edition Mai-Juni 2023

Once more from the beginning, or déjà vu

Alex Hennig in front of the Skyline of Frankfurt am Main.
Alex Hennig. Foto: Luise Gerlach

Dance dramaturge and journalist Alex Hennig (temporarily) abandoned her hometown of Berlin to become a permanent dramaturge at Künstler*innenhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt am Main in the fall of 2022. In this article for tanzraumberlin magazine, she writes about the euphoria of a new beginning and the pangs of farewell, recalling her personal origins in Berlin’s independent scene and reflecting on the methods of beginnings and endings from a dramaturgical point of view.

Alex Hennig

This text stopped trying to do everything right and started somewhere. Just get on with it, or: get an overview first. Tie up the loose ends and then just take a deep breath. That’s so easy to say.

All beginnings are difficult. In dance, this concept of a beginning and an end may not even apply anyway. Where does a movement encounter its origins and where does it go - or stay? The question of beginnings is also always an impulse to ascertain what came before and to acknowledge that history is constantly in motion. The much-invoked ephemerality of dance and the question of what characterizes it vanishes in its wake. The realization about how stories, even if they remain undiscovered for a while, end up coming back; that bodies remain, make history, and are themselves produced by history(s). The fact that all of this is quite fluid.

The Berlin dance scene is special because here, as nowhere else, it seems possible to radically challenge normative concepts of bodies and movement. Perhaps because Berlin has always been a place of longing, a home for very different lifestyles, a safe haven for all those who somehow fall off the grid, and ultimately also a gratifying stage for reinventing oneself again and again. In terms of the independent scene, however, this freedom also has its flipside in the guise of precarious structures, in the implicit flexibility and dedication of all participants, following non-linear career paths, and in hybrid working environments. When younger colleagues ask me how I got to where I am now, I prefer to say: because I never could’ve done anything other than this. And at the same time: I have no idea how all this came about. In the first few years after graduation, like most people, I worked many jobs concurrently, accepted every little project offered, was living far below subsistence level, just kind of stumbling into it and constantly rediscovering the joy of dance and theatre along the way. And it takes people that see you and encourage you, too, who give you space and encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing, because without them none of this would work out. When I think of my very first encounters with contemporary dance on theatre stages, a sense of irritation and excitement are closely intertwined. During my FSJ Kultur at the Sophiensælen in 2008/09, I experienced dance performances that left me completely perplexed - shook me up mentally and emotionally, made me angry, bored, opened my eyes or moved me to tears. I remember a piece by Laurent Chétouane, with a poetic long title, many diagonal spatial paths, and the impression that something very meaningful was probably going on, maybe a riddle, or a question?

I’ll never forget Angela Schubot alias Two Fish in a solo performance charged with strength and a body completely outside itself, or Sasha Waltz at the New Museum and how impressed I was amongst the dancers and surrounded by this impressive architecture, or Xavier Le Roy in the guise of a chicken - just why do I remember them in particular? Mythmaking. Pina Bausch died in 2009. I’ve learned that bodies can dance in very different ways, even if they don’t move that much, that it’s not important “how bodies move, but what moves them” (Pina), that the very limits of one’s body are fluid, and that sometimes people dance with their cells (for example, Frédéric Gies in Dance Practicable or: explaining what Body Mind Centering® is to a 19-year-old). But, quite frankly, where does my body start and where does yours end?

Talking about your own beginnings doesn’t come without that hint of nostalgia and self-mockery, but how reassuring it is to know that we all started at some point and will eventually do it all over again with something new.

The first day in the rehearsal room for a new production - the way you start - always hinges on the artistic form. The fact that we in contemporary dance are able to overcome the hierarchy between product and process is one of many secrets that I would love to convey to the rest of society by means of dance. Nevertheless, the dramaturgy establishes a more or less open arc between the beginning and the end of a piece. And then there are production plans that envision a timeline, positing the beginning and end of a project; but in reality, everyone always works longer, because dance is difficult to squeeze into the logic of projects and into 6-week blocks. We’re engaged in so many parallel temporalities in freelance work - we’re already writing proposals and imagining spaces, movement materials, and themes for pieces that we don’t even actually know will come to fruition, winding up past productions, planning guest appearances, cultivating contacts, and dancing at all the weddings at once. We are creatures on the threshold.

Six months ago, I moved from Berlin to Frankfurt. The step from self-employment to working for an institution seemed logical to me, compelling me to take a running jump into the deep end and reminding me that you never forget how to swim or ride a bike. I miss Berlin terribly and realize that I’m not all that far away. Finally arriving somewhere.

Pausing, for a moment

This could easily be followed by a section on permanent employment as a source of longing, on existential fears or living your dream, on seeing and being seen, responsibility and representation, capital city vs. banking city, home office vs. open-plan office, coffee vending machine vs. coffee to go, and how long this concept of drinking coffee can be maintained while the order of the world as we knew it has long since fallen apart at the seams. Whether or not we’re really going to have to start all over again with unlearning things we’ve taken for granted, and that that’s going to be exciting and meaningful and painful, but it’s also the case that this text is rambling wildly.... Headaches coming with the change in the weather. Been hearing the same song over and over again lately. The first days of spring and the last days of summer. Followed by a loose succession of favorite first sentences in novels that you haven’t finished reading. A door closes and so on. A text about beginning without the pain of separation - is that even possible? A friend once said: “There’s only one end. When it’s over, it’s over.” This text prattles away and avoids beginning in earnest. A dramaturgy of refusal. Not being able to let go of the text.

Somehow, this has all happened before: The fear of change vs. burning bridges. With every change of management and personnel - in theatres, editorial offices, companies, festival teams - everyone is somehow caught between a rock and a hard place, i.e. between “everything is going to be different” and “everything is going to stay the way it was.” Not throwing everything overboard and still daring to venture into new beginnings, making way for other topics, people and formats, that’s what it’s all about. Here in Frankfurt, I’m celebrating this new beginning with a largely new team, an old-new management team and a lot of momentum. As dance and theatre professionals, we’re all currently in the midst of many processes of transformation. In 2020, we asked ourselves whether the so-called normality that had been interrupted or postponed by the pandemic was even a place to want to “return to.” As I perceive it, we’ve started questioning a lot of things since then. We’re now talking more openly and consistently about ableist, racist, and classist structures than ever before, learning a lot, and hopefully trying to make room for all the concepts, realities of life, needs, and experiments that haven’t been given their due space for a long time. We’re challenging hegemonic historiography and invoking new roots and forgotten histories, and admitting to ourselves that we need to take a critical look around when we start throwing around the word “we.” That’s a bit of a start, isn’t it?

An attempt to get back to where it might all have begun.

In retrospect, everything seems to make sense. One’s own narrative often can’t be told in any other way than as a logical sequence of what are essentially random events, and yet we tend to want to make everything seem coherent. Looking back, we construct threads of meaning and moments of a beginning, which have led to an irrevocable change of direction. A feeling accompanied by emotional overtones, that from this moment on everything will have been different... And here at the end, I can’t help but get personal.

Thank you, tanzraumberlin, for the trust and the chance to begin here. A special honor for a person who finds beginnings and farewells equally difficult.

When a new chapter begins, the expectations are naturally set incredibly high. A gut feeling instead of managed expectations! Completely detached. And what follows is the countdown, followed by the fireworks,

and then...we’re off.

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