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How a slower pace is bringing the best out of Berlin theatre

It's a matter of time. Our stage editor reflects on a summer filled with some of the most poignant theatre, dance and performance art Berlin has to offer.

The Ecstatic at Sophielsaele. Photo: Philip Frowein

Just as summer was beginning, I caught Jeremy Nedd and Impilo Mapantsula’s The Ecstatic at Sophiensaele. The performance of pantsula, a dance that originated in South Africa, was a part of the theatre’s Leisure and Pleasure festival and emphasised shifting tempos.

The dancers would shuffle lazily before, with a clap and a call, breaking into rapid movement, only then to slide back into slow motion. Sometimes they all would accelerate together. Sometimes they would all move so slowly that the languor extended seemingly interminably. And when one dancer then moved at a normal pace, he possessed the grace of mercury. Watching it, I felt myself lulled into a trance.

This experience of time alongside the performers is a taste of utopia.

These dancers, though, have not been the only ones casting this kind of temporal spell on Berlin’s audiences. On stages across the city, I’ve been noticing slow motion everywhere. This was a feature of Tina Satter’s House of Dance at Schaubühne, where a frantic chase for a special shirt is slowed down to enable the audience to view the entirety of the action as they throw the desired object from one person to another.

Slow motion also featured in two performances at Theatertreffen; in Hamlet, it served as a fine representation of how “time is out of joint”, as Hamlet proclaims, and (slightly bafflingly) emerged as a gimmick at the end of Theater Basel’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as the performers prepared for their bow. 

The Ecstatic at Sophielsaele. Photo: (c) Philip Frowein

At the Berliner Ensemble, Paris Gazette (Exil) featured slow motion. Centering a German-Jewish family in Parisian exile, this adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel, Exile, began and ended with the clock (other stage adaptations have been appropriately called The Waiting Room). The play is studded with moments of delirium, where dancers move in a kind of slowed down frenzy, representing the chaos of a newsroom or the riot of ecstatic debauchery.

The slow motion, it seems to me, clues us into an essential element of live performance, which is that it is nothing but the manipulation of time (as, ultimately, all art is). What, after all, is aesthetic experience but an altered sense of time’s inevitable flow? 

Schöner Wohnen, Amy Stebbins’ excellent chamber opera at the Neuköllner Oper, played with this very concept, collapsing time so that an Elon Musk acolyte from our near future – a proud if hapless digital nomad – and an exploited seamstress from the 1920s could collide in a dystopian apartment complex where occupants pay for each flush of the toilet. As two actors insisted we sing along, this performance emphasised theatre’s capacity to create its own time and place, joining together figures across eras and beyond the stage in recognition of the housing problems that have haunted Berlin.

Schöner Wohnen at the Neuköllner Oper. Photo: (c) Thomas Koy

Indeed, to enter a theatre is to agree to experience time anew. There is nothing but the show before you, often – in Berlin, at least – without intermission. It is this stretch of time whose rhythms break away from the clock and become dictated not by some mechanical process but by the performers.

For some, this experience of time alongside the performers is a taste of utopia. I don’t know if I’d personally go so far. However, as performances carry us into a new temporality, theatre grants a rare opportunity to reflect on the rhythms that have otherwise ruled us. When I spoke to Ulrich Khuon for the last issue, the Deutsches Theater’s longtime intendant who recently retired, he reflected on theatre’s evanescence. If you miss a run, there’s no way to see it again, he said. It’s a live art. 

It’s true. Like us, it’s there and when it’s over, it’s no more. But theatre offers us moments that release the impending jaws of death and let us experience – as slow motion does – another rhythm of life that, for that moment, need not end.

Editor’s picks

Chief Hijangua

Chief Hijangua. Photo: Michael Panitz

Namibia’s first opera, a stirring collaboration between Herero composer Eslon Vakomboka Hindundu and German librettist and historian Nikolaus Frei gives voice to a grim colonial history not often enough on centre stage in this city. It will be shown in German and Otjiherero.

  • Haus des Rundfunks, Masurenallee 8-14, Westend, Sep 15-17, details.

In Memory of Doris Bither

Photo: IMAGO / Martin Müller

The excellent Ruth Rosenfeld will feature among the relatives of Doris Bither, who seek a language to redescribe Bither’s experience of ghostly visitation, in the Schaubühne debut of acclaimed writer and director Yana Thönnes. This reconstruction of paranormal activity in 1974 Los Angeles will surely be haunting.   

  • Schaubühne, Kurfürstendamm 153, Charlottenburg, Sep 26, 28, Oct 3, 4, 6-11, details.