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Tanz im August: O bella ciao, bella ciao

Lily Kelting got involved with the marchers of Anne Collod’s replay of Anna Halprin’s 1967 "Blank Placard Dance". Was it revolutionary?

Image for Tanz im August: O bella ciao, bella ciao
Anna Halprin, Anne Collod. Photo by Dajana Lothert

We are at Anhalter Bahnhof, and the marchers of Anne Collod’s replay of Anna Halprin’s 1967 Blank Placard Dance are in formation: 30 blank placards held aloft by 30 in turns solemn, happy, contemplative and strong protesters, all in white. Only: what kind of a protest is this? Onlookers stare, confused. My role is to trot over to the most open-looking ones and ask them: if you were to put something on that sign, what would you write? What would you like to change about the world? These tourists are Italian, but their son speaks English – he turns to me slowly, a teenager about to start high school, his lips swollen from new braces, and he looks at me plaintively through his thick eyeglasses: “What would I like to change? Everything.”

Many of the responses are banal – “Ich protestiere gar nichts.” “More love.” “World peace.” But then there’s a Reineckendorfer who winks and whispers, “Tegel zu”. An older man with quiet eyes passing by on his bicycle has nothing to protest, but “my wish is that my two beloved grandchildren are safe and happy.” Someone “against intolerance and arrogance” and I got to talking as the protesters walked two by two from Gendermenmarkt up Friedrichstraße. In the end he asks me to add: “I stand against Erdogan.” The marching band plays “Bella Ciao”.

I sometimes think that to be a journalist is to be an empathy machine. I tune to each person I am talking to. We make eye contact, we touch each other’s arms, the city becomes more human. After a conversation about gender from someone who is non-binary, they look me in the eyes and say, “Thank you for talking to me.” The dance is not only on the streets but our question – what are you fighting for? “That’s a really good question,” many respond. “Let me think.” A family watches the marchers circling around the Wall fragments at Potsdamer Platz from across the street – I explain that this is a performance and ask again. A big-eyed girl looks up at me: “From my side I would say… against Donald Trump.” Her father laughs and rumples her hair: “She is eight, by the way.” His answer: global food security.

We “collectors” are hard at work and so many of the dance fans following the protest route have been asked more than once to contribute. I feel sorry for disrupting their experience of the solemn and striking piece. But then a young woman responds, “I told your colleague I would think about it, and now I am ready. I am really worried about the privatization of the health care system in my home, the Netherlands.” A rough looking guy comes up to us, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and asks: “What does the U.S.A. spend more money on, healthcare or the military? Healthcare! Because…” He follows me to two gents on a holiday (“legalize gay marriage in Northern Ireland!”) and goes on and on with facts and arguments about drug lobbying until I need to sprint four blocks to catch the marchers.

A young German couple holding hands are lingering on the sidewalk. They are ready; I sidle up. He answers, “I would like to protest against dumb protesters.” I raise an eyebrow. He continues, “The people who are the most sure that they are right about their slogans are usually the people who know the least, and the people who really know the most about a subject know that it is so complicated.” Next up, a family of tourists who are emerging from the S-Bahn. They confer in Hebrew and one daughter responds: “Black Lives Matter.” Another daughter asks me to cross it out. “That is a very violent organization. We don’t support them. Write instead, ‘Equality Between Races.’”

The three hour march through the city is so intense and overwhelming that only afterward do I compare notes with the other collectors and the marchers. We replay the many stories we heard, the touching moments and the lewd ones and the feeling of being so totally inundated with so many stories: the black woman who wanted the ability “to just exist as a person of color without having to always justify myself.” A woman pushing a shopping cart of bags who spit, “What nonsense! There are so many more important things to protest.”

After the marchers read the demands we collected on cards aloud, we post the cards to the windows of WAU. I know that behind each slogan from the other collectors is a story. I am really surprised that none mentions climate change. But this is the tension between the local and universal at the heart of the piece. At the Brandenburg Gate, I talk briefly with a thoughtful, softspoken young artist who explains his ambivalence as an American in Berlin, not wanting to assume that the issues he is passionate about are relevant here, wanting to be respectful of his environment.

Then I am interrupted by a middle-aged German woman with purple hair who wants to know what we are protesting. By this point I have the response in German down pretty well: “This is actually a dance piece by the American artist Anna Halprin, who staged it on the streets of San Francisco in 1967. Now the French artist Anne Collod is replaying it with Tanz im August. What would you like to protest for or against?”

Then I am interrupted, again, by an American (“Excuse me! Hello! Do you speak English?!?!”) who asks whether or not we are affiliated with another man holding a sign on Pariser Platz. I tell her no. “Good,” she says, before asking me to translate the sign. “Then the piece is not political.” How do I respond to this? The marchers have already passed through the gate and are standing like a barricade, lining the curve of Ebertstraße just beyond, where the Wall once stood, feet planted firm like flag bearers, holding their white posters close to their chests. I gasp because the image is so beautiful. I run towards them.