German dance miracle What remains when the founders of German dance theatre pass away?

Jochen Ulrich „Lorenzaccio“; © Ursula Kaufmann
Jochen Ulrich „Lorenzaccio“ | Photo (detail): © Ursula Kaufmann

What was actually the German dance miracle of the 1970s and 1980s? What remains of the export hit ‘Dance Made in Germany’? What generations, what themes are at work nowadays? And can “history” still mediate between them?

The urgency of those days

Inadapté is the title of an early choreography by dancer and choreographer Jochen Ulrich, who deceased in November 2012. Also “unadapted” were the pieces by the group “Tanzforum Köln”, the first dance collective residing at a German opera house. In 1971 Jochen Ulrich was one of its co-founders, in 1979 he became its director. He developed an aesthetic style which he used to create a unique mixture of ballet, pantomime, circus, vaudeville and dance theatre for each piece: one-acters such as Übungen für Tänzer (Exercises for Dancers, 1982) were produced, and also full-length outlines of colonial history such as Der große Gesang (Canto General, 1980), in which the choreographer paid tribute to the poetic and political work of Pablo Neruda.

Political struggle in dance – in the 1980s that also involved fighting for democratic ensemble structures, collective working methods, better working conditions, aesthetic innovations. For almost 20 years Jochen Ulrich guided the Cologne-based Tanzforum through recurring altercations, while in Frankfurt William Forsythe attempted innovation in his own way: he introduced the groove into neoclassical ballet, dismantled power structures in the body and in the theatre and displayed them, ridiculed them and encouraged his dancers to speak “slang” with a whole new vocabulary of movement that grew day by day.

Those who have grown up in today’s free scene can now hardly imagine how long artists such as Forsythe and Ulrich struggled to free dance from the shackles of opera. Pina Bausch did at least have a director who encouraged her – nevertheless, there were times when not only the audience but also the dancers deserted her. And yet in her early pieces from the 1980s one can already detect what was to become the defining feature of that generation: the precise, long-lasting, intense look that they demanded of themselves and of the audience – including all kinds of emotional and psychological pain. The depth of research that often lasted a whole year. The absolute necessity of developing a viewpoint in order to relocate in society.

Collective instead of controlling

And today? Thirty years later western society is satiated. William Forsythe has long since departed from the large ensemble; in her last pieces Pina Busch referred to her complete works – and paid homage, more than ever, to a sense of wonder. You always have to confront the world with its opposite, she apparently once said. What defines this present-day world? It has become faster, its globalised capitalisation has become even more efficient due to bio-politics, cybernetics and controlling. What do young choreographers have to counteract this?

They network themselves in large, multinational collectives and use production funds for processual works – like the group ‘Sweet and Tender’. Some – like Isabel Schad – bypass the totally colonised body by focusing on the utopias that always carry the bodies within them: the power of the cells not only to renew but also to realign themselves. This process becomes here a practised metaphor for a collective developing within itself – at second glance not so dissimilar to those choreographers who, in the 1980s, took a stance against the manipulation of people, albeit with completely different aesthetic means.

Yet this following generation, which has issued primarily from the US-American post-modern movement and its offshoots to Europe and was not trained by the German Tanztheater generation, sometimes discovers once again what the “mothers” of the Tanztheater achieved: at the premiere of Über Kreuz by Susanne Linke and Reinhild Hoffmann in 1999 many young spectators in Berlin were thrilled – by so much technique, rigour, consistency and, finally, decision and clarity. Could a younger generation do with this? Or is it impossible in the complexity of this day and age?

History as a nuisance factor

Has “history” in society as a whole become a fragile and questionable construction? Or is it a feature of the age group that artists such as Catherine Diverrés in France or Renate Graziadei in Germany no longer trust their own dance vocabulary in the body and question it like a foreign substance? In the phase of her solo Rückwärts (Backwards) from 2009 Graziadei found a movement vocabulary that originated from the 1980s, and which she had to re-explore in order to put the material, that had become meaningless, into an updated context within a present-day environment.

Perhaps this is an allegory for a successful approach to history: it has to be queried otherwise it becomes meaningless. Testimonies, archives, materials are required for this. And personified accompaniment. Pina Bausch already began sifting through her archive during her lifetime and found her own access: she interviewed her dancers as they watched old recordings - and had these interviews filmed: as a result, the way of looking has also been captured, as has her way of asking questions, of doubting, of insisting on looking closely and exactly. We of the following generation should explore these testimonies over and again. Particularly in times of thoroughly commercialised production they could become a welcome nuisance factor.