Welcome to Berlin. The counter-culture capital of Europe- and possibly the world. Weird is woven into the fabric of this city. When the Berlin wall that divided the city was up, West Germany implemented a series of incentives to draw citizens to live there that were attractive to many counter-culture types, such as draft/military service exemption. This created roots for the punk rock and electronic scene on both sides of the wall. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, two populations that had been divided for nearly three decades were facing an integration problem. As explained by Schofield and Rellensmann in their paper Underground Heritage: Berlin Techno and the Changing City: “Berlin’s renowned alternative scene…provided a mechanism for two separate communities of young people (the next generation of “Berliners”) to come together in a neutral environment…” Today this is evident in Berlin’s thriving electronic music and arts scene, but also in its diverse, international population. There is a grown-in “you-do-you” aspect of the culture. This was never more apparent to me than when I started dancing in public spaces. I immediately noticed people going out of their way to politely ignore me. They would look and then glance away as if attempting to provide me with privacy. This local sentiment was illustrated in an interaction I had one day with an older German man.
I was dancing in an U Bahn (subway) stop when I was approached this fellow. He came quite close and watched with an expression of enthusiasm on his face. Finally, he spoke in German and I stopped and apologized saying “mein Deutsch ist schlecht” (my German is bad.) He asked “is this ‘freestyle’?” We awkwardly muddled through the language barrier as I tried to explain what I was doing and another German man - who seemed to be a local from his attire and mannerisims- walked up and stood staring at the older fellow When the two of them spoke and it became clear that the younger man was concerned that the older fellow was crazy or harassing me. There was very much a sense that he came to tell the older fellow that he should leave the young lady alone to do her subway dancing in peace! Once that was sorted out, the older fellow managed to convey that he was asking permission to pay me a compliment. When I gave him a smile and a nod he said “you are FREE!!” with delight and waved me to go on with the dancing. The language barrier and the arrival of the train prohibited any further questions, but the lesson of the interaction was clear. This man was bold to approach me and other Berliners perceived his enthusiastic watching as an intrusion on my personal space.
In the video below you can see me dancing in an area of central Berlin by a canal. It is not an area with a great deal of tourists, but some do pass through. Off screen is a small group that is doing their best to act like they are not watching me, although one gentleman pulled out his phone and recorded for a minute before they moved on. The people who pass through the frame are typical of the passers-by in Berlin. Nothing to see here folks! Just people being people in Berlin :-)
In my research I came across an article about Argentina’s Ballet dancers taking to the streets in protest of the funding cuts to their company. Recently Alvin Ailey dancers went on strike to protest that their pay is 35% lower than that of commensurate companies. While this is peripheral to my personal project, it dovetailed with time in France where the railway unions were on strike (called the “grève” in French.) Before I come back as to why I think these dancers are in the right, a word about the French grève.
I have relied on public transit almost exclusively during my times in Paris and France. In Paris the metros (these days) tend to be clean and in good working order. Compared to cities like New York (a public transit nightmare!) the metro is inexpensive and easy to use and we never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. Prior to the strike by the train union, which runs the larger above ground inter-city and international trains, the union announced its strike days to the public well in advance. The strike meant that fewer trains would run on the announced days. Furthermore, if your train was cancelled, you would be notified by text several days in beforehand and, for good measure, you could check to ensure your train was running after 5:00pm the day prior to travel. Reservations for travel during the strike could be changed or refunded free of charge prior to the departure date. While a strike is inconvenient, it was well-organized and done with tangible respect for the riding public. Yes, the drivers are fighting an attack on their benefits, but they are also on strike to send a message to French President Macron against privatization. While privatization has its supporters, it has had disastrous impacts in places like the UK. Many years ago when I lived in England the train was an excellent way to get around, but after the national system was privatized it became plagued with problems. (Not to mention that they are owned primarily by non-British corporations that have no interest in serving the public beyond profit.) Most notably, it is now too expensive for most people to ride. One London man found it cheaper to buy a car than a train ticket to go from London to Bristol. As an outsider and traveler moving through, it looks like the French union drives a hard bargain, but that they do a bang-up job holding up their end of the deal.
For almost any professional dancer, holding up their end of the deal is a foregone conclusion. The prototypical dancer psychological profile is one of tremendous dedication, diligence, and as well as a tendency towards compliance. The toil and endurance it takes to make it through the many years of training, and often pain (not to mention the all too often abuse) to attain that level of capability deserves a payout of respect from their employers, arts policy-makers, and sponsors. Alvin Ailey is the premier, quintessentially American company. While the USA has a number of excellent dance companies such as American Ballet Theatre and the Martha Graham company, those companies can and do consist of many dancers from all over the world. And rightly so. However, as the top African American/black American* dance company, Ailey is arguably one of the few companies that would cease to be what it is if it were to be populated with a majority of dancers from other nations. They are the crown jewel of American dance. Their 35% pay gap is nothing short of a scandal- both artistically and from a racial and social justice perspective. The Ailey dancers are right and righteous to demand better professional recognition and pay. And I admire the dancers in Argentina for fighting for the survival of their professional art form. We might be inconvenienced by strikes and protests, but it is good to stop and ask ourselves what it is that these people are fighting for and if they are keeping up their side of the bargain.
*I have met African American/black American with different preferences on how they are referred to, so I will use both terms to respect as many people as possible.
In the autumn of 2017 I began an MA in Dance Performance at the Irish World Academy, which is part of the University of Limerick. From the start I began to catalog ideas for my final project, but inspiration really hit while on a spring trip to Paris with my husband, Jeff. Due to the gracious generosity of my mother and grandmother we were staying in part of Paris’ 10th Arrondissement. Walking around the corner one day Jeff pointed and said “look- Invader!” He was pointing at a small mosaic, high up on a wall, of a video game character from the 1980’s arcade video game Space Invaders (released 1978). It was then that I learned that when he said “Invader” he was talking about the Parisian street arts who goes by the same name.
Invader’s work can be seen all over Paris and, now, in cities around the world. Like Banksy, he’s one of the early street artists who won street art credibility as an artform as opposed to vandalism. Seeing his work in person surprised me. While I’ve always been an admirer of murals, I had not really considered street art like that of Invader with any type of real interest previously, but seeing his work tucked into the cityscape gave me a new level of appreciation. For me, there is a sense of surprise and delight in walking down a street and seeing one of his works. Jeff and I watched the film Exit Through the Giftshop and I started learning more about these artists. I find it fascinating how the placement of their work in the cityscape changes it and, in some cases, gives it value it would not otherwise have if it was presented in a conventional setting. If my first encounter with one of Invader’s mosaics had been on the wall of some person’s house, I think I would find it to be of dubious value, but he has a skill for placement/framing of his work and it is in the context of the city that his work takes on a new life and becomes viable art.
I decided that for my final project I would take inspiration from these artists. Over the summer of 2018, as I travel, I will be engaging in street performances of contemporary ballet to investigate how performing on the street changes the nature of the work and may make ballet more available to some people. One of my great passions is making both the study and performance of ballet accessible to non-dancers and everyday people. For too long ballet has been associated with elitism and burdened with connotations of snobbery. While I do think it has been used in that fashion, these connotations are not inherent to the art form. Ballet is for everybody! I do think that not anyone can be a professional ballet dancer, but I know that everyone has the potential to enjoy ballet at some level as a student and as an audience-member if we, the performers and dance professionals, open it up to people. Bringing ballet to the streets and making available the beauty of this classical art form for people to engage with in a modern urban context is the type of work that is fundamental to who I am.
I did not get to dance in the streets of Paris due to an illness, but I did feel well enough to take some photos on our final day to launch this blog. Soon there will be some video footage of my street performance. I hope you will follow me on this dance journey.
See you in the streets!