Review: Berghain Ballet

Published in Auditorium Magazine, June 2013. Photography by Liz Eve.

No hope for black swans 

Expectations for a captivating evening are high as I walk from Berlin’s Ostbahnhof railway station towards the menacing grey landmark that is Berghain, the city’s most infamous nightclub. Anyone who has entered the building knows that once inside, you leave behind both sense of time and everyday conduct. In a second attempt to collide the nighttime underground with the world of classical dance, the Berlin State Ballet prepared MASSE with Berghain after their first collaboration in 2007. The show ran for 11 sold out nights in May.

The insides of the building are as unkind as the concrete facade. The stage at the former power plant’s kettle hall is designed by Norbert Bisky, a famed German artist known for his interpretations of catastrophe and marginal culture. The main elements on the bare and rugged stage are the front of a bus sticking out apocalyptically from one side of the stage, and a black tongue-like chute oozing down the back wall. A very descriptive aesthetic of the Berlin nightlife, which is marked by empty warehouses and other disused spaces hosting decadent, never-ending nights. A temple for black swans.

Project name: Masse 13 Berghain / Berliner StaatBallet || Location: Berghain Berlin || Description: Berlin State Ballet Performance at Halle am Berghain

The first of three acts starts with a ritualistic convocation of figures in long black robes. The lighting plays alternately with the bodies and the industrial space, setting the mood for lost souls trapped at the bottom of a well, trying to figure each other out. The bodies morph into smaller beings as the segment moves forward in shoves without a clear storyline. In a chat before the show, choreographer Xenia West explains that her take on the concept of mass (‘Masse’ in German) brings together social, scientific and philosophical elements. The act ends in a portrayal of human evolution, a bit too obviously in a scene otherwise left open for so much interpretation.

The second part (choreographed by Nadja Saidakova) breaks the bodies down into even smaller pieces, all the way to cells. One group formation reminds of a DNA double helix. The dancers run interesting experiments of one-cell beings moving across the floor. There are flashes of light, and radioactive matter dripping. We find ourselves even deeper in the well, a primordial mass swaying to minimal electronic rhythms where the sunlight does not reach.

Project name: Masse 13 Berghain / Berliner StaatBallet || Location: Berghain Berlin || Description: Berlin State Ballet Performance at Halle am Berghain

The storyline shakes up and starts to head towards revelations in the final act – although the three parts were composed and choreographed independently. Musically the most interesting, the third act (choreographed by Tim Plegge) offers flashes of 90’s raves, Balearic sunset vibes and mechanical noise. They play the soundtrack to a scene that moves from schoolyard horseplay and romance to an ominous prisonyard, laced with sirens and bordering mayhem. The thoughts awakened by the scene are more interesting than the dancing.

The excitement has ended up in confusion. What was MASSE? The electronic sounds by Berghain resident DJ’s mix well with ballet movement, but nowhere do they hold the whole stage together. The disappointment of MASSE is that it is a collection of clips, tastes and sounds instead of a story. There are single bursts of beautiful dancing in every act, but transitions between dances are disturbing at times. The absolute highlights are delivered by soloists, most notably by principal dancers Federico Spallitta and Elisa Cabrera in the first act. The costume design by Julia Mottl was fitting in all acts.

Project name: Masse 13 Berghain / Berliner StaatBallet || Location: Berghain Berlin || Description: Berlin State Ballet Performance at Halle am Berghain

The message and the setting of MASSE resonated much more than the dancing and the music. The decaying club was the perfect location to review our hopes and fears of belonging and of individuality. If our cities were buried in sand to be dug up a millennium from now, would they understand why we gathered in these places? Is it from ourselves we hide in these wells, moving to mechanical music in a unified frenzy? Or were we only hiding from ourselves when we left the club.

The idea of the production is warmly welcomed, truly reinterpreting ballet and contemporary culture. I did, however, long for an element to hold it all together and sadly did not truly find it. We seek and find truths for a passing moment, but end up no wiser. Maybe we are all doomed in the search for ourselves and for each other.