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Is Berlin all danced out?

With Berlin’s biggest dance festival Tanz Im August coming to a close this Sunday, we take a look at the current dance climate. Over 1500 professional dancers and choreographers currently call the Haupstadt home, can it cope with more?

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Sasha Waltz’ Gefaltet. Photo by Bernd Uhlig

A seemingly bottomless pool of dancers and choreographers hailing from the world over has given Berlin the potential to become a global dance capital – but hampered by lack of funds and structure, the art form may end up suffering from too much of a good thing.   

They’re young, they’re creative and they came here to move their bodies. Drawn in by Berlin’s reputation as a hub for inventive, independent contemporary dance productions, dancers and choreographers have flocked to the city in droves. Official figures show there are currently over 1500 professional dancers and choreographers based in Berlin, their work ranging from the completely conceptual to highly theatrical, packing the rafters of countless public and independent venues from grand halls to musty basements. They join established companies like those of Sasha Waltz and Constanza Macras, who’ve helped shape the ‘Berlin brand’ of dance into what it is now: risky, unpredictable, brimming with energy.

Yet how many big names have emerged? Endlessly budding but never quite fully blossoming, Berlin hasn’t managed to produce the same stable of international superstars as other cities.

Now in its 26th year, Berlin’s Tanz im August has become one of the biggest dance festivals in Europe. However, this summer only one out of the 21 choreographers featured is actually based here: the Swedish-Dutch Jefta van Dinther, who stays financially afloat in the Berlin dance scene thanks to a grant from the Cullburg Ballet in Sweden.

Finnish curator Virve Sutinen, the festival’s new artistic director, has this to say about Berlin: “It’s very happening, it’s like a dance capital. A lot of young artists, a lot of young dancers are moving here and it’s full of potential. It has a lot, a lot of talent… almost too much.”

For audiences, Berlin’s fluctuating dance scene has diversity to please even the most pervasive of palettes, but for the dancers and choreographers it’s starting to feel like the industry has overflowed. As Berlin-based Israeli choreographer Efrat Stempler says, “It’s very rich nowadays. When I arrived 10 years ago it was obviously very different. It was much more intimate and smaller. In the last five years it has exploded. There’s an inflation of dance in the city.”

The dance explosion

The couple largely responsible for jumpstarting Berlin’s contemporary dance culture is dancer Sasha Waltz and musician-cum-entrepreneur Jochen Sandig. They both arrived in Berlin straight after the fall of the Wall – Sandig from Stuttgart, Waltz from Karlsruhe. The newly liberated city was buzzing with an energy which fed artistic inspiration. Instantly it became evident that a space was needed to house the growing number of artists and their work so, in 1990, Sandig helped save a huge crumbling five-story former deparment store in Mitte from demolition to found Kunsthaus Tacheles. The venue soon became a thriving hub of alternative culture.

“My background is music and theatre, but my passion for dance started at Tacheles. I met Sasha Waltz while working there, in 1992. We became a couple very early, we fell in love with each other and then everything came together,” Sandig says.

They went on to establish the boundary-pushing company Sasha Waltz & Guests in 1993, which attracted international attention to Berlin’s dance development. Then they founded Sophiensaele in 1996, along with Jo Fabian and Dirk Cislark von Lubricat. The old theatre was a space filled with opportunity for independent projects and, as the choreographer and dancer community grew, evolved into one of the most important forums for Berlin dance.

“It was around 1996 that I started exploring the Berlin dance scene, when it was still quite small. There were all these great obscure venues such as Sophiensaele and Villa Elisabeth, and lots of space to experiment. I hadn’t seen that in any other city,” says Matanicola’s Matan Zamir, who officially made the move to Berlin from Israel in 2001 to join Sasha Waltz & Guests. Throughout the 1990s, other experimental choreographers and dancers from all over the world started to find their feet in Berlin. American dancer and choreographer Meg Stuart and her company Damaged Goods attracted attention with theatrical and physically dynamic productions. Constanza Macras, arriving from Argentina in 1995, caused a stir with her first company Tamagotchi Y2K in 1997, which later evolved into the world-renowned dance theatre company Dorky Park.

The city’s cheap lifestyle and ongoing hype saw the 2000s attracting an endless wealth of burgeoning talents. This new generation of choreographers introduced a more conceptual flavour which proved popular amongst audiences, in contrast to Waltz’ strong narratives. Amelie Deuflhard, who was artistic director of Sophiensaele for seven years (2000-2007), as well as a producer of various theatre, dance and music projects in Berlin, says the growing number of dance schools and summer workshops in Berlin contributed to this trend, as well as a more educated, open-minded public. “At the moment there is more and more conceptual dance which has a lot to do with the education. They really learn a lot of theory. The conceptual stuff works in Berlin where in other cities it’s more difficult because the public often can’t read it.”

Some of the artists leading this trend in recent years include duo Jared Gradinger and Angela Schubot, who have created four full-length conceptual head-turners since 2009; and Jeremy Wade, who came to Berlin about eight years ago to present one piece and decided to stay. “I think that Berlin is going through a kind of cultural revolution – who knows how long it will last,” Wade says. “It’s an inspiring place for me as an artist, to be around so many people making work and be around practices and pieces that are evolving simultaneously.”  

It’s hard to become the next big thing in Berlin. Everyone wants to bite the same cake – there’s only one cake and not a lot of cream.

Scrambling for cash 

While newcomers to Berlin find the inspiration and the (low-cost) conditions to try their luck, they have a harder time finding the financial support to break through. Van Dinther points to an industry lacking maturity. “There are some inspiring individuals, but as a general scene, it’s not especially amazing or anything. There are very, very bad working conditions for dance in Berlin, which also means you produce a certain kind of aesthetic. It creates a kind of lo-fi-ness.”

Not to be forgotten are the large number of choreographers who are more or less established, with the creative potential, but remain floating somewhere in-between for years, even decades. “There are a few people doing well, but the structure and the financial capability of the city don’t allow someone to really become the next big thing in Berlin. Everyone wants to bite the same cake – there’s only one cake and not a lot of cream,” says Israeli choreographer Nir de Volff.

In a city where 90 percent of performing arts funding goes to state institutions and the independent Freie Szene must fight for scraps, the biting can turn vicious. The Berlin department of cultural affairs states that it “currently spends €9 million a year to support the independent theatre and dance scene, with €4.7 million going to four-year concept financing and €4.6 million to fund individual projects, basic support, venues, and artists starting out.” Yet an ‘independent’ dancer or company can include anyone from the newcomers to the established veterans. This has led to a large divide across the scene: established artists need much more than what the independent funds can provide, but they still fall under the independent category; meanwhile, the young choreographers are left battling for cash against the big guys. Most financing is also short-term, meaning artists must continually reapply project by project.

“What you have to do as a choreographer is basically spend half a year sitting at a desk writing applications that are actually for a year and half ahead. So in the creative process, you already forgot what you did a year and a half ago, what was in you, driving you,” Stempler says. She contrasts this project-based system with the more supportive structures in other cities: “I would love it if we could have it similar to the French scene, with centres that produce, like production houses. There are also places like that in Brussels, taking care of the artists. You’re not alone, you don’t have to rethink the infrastructure every time…”

De Volff, who arrived in Berlin in 2004, managed to get a ‘lucky break’ receiving support from independent venue Dock 11. Sufficient funding is near impossible to obtain without being linked to a theatre, and with the overflow of choreographers, more and more theatres are refusing to take on new artists. “I can say I’m a product of Dock 11. I found that Tanzfabrik and Dock 11 are extremely important for Berlin. I’m working at the Schaubühne now and it’s proof that long years of investment brings results,” saysDe Volff. “Dock 11 supported me and gave me space when I had nothing, when I had no money. They trusted my artistic goal and ambition.” 

No place for dance 

Another reason for the industry’s stunted growth is that the city provides no venue that’s solely dedicated to dance: even the state ballets are performed primarily at the Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper. There are main theatres that are of big importance to the dance scene, creating regular programming and residencies. Volksbühne, for example, played a vital role in Stuart’s career – she’s now linked with HAU, along with Wade. Macras spent a lot of time with Schaubühne, which has now taken on de Volff. Sophiensaele also stages many dance performances (though not as many as in the Waltz era), supporting artists such as Matanicola. For choreographers in early stages of development, in addition to Dock 11, Uferstudios and Tanzfabrik provide that crucial base. These venues, however, also struggle with funding, nor do any offer a programme dedicated only to dance. Says Deuflhard: “In Berlin, you don’t have places where only dance is performed. At HAU, you have both theatre and dance. Even in the Sophiensaele it’s not just dance. So, you don’t have this proper dance development.” This may be part of the reason that, if figures from the World Cities Cultural Forum are to be believed, Berlin ranks second-tolast among major cities for the amount of dance performances staged in a year: only 154 in 2011, paling in comparison to New York (6292) and even Singapore (1572).

Sandig, who opened his third space for the arts in 2006, Radialsystem V, says a specialised dance venue or institution is essential, but it’s not that simple: “I’m a dreamer, so I started projects such as Tacheles, Sophiensaele and Radialsystem out of nothing. But times have changed! I don’t really believe that Be rlin has the financial capability, the wish or the urge to start a completely new institution especially for dance,” he says. “We try to do a lot of dance at Radialsystem too, but the problem is that Radialsystem doesn’t get public funding so it’s very difficult to offer good conditions for artists. We want to have more dance in the future but we can only do it if we have public support for that. I personally love multi-disciplinary houses where all the arts meet each other; that’s always been my driving force. So of course I would love to do more dance programmes there – that would be my vision for the future.”

It’s a vision that may never come to fruition as more and more big artists are taking one foot out of the water and splitting their time between Berlin and other cities with more solid industry structure and funding – like Brussels, where Stuart bases her company, or Stockholm, where Van Dinther still spends a fair amount of his time after an initial move to Berlin in 2008. They’re leaving behind a city at a turning point – the ‘made in Berlin’ signature can be that of world-class talent, or an immature industry with no room to grow.

For her part, Stempler could not imagine living anywhere else. “There’s still a lot possible. It’s a very inspiring city, the vibe and the size, you can always discover new places. What’s fascinating is the rhythm, it’s very fast and intensive. Here you can either chill out, or be in this Wahnsinn… that’s why we all want to stay here!”