Berlin - European Capital of Culture 1988

It was Greek Minister for Culture and world-renowned actress Melina Mercouri who suggested to the council of the European Community in the early 1980s that they should declare one city in the EU ‘European Capital of Culture’ each year and finance its celebrations. Her aim was to bring together the citizens of Europe and introduce them to the culture of a city and its country. On 13 June 1985, the respective ministers adopted the resolution to designate a European Capital of Culture each year, and chose Athens as the first city – as a kind of thank you for giving them the idea. Florence was next, in 1986, followed by Amsterdam in 1987, and then West Berlin in 1988.

Culture and art – as is shown in the concept paper for ‘E 88’, Berlin’s year as the European Capital of Culture – were political issues on both sides of a divided Berlin.

Capitalism versus communism/socialism – the Berlin Wall separated two ideological systems. That was still the case in 1987, when the city’s 750-year anniversary was celebrated to great fanfare on both sides. The celebrations in West Berlin were showered with (government) money.

Sonderbriefmarke Berlin - Kulturstadt Europas 1988

The slogan “The World is Invited to Berlin” made clear what the West had to offer in 1987: liberty and freedom of movement. Nele Hertling, who started work on the programming for the European Capital of Culture celebrations while she was still at the Akademie der Künste remembers it well:

  • Quote: Nele Hertling - Part 1

    “Of course, Berlin was quite busy with the 750-year anniversary, and with its competition with East Berlin, who were also celebrating it – that’s important to remember – and it really was an enormous effort. I think that both sides really wanted to outdo each other with a big, flashy spectacle. They really pulled out all the stops, and anybody who remembers that era knows what it was like. It wasn’t actually a bad time. But the European Capital of Culture was still a new programme, and Berlin wasn’t really taking it that seriously – which meant that no one had taken the programming that seriously either…

    Which meant that it wasn’t until the spring or summer of ’86 that the Senator for Culture at the time, [Volker] Hassemer, realised that something had to be done. His first idea was really interesting: he wanted to offer the entire programme to the Akademie der Künste and had asked the then administrator [Dagobert] Rohner and me (I’ve no idea why) if we would organise it for the Akademie. But the Akademie wasn’t interested. They rejected the offer, saying they didn’t want to have such a close relationship with the state. And I remember that I also thought long and hard about it too. Will I remain loyal to my employer, or do I say that I think it they’ve made the wrong decision? My husband really supported me – he said that I wouldn’t be able to live with the decision, and so I said “okay, I’ll take on the programming for the European Capital of Culture celebrations”. And in doing so, I had to…well, the Akademie der Künste didn’t throw me out, but they had to grant me leave, and that’s how it all began.”

Volker Hassemer (CDU), West Berlin Senator for Culture (1983-1989), gathered together a bunch of advisors at the organisational office that he had provided to Hertling and Rohner. The year as European capital of culture, known as ‘E 88’ for short, needed new ideas – ones that were experimental, unfinished, unheard of. In 1988, West Berlin was to present itself as a WERKSTATT (workshop), as a European city of culture always in a continual process of development:

  1. Berlin, Site of the New: “Highlight the city’s contribution to the emergence of European Modernism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Karl Scheffler’s 1910 dictum: Berlin’s destiny is ‘to always be in a state of becoming and never a state of being’. Newness is therefore one of Berlin’s fundamental qualities. Mention Berlin in the 1920s as the city of revues and Schlager music.”
  2. Workshop Berlin: “The new emerges primarily from encounters, from dialogues, from confrontations: knowledge of the new requires information that can often only be obtained through encounters. Therefore, Berlin should not only be a podium, but above all a ‘workshop of the arts’.”
  3. The rediscovery of Central Europe: “1988 challenges us, however, to offer the city as a space for presentations from eastern Central Europe.” 

Senate bill 1694/87 as of 13.3.1987, Landesarchiv Berlin

And who knew the “artistic potential” and “rich cultural substance of the city”, its “range and breadth, from the large centralised ensembles and institutions to the decentralised establishments in the various neighbourhoods” and the “diverse number of independent initiatives” better than Nele Hertling?

  • Quote: Nele Hertling - Part 2

    “As luck would have it, and – and this is something I’ve said over and over again – you can say what you like about the then Senator for Culture, but over the course of the history of the European Capital of Culture, Volker Hassemer was perhaps the ideal political partner, because he trusted the people he chose. Nowadays, the municipal employees are often booted out and replaced by commercial agencies as soon as the programme is done. That was really great with Hassemer. He would say: “you are the ones doing this and I am your direct contact – you don’t need to go through a bunch of other people.”

No one in Werkstatt Berlin e.V. had any time for that either. Hertling knew organising and improvising only too well from her many years as the secretary for music and performing arts at the Akademie der Künste (West):

  • Quote: Nele Hertling - Part 3

    “In the summer of ’86 we first looked for spaces in a flat in Spichernstrasse. We gathered together the European politicians in the kitchen – I’ll never forget that – and in a very short period of time had to not only put together a programme, but most importantly, we also established a structure. My condition, after seeing what had happened with the 750-year jubilee when a whole host of celebrities had been invited to Berlin – we didn’t want a repeat of that, and there wasn’t really time for it anyway – my condition was that I would be able to pick the people we worked with, and I already knew quite well from experience that with so little time to play with, we could only work with people who knew the city, people who would know where and how to find everything. Which is why we called up Tanzfabrik – as well as people from all sectors, from fashion, design and architecture… – and we only worked with people who came from the city. And it wasn’t the bosses we worked with but almost always the people who would normally be in the background, who actually get things done, and that was absolutely the right decision… we had this flat, and sat together with a huge number of people in one room. Each person had only one table, with the next one right beside it, meaning that it was a very cramped but also a simple way of working, as everyone knew what was happening, which was how we were somehow able to turn E 88 into such a large programme in a very short period of time. ”

Of course, Hertling was also keeping tabs on contemporary dance. For years, she and her colleague Dirk Scheper had organised the guest performance series ‘Pantomine – Music – Dance – Theatre’ – PMTT for short – at the Akademie der Künste. She had been particularly familiar with the US dance and performance scene ever since she and Ulrich Eckhardt (Berliner Festwochen) had brought the New York underground to West Berlin for the show ‘Soho – Downtown Manhattan’ in 1976. 10 years later, richer in both contacts and experience, she basically came up with the concept for the dance programme off the top of her head, jotting it down on a piece of paper:

To make this programme a reality, Hertling needed allies:

  • Quote: Nele Hertling - Part 4

    “My first successful decision, once I was in a position to make them, was to decide to found a dance workshop (the TanzWerkstatt). We had a fairly good budget which we could juggle around a little, and the first thing that we tried to do was to seek out companies that were just making a name for themselves in Europe but were already very well-known in their own countries, invite them to Berlin, and, as in the case of Bagouet, commission them to create new work. What we realised – and it was a real light-bulb moment for us – was that all of these choreographers and companies, who, as I said, were not completely unknown, had never seen any of each other’s work, not once. The reason for this was the same as it is today: you get invited to a festival to perform your piece, launch straight into rehearsals, have performances for two days, and then quickly leave the next morning, because there isn’t enough money, and the next company needs the hotel room and the theatre space. That meant that none of the eight or nine groups knew the others’ work. And so our very first decision was to say that the groups that we invite must agree to stay in Berlin for at least two weeks, all together. Our second guideline – because we knew that the Berlin scene was still really struggling – was that the companies we invited had to run workshops during the day with colleagues from Berlin. And there was another reason for this… after the 750-year jubilee celebrations, there was a real sort of anger in the scene, not only in dance, but everywhere; partly due to envy, and partly due to false allegations that lots of money was spent on foreigners when it was locals who actually needed it. When we started with the European Capital of Culture stuff, we faced a lot of animosity in Berlin, not just from the press, who were totally against us, but above all from the Berlin art scene, which is why we said from the beginning that the workshop programme meant working with local artists. Through this, we were actually able to get the art scene on our side a bit… and that was completely new in Europe.”

Even before the launch of the TanzWerkstatt at the beginning of June, the plan to involve the Berlin dance scene was seen by many as an empty promise, and the role of Tanzfabrik, the cooperation partner of the TanzWerkstatt, was viewed with suspicion. There were protests.

The outcry was not without consequences. In early 1988, dancers, choreographers, and dance instructors joined forces to create the interest group ‘Tanz Initiative Berlin e.V.’ (T.I.B.), and demanded their share of public funds.

"Frust statt Freude" - taz-Artikel vom 8.6.1988

Finding suitable spaces for the dance programme was one of the biggest challenges for the TanzWerkstatt. On the one hand, the effects of the 750-year city anniversary celebrations were still being felt, and on the other, the programme was an unusual mixture of performances, public rehearsals, technique classes, workshops, discussions, video presentations, and performance projects – a programme not particularly well-suited to theatres. So, at the old Schultheiss complex in Kreuzberg, for example, the brewery along with its enormous underground storage spaces was opened; elsewhere, a furniture warehouse was converted, which now houses the Neuköllner Oper; and a theatre tent was erected next to the Freie Volksbühne in Schaperstraße. E 88 therefore also became a programme for creating new spaces for the Berlin cultural scene.

On 4 June 1988, it all got underway in the Hebbel-Theater; a jam-packed, somewhat confusing programme, as the dance critic Irene Sieben wrote in the Berliner Morgenpost on 3 June 1988:

The dance classes were a real coup for TanzWerkstatt – even offering the once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with modern dance icon Merce Cunningham. While Hertling and Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann looked after Cunningham and the programme sections ‘European Dance Today’ and ‘Early Dance’, Ulrike Becker and André Thériault coordinated ‘Issues For The Nineties’, a project conceptualised at Tanzfabrik by Jacalyn Carley, Dieter Heitkamp and Robert Rease.

Contemporary dance and historical dance styles together in one programme – that was something new. Ulrike Sternberg and Klaus Abromeit – who had founded the ‘l’autre pas’ group in 1985 and engaged with historic dance styles and costumes – were in charge of the ‘Early Dance’ section.

Anyone who wanted to discover the avant-garde of the contemporary dance scene or wanted to know what ‘Contact Improvisation’ was all about went to the Performance Projects at Tanzfabrik, at Möckernstrasse 68. Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton were in town. Steve Paxton is to Contact Improvisation what Merce Cunningham was to modern dance. Contact Improvisation was not well known in Berlin at the time, and it was taught, discussed and practised for five days at the ‘Fourth European Contact Teachers Conference’. Dieter Heitkamp, co-founder of Tanzfabrik, had enthusiastically embraced Contact Improvisation, and tried to explain what it was all about in 1988 on the cultural show Journal in 3 (Radio Free Berlin):

  • Quote: Dieter Heitkamp, Interview 17.6.1988 - Part 1

    “That’s a very difficult question, and at the conference we tried for several days to get our heads around what Contact Improvisation really is. It is a form of dance, you can certainly say that, and it is a very physical form of dance that has a strong relationship to bodily contact. As a basic structure, it is about two people dancing together, but it could also be one person and the floor, in which the floor becomes a partner. It could also involve a trio dancing together. However the basic structure is a duet, and in this duet a lot of work is done with weight, with body weight, with gravity, with falling, with flow. At the advanced stage, with lifting and jumping. So that it becomes quite acrobatic. For me it’s a lot about sense, about feel; that is, it’s not an overly formal dance form, but what it’s really about is finding yourself, finding your body, and from there, finding the basis from which to reach out to someone else, with whom you can have an interaction, to reach a place from which the entire dance can emerge from a single moment.”

From Contact Improvisation to baroque dances, from established dance greats to unknown talents, all shown in unusual performance venues – the diversity of what the TanzWerkstatt offered was enormous. The message was that “all movements are possible”.

FAZ critic Jochen Schmidt turned up his nose:

Dieter Heitkamp, who contributed to the TanzWerkstatt as a choreographer, dancer, and organiser, and for whom these tasks sometimes became too much during the three weeks of the festival, hoped in 1988 for more cooperation in future:

  • Quote: Dieter Heitkamp, Interview 17.6.1988 - Part 2

    “Looking ahead to the ’90s, I think people are going to start collaborating more again, or that a kind of exchange will take place, which I find really exciting. It’s something that I think has never happened in quite this way before. In the past, all the choreographers were basically chipping away on their own and were isolated in their respective countries… dialogue is slowly developing, or there is at least a process of getting to know one another. I think that’s something we’ll see more of in the ’90s – no more boundaries, but rather the attempt to facilitate exchange, and to support one another.”

As soon as the last guest of the TanzWerkstatt bid their farewell, Nele Hertling started thinking about the next step, approaching politicians with a policy document. For her it was obvious that there should be a TanzWerkstatt again in 1989. Soon after, West Berlin’s Senator for Culture Volker Hassemer laid the foundations in the truest sense of the word for the continuation of Hertling’s programming and the TanzWerkstatt:

However not everyone in West Berlin was happy with the senator’s decision. A theatre without a fixed ensemble, without an established repertoire, and what’s more, with a woman at the helm: that went against all accepted ideas and the customary distribution of roles. At 54, Hertling was the first female artistic director in her hometown of Berlin, and in a theatre with a long tradition at that – right next to the Berlin Wall. Though no one had any idea that just a year later, the wall would be irrelevant.