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Tanz im August Blog: VA Wölfl / NEUER TANZ

Lily Kelting is back with her review of VA Wölfl and Neuer Tanz's collaboration at this years Tanz im August. Rumoured to be provocative and even insulting to audiences, Lily gives her take on the experimental performance.

Image for Tanz im August Blog: VA Wölfl / NEUER TANZ
“von mit nach t: No 2” by VA Wölfl / NEUER TANZ. Photo by Daniel Poensgen

Can I tell you a secret? I had never heard of VA Wölfl or Neuer Tanz. The bio in the program was no help:

VA Wölfl works with Neuer Tanz

Neuer Tanz works in Düsseldorf

In the previous weeks I learned by hearsay: VA Wölfl doesn’t want to talk to you about his art. The generic you. But also you, Lily. Don’t ask for an interview, don’t ask for press images, don’t ask for context. You’re barking up the wrong tree. I also heard that there were boos at the opening, that lots of people left. So I was excited. 

From my vantage at a Saturday performance that seemed totally on board, it’s hard to see where the boos might come from. In the Meeting of the Minds that followed, Akademie der Künste dance program leader Johannes Odenthal explained in knowing and authoritative tones that Wölfl is a master of finding the edge and pushing it. 

But I mean: the edge of what? I think we should be more nuanced about what “the edge” is. The edge of the tolerable? Many performances demand much more of the audience – that the audience stay up all night, that the audience rub against strangers, that the audience be literally hypnotized and then lie on the floor. The edge of the acceptable? This is Berlin. Please. Those looking to provoke are going to have to work harder than a kawaii Japanese woman loosing a gutteral groan-roar into a mic for 10 odd minutes. 

I, for my part, never felt that the piece was intended as a provocation or insult to the audience. In person, VA Wölfl a delightfully prickly interviewee – even, to cite a buddy, “a dickhead.” Surely there was no meeting of the minds between Odenthal’s self-serious academese, the young audience’s expectations of English translation and Wölfl’s deadpan refusal to speak about his work. (Entschuldigung, wenn Sie da waren, namens aller Englischmutterspachlerinnen: wir sind nicht alle so). 

You can see Wölfl’s discomfort with the capitalist art market and neoliberal imperatives toward “understanding” within the work, too – as when a performer is introduced as “sponsored by Lexus”—and an ad for car insurance plays in the background. Even at his most cantankerous, Wölfl is funny. 

And, to be honest, here’s why I think Odenthal is misreading: during the performance, I felt pretty well-taken care of from start to finish. The aforementioned roaring-croaking: the house lights were up. You could leave. Many did. The fact that these same audience members who left came back for the curtain call speaks to this intuitive dramaturgy and mutual respect. They even told you it was an epilogue (PPS – after the bows– projected on the back scrim). 

Not that von mit nacht: No2 is easy, per se. The piece opens with eight performers in a row against the back wall, wailing on eight black electric guitars. The metal riff churns through the audience. A lone dancer at the front of the stage repeats a mechanized, sexualized score which moves from simulated blow-jobs to action-movie gun-slinging stances. The guitars drone with the hypnotic steadiness of a Gregorian chant and the amped-up, metal-on-metal grind of a band like Sleigh Bells. When the music stops, the silence rings. “Gott sei Dank!” heaves the woman next to me. But I never worried that I would have to sit and listen to brash riffs for the next two hours. Or that I would become disinterested. Or was bored. Not (here we are, back at the Mercurial George question) that sitting and becoming disinterested and bored is necessarily a bad thing. 

So like I said: I had no idea what to expect – walking out of the piece and into the Meeting of the Minds talk, I imagined some 30-year-old dude in head-to-toe black denim, maybe with silver rings, definitely too cool to wash his hair. But VA Wölfl doesn’t have hair. Wölfl’s arrogance is not one of youth, but of experience. Which speaks to the freshness of “von mit nach t: No2”: the clarity and vitality of the images on stage. 

Three men clustered around a microphone, holding bibles to their foreheads, obscuring their eyes, guns in their left hands.

A car frame, sawed in half, one half rotated slowly on casters, the other hoistered on a winch, the cut edge flush against the wall of the theater. A man erects a ladder, climbs to the car, puts on a welding mask and begins to work on the lower tire well. Sparks fly to the ground below.

A line of microphones on fire.

Saturated red light so thick on stage it feels tangible, viscous.

There’s a long sequence in which the company, men and women alike in mermaid-style wedding dresses, enact the assassination of Robert Kennedy: a series of gunshots, measured by a level, described by a narrator. “Shot one, shot two.” The thick white folds of fabric against the giant white cube become a sculptural study in white-on-white, punctuated by the black of the pistols. The dancers move in slow, balletic strides from tableau to tableau. The work stands for itself.

I’m not sure “edgy” or “provocative” are really the right words for what I saw on Saturday. Others might list Beuys and Schlemmer as genealogies of this crisp, photographic, super-high-production-value, choreographic style. I thought of James Turrell and Robert Rauschenberg. Despite the points of comparison, the best way to describe Neuer Tanz remains, well, “new.”