The Ruhr Triennial under the direction of Heiner Goebbels
Freedom without Nostalgia

Eszter Salamon’s “Pursued by wars – Monument 0” at the PACT Zollverein, Essen, was the first part of a project, that works on the relationship of choreography and history
Eszter Salamon’s “Pursued by wars – Monument 0” at the PACT Zollverein, Essen, was the first part of a project, that works on the relationship of choreography and history | Photo (detail): Ruhrtriennale / Ursula Kaufmann

For three years now, the composer Heiner Goebbels has headed the Ruhr Triennial, and in 2015, following its rotational tenure, will pass on his office on to the Dutch theatre director Johan Simons. It was time enough to impart his own orientation to one of Europe’s most important art and music festivals. A summary of a diverse directorship.

To begin with, there is the critical question: Why a budget of 14.5 million euros for a festival which, if we believe media reports, is mainly about show? Why doesn’t the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia spend the money on its cut-afflicted orchestras and theatres rather than financing experimental art in renovated factory halls for one and half months? The response could be that of economic policy-makers in the state: because a festival with the international cachet of the Ruhr Triennial pays off economically for the region between Duisburg and Dortmund. But what should remain central to the argument is the fundamental point: the importance of the theatre as a mirror and social initiator.

A society that develops its technology but not its art forms inevitably slips into just that institutional torpor which the composer Heiner Goebbels, director of the Ruhr Triennial from 2012 to 2014, desires to avoid: “In our municipal theatres reflection on the structure of the operation, on the relation to the audience and the dramaturgy of a performance hardly take place. The German theatre system should finally be opened up to the different forms of production that have been developed in the independent theatre scene to great benefit. For all that, the independent scene in Germany has up to now had only small, insufficiently equipped venues – or else the Ruhr Triennial.

Artistic independence as a principle

This festival therefore buys no productions from other theatres or festivals in principle, but instead engages directors and artists who, under the best working conditions, stage existing works or preferably develop their own. The first director of the Ruhr Triennial, Gérard Mortier, christened these pieces “creations”. And because Goebbels, unlike Mortier, particularly loves dance, he has in the last three years invited international choreographers to the festival who have strung a multicoloured Ariadne thread through the dense programme. Lemi Ponifaso from Samoa, for example, jelled Carl Orff’s brittle, static late work Prometheus – in ancient Greek – into a magic ritual of light and movement; Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker welded dancers and singers together into a chorus in a night time performance running until sunrise; in his project manger (eating) Boris Charmatz had his actors gobble down edible paper for one hour; and Mathilde Monnier found people in the Ruhr conurbation with various talents and from three generations who symbolically stood for the polycentric region and its population in Goebbels’s composition Surrogate Cities.

Goebbels’s visions

“An aesthetics for three years”: thus Goebbels defined for himself the Ruhr Triennial principle. The aesthetics of the composer, radio play artist and director from Frankfurt, which he has taught at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at the University of Giessen since 1999, avoids in principle psychologizing, narrative theatre (“My greengrocer also tells me stories.”) – a demand that he shares with most of the invited artists. In his music theatre essay De Materie of 1989, Louis Andriessen, the Dutch composer born in 1939, reflects on the connections between intellectual achievements – ranging from ship building to the discovery of radioactivity –, art and philosophy on society. Goebbels staged the work in the “Kraftzentrale”, a central power station in an abandoned industrial landscape in the north of Duisburg, as an associative array of images – including zeppelins, a flock of sheep and the re-enactment of an historical photograph showing Marie Curie at a scientific conference. Thus in 2014 the Triennial once again revived a central, but seldom performed, music theatre work of the late twentieth century – following the Europeras by John Cage, the hippie opera The Delusion of the Fury by Harry Partch and Helmut Lachenmann’s Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) of past seasons.

Probably the most radical renunciation of all work-related content was dared by the Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci in his re-interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps, in which the audience encountered neither the pagan sacrificial rites of old Russia or even dancers. To edgy music played from loudspeakers, specially constructed machines danced, cranked and spun in the stage sky: strange funnels and receptacles that blew powdered (animal) bone on the floor or in the direction of the audience in a perfectly coordinated rhythm – a spooky event quite devoid of human beings, a slaughterhouse dance of early modernism. In his imaging of Morton Feldman’s opera Neither, on the other hand, based on an original text by Samuel Beckett, Castellucci hit upon the opposite idea of inventing images from the genre of film noir for a plot that does not exist in Feldman’s work.

Today, not tomorrow

Thus there was much to discover under Goebbels’s directorship; he relinquished entirely only one thing: the industrial nostalgia that still attaches to the Ruhr area today and was lovingly cultivated by most of the previous directors of the Triennial. Goebbels, however, looked not to the past but to the present; he fetched a young audience into the halls, invented a children’s jury for the best plays of the year, took his projects to the museums and locations of the surrounding cities, sought cooperation with the initiative Urban Arts Ruhr. The Ruhr Triennial boasts a 90 percent visitor attendance – a record that is surely indebted to Goebbels’s demands: “It can’t be the case that a young person goes to the opera in the twenty-first century and thinks: ‘Oh my God, what’s this; why are they singing so daft?’ New music theatre can’t be an art for specialists”. The future director of the Ruhr Triennial, the Dutch theatre director Johan Simons, will have to tie in to this point.