau, Germany. Police claimed he’d been drunk, high, and uncooperative during his arrest outside a night-club, and so, just before his death, he was lying alone on a mattress with his hands and feet restrained. He’d been strip-searched and didn’t have a lighter. Even so, a fire started. His cell stood in the middle of an active police station, but although the fire alarm sounded three times (an officer repeatedly switched it off), Jalloh wasn’t discovered until his corpse was an unrecognisable log of char. In the crime scene photograph before me, stainless metal cuffs are still dangling from the four blackened limbs.
Contrary to his supporters - who have argued from the start that he was murdered, and have engaged a series of fire experts, toxicologists, and forensic pathologists who support their claims - the German state insists that Jalloh, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, somehow managed to immolate himself: without accelerant, and despite the fact that his arms were chained to his sides so that he would have had to pick through a mattress seam like some kind of suicidal Houdini to reach the more flammable foam within. Police cite as evidence a melted lighter discovered days after the fire, purportedly stolen from an officer’s desk by Jalloh after his strip search and bizarrely overlooked during the initial crime-scene postmortem, which documented scorched buttons, zippers, and rivets, but no lighter.
Nobody went to prison for Jalloh’s death. Nor have any murder charges ever been filed. The police superintendent who joked at a staff meeting that “blacks burn longer” was quietly reprimanded.
The primary function of violence isn’t to inflict pain but to demonstrate power. When I break your nose or set you on fire, I exert control over your world. In an instant, I confine your entire universe to one of pure sensation. I force your consciousness to withdraw from the expansive and abstract concerns it likes to inhabit - literature, politics, gambling, music, sex - back into the cave of the simplest desire: make it stop. Thus does Elaine Scarry compare the effects of torture to Stravinsky’s description of ageing: “the ever-shrinking perimeter of pleasure.” It’s even more elemental than that. Pain - the language of violence - eradicates the world of thought and feeling.
Violence has a corresponding effect on the communities that most often witness it. As a journalist I’ve interviewed dozens of young African migrants in Berlin. Most of them describe police harassment as a routine fact, one that circumscribes lives of enforced idleness or inconstant work and study. For me, the most affecting moment in The Most Unsatisfied Town, a new play loosely based on Oury Jalloh’s life, is the scene where Jalloh’s fictional stand-in describes his attempts to audit a university course in Potsdam. He’s thwarted by the local police, he says, who make a habit of arresting him at his bus stop and hauling him down to the station to check his documents. After a few weeks, he gives up. Long before his death, the threat of violence has determined the shape of the refugee’s world.
That’s what we’re really talking about, after all, when we write about the politics of race or asylum: the right to make one’s own world, in thought and labour, which is the very opposite of violence.
Ben Mauk is a writer from Baltimore living in Berlin. His investigative work on right-wing extremism and refugee integration in Germany and Poland is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Joy Angelia Gardner, Kola Bankole, Semiar Adamu, Ahmed F., Marcus Omofuma, Aamir Ageeb, Samson Chukwu, Richard Ibekwe, Naimah H., Christian Ecole Ebune, Christy Schwundeck, Mareame Ndeye Sarr, John Achidi, Mariam Getu Hagos, Oury Jalloh, Laye-Alama Condé, Yankuba Ceesay, Dominique Koumadio, Joseph Ndukaku Chiakwa, Maxwell Itoya, Prince Kwabena Fosu, Sarah Reed.
The preceding 22 names are a partial list of deaths-in-custody of People of Colour within Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Switzerland over the last two decades. They attest to an atmosphere of institutionalized racism within Europe. They speak of inequality in the balance of power between police officers and those they are sworn to protect, as well as of grievous flaws in the legal systems that often protect perpetrators who wear uniforms at the cost of victims who do not.
For Mouctar Bah, a Guinean immigrant living in Dessau, Germany in 2005, the name Oury Jalloh was the name of a close friend and community member, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone who had made it to the Federal Republic of Germany after tremendous personal sacrifice and hardship. Jalloh burned to death in a basement holding cell. The official explanation was that Jalloh committed suicide, somehow immolating himself while chained to a fireproof mattress within a tiled cell using a cigarette lighter first added to the list of evidence three days after investigations began.
The sheer arrogance of the official story, the missing video records, the clear intimidation of police officers who testified, and the existential threat these circumstances represented to all People of Colour in Germany and in Europe inspired Mouctar Bah to an act of civil courage; he founded the Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh in order to find out what happened to his friend and bring his killers to justice. More than eleven years later, the Initiative's members have incurred personal debt, have been threatened, beaten, imprisoned, and have in turn become victims of social injustice.
Amy Evans’ piece, The Most Unsatisfied Town, bears witness to Oury Jalloh and his death-in-custody. By choosing to approach the story as documentary fiction, Evans has created a drama in which the depiction of the abuse of power achieves universal resonance and supports the twenty-one names in the first paragraph.
In her play, Evans concentrates less on Rahim, the character who is murdered while in police custody, focusing instead on Laurence, a hardworking immigrant who risks everything to bring justice to his friend. As such, it serves not only to ensure that attention is paid to the specific case at hand; it also serves as inspiration for what a few dedicated human beings can achieve through persistence, perseverance, and resolve. It functions as a play as well as a toolbox of non-violent means of demanding justice.
In directing and producing the world premiere of this play, I hope that it and its ancillary programming, such as panel discussions, workshops, a lobby display and and information table for the Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh, can bring institutionalized police violence against black bodies into focus. I hope that the public presentation of the piece will allow a community to come together and forge a stronger basis to prevent the egregious crimes of the past from resurfacing in the future.
The road to justice is long. The Initiative has been traversing it for well over a decade. Their tireless labor can serve as an inspiration and a call to action to us all.
Daniel Brunet is the Producing Artistic Director of English Theatre Berlin | International Performing Arts Center. He directed The Most Unsatisfied Town.
Dear copy & waste, dear reader,
I experienced the performance on two levels. Firstly, there was the voiceover that made me laugh. Cheery and near-constant, it made continual theoretical references to discourse, such as Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, or representations of the palace. Secondly, there was the haptic-visual dimension of the walk-in installation; it was a kind of New Age fair where I encountered performers all in white, objects and videos. One scanned the ghosts of my soul; another gave me a UV lamp to make the invisible visible. On stage, a cabaret singer painted in white on a white canvas. The spectre is also, among other things, what one imagines, what one thinks one sees and which one projects - on an imaginary screen where there is nothing to see - Derrida.
Our cities dream identically, says Agamben, who is quoted in the programme. Ghosts are signs and symbols that affixed themselves to things and buildings; our cities become unreadable dream-scenarios through modernisation and property development. What strange ghost-characters might the rebuilding of the palace produce with its faux-historical façade that takes no true historical responsibility? For Carla Freccero, ghosts represent ...an approach to history - and to justice - that would neither 'forget the dead' nor 'successfully' mourn them. Germany sometimes over-adorns itself with its 'mourning' for the dead. Part of this adornment spills into the support of 'critical' theatre projects. As the voiceover pauses and the cabaret lady sings the Ghostbusters theme, I wonder: What would this piece have looked like if it were not part of the subsidy-award system? I suppose affective psycho-spectres are affected by application considerations too. We artists have to justify, in advance, why our productions will be socially relevant and critical of political and aesthetic discourses. And it should sound pleasant and witty as well. I saw lots of pieces in Argentina and New York that were created through the reverse of this logic; money was only involved after the fact. There was also less use of irony to create distance in the theatre there, whereas that's something I see very often in Berlin. Is 'deeply engaged' theatre to be avoided here?
I was sceptical at first - how could the neoliberal representation of the City Palace, philosophical ideas of spectres, and Ghostbusters (!) be combined? Why Ghostbusters? But standing in the courtyard of Ballhaus Ost, in front of the white ghost-hunter van, I remembered being a child watching Ghostbusters, playing with vacuum cleaners and masses of slime. The ghostly presence of my childhood-self was touching. The performance reminded me that pop and humour are catalysts. I heard "That is so cool," during the yoga session with "breathe the asbestos in and move into the downward-facing palace." How do you react to irony and theory? Would you like to make your theories affectively experiencable? In Buenos Aires, theory comes in hindsight, but in Berlin, the theory to decipher pieces is supplied by the theatremakers along with the performance. I was conscious of these different temporal and theoretical preferences, without judgement. And because you proposed the Schlossbusters theory of ghostliness to readability, it now haunts the text used to support and reflect on your piece.
Thank you for your work!
Veronika Bökelmann lives and works in Oslo und Berlin. She is a founding member of the artist collective VOLUMEN EXPRESS and friends.
I have always liked buildings best when they are empty.
I saw it today. A few years ago I was in a bus with the Ghostbusters, going round Berlin from one empty lot to the next, catching little dramas in wonderful, draughty corners, garage blocks and car showrooms. Berlin is changing. Or perhaps not. Airport and palace are progressing, or perhaps are suspended in time-jelly.
Who ya gonna call? Schlossbusters! turned out to be an atmospheric journey back to early 1990s Berlin in order to re-live the nadir of Glowing Pickles Bar at Brunnenstrasse 192, an establishment made entirely of found objects, monitors of yesteryear and skewed experimental objects like a tie-shredding machine and a glowing pickle vending machine. The bar sometimes popped up as a backdrop in films.
After the performance, I went for a bike-ride to reconnect both with the 1990s atmosphere and the empty Palast. I cycled along Kastanianallee once more, past Prater and down to Brunnenstrasse, where our studio and the Glowing Pickles Bar had been, and then towards Tucholskystrasse where we lived in a squat. But by the time I had reached the Rosenthaler Straße intersection, if not before, the associative power of the Anti-New-Palace atmosphere had been sucked away by gentrified-to-death Mitte. Any hopes for a post-asbestos-removal cool Palast-cloaked recycled building — a Kunsthalle perhaps, or a Pompidou Art Centre in the heart of Berlin designed by contemporary, intelligent architects, or new flagship structure for creative Berlin — were dashed in nanoseconds.
The scenario envisioned by Copy & Waste, fed by an incomprehension of the need for a new palace at all, is a kind of Wunderkammer; a labyrinth or hall of mirrors with ghostly performers, little carnivalesque attractions with the charm of an Edward Kienholz installation, and a fairground-game aesthetic where every component triggers a new episode of a Palast and Palace sequel: the palace and the Palast as lovers, Two Royal Children who can never be together; the palace as brutal (re)invocation of the colonial period spectre, in the midst of a city that wants to be part of the 21st century but can't, a city that always wants to have everything rebuilt, re-beautified, even when it was itself not merely beautiful.
The entire scenario, through which the audience can wander, is held together by a fantastic soundtrack. An essay where every possible thought when reflecting on the palace and Palast resurfaces and is replayed: the palace without concept, which is itself conceptual art, the palace that is never finished so that tourists must keep coming back. A Palast that took 34 months to build and 84 months to demolish. This is a portrait of a palace if I say so, This is a portrait of a Palast if I say so. Palast and palace are in constant flux, revenants of architectural history, they become characters in a greenish horror manga. A walk-in installation with attractions, singing and - best of all - even Palace Yoga for everyone who is stressed out by the theme … Get into the downward-looking (upon everything) palace pose, two deep breaths, then move into the upward-looking palace pose. Despite being considered a place of historical importance, there is nothing up there any more.
Nina Fischer is a Professor of Experimental Film and Media Art at the Universität der Künste Berlin and member of the artist collective Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani.
At 10 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday in February, the team behind what would become copy & waste’s Who ya gonna call? Schlossbusters! met at the Humboldt-Box. I was one of the stragglers, climbing the steps of the mass of steel and fluorescent lights minutes after the hour to find the rest of the team already assembled and surreptitiously taking photos of expensive souvenir replicas of the former Stadtschloss and the to-scale 3D map of Schloßplatz and its immediate vicinity circa 1900. By paying the Humboldt-Box a visit, our assignment was to interact with the space critically and to listen to the way in which the exhibition’s mission was communicated before we devised the production.
There was something that felt top secret about those early days, when the show and all of us involved were trying to sift through enormous concepts to find a clear perspective. We knew that the show would be surprising and drastic before we knew what the surprise would be. Operating out of a club during the day at Kottbusser Tor, we gathered around a table reading aloud texts by Lacenaire and Foucault and discussed the origins and physical representations of power. Whatever gems found in our hours-long dialogues each day were put on post-its and haphazardly slapped to a cold tile wall for reference.
Working with copy & waste on this project has been about embracing contradictions - our own and those presented by history - and never permitting each other to be precious or delicate when broaching them. That day at the Humboldt-Box was steeped with irreverence as we poked and prodded around. We examined every object, video installation, and figurine keeping the questions in mind: How is the past reshaped by the present? Is there a certain power to being powerless? And do buildings act as representations of power, or sources of power in themselves? We grappled with this web of interlocking questions knowing full well that the subject of this show and the ghosts of the past that would come with it were formidable, monstrous animals that would never yield clean answers.
copy & waste tackles these monsters in unpredictable and oblique ways. Viewing the politics of the Stadtschloss and the connotations of its reconstruction through the lens of the Ghostbusters franchise is an example of that. In Schlossbusters, a story about a castle is realised as a theme park; an experience that at first charms you with its dynamism, mystery, and humour, before swooping in to deliver a truth about the German zeitgeist. The memory of German shame is physicalised as a room adorned with photographs of haunting stretches in German history - which might at first sound identical to one of the many monuments calling for collective guilt that pepper Berlin, until you hear that the photos appear as blank pieces of paper, only visible under black-lights used by audience members. This is an example of the subversive quality of a copy & waste show and the force with which Schlossbusters in particular crosses into sensitive territory. It is a production that distorts and picks away at the definitions and iconography of shame, power, and ghosts, allowing you to question why set definitions and conventional images are ever-so-sacred and untouchable in the first place.
But perhaps the strongest performance element to Schlossbusters is its transience. Eight performances and then it’s gone. A vanishing act. An extravagant, garish theme park about the dissolution of buildings and their ghosts that - like its subject - disappears with little trace. Schlossbusters is a kind of ghost in this way. It is a show that haunted a theatre once; a funhouse of mirrors reflecting the past; a ghostly container of memories and relics and voices, maybe even similar to the Humboldt-Box, just lacking those expensive souvenirs.
Daniel Sauermilch is a playwright from Brooklyn, NY living in Berlin. He also worked with copy & waste on Knick-Knack to the Future | Ruckzuck in die Zukunft.
During this solo performance, I experienced many different mental and emotional states; from amusement, entertainment and exhilaration, to irritation, confusion, puzzlement and amazement. To provoke such a reaction in the viewer is quite an achievement, especially when there are such limited theatrical and scenographic means being used as in this performance. The stage was practically empty, with only few props. The lighting looked as it were self-made. Only the performer’s costume (an elegant suit more fitting to a TV stand-up show) stuck out in these surroundings.
Felix Marchand, performer and author of this work, developed strong performative body-work, and then used it to gradually fill the void of the performance. This void appears to have been deliberately created in such a way that, both structurally and in terms of the content, there was not that much on offer. In spite of this, something was constantly unfolding. Throughout the piece, I became aware of the shared responsibility that audience and performer carry together for that unfolding process. It seemed to me that Marchand deliberately refused to take full responsibility for what was going to happen next or to fulfill our expectations. Still, the importance of expectation within the performance was in no way diminished. On the contrary, it was pulled more sharply into focus. This way, as spectators, we could directly observe the very mechanism by which expectations were operating and where elements such as rhythm, suspension and tension played crucial roles. In order to bring us into this space of observation, the performer had to put himself into positions that were sometimes very edgy, if not downright dangerous. He needed to create moments of uncertainty and indecisiveness that increased from moment to moment. This would be no easy task for any performer, yet Marchand skillfully sustained this state by playing with different intensities in his expressions. In addition, humour played a prominent role in this performative work, sometimes operating as a safety net, while at other times, to increase risk. I particularly enjoyed the way humorous elements passed from a verbal to a physical expression, often without bringing that action or speech to an end. A clear example of this was Marchand's final exit from the stage, prolonged to the point that we couldn't really tell if the show had finally ended or not. Hilarious!
PREMIERE relies on the performer and his performative skills, as much as on the relationship between the performer and the audience. Since content-wise, from my perspective, we were not left with much as spectators to cling to, we could mostly invest ourselves into this relationship. This was, in a way, announced at the very beginning of the piece. As Marchand waits for us to settle down, he extends this moment to the point where he gives us the power to negotiate the duration of this ‘pre-beginning’ moment. I was intrigued by this idea of shared responsibility and shared power, especially as theatre conventions don't necessarily operate upon such egalitarian principles. Nevertheless, the different principles for watching this performance were established, not by going against these conventions, but rather maintaining and therefore questioning them. I remained comfortable in my seat until the end of the performance, and the performer was most of the time on stage, and yet, the usual functions of watching and performing were challenged.
Jasna L. Vinovrski is performer, choreographer, teacher and eternal student of life.
“Why always me?”
PREMIERE poses a crucial question about taking responsibility for our own creativity and its manifestations: How do we make the best out of our imaginative potential without falling in love with it, and thereby becoming enslaved to the production line of our own creativity? Everything can be ‘dreamt’ into being, experienced from multiple perspectives. PREMIERE is no exception. Informed by the Dream Opening ® procedure from the School of Images, I enter the performance as the dreamer, navigating its fluid structure to see what emerges from within ...
I am always playful, playing, creating, revealing the invisible potential of the world around me. Every closer look becomes a situation in flux, balancing on the edge of reality and imagination. Creation becomes a trap, sending me round and round in circles, returning constantly to my point of departure. There is no end to my creative power. Sensitive to all the possibilities that are constantly emerging, ‘in love’ with my own potential and the potential of the space, I cannot exit the process. I remain in relation to the objects, to the others. It is for the audience that I conceive, towards the audience, in front of the audience, aware of their presence. I create, my eyes in constant wonder, so they too can see differently. I am fast, fluid, shape-shifting, shifting spaces, shifting meanings, I play with their minds, a virtuosic creator, a Master of Ceremonies. I wish to be identical to the objects, without giving priority to the “mover”. How can I step outside myself? How can I reveal without being seen? Without being ‘The Master’? I use my creativity, but it turns on me. I cannot be heard above the cacophony of my own creations. I dissolve into possibilities, an amplified gesture of the audience, a mirror image, a blown-up response. I exist only in relation, bound to be the Eternal Showman.
Felix Marchand shifts with extreme fluidity between reality and imagination, between being the (sole) maker of his creations and a witness to them. He composes a multi-faceted dreamscape of a piece, navigating between plot and patterns, questions that form and then dissolve into yet new manifestations. PREMIERE is a celebration of the power to conceive unimagined worlds out of the most minute details. This same creative competence becomes a nightmarish trap, exposing the doer to the necessity of continuous production. Unable to give up this power, Marchand cannot get to the point or complete the circle. He remakes, reinvents, returning over and over again to the same themes, unable to leave the scene. Even the exaggerated intermission and the end of the piece itself are simply parts of this bigger process.
The audience plays a vital role in this never-ending game. Our presence is a prompt for ongoing invention, our actions multiplied by a performer who remains in the space mainly in response to us. We too create without wanting to; Marchand is our temporary by-product, a collage of fading intentions and amplified ticks. His choices expose our power. He strives to share the attention with objects equally, but his inability to do so is mercilessly revealed. Only he sets them in motion, only he reveals their material qualities, placing himself in relation to them and thereby opening up a world of stories, associations and images. His actions alone trigger immobile reality, layering it with multiple, intertwined meanings. Even the brief moments of entrapment turn out to be knowingly played out elements of theatrical apparatus. Warum immer ich? the burden of sheer creative power echoes through the space, bound by an inescapable egocentric perspective and a futile attempt to stop.
Anna Nowicka is a choreographer and performer based between Berlin and Warsaw. Her artistic practice is rooted in the SaphireTM work on imagination and dreams from the School of Images and an in-depth exchange with Bonnie Buckner.
Felix: It’s Monday. It’s 19:00. The doors open. Both familiar and unfamiliar faces enter the space and take their seats. It feels different today from last Monday, and the Monday before is still vivid in my mind. But this is a brand new day, so I open my eyes, look around me and I welcome them all in. We will spend the next 60 minutes together. Let’s unfold this special night. Let the past enter into the moment, let the past be the past, and let’s embrace this new constellation; this Premiere between them and me.
A Bluetooth Loudspeaker: I’m on. I’m ready. Send me the signal to show them what’s in me. I’m on. I hope he won’t stay with them too long tonight or I will lose my connection … 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, and go… I fire up the song. The best part - when he spins me round, shakes me, plays with me, licks me - is still to come …
Felix: Don’t stare, hold back, take your time, be physical, read the moment within your task, read the other side, but not too much, don’t let them decide what you do, not everybody needs to love you, work through your moves, read the timing of the now. Look and see who is in the audience tonight? One flirty glance here! Another flirty glance there!
The Stand-Up Comedian: So! … I… you… the … you … I … tonight … you … I … together … what … Yes … Sorry… No … Now is not the moment for that … Well … pause …
A Lamp: I wait here for half an hour, and nothing happens ... until now. Out of the blue he hits me! Finally I get their attention. It was worth waiting patiently for so long. It is quite something to hold all this tension: to be fully ON without playing too much.
Felix: We are approaching the end. I stand at the exit facing them. One last look towards them but I can’t see them. They are in darkness. A big cloud of smoke hangs between us. I look into the nothingness enriched with our games. You know that I know. Between us lies the world we created. I remember your laughter, I remember your resistance, I remember your wide-open eyes, I remember your tears, I remember the kid in the second row, I remember the woman who had to pee, but I didn’t let her, I remember the frightening silence, I remember those two, who came late and how thankful I was for this intermission, I remember …
The Smoke: I am on. No, now I am off. You have to wait until my light shines red, then you can push the button and I will come out. Here I am. Sucking in the light. Vomiting out colour. All over the ceiling. Trying to get close to you, because you are so hot.
Felix Marchand is a choreographer and dancer. He made PREMIERE with Ayara Hernández Holz. Together they form the performance collective Lupita Pulpo.
I found it remarkable that all three solo works in Sophiensaele's festival about sex-work My Body is my Business used dialogue as their raw material. There was a lot of talking. Considering that sex-work is seen as legally and socially 'other' in so many countries, and often forbidden or highly regulated, the desire to speak makes sense. With this in mind, I ask myself how far the context of a piece of work is a determining influence on dramaturgical decisions.
Language is a central element in Traumboy. The work reflects on the occupation of rentboy, and on the problem of the stigmatisation of sex-work. Daniel Hellmann talks about his personal experiences, the audience is given the opportunity to pose questions via SMS, and are then asked questions later in the piece. Daniel slips into different roles, as though he is performing those different roles as a rentboy. He moves from image to image, giving space for questions, asking questions back, but he is always the one who is leading the conversation. It is exactly this game of language and power – who is permitted speak, who is spoken to, what intimate talk means – that is central to this work. This reflects back on the representation of sex-work in society, where discussions are often carried out without involving sex-workers themselves, or if they do get involved, the way questions are posed leaves them only a narrow and predefined space in which to answer.
This situation gives rise to questions about representation and visibility. Which roles are most often depicted in public discourse? There is not a single representative image of 'the sex-worker'. There are privileged and less privileged, often marginalised, roles in this field. They have to be considered as multilayered and complex, because a certain role can consist of different social entitlements, and must be considered in its combined effect. Traumboy uses this fact as one of its themes, and thereby achieves an understanding of this complexity of role. Policies function through inclusion and exclusion, and an understanding of the complexity of social privilege is required to develop strategies of resistance and participation.
Traumboy is a positive statement about sex-work which accomplishes a demystification of this profession. The audience becomes a participant, which means – at least according to some – that the distance between the sex-worker and the audience is reduced. Something else also happens over the course of the evening; I am reminded of a professional date, but everything is fragmented and jumbled. The dramaturgy creates loose ends – rhetorical questions and plot-lines – that remain in the space as possibilities. Does the piece really mirror the working routines and specific dramaturgy of a professional date? Or is this just my assumption? If this is the case, has this arisen on purpose, or is it a result of the inner logic of the themes of the piece?
As I mentioned earlier, language plays an important role in the piece. There is, however, a second medium at play. The spatial arrangement of the room, the possibilities that remain open, the different proposals of contact and gaze, as well as personal professional information all convey the multifaceted nature of being a rentboy. At the same time, the piece calls upon the audience to play various roles, confronting them with their curiosity and / or prejudices.
I agree in most part with the claims of the work. There was just one point that irritated; namely, the depiction of the generalised infatuation of the contemporary world of employment with self-optimisation and self-marketing. I was less confused by its understandable inclusion in the piece, than by the fact that the tone of the piece dealt with it either positively or, at best, neutrally - and I am myself sceptical about these issues. At the same time, I have to ask myself why I would make such demands from a piece about sex-work? At least in sex-work, there still exists a clear distinction between the professional and the private person. Sex-work also has to face up to a lot of criticism by sex-work opponents on exactly this issue. Even taking this scepticism on board, in light of the fact that the problem of self-marketing is so evident in so many professions - dance included - the validity of placing such a demand singularly on a piece about sex-work seems almost absurd.
Kai Simon Stoegeris her*self chreographer, dancer and sexworker.
As I watched Traumboy, my thoughts swam between “Oh my God! I’m going to do more sexwork from now on!” And “Oh my God! This guy is faking it!! Everything can’t be as cool as this!”
I wondered where the negative side of sexwork had gone, and what to do when you don’t want to have sex with that specific person. Do you try and find something beautiful in that person, or do you just close your eyes and do your job? As a sexworker, are you able to accept everyone, and be intimate with everyone, and give love to everyone, and therefore be some kind of Love God? Or does sex become a practice on intimacy and transcending ego?
Imagine a world where nobody touches, caresses, kisses; nobody is having SEX. SEX is a Solitary Expression of X chromosome individuum, and a Solitary Expression of XY chromosome individuum. People only touch things. They look into each other’s eyes through cyberglas, they make food with machines, they don’t know how to make children without machines any more.
One day a child is born. She has big blue eyes and the sweetest smile. Ramona is her name. She spends her childhood without being touched, kissed, or caressed. She can’t believe that her parents won’t even pick her up when she was crying, that nobody will kiss her, or caress her.
Nevertheless, she grows up to be strong and curious; a free spirit. She looks gorgeous, sexy, and she likes to study about the Old Days when people still had physical contact and made children through touch and kisses. She becomes a philosopher and anthropologist of SEX. She discovers that SEX isn’t just the Solitary Expression of X and XY chromosomes, but rather an action, a practice that ancient humans used to enact in order to express love to each other and to themselves.
She has an idea for a business, a new revolutionary business, that she calls:
WHOREDOM - The House of Prostitution
At WHOREDOM, everyone can experience touch and love. There will be different levels of experience:
1: Looking into each other’s eyes without cyberglas
2: Experiencing a caress
3: Giving a caress
4: Touching for two (2) minutes
5: Touching with eye contact
6: Experiencing a kiss
7: Giving a kiss
8: Skin on skin contact
9: Oral pleasure
11: A sexual practice of your choice
At first, people are curious, scared, sceptical. On one side, there are people dead set against it, people try to shut it down. They think it is dangerous for people’s health, that their immune systems won’t be able to stand being in such close contact with another person. They think Ramona is dangerous.
On the other side, there are people who come to the House and experience Touch, and Love, and they notice how much happier they become. They start experiencing Orgasms, they start experiencing Contact, they start experiencing Other Levels of Consciousness through another person, Other States of Mind.
The world becomes a place where people use Touch and SEX as a resource for personal growth and creation. WHOREDOM becomes famous. Ramona becomes rich and wins the Nobel Prize for Love.
Federica Fiore is a creative therapist, a researcher of the body and its ecstatic potential.
Some of them notice me. Four meters above their heads. I try not to smile back. Some of them think they are watching me. People enter in interesting combinations. Mothers? Sisters? Lovers? I recognise an old friend. And with her … a programmer? A familiar face? A client. I read his cards last year. It made him happy. I spot Ramona in the back row. She knows so much more than me. It makes me anxious. My hands sweat. Or is it the height? If I fall, it could be fatal.
Collapse. Roll with it.
start talking and won’t stop for a very long time. I make myself vulnerable. Not so vulnerable that I don’t feel safe. But enough to open them up. Does it matter what I say? My words have more function than meaning: charm them so they forget the context, so they listen, so they believe me. It’s a fascinating game. I feel resistance. A language barrier? Culture clash? Or maybe I’m just not in the mood. I like to make people laugh. So I try harder. Sometimes I crack terrible jokes; a chance for them to show me some sign of support. The script is more or less the same every time. I know it well. The initial inhibitions have gone. I enjoy it. Or perhaps, I watch myself enjoying it. Daniel is working out smoothly after all. My body remembers how. This is my choice.
Messages come bearing questions: I don’t want to answer them all. But I keep talking. This is why Daniel is here. The questions are mostly the same. But my answers are not. Later, when I ask the questions, I wonder if they lie as much as I do. A 70-year-old woman tells us she likes being powerful in bed. I admire her. She says “it depends.” I believe her. When she says “never ever,” I let her play with it. The truth likes to be played with. We all connect. The shared knowledge of a lie creates an odd form of solidarity.
I reveal secrets, old photographs. How easy it is to seduce. Sometimes it makes me sad. But since it gets me work, I go with it.
I share reviews. Anyone can find them with just a few clicks if they know my name. The clients are usually more enthusiastic than the critics. Some of them make me very proud. Even the ones I stole from other people. I’m proud someone would believe they were written for me.
There is laughter when the reader stumbles. It happens almost every time. Then I hear Ramona’s voice from backstage as I change into my Night-Angel / Vampire outfit. I recognise the inhalation before every line. The articulation of “Zärtlichkeit”. Her review ends with “Kiss, Tom.” More laughter.
I caress the long hair flowing over my shoulders. I’m ready. Sometimes, after the explosion (glitter only, no cum-shot here), I even get applause. But this isn’t the end. That would be too kitschy. That’s not how it goes. Sooner or later you have to get out of your final pose, wash, dress, make small talk, take the money. Be smart, bring up the future. Next time will be … better. Or different. We say goodbye. Once. Twice. I usually know if they’re coming back. Clients, lovers, strangers.
As soon as they have followed me behind the screen, they are my friends.
Daniel Hellmann is a dance- and theatermaker, singer and performer. He is the maker of Traumboy.