Social issues in dance theatre
Staging controversial themes

Helena Waldmann‘s “Burka Bondage” is about freedom and suppression; © Sebastian Bolesch
Helena Waldmann‘s “Burka Bondage” is about freedom and suppression | Photo (detail): © Sebastian Bolesch

When choreographers engage with dementia, extremism or disability they challenge their audiences.

She walks bent over, her eyes on the floor. The next minute she is doing ballet jumps with a lightness that radiates great cheer. Then the proud gaze is replaced by an expressionless one, precise recollection gives way to a blank-faced vagueness. Moments in a life thrown off course, a life between silent cries and childlike laughter, brazenness and awkwardness.Brit Rodemund is dancing dementia. The former prima ballerina exposes a system of constant repetition, coded step sequences and precise movements to forgetfulness. Dementia is a theme that evokes anxiety in a society that is growing older. In the 2001 piecerevolver besorgen (get a revolver) choreographer Helena Waldmann wanted to “take the nightmare out of that nightmare”, as she put it in an interview. Social nightmares in our day, social themes with which choreographers raise, question and translate unpleasant issues into movement – that is what can frequently be encountered meantime in the dance and performance scenes.

Reflecting society

The Berlin choreographer Christoph Winkler sees his task as a subsidised artist in this way: to be a reflector, to communicate something about society. A major criterion for the themes he deals with is their social relevance, above and beyond dance. Copyright, for example. Dance! Copy! Right? is a piece dating from 2012 in which Winkler addresses fundamental issues related to intellectual property. It is part of his trilogy Dance & Politics – the very title of which already points to an extended horizon for dance.

Another trilogy of Winkler’s questions the notion of “evil” characters in dance. In Baader – Choreografie einer Radikalisierung, the choreographer uses movement to develop a character study; the production is rounded off, historically, by source texts and documents about the RAF terrorist. RechtsRadikal, a successful piece about right-wing radical women that Winkler conceived before Beate Zschäpe and the terrorist NSU became known, stages a theme that is just as controversial as Helena Waldmann’s BurkaBondage. In the latter, Islamic veils and Japanese bondage become images of social conditions. The two female bodies appear on stage as being bound and thrown, strangled and kissed. The choreographer plumbs the depths of power relations in a violent atmosphere of suppression and erotic passion, revulsion and attraction. The piece constitutes a permanent struggle between the drive to freedom and to repression.

Raising existential questions

There is every reason for critics to see Helena Waldmann as the anthropologist among choreographers. Valiantly she rummages among human anxieties and realities, so that it is rarely just pleasant to be in the auditorium. A dance theatre that successfully presents social themes actually challenges its audiences.

French choreographer Jérôme Bel worked with the Swiss company Theater Hora on Disabled Theater. Here professional actors with mental handicaps unsettle the supposedly safe position of the audience-consumers. Bel’s documentary concept of theatre alters reception: How do people react when performers with Down’s syndrome appear before them, when they dance soli they choreographed themselves, when they name their disability? Lively applause, loud laughter, quiet tears. Above all, people react with a feeling of unease. Such a confrontation chips away at our (self-) perception.

In the case of Samir Akika – meantime chief choreographer with the Theater Bremen – dance has to do with life. Who am I? Where do I belong? What is important to me? These are the existential questions which his dancers address on stage. In aesthetic terms, the reality that mainly interests Akika is that o f the young subculture. In Headspin Critical Mess, which he staged at the theatre in Essen, this subculture is confronted with high culture, the free scene meets municipal theatre, opera singing meets beatbox, breakdance meets classical piano music.

When presenting current social issues these choreographers do not just skim the surface. With them, dance, which can and should always be touching, becomes a plea, signifying participation and intervention. In simple terms Christoph Winkler explains why: “I also take part in life.”