Nele Hertling

Without Nele Hertling there would be no Tanz im August, there wouldn’t be this 30-year history of contemporary dance, performed in venues big and small, right across Berlin. By the time she began working as a research associate at the Akademie der Künste (West) in 1962, she had already lived through quite a lot. Born in Berlin in 1934, she and her mother survived the Nazi era and the inferno that was World War II, first in Bavaria and then near Rostock. She later studied German philology and theatre at Humboldt University, graduating in 1957. She also bore witness to the ideological arms race between East and West Berlin, to which even intellectuals and artists were not immune, she saw the persecution and imprisonment of friends, and in 1961, the building of the Berlin Wall. Having grown up in an open-minded house of musicians, she was naturally drawn to modern forms of music and the performing arts – meaning that number 10 Hanseatenweg was the perfect place for her to be.

From its re-founding in 1954, the Akademie der Künste (West), under its first president, the architect Hans Scharoun, was the hot spot for young artists and intellectuals. Hertling looked after the academy members and developed its programming, which meant travelling around, discovering new and innovative forms and bringing them to Berlin to open the eyes and ears of the public.

Along with Dirk Scheper, the secretary for the academy’s performing arts department, she developed the performance series ‘PMTT’, which stood for ‘Pantomine – Music – Dance – Theatre’, in which almost nothing was off limits. Making (almost) anything possible for artists is one of Nele Hertling’s key working principles. But to do that, she needed money and partners. She allied herself with Ulrich Eckhardt, who in late 1972 had been made artistic director of the Berliner Festwoche. Eckhardt looks back with particular fondness on the year 1976, when he and Hertling travelled to New York, taking in art, theatre, music, performance, video and film, which they then brought back to Berlin for the exhibition New York – Downtown Manhattan: SoHo

  • Quote Ulrich Eckhardt

    “Nele and I can really say that we were the ones who brought this American avant-garde here, and it had a huge impact. That was always really important for us, that we wouldn’t just create a sensation, a sort of flashy fireworks show, but rather that whatever we did would also have a lasting impact, which is indeed what ended up happening.” 

In the ’60s and ’70s, Soho had been home to the movements that would later take place in Kreuzberg: collectives and initiatives renting empty factories and trying to combine art-making and living under one roof. 

In 1978, Tanzfabrik on Möckernstrasse in Kreuzberg was the first collective in Berlin to try and bring together dance practice and daily life in the same space. Claudia Feest was part of the gang, and quickly got to know Hertling:

  • Quote Claudia Feest

    “Yes, Nele came to Tanzfabrik all the time, always accompanied by Marion Ziemann; you always saw them together. Nele was very well informed and saw lots of work. I think that is part of the reason she became such an authority, because she really knew the scene well and advocated an interesting position.”

How many hours did Hertling spend watching performances? Speaking with artists? Making contacts, raising money, and also explaining to politicians how important it was to bring new, unknown choreographers, companies and dancers to Berlin? She’s never done the maths. And it wouldn’t occur to her to do so. Working with artists was and is her life. Her husband, architect Cornelius Hertling, and her three children, had to live with her passion: 

  • Quote Tania Hertling

    “My sister and I would often be sat in the back row of some 12-tone concert at the Akademie der Künste – she always had to take us with her – and we could hardly stop ourselves from laughing… and I still remember, when the shows at the Akademie der Künste finished – it was either Cunningham or Trisha Brown – I jumped right up onto the stage and tried to dance along, I would have been around 10 years old, thinking that I was Merce Cunningham, and that’s when I started to really develop an enthusiasm for movement, something that I’ve never lost, which is what led me to become a dance photographer.”

As time passed, it was not only the director of the Berliner Festwoche who realised how important Hertling was as a partner and representative of AdK – Berlin Senator for Culture Volker Hassemer also came to really respect her. In 1986, he commissioned her to develop the programme for Berlin – European Capital of Culture 1988. She accepted, leaving the Akademie (with mixed emotions), and threw herself into the work along with her small team. One member of that team was Maria Magdalena Schwagermann, who joined Hertling in 1987:

  • Quote Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann

    “Our first meeting, about the question of whether I would work for her as an assistant for the Capital of Culture programming, for Werkstatt Berlin, started at 3 p.m. at AdK, and ended at 2 in the morning, and at that point we were sitting on the floor in her office with at least 800 project proposals spread around us, each of which she had briefly explained to me, in order to show me what a huge project she (and me too, if I came on board) was facing. That was also the night where right at the end she said, oh yeah, and then there’s another big project with Robert Wilson, THE FOREST, but we’ll have to see if it’s even possible to pull that off, and I said that we should at least give it a go, and so that same evening I got permission to go on my first official business trip to Stuttgart, in order to meet Robert Wilson. That’s how everything started, and it’s perhaps symptomatic of the 16 years we spent working together. From the beginning, my relationship with Nele was shaped by a strong curiosity – and, of course, admiration – from my side, and from her side an unbelievably large amount of generosity and faith in me. She really didn’t know me at all – I was a nobody here in Berlin, but Nele obviously had a strong intuition, something I became well acquainted with later, a faith that she had in people, and I had the good fortune that she placed that faith in me. And I was only too happy to accept her trust and generosity.”

As part of the European Capital of Culture programme, Hertling initiated the TanzWerkstatt, which was initially viewed with suspicion by the Berlin arts scene, but eventually came to be accepted. One year later, Tanz im August followed. Whether established choreographers like Merce Cunningham or a still unknown Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, the young Sasha Waltz or the already recognised Susanne Linke, whether Robert Wilson, relative unknowns such as Dominique Bagouet, Jan Fabre, Cesc Gelabert, or Jo Fabian – Hertling was always looking in multiple directions; not only towards western Europe and across the Atlantic, but also to the east. For her, there was no question that artistic and cultural exchanges contribute to political dialogue. And she was interested in sustainability before the term had even been invented:

  • Quote Claudia Feest

    “As director of the Hebbel-Theater, she was able to support choreographers long-term by inviting them to stage multiple works, something she took real pleasure in. She always invited back artists that she liked again and again. This meant that the public also got to see how artists developed over time, and through that she also gave independent artists the chance to return to Berlin again and again to perform – that was Hertling’s concept.”

Along with Ulrike Becker and André Thériault from TanzWerkstatt, Hertling developed a new festival format, combining guest performances with workshops. Being able to interact with international choreographers, who stayed in the city for an extended period of time and gave classes, opened up completely new possibilities for the dance scene in Berlin. What is nowadays seen as a matter of course – to travel around and visit workshops – was hardly a given at the beginning of the ’90s. When Hertling left the Hebbel-Theater in 2003, with 15 editions of Tanz im August under her belt, she handed her successor Matthias Lilienthal a festival that was still always underfunded, that had to be constantly fought for, but which had also undeniably become established – in Berlin, Germany, and beyond. Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann, who from 1989 to 2003 had worked alongside Hertling as deputy director of the Hebbel-Theater, went along with her: 

  • Quote Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann

    “For me, she has always been this silver and blue woman, always with a gentle, distanced smile on her face, which makes you asks yourself, can I go and talk to her now or not? And she always inspires this respect in you, but at the same time she always has this openness. That is my image of her: the blue clothes, the silver hair, and a slight, inscrutable smile.”

Hertling has remained the same as she always was: a bustling networker, a Menschenfängerin, as Ulrich Eckhardt called her – a ‘people-catcher’. From 2003 to 2006, she directed the DAAD’s Berlin Artists-in-Residence programme; in 2006, she became the vice president of the Akademie der Künste, a position she held until 2015; and last year she returned as director of the performing arts department – 55 years after her first job in the building on Hanseatenweg. Hertling helped establish contemporary dance in Berlin, and for years played a decisive hand in shaping the dance scene in Berlin and beyond. She held a lot of sway – sometimes too much, if you ask some people. This year, she will be awarded the German Dance Prize – a long-overdue recognition of her tireless engagement.