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“The festival is like the cherry on the cake”

Contemporary dance festival Tanz im August celebrates its 25th birthday, gifting the city an eclectic dance spread from Aug 16-31. This year's director Bettina Masuch has seen Berlin's dance world bloom since the festival began.

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The Goldlandbergs

Bettina Masuch curates the 25th anniversary of the international contemporary dance festival Tanz im August.

For its silver anniversary, Germany’s largest contemporary dance festival is getting a reboot. After Matthias Lilienthal’s 2012 departure from Tanz im August partner HAU, the city’s cultural council decided to replace the festival’s five-person curating team with one independent artistic director. Enter Masuch, former dance and performance curator at HAU and a co-curator at Tanz im August until 2008, when she left to run the Springdance festival in the Netherlands. Her reign will be a short one: next year, she’ll depart to become head of Tanzhaus NRW in Düsseldorf.

Tanz im August is turning a quarter of a century old. How are you addressing this anniversary?

The challenge of this edition is to look back and think about the path that the festival has taken. Looking back, it is very obvious that New York was the epicentre of contemporary dance at that time. It was interesting to revisit these artists, see what is still relevant and put these works that are 25 years old next to works that are being done today. It’s also interesting to see how these older works survive in a contemporary context. When the festival was established the whole landscape was very different: it was shortly before the fall of the Wall, and the local dance scene wasn’t as big or as international as it is now. Now everybody who is really interested in dance goes to Youtube or Facebook for clips and stuff. But 25 years ago none of this existed.

Now that international dance is more accessible through the internet and year-round touring, what’s the relevance of this kind of festival?

The advantage of the festival is that it focuses attention: I can create tensions and relations between different performances, intensify a certain kind of attention to aesthetics that pop up around the world and bring them together. My experience is that the landscape in Berlin has been enriched a lot through the increase in international productions that tour here, and the festival is like the cherry on the cake.

So what’s new on the contemporary dance landscape this year?

Choreographers are incorporating developments in larger society into the work, so it’s not so self-centred anymore. Most of these works are also done with a different kind of urgency because the choreographers want to involve themselves in a certain critical debate in their own society. Narration is also coming back: not story ballets, but the idea of storytelling. Making work with or for children is also entering the adult contemporary dance world.

Is there one particular piece you’d like to introduce to us?

This young pole dancer from Manila, Eisa Jocson, created a piece called Macho Dancer based on a phenomenon where young men from the province end up dancing for a gay and female audience. It’s not really striptease, but it has a striptease element. The situation feels like a nightclub – although you’re sitting in the theatre, so it also plays with all these degrees of seduction and voyeurism. You witness how the under-privileged men end up assuming a position of superiority on stage – because these dances also contain a lot of macho gestures.

How do you resolve the tension between including pieces from the developing world and avoiding colonial attitudes?

When the festival started, its focus point was towards the West. Nowadays in the European dance world, we are facing a situation that the networks established over the last 10 years are falling apart because of the economic crisis. We in Europe still believe that we rule the world, but the moment we travel to Singapore, for example, you understand that they don’t need us anymore, and that our postmodern understanding isn’t always posing relevant questions for them. There are different understandings of what ‘contemporary’ is existing next to each other. That’s a very interesting momentum, that there is not only this one ideology at play.

You started your career as a dramaturg at the Volksbühne. Do you sometimes miss aspects of that work?

Whenever I have time, I can sit in rehearsals and discuss with artists and that of course informs my daily practice because I really depend on seeing where artistic development is going. How do artists reflect on what is happening in their own context, where they want to go artistically, professionally – and how big is the economic influence on the work? My process of observing and following the contemporary dance scene is ongoing, so even though Tanz im August has a certain time span, my involvement in the development of the art form does not stop there.

Tanz im August, Aug 16-31, various locations  see the Tanz im August website for more information.

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013.