Monika Gintersdorfer interviewed by Rory MacLean
Monika Gintersdorfer – effervescent, dynamic, with long raven hair and 42 years old – is spurred on by a different purpose. As one of Germany’s most physical, border-skipping directors, her motivation is not to document alone, in the sense of repeating the original event – ‘that is bullshit for me’ – but rather to provoke and pose questions, then as soon as discovering an answer, to change the question so as to ask it in a different way, thereby creating something new over and over again.
‘This summer five years’ work is coming together for us, with performances in Abidjan, Berlin and Hamburg, as well as Helsinki and Rwanda,’ she said. ‘So you’ve found me in a very happy moment.’
Gintersdorfer, who was born Peru, grew up in Essen - near Bochum. At the age of twelve her mother took her to Bochum' s Schauspielhaus to see Pina Bausch’s Macbeth. The inspirational choreographer’s interpretation had little to do with Shakespeare, but the shocking, visceral intensity of the performance enchanted Gintersdorfer.
‘My mother had explained the story to me but all I saw was men and women climbing wardrobes, jumping into a huge puddle of water,’ she said. ‘The dancers were violent, lyrical and revealed to me a whole new concept of male and female. The audience cheered and booed and in that evening I discovered that the theatre could be a place of very different rules. I wasn’t at all disappointed not to have seen the literal Macbeth.’
Gintersdorfer became a regular theatre-goer but she was unwilling to admit to her desire to train as a director. She didn’t come from an artistic family so felt that she needed to approach her goal obliquely, by studying German literature and theatre theory. Then in 2000 she enrolled in a directing class at Hamburg’s Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst.
‘We did courses about so many things - staging, breathing, rights and lights – that I felt we touched nothing. Only people with a real artistic sense achieved anything there. At the end of the course most participants put on a little play. I couldn’t do that at that time. Instead I found a huge underground industrial space and transformed it: exploring what we found, what we changed, planting grass, letting plants die, performing there.’
I asked if there had been an audience and she laughed, ‘Once we brought an audience there but more important were the employees in the industrial complex. They never saw us working, just found some traces and thought we were a cult. They became quite frightened of us. They were our audience.’
Then at Hamburg’s Deutsche Schauspielhaus, Gintersdorfer worked for remarkable talents like Frank Baumbauer, Wilfried Schulz and Christoph Schlingensief.
‘Because of them it was a rich - and surprising - period for me. I put on a monologue called Radio noir and sold it to three theatres on the opening night.’
In 2001 she directed Bedbound at the Kammerspiele München, winning the prestigious Gertrud-Eysoldt-Ring award.
After a time she stopped using others’ texts and, with Jochen Dehn, formed Rekolonisation, a loose artists’ collective of performers, friends and even neighbours. Together they created spontaneous street actions, rich in humour and with a dash of anarchy, as well as Ausziehen, in which Gintersdorfer and Dehn destroyed an apartment using only their bodies, a frying pan and a kitchen knife. The resulting short film was invited to dozens of festivals.
‘With Rekolonisation we tried to find a way of working fast. We didn’t want to spend the time searching for a script, raising money, running through rehearsals. We wanted to conceive and perform in a single day. We wanted to be rough, tough and fast. Sometimes we didn’t even bother with an audience.’
In 2002 civil war erupted in Ivory Coast, trapping Gintersdorfer’s husband in the west African country. In her concern for him, and in response to European disinterest in the conflict, she – with Rekolonisation – created a series of about 100 actions enacted on the streets of Hamburg, with the unspoken aim of increasing public awareness of the differences between ‘well-protected and lesser-protected’ societies.
‘We didn’t want to make the performances too arty or blatantly political. The objective was to “transport situations” from one place to another. Each action needed to be summed up in a sentence: for example escaping by swimming away, moving along a street without being seen, selling black market petrol on street corners.’
Her startlingly innovative work began to attract attention, bringing new collaborations with the Hamburger Schauspielhaus and the Dresden Art Gallery. She discovered Coupé-Décalé, a performance-based musical movement created by seven Ivorian exiles in Paris.
Drawing heavily on Zouglou and Congolese rhythms, Coupé-Décalé mixed African samples, and repetitive, minimalist arrangements, with a highly ironic yet sincere portrayal of European bourgeoisie affectations. In their nightclub shows, the DJ-performers - who called themselves the ‘Jet Set’ - created an imaginary, parallel society in which they were wealthy and powerful, splashing out champagne and cash to the audience, awarding themselves names like Lino Versace, Papa Ministre, Diamond Guru. Coupé-Décalé was a popular response to both immigrant poverty and to a war that most Ivorians did not want. West Africans embraced the movement, elevating the status of the ‘Jet Set’s’ le Président far above that of his namesake in Abidjan’s Presidential Palace.
With choreographer Franck Edmond Yao - alias Gadoukou la Star - and visual artist Knut Klassen, Gintersdorfer formed in 2005 a multi-national company to create theatrical performances and video projects in both Germany and the Ivory Coast. Their ‘plays’ included Logobi, Très très fort and the powerful Othello, c’est qui which follows two actors through a conglomerate of different cultural perspectives, playing on the fact that Othello, one of the West’s most famous black roles, is almost unknown in Africa.
Their Rue Princesse, which comes to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in September and the Kampnagel Hamburg in October, will be the largest ever exposure of Ivorian culture in Germany.
‘We’ve kept - and keep - on working fast, bringing together musicians, DJs and dancers from Africa and Europe, limiting ourselves to four-day rehearsals, performing in nightclubs and at political hot spots, making records, keeping everything fresh by changing the context again and again.’
As we talk into the afternoon at the Deutsches Theater, touching on the role of the artist, debating motivation and innovation, I have little doubt that Monika Gintersdorfer will also continue to enthuse and invigorate German theatre.