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

Rafael Marchante/Reuters

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?

Theatres, or at least those who administer them, like to extol their establishments and their in-house ensembles as tolerant, free spaces for experimentation. Even as early as the 1990s, they had decorative banners festooned on the façades of their bastions, declaring how many members of their ensembles came from how many nations of the world. By virtue of this multicultural potpourri, they longed to prove that Europe’s theatres employ as many nationalities under their roofs as there are member nations in the global community.

They were unconditionally receptive– and also for other polemical debates that were soon to follow: against blackface, for decolonisation and equality for women. Ever since, a desire for “co-management” has constantly raged amongst their ensembles. Today, they function as a role model for “true democracy.” Hand-in-hand, women, men and diverse peoples fancy themselves taking responsibility for a venerable theatre ship that represents nothing less than an illustrious counter-model to the authoritarian and somewhat iniquitous State apparatus. Whatever goes awry in the big wide world– migration, nationalism, racism and forced integration–– the theatre companies, the subsidised venues, and those theatrical companies that feed upon the taxpayer’s largesse boldly continue to confront injustice–– and this in a truly classical sense: in the name of enlightenment and because counter-images have invariably been the theatre’s bread and butter.

The fact that a dancer, an urban dancer at that, albeit a studied one, that someone like Raphael Hillebrand, whom one would far rather call a Berlin snout with his heart in the right place, if such a person is allowed to choreograph in the provinces of Oldenburg and Chemnitz in the second, third row, even hip-hop, suggests that one does this not least in view of the lack of new blood in one’s own audience rows. If someone like Hillebrand can serve as proof of how cosmopolitan the theatre is, no one should be disturbed by the fact that the theatre emphasises in the same breath that it is primarily committed to its own region in the Geester Land or the Erzgebirge. For the theatre is a regional supplier of regional products, which today are also staged in a climate-friendly way by transporting foreign dancers exclusively on the rails of long-distance public transport. One wants to be good three times over: Good for the citizen. Good for culture. And good for the zeitgeist. To be good is the first duty in the competition of all products. And theatre: is a product.

Just as a border demarcates adjoining countries, any product must distinguish itself from others. In the theatrical sphere, that dividing line between the stage and the stalls remains impossible to overlook. Yet another one runs through the theatre’s disparate sectors: some theatre-goers love opera, others dance, other again drama. Even the professional journals are sub-divided into categories, as though opera and dance did not grace the same stage. The audience experiences barriers everywhere, even in front of the theatres. Those who don’t buy their tickets online must join the queue at the ticket office, behind which a bureaucracy inflates its self-importance through restricted opening hours and a limited quota of tickets, all while seeking to mitigate those self-same restrictions with enticing advantages for subscribers, students, and the less well-off. They claim to be socially aware and yet are empowered to see proof of need in order to grant or not grant a discount thanks to an official document passed through the ticket slot.

Canadian artist Jon Rafman’s video, “Disasters Under the Sun” (shown here is a 2019 video still from the collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal) depicts digitally animated crowds assaulting walls and borders.

Jon Rafman

Welcome Aboard

Once we’ve purchased tickets, ones with a seat reservation, we’re allowed to board in due course. Back in my students days, when tickets were not yet scanned or deemed invalid by computer, we made a sport of visiting theatres without permission. The ticket-collectors acted as border guards, inspectors whose task was to scrutinize any aspiring entrant for valid papers, turning them away if necessary. And they functioned as customs officers, too, constantly on the lookout for contraband. We would conceal our forbidden drinks under our armpits or in our baggy jackets. Once, a fellow student entered the foyer in an ankle-length fur coat, only to asked by the demolition crew to deposit her coat in the cloakroom, where the attendants agitatedly made it clear to her that she–– who happened to be clad only in a bikini under the fur––ought to keep her coat on. While she duly complied with their wish, the lady controlling tickets saw things somewhat differently. “Nobody”, she announced, “sets foot in this auditorium wearing a fur coat.” And so our fellow student found herself in that transit zone, between the entrance and the cloakroom. The evening service was duly informed; they, in turn, called the director. He decided that the young lady had brought the matter upon herself with her valid ticket. Let her watch the piece half-naked! Then, the dramaturge piped up, whispering the likely consequence into his ear (“the rags, what might they print”). Only then was the lady at the entrance instructed to grant the fur coat right of way.

Those boundary lines drawn by theatres involve a huge amount of personnel. Ostensibly, their purpose is to prevent any theatre-goer from wandering back out into the foyer with their neighbour’s ticket in order to give it to any stowaway hanging about. If they were to start this procedure early enough, i.e., temporarily exit the auditorium with two tickets and return inside with only one, thus enabling somebody to smuggle themselves across that border with that second ticket, the theatre would eventually fill up to the back row. In other word, there’s the threat that a certain upper limit, as is well-known from the refugee question, will be wantonly exceeded here.

Settling In

This phenomenon of borders within theatres has also caught the attention of theatre studies. An academic advocate for this subject, Kristin Flade, once enquired at a congress in a playhouse, entirely surrounded by admissions staff: “What kind of bodies do borders produce?” Though it sounded like a philosophical question, the riposte was straightforward. Authoritarian bodies give birth to submissive bodies, for they represent the so-called domiciliary right that a theatre may exercise at any time. Should any aspiring spectator want to get into the theatre without a valid ticket or in an unduly drunken or drug-influenced state, they can be shown the door in similar fashion to bawling babies, those coughing or suffering from the ADHD syndrome, who hyperactively keep trying to avoid remaining seated. Whereby, given the silent majority, we can confidently stress that word “detention” once the “cell” doors are shut. Thereafter, we either become privileged observers of a fascinating spectacle, or we feel as though trapped by a human trafficker, like slaves in the galleys of a confined space, only to be allowed to see sunlight again after an unlimited duration. All this may well come to pass after that voice instructs us to switch off our tablets, failing to mention that we’re not allowed to picnic, to light a cigar, let alone start chit-chatting with fellow theatre-goers across rows of seats during the performance. In the spacious Onassis Theatre in Athens, the ushers sit on chairs right beside the entrance-doors in order to ensure that house rules are strictly complied with. They don’t do so with the intention of enjoying the performance, but sit facing the audience, monitoring them from their unlit corners, jumping off their seats as soon as they spot a mobile phone lighting up or spot a beer bottle reflecting in the darkness.

You see, theatre is not about racism. It does not exclude people of colour, foreigners or people with disabilities. And yet, as an institution, theatre selects, enforces submission to house-rules, and admits only those willing to integrate. Could this explain why today’s theatre is no longer the social meeting place it was throughout the 19th century, when Guy de Maupassant depicted theatre as citizen-oriented, and not yet as one of the dramas on offer? The theatre has long since seemed much more akin to a train-carriage or an aeroplane, for the aforementioned restrictions equally apply in a similarly cramped theatre auditorium packed with seats. Theatre has drawn a boundary line––a bulwark, whose exteriors are made of thick walls, at times with tinted windows that allow one peep inside, at least into the foyer.

As early as 1999, the Italian Societas Raffello Sanzio replaced the audience with stuffed animals in Genesi. Because they are less disturbing. Here, the silent fans of the Dutch football club Heerenveen.


The Citizens’ Fortess

The stage itself is securely enclosed. No exterior light penetrates the auditorium. Once upon a time it was the burghers’ fortress, however. Nowadays, it has become the fortress of theatre itself, in which performers, dancers and singers from around the globe, to a person foreigners with their own language and culture and sense of elegance, communicate through unspoken agreements. How often has their art triggered a child’s desire to switch sides, to cross over, to trespass that boundary between the worlds of reality and make-believe? If the entranced child doesn’t actually crawl up the front edge of the stage, they still silently bear witness and readily succumb to the yearning to team up with the theatre. Let’s take any dance form: classical ballet, the mastery of a dance sport, modernism’s expressive dance, the creative promise of contemporary, or hip-hop as a global folk dance. Irrespective of the style, everywhere, novices are first and foremost made aware about that particular artform’s boundary walls and fences. Whoever, let’s say, want to be a classical dancer, the very first thing they will learn is what “fake” dancing is, namely, contemporary, hip-hop, acrobatic or sports dance.

The next thing any novice will learn is just how endlessly rich their own chosen dance form is, how cosmopolitan their profession. The sky alone is the limit if they are good enough, for it is absolutely self-evident for any Korean ballerina to pursue her career in New York or The Hague. The same goes for the winners of a battle, who are equally recognised as urban dancers in China as in Los Angeles. This lack of barriers hints at a quasi-complete absence of racism. And yet, every single dance form is just as nationalistic as those young Israeli women at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport who greet visitors open-heartedly, engaging them in small talk, all while determining the whys and the wherefores of one’s visit to Israel. The more confident the answers, the more self-assured and above-suspicion the interviewee appears to the officials. In dance, too, it helps any newcomer enormously to come across forcibly at once as innocent and confident, willing to adapt, unique enough to appear prepared and yet sufficiently spontaneous to pass muster with their examiners, their future teachers. And not forgetting to impress them about being a good soloist and a reliable group type. Just as that awkward cross-questioning after landing in Tel Aviv ultimately serves Israeli national security, so, too, does an interrogation serve dance. The dance world’s so-called “audition,” a physical interrogation, requires–– similar to the need for plenty of reception staff in theatres or customs officers at national borders––countless door guards who are busy acting as teachers, masters, mentors, or coaches in order to introduce these “strangers” to their host nation’s sense of pride and thus to protect their homeland. The plié is their anthem, physique their flag. One should be proud to be that type and only that type of dancer. For a lifetime.

The artist Santiago Sierra offered thirty dollars to any Cuban who would have a line tattooed on their back. Six men were chosen. 180 dollars was the price for the 250cm long border line; the act itself was a border transgression, for Sierra created a work on the suffering of the poor.

bpk/Städel Museum/Santiago Sierra

Is such an attitude racist? No! That someone has another skin colour, another gender, that some breakdance in a cultural centre built of concrete whilst others dance ballet in the bourgeoisie’s teak-panelled temples, that some encounter disadvantages on account of their “unpronounceable” surnames, whilst others might “stigmatize” art by dint of their disability, all this is part and parcel of a culture. Every culture makes itself identifiable by first distinguishing itself from the other/s. We just need to think back to our days playing in the sandpit, where no special arguments were needed to exclude anybody. A clear “no” was all that was called for in order not to be allowed to play together: “ You’re a girl; you’re not from here, you haven’t a clue about what you’re doing.” The only mature riposte by an African dancer would be to prove themselves as a true ballet dancer on a ballet stage. If unable to do so, they will find themselves amongst those who don’t fit in. If proof is needed, just take a glimpse at any theatre canteen.

At one table sits a deserving tribe of singers, at another a group of orchestra musicians, finely separated from the realm of stage technicians, who sit with their backs to the nation of actors, who, in turn, only allow dancers access to that table in the far corner. Meanwhile, in a private room, dines the company of dramaturgs, turning curiously toward the tribe of concept dancers, who sit in disgust at some distance from the tribe of dance theatre, who, in turn, are upset whenever the neo-classical ballerinas set foot inside the canteen.

They all shout in unison: “Us, racists? Never!” for all their disciplines are all-embracing. Don’t their dancers, technicians and part-time workers hail from every land under the sun. They even claim not have noticed anybody’s skin colour, infirmity, sexual orientation, ethnic or otherwise origin. This stunt, however, only works if everyone submits to the shared art.

The theatre hopes that racism would vanish if everyone would integrate by submitting themselves. Still, what if we wanted to make even more peace? Imagine those tribes of musicians and technicians sitting together around a canteen table, hatching a plot. Here it goes: The curtain rises and instead of dancers onstage, we see technicians busily removing the backdrops, more skilfully than any dancer, who wouldn’t have a clue what do with a screw or a fastener. As the orchestra starts to plays to these concentrated technicians, a wondrous choreographic beauty of extremely skilful technicians immediately comes to life. Such a project shouldn’t pose the slightest problem in the windowless fortress called the municipal theatre, protected by its black walls, its mighty fire walls, hermetically sealed from the outside world. But is theatre truly a community that can enter into alliances with its individual members, even, as in the above case, at the expense of its dancers? Or is it akin to a jailhouse, in which strict hierarchies prevail, with its guardians of tradition and prisoners of the division of labour?

In Helena Waldmann’s production of Gute Pässe Schlechte Pässe [Good Passports Bad Passports, 2017], it is not the technicians but rather the audience who assume responsibility for the acrobats on stage.

Wonge Bergmann

Welcome to the EU

One initially notes just how much everyone involved is taking such care, playing exactly the role expected of them: actors like to ask “why?” at rehearsals. Dancers respond with feigned enthusiasm, “why not?,” while singers cry out, “how embarrassing!” whenever they have to try the same thing over again in a different way. Musicians prefer to ask, “how much longer?” What truly unites theatre as a gaming operation is remarkably similar to that erstwhile European concept of a borderless Europe, whose lure some of EU’s founding fathers such as Walter Hallstein or François Mitterand dreamt about. Everyone would obey an artistic directorate jointly formed by all nations. A choreographer could equally be an artistic director, just as an opera director or a head of the painting studio could. Any conflict between them could be settled in a court of law, and each would be allowed to visit the other anytime, as well as to work, live and love wherever they pleased. Except within the confines of the theatre, where no woman painter is allowed to dance. Whenever the individual disciplines, musicians, singers, or dancers come together in accordance with a particular law–– the libretto as a tenable written law is a case in point––all the specialists instantly start speaking in their own languages. And just as a violinist differs and learns in another way from a dancer or a singer, they also have a different set of beliefs than a singer or a dancer. The individual schools differ in so many ways, as do the pay grades. As for the roles within the EU, the dancers play Spain, the technicians play Germany, the singers play France, whilst the British mount musicals. Despite some notable successes, those on the far side of the Channel have removed themselves from the repertoire. While the musical is the dream for any interdisciplinary collaboration, it isn’t really what the municipal theatre is about.

In the theatrical world, as throughout Europe, it’s all about the struggle for the few available resources and to attract as much investment as possible. The so-called funding process. Opera gets its fair share. Dance doesn’t. Applied to the entire cultural sector, however, the economic clout of the film industry, the visual arts and music, far outweighs all donations to theatre. The visual arts are a case in point: they are well-practised in the art of adding value, and afford a particularly inspiring role model for dance. For if you want to succeed, never look downward. Just like an acrobat in their dingy vaudevilles, keep your eyes pointed upward, toward the colourful glow of rich collectors and museums. A dancer the likes of Tino Sehgal, who has astounded the art world with his actions in museums, enjoys more success than any Sehgal who would have tried a similar feat in the dance world. Even music and its extensive marketplace is enticing. That’s why a ballet by the composer Hans Werner Henze has far more impact than any group improvisation. Even a documentary film such as Wim Wenders’ Pina has made more profit at the box office than the Tanztheater Wuppertal does. So, the bottom line, it’s about success, not faith.

Racism erupts whenever one group––we’re talking about the art world here––despises another. Indeed, there’s little love lost between thespians and opera practitioners. Opera finds ballet decorative at best. Ballet likes contemporary dancers, but only with certain reservations; they, too, find it difficult to warm to the break-dancer culture, for they fear they might find themselves on the same level as acrobats, or even of show and sports dance. Raphael Hillebrand has been railing against this state-of-affairs. His training period in contemporary dance was a never-ending obstacle race against prejudice, about his skin colour, his artistic origins and aesthetic sense. Notwithstanding, why shouldn’t break dancers work together with a German state orchestra such as the Elbland Philharmonie? Why shouldn’t a break-dancer win a contemporary dance competition? Why shouldn’t a break-dancer be allowed to choreograph ballet dancers? Absolutely, no problem. But, then, why does Raphael Hillebrand like to keep bringing up the issue of “respect”? Because he’s all-too-well placed to know that is what exactly people tend to deny others.

Just as there’s currently no respect for the sixty-five million refugees, for the victims of the 410 political conflicts worldwide, which have almost doubled since 2006. We just close the borders in order to create a deep-seated sense of security in our minds, as if we could ever protect ourselves from those living in insecurity.