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“I don’t start with a statement”

INTERVIEW. Berlin's edgiest theatre has been napping since July, but the HAU wakes up on November 1, no longer headed by Matthias Lillienthal but Belgian-born Annemie Vanackere.

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Photo by Kai-Uwe Heinrich

Annemie Vanackere begins her tenure as the new head of the Hebbel am Ufer theatres

Stepping into the role of the artistic director of Berlin’s most exciting performance venues, Vanackere is re-launching HAU’s three freshly touched-up theatres, originally united into one organization under the notorious Matthias Lillienthal in 2003.

It isn’t the first time she’s led an institution in an adopted country: the Belgian-born Vanackere previously helmed a production house in Rotterdam. But Berlin presents its own set of challenges, language aside. The most pressing issue facing Vanackere is financing the type of work HAU is known for: genre-defying, often multilingual performances created outside the German theatre system.

The opening weekend features companies from the Netherlands. Did you bring a bit of home with you?

It’s true. Wunderbaum and Schwalbe are two Dutch companies with German names, which is funny. Wunderbaum will make a new piece here, so it’s an encounter with a new bunch of artists and the way they work. On the other side, there’s Jérôme Bel, whom I’ve known since the beginning of his career. His work with this handicapped theatre company is an encounter with another gaze, another way of being in life. For me, it brings up all these questions: Maybe I’m the handicapped person. I’m not free to dance like I want to because I want to be socially accepted. So, both shows have something that is very dear to me.

They’re also either in English or with English surtitles. Is there going to be a language shift this season?

In Rotterdam, I found it important to have international theatre, and not only dance, because different languages resonate in different ways. I like hearing different languages – maybe it’s a personal thing. I come from Belgium, which is a country with language politics.

What do you think about subtitles?

I’m so used to it. If you look at Holland or Belgium, everything is subtitled. There’s a real art of subtitling: they should not have more than two lines, so you can shift rapidly with your eyes between the text and the actors. If you have a good subtitler with an understanding of the text, you cut where you can. And of course you lose something, but the gain is bigger.

In this time of funding cuts, are HAU’s subsidies stable?

They should be stable for the years to come. But there’s actually less money for the so-called Freie Szene than I thought: the gap between the big institutions – the Staatstheater – and us, the independent scene, is bigger than I imagined. That’s not what I was used to in Holland and Belgium.

It’s true that the city budget is split about 90-10 in favor of the state theatres, operas and orchestras. How are you handling this discrepancy?

I’m living through my first full cycle of the grant application circus. You have the Hauptstadtkulturfond, the Senat, Kulturstiftung des Bundes. This is something that Lillienthal was great at: tapping into all of these pots. It’s not that there’s no money, but there are a lot of artists. So would it be an option to work with fewer artists and give them more money? I’ve lived here now for half a year, but it takes a bit of time to understand everything.

What kind of role will the new HAU play in the cultural politics of the city?

I’m still figuring out how we can have a voice there. Part of the attraction of the city is what this independent scene represents, so the question is: what is the city willing to pay for this? One of our tasks is articulating the value of what we do: that there are ways of producing theatre and dance that are different from but as valuable as the institutionalised ways and the big machinery.

For example, Wunderbaum is a true actors’ collective: there’s no director, they decide together what they will do, and it’s visible in their shows. German theatre is also sometimes quite intellectual, which I like, but I also need the sensuality of performance. For me it’s about the whole package, communicating a certain vision – a vision out of nothing, which is the title of Wunderbaum’s work. So that’s part of our role: we are the space for artists to develop their eigene kunstlerische Sprache (own artistic language).

What else would you like to develop over your tenure here?

This idea of a production house, where you can have longer-term relationships with artists. It’s important to have this with Berlin-based artists as well as international companies. Part of the vision could be to realise major works for our bigger stage, HAU 1. But also to have an artist like Meg Stuart in residency in HAU 3: we want to see how it works to have one artist for a month instead of different productions every week. This is part of looking for other forms.

And in terms of content within these structures?

We’re investigating the idea of whether or not art needs to be activism. Can art be something in and of itself that has a value and a meaning without being politically activist? We will research that and see how it develops, but let’s say the reflective layer is there. I don’t start with a statement, rather questions. What is changing and what is important and what are the artistic translations?

What’s the story behind the animals on the new HAU postcards and posters?

I don’t think we’re here to point a finger or to moralise to people. There’s something fun about these animals. They make you smile, but at the same time you want to connect with them. You project things on them: he’s a bit sad, isn’t he? Or, he was drunk when he left Berghain at six in the morning. Of course there is the bigger issue of how we decide who is framed as the other: are these animals autonomous creatures, or simply objects?

HAU 1, Stresemanstr. 29/HAU 2, Hallesches Ufer 32/HAU 3, Tempelhofer Ufer 10; Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor.