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Do you want to die with me?

Fabrik Potsdam has proven yet again that it is one of the most exciting European venues for contemporary dance. By Evelyn Finger

Dance theater has suffered through and exhaustively analyzed the crisis of the welfare state. Those who witnessed the deaths of ensembles back in the days of the new economy, those who recall the strategy of "hold on for dear life" with which even the most famous choreographers survived will know: the political demand for a creative response to cutbacks has been fulfilled by all but the politicians themselves. By contrast, many artists, especially the "free groups" feed themselves uncomplainingly on the bread of mercy and have gotten accustomed to dancing on shaky stages.

Fabrik Potsdam

The fabrik Potsdam has found a fitting image for this chronic state of emergency. A couple sets a table that has two normal and two short legs. The grotesque piece of furniture can't stand on its own, so the protagonists have to inconspicuously keep the thing upright. When the woman goes to get the cutlery, the table collapses, when she comes back, the man runs away – it's a trading of places that is danced with deceptive ease so that we almost miss what's missing from the system; the lovers have no free hand to hug each other, no chance to interrupt the constant routine of preventing the crisis. "Do you want to die with me" is the name of this piece, based on the letters of Heinrich von Kleist. It's not just about the impossibility of love or about daily life as a failed construct but also about the artist's suicidal fight for a place in a society whose problems he has to overcome day in, day out: a career Sisyphus.

xx"Do you want to die with me" © Andrew Dawson
In its most recent production, the company of the fabrik Potsdam has proven yet again – after "Fallen", "Pandora 88" and "Screaming Popes" - as one of the most exciting European ensembles for contemporary dance. The choreography takes Kleist's self-chosen death – he together with Henriette Vogel killed themselves in 1811 at the Klein Wannsee – as the basis of a tragicomic meditation on the theory and praxis of failure. A melancholic man (Sven Till) and an unpredictable woman (Hiekyoung Kim) demonstrate how hard it is to excuse oneself from all other exigencies and to actually achieve what one wants; they do this stumbling, pulling themselves back up, climbing over one another and finally flying through the air in a wild Pas de deux. "I decided not to leave the room until I had made a plan for life," goes the prologue, "but eight days had passed and I really had to leave the room."

"Hopeless games". Director: Evgenij Koslov

The title "Do you want to die with me" also describes the fabrik Potsdam's struggle for survival. Since its founding in 1990, the free dance theater was constantly changing venue: first an empty factory, then an abandoned fishery building, then a rundown riding hall and then back to the fishery building, whose final renovations should be complete in the coming spring. On the banks of the Havel, next to the new building of the Hans Otto Theater, a new performance hall with 199 seats, two little dance studios and four big ones will open. "We've become experts in laying down swinging parquet," says the creative director Sabine Chwalisz and explains how, in 1993, the original Fabrik burnt down. Or how in 1996 it rained on the stage during an evening premiere: Wolfgang Hoffmann, Sven Till and I were tacking plastic film onto the roof right up to our cues."

"Hopeless games". Director: Evgenij Koslov
In retrospect, such adventures sound romantic. In retrospect one forgets to wonder how the little fabrik team, which for a long time was made up of the dancer-choreographer Chwalisz, Hoffmann, and Till and today constitutes 7 people, was able to produce a full program every year. Every year they organized an international dance festival, completed weekly courses and founded co-productions. 22,353 people attended in 2003. The city of Potsdam and the state of Brandenburg could hardly expect more, given the measly subsidy of 255,000 euros that the fabrik gets annually. Especially when the fabrik is able to beat even the off-theatre Edinburgh Fringe in terms of the bang for a buck. The piece "Pandora 88" alone garnered the Total Theatre Award, the Fringe First and the Herald Angel in 2003.

"Screaming popes". Choreography: Marie Josee Chartier © Jeremy Mimnagh

The line between self-sacrifice and self-exploitation is very thin in free ensembles and the Potsdam company is one of several poorly paid cultural institutions whose efforts benefit otherwise economically-devastated areas such as the Schiffbauergasse. They reclaim industrial wasteland without being granted right of residence. They make their German premieres possible with their success abroad. Way beyond Schloss Sanssouci, between ugly residential blocks and the disused KGB buildings, they combat Hartz IV (unemployment insurance) tristesse. "Art and culture are the actual motors to propel society out of depression," says Sabine Chwalisz. Her colleague Wolfgang Hoffmann, who was recently named director of the Fringe Festival in Dublin, provides evidence that idealism is rewarded, that those who persevere, win in the end – and ergo that one does not have to support artists because the real geniuses rise to the top. Low-budget theater as a functional cultural-Darwinistic model! Why, shortly before the triumphant relocation in a new venue, do a piece on the desperate, petulant Kleist?

The characters in "Do you want to die with me" are by no means prepared to accept their miserable fate without a fight. As the couple are sitting at the set table – their elbows bent, their backs extruding, between them an insurmountable wall of porcelain – and one starts to fear this might go on forever, suddenly the dancers both let go of the table for no apparent reason. The ordered relations crash apart. The couple, triumphant, binds the pile of shards with red and white striped plastic tape and congratulate each other on the successful revolution...

"Pandora 88". Choreography: Wolfgang Hoffmann, Sven Till © Stefan Glöde

The British visiting director Andrew Dawson, who studied with Merce Cunningham and had already staged "Pandora 88" for the fabrik company, takes Kleist's biography as an opportunity to anaylze crisis as a condition that one must never accept. When the piece is performed at the Sophiensälen in Berlin, it is bound to set a feisty tone in Berlin's otherwise apolitical dance summer. Dawson has developed an impulsive, angular and precise language of movement and a demanding way of walking which foils the narcissistic strut of Xavier Le Roy or Jan Fabre. He describes life as it is experienced by the losers of flexible capitalism: an endless series of absurd struggles from which one must withdraw with partisan activity. Dawson's theater seems like a veritably contemporary form of system critique. It's more complex than spoken theater and more radical than philosophy.

Maybe one can understand the cultural politicians for opting not to pay for this. So far there is certainly no danger that the fabrik Potsdam will be corrupted by overly generous subventions. He who visits the culture and retail district of the Schiffbauergasse next year, with its overgrown concert hall called Waschhaus and the chic Oracle office tower, be warned: the imposing red building on the banks of the Havel with the black cube and the bold roof construction floating over the river is not the fabrik but rather the new city theater. The fabrik only cleared the way. When the establishment pushes forward, the avantgarde has to make way.

fabrik Potsdam, Schiffbauergasse 18, Offizierscasino, 14467 Potsdam.


This article was originally published in Die Zeit on July 28, 2005.

Evelyn Finger is an arts critic at Die Zeit.

translation: nb - let's talk european