Barriers ! What Barriers ?

Raphael Hillebrand is a dancer, choreographer, German politician, and break-dancer, an angry one at that, and one who has had to take many risks as an artist. He was born in Hong Kong to a German mother and a West African father.

Christoph Leib

Theaters like to be the good guys in three ways: Good for the citizen. Good for culture. And good for the zeitgeist. Being good is part of the essence of theaters; they do not want to be accused of being racist or of not being really climate-neutral. But does this fit the reality within the institution itself? The case of Raphael Hillebrand casts doubt on this.

Raphael Hillebrand

When I was about five years old, a sales lady in a bakery remarked with a questioning undertone, “Ohhh, what kind of little cutie are you?” “I’m Chinese,” I replied proudly. She hesitated, looked at me a little longer and then continued working. My dark skin and the answer that came so naturally to me had unnerved her. She meant well, she wanted to be nice, but she didn’t know how. When I came to Germany, I thought I was Chinese because I had been born in Hong Kong, only to be told that I was African because I had African ancestors on my father’s side.

Raul Arcangelo

In 2020, Raphael Hillebrand was one of three dance practitioners to be honoured for the German Dance Prize – the most prestigious dance award in Germany. For the first time ever, a dancer of colour had been recognised in Germany for his artistic output.

Frank Joung

Raphael Hillebrand

I know how the academic scene presents itself as exclusive – as a club for a white majority society. Although I believe that some people don’t see skin colour, I’m disappointed whenever someone thinks they can claim that there’s no racism in Germany just because they also happen to employ black dancers.

Park Aue

Erik Born in Die Unbehausten by Raphal Hillebrand, Berlin 2019

Obviously, there are also so-called people of colour in Germany, a term once applied to emancipated slaves. And, of course, dancers of colour have also been around for some time. The Brazilian Ismael Ivo, for instance, or James Saunders from Philadelphia, who died on a Cologne stage back in 1996, or the star of the Frankfurt Ballet, Stephen Galloway, who later worked as a choreographer for the Rolling Stones. It’s hardly as though a person of colour is a rarity in Germany’s cultural scene. Why, then, is Raphael Hillebrand the first person to be honoured by the dance world – probably not only on account of his skin colour? Even as the first ever urban dancer.

Raphael Hillebrand

“The only good system is a sound system.” Even if this critique of the system is not quite as analytical as that advocated by Marx and Engels, it nonetheless has something rebellious and revolutionary about it. Especially given that hip-hop culture has emerged as the culture of people of colour. But hip-hop has been absorbed by society, far more so than people of colour themselves. Hip-hop now belongs to the mainstream, despite the movement being endowed with a history that bespeaks of a cultural heritage and thus to historical circumstances that are certainly nowhere as rosy as the colourful blousons and glitzy limos with which hip-hop is now marketed. Nowadays, hip-hop is not just a culture with a history, but also with a responsibility for that history.

Gino Addi

The Interview

What a pleasure to listen to him and his spirit in the interview, for he never utters anything that displays the exclusive conceit of a minority, all while seriously shaking society’s foundations and its enclosing barriers. Here’s a taste of what he had to say:

Raphael Hillebrand, we like to label black music as “urban,” while white music is called “country.” So, we pit city against country, which is probably meant to hide the fact that it’s actually about black against white. Does that equally apply to dance?

Raphael Hillebrand: Urban versus rural is clearly a metaphor for black versus white, and of course there’s also that “colour divide” between White dances with their traditions such as ballet, modern and postmodern dance, and Afro-American dances, the dances of the colonised such as jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, lindy hop, break, krump, poppin’, lockin’, house dance, all of which fall under that umbrella term “urban.” Given we live in a society in which whites are the majority, a hierarchy exists between these two traditions.

Still, Lindy Hop, or Rock ‘n’ Roll in particular are danced primarily by White people.

That’s true because these dance forms were taken away from the blacks. Yet, this is not true of hip-hop, which is a global folk dance. Hip-hop was not born out of gang violence, but rather under pressure from white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. The energy, which we feel, was channelled into fresh directions by this majority society. What we’re now witnessing is a white-washing process and ultimately a denial of where those dances actually originated. The very fact that we think the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was White, an Elvis. Such a mindset has to do with power and structural racism. Street dance is also a term Whites employ, for the White majority only see it performed on the streets, not in our kitchens, living rooms, or at family gatherings. The term “street dance” is associated with an underclass that lives on the street, not an upper class with access to a ballet hall or a theatre.

I see mostly white break-dancers in a mostly white Berlin.

There’s a great saying from New York: “They took jazz music away from us, they took rock ‘n’ roll away from us, but they never could take hip hop away from us, because we gave it away for free.”
That’s what it’s all about: creating an equal space without White supremacy, where the origins of hip hop are historically recognised, so that White people can also move about freely in that space. In hip-hop, there’s not this inverted sense of racism that despises White people, even now in these #blacklivesmatter times in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Seriously though, most people don’t even know that hip-hop or house music originated in the Black community.

If you were white, would you just be a guest in the hip hop scene?

Yes, I see myself that way, as a guest. I grew up in a White family, my mother is White, and even though I’m pounced upon as a person of colour, it’s not the same, for I attended school, and went to a Gymnasium [grammar school], so I’m privileged. Why has Vartan Basil, a member of the breakdance group Flying Steps, been able to gain such recognition in Germany as a refugee from Lebanon? And, likewise the break-dancer Amigo, a descendant of a Turkish guest-worker. Why are they known for their muscular strength and not for their dancing intelligence? Their careers were not shaped in a ballet studio, but rather developed through hip-hop. Quite a lot of people from a migration background suffer from discrimination and yet make it in hip-hop.

And demand for themselves their own safe spaces for urban dance. In Berlin, because we live here, these include the Ballhaus Naunystraße and the Maxim Gorki Theatre. Don’t such shelters contradict that very sense of “integration” that is all so often called for.

The whole concept of integration is problematic. It expects me to submit. Why? Because I’m not White? My mother tongue is German. Nobody needs to integrate me. If White people want to integrate me because of my skin colour, that demonstrates the extent to which our society thinks in racist terms. Nobody should be discriminated against on account of their appearance or origin. So, it’s nothing to do with integration. It’s more important to talk about equality. We can only achieve equality through self-determined spaces ––beyond racist terms like Leitkultur [dominant culture] and integration. I’m calling for a lot more integration courses for those White people with issues about my skin colour.

Repeat question: Just as there’s a dance theatre with Orthodox Jews, there’s also all-Black companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Ballet Theatre. Such categories celebrate an identity that differentiates itself from others. Is that helpful?

Yes, and that’s because this separation actually exists. That’s why you need your own place to reflect and to breathe, a place which gives you access to culture amidst this power imbalance, in order to get on an equal footing and to create a cultural polyphony in the first place. In 2020, Sandra Maischberger tried to debate racism just among White people on German public television in Berlin, the city where, in 1885, Bismarck divided Africa up into colonial states for the White powers, states whose inhabitants to this very day feel his decision as a boot on their necks. In 2021, there was a repeat of this debate on the WDR airwaves in Cologne. Nothing was learnt. This isn’t about guilt. Discrimination has nothing to do with bad faith, but rather with assuming responsibility as a White European. I count myself among them.

Is that one of the reasons the dancer Raphael Hillebrand is co-founder and national chairman of the political party Die Urbane?

Yes, because unlike in Senegal or Vietnam, in Germany we’re allowed to establish a party that opposes Eurocentrism, as is the case. It is an anti-racist party that differs from the anti-racism of the Greens and the Linke in that cultural diversity is not something that presents a problem for us. Instead, we consider this diversity as the greatest potential for our society. The fact that in Berlin an Israeli can live and dance next to a Palestinian, who lives next to a Pole, is not a problem, but rather the solution.

Raphael Hillebrand has his own crews like “Battle Squad” and “Animatronik,” yet he also works with other ensembles, as in this case with the Berliner Theater in der Parkaue, in order to ask questions such as: Who owns the footbridge, the square in front of the U-Bahn station, the open space between the blocks of houses? Who owns the city? At home, one’s parents’ rules apply. At home, what they have paid for is put on the table. But, outside, on the streets, the rules have yet to be set in stone. On the streets, we constantly negotiate anew and fight together for the city.

Park Aue

The Artform that Clings to Power

Our conversation took place shortly after he had returned from Chemnitz. He was invited there to develop his own format for young choreographers “Made In Chemnitz,” with the local ballet company. Even the television cameras turned up. A film crew from the German ZDF interviewed Raphael Hillebrand as part of a moving tribute to him. In front of the cameras, the 38-year-old modestly stated that it was an award for all urban dancers. As well as one for all those with a different skin colour. In Chemnitz he came across a dance company “with very few people born in Germany who submit to the principle of white supremacy and who were truly astonished that I don’t yell out patriarchal calls to action or give orders.” After working at the Staatstheater Oldenburg, Chemnitz is his second experience with what he qualifies as “a strictly organised hierarchical artform that clings to power. Ballet means: subordinate yourself, for there’s something higher that is absolute and right.”

And yet, with that collective term urban dance, he understands the acting out of a deeply genuine social rage: “There’s so much pressure in there; it has to come out, there’s too much pressure in the lungs for far too few trumpets.”

Dialogic Movement

Raphael Hillebrand is gifted with verbal wit, his drive is infectious. Not only is he co-founder of the small hip-hop political party Die Urbane, he also wants to reconcile street dance, as is practised in Berlin youth cultural centres, with theatre. For years, he has sought to do this as an eloquent presenter through his “dialogic movement” format, building bridges between various urban dance forms and contemporary dance, after having created a springboard for himself with his studies at the Inter-University Centre for Dance in Berlin: with his splendidly danced, narrative solo works, as well as with his popular success Three Brothers, which was awarded the Best German Dance Solo in Leipzig in 2013. Inspired by his teacher, Niels “Storm” Robitzky, he has earned the respect of the contemporary dance scene, just as he has won the “Battle of the Year 2006” and the “2vs2” at the breakdance event IBE in Rotterdam some years ago. He has equally gained fame across the urban scene, for example, by confronting The Saxonz, a professional break-dance crew, with the Elbland Philharmonic Orchestra of Saxony in Dresden as an “urban dance theatre.”

Die Crew The Saxons in «Symphonix», Dresden 2017

Reconciling contemporary dance and hip-hip, avant-garde and the folk dance of youth, begins – as here in 2017 with Dresden crew The Saxonz – already with the task of familiarizing a band rarely fed by cultural funding with the laws of the stage. The Saxonz are more likely to be forced to generate sales through image films for the city of Dresden or the Saxon state government than gaining direct funding. Raphael Hillebrand is a mediator here, coming from their own midst.

Christoph Seidler

Integrate Yourselves

On Father’s Day in May, Raphael Hillebrand and I strolled through Caputh, a village near Potsdam where Albert Einstein once had a house built for himself. His arrival in a White village community in Brandenburg as a person of colour was to trigger frightful hatred and verbal attacks without warning. Raphael Hillebrand instantly went on the attack; he didn’t cower and stood his ground. By daring to set foot in a village of White, drunken men, had he crossed an invisible barrier that runs right through German society? How could someone the likes of Raphael Hillebrand be expected to recognise the barriers from whose fortress towers people are forever shouting, “Integrate!” “Into what?” And above all: given this context, does theatre really help? Or dance? Or the arts? And wherever does theatre, of all things, get the idea that it can combat racism? Let’s face it … on the next pages.

How has Theatre, of all Places, Come up with the Idea of Combatting Racism?

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Dance and racism – For the first time ever, a dancer of colour has been honoured in Germany: Raphael Hillebrand. A dancer who has broken down barriers, between urban dance and contemporary dance. And yet, resentment lingers. As does the question: How does the theatre, of all places, come up with the notion of being able to combat racism?

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