Wrote something about dance, postmodern theater and Heiner Müller

Heiner Müllers Heartplay was extensively rehearsed by my ensemble. The process was physically demanding and mentally draining; most of us had never expressed ourselves artistically through dance. Müller’s text seems, at first glance, very simple. A dialogue between two people where one offers the other his/her heart. To understand the full meaning of the play, one needs to explore Müller’s history and upbringing and how it relates to our performance as well as to postmodern theater in its entirety.

Heiner Müller was born in Germany. Worked for the German Writers’ Association and quickly became one of the most important dramatists of the German Democratic Republic; winning the Heinrich Mann Prize and the Kleis Prize respectively. His relationship with the state started to deteriorate soon after. According to Müller his childhood experiences brought on a development of “a hate potential, a need for revenge”. He found anger against capitalism and fascism that originated from the “childhood trauma of standing before shop windows and not being able to buy.” (Kalb, 2001, p. 6)

To me, this unabashed vindictiveness effectively demonstrates Müllers motives behind a large number of his texts. It is the emotion of being isolated, of somehow not belonging. The emotion of revolution, of blood and of vengeance. Müllers backstory shaped our own production and brought out our own ideas on revolutions, ideals and cults of personality. A video projection of the demolition of the Berlin wall was added as well as other video footage of great leaders and moments in history that held significance to us all.

One of the main pillars of postmodern theater is the abandonment of literary text (drama) and the indentation of the word; making it a mere component of a production that has no greater importance compared to the other aspects. In short: word can exist or be abandoned. Heiner Müller belongs to the canon of postmodern. His play Bildbeschreibung is a great example. It consist of a single monologue that is spaced with an irregular slew of commas. It seems that postmodern theater has conquered the fight between drama and theater (or ignored it), and instead likes to deal with the relationships between the viewer, the performer, the space and the body itself. The aim becomes to build up a production with a brand new identity.

Scenes were included in our dance performance that hopefully hearkened to Müllers original motives and passions. The performance started with an improvised scene between me and six other performers, where we had to follow each other’s movements and actions. It was mimicking, listening and sensing the rhythms between the performers and then breaking up the moment by crashing out of it in an almost violent way. This had a practical reason: to let the other performer know when the moment was over, but also became, in my opinion, a central piece of the whole performance. A constant shift and change between belonging and being an outsider.

A moment that demonstrates this came at about four minutes into the performance. There were seven of us in the beginning improvisations, which meant that once a pairing happened; one of us would be left out. This happened when we improvised a fight; one of the actors was unable to participate and had to merely observe the action. I think this is a telling moment that came completely naturally and tied in perfectly with the idea of an outsider vs. a collective.

Another moment came soon after, about twelve minutes into the performance. The scene was between me, another actor and the rest of the group listening on the far left. The actor read a soliloquy from Macbeth. It was read as an idea, as a message. He finished, handed me the microphone and joined the rest. I continued on by stating the line from the play: “May I lay my heart at your feet?” Which prompted the rest of the group to rush at me while parroting the same line with violent enthusiasm.

To me, this exemplifies a perversion of the message. It was as if the idea was drowned out immediately by the enthused, enthralled crowd that was hungry for anything to live by. It was a silent moment of introspection for two characters that was then misinterpreted by the (listening) “public”. This mirrors, again, Heiner Müllers own life where his plays and texts were often censored or interpreted extensively, the latter of which he opposed strongly.
In an interview Müller states:

When an author is dead, one can survey his work and put it into relationship to the historical dates of his time. Already this does not work at all. Also the classification of a biography of his works according to the model: there is this phase then this one and this one, does not mean anything. Because there is no development in art, only unwrapping. The one is present in the other. (Ganter, 2008, p. 32)

In his Heartplay, there are no names, no gender. Nothing overtly political, and nothing with a message. It is an absurdly simple text filled with naiveté and idioms. Ironically, the political aspect of the play was brought in entirely by us and the public. The playwright Tony Kushner wrote about Müller:

Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (Kushner, 2001, p. 26)

Something that Müller did aspire towards was the breaking of the flow and the ripping open of predictability and comfort. Our performance was chained together by small vignettes, not one of them lasting too long and were often broken up with a literal movement and a statement: “cut.” This allergy to meaning was something I feel I brought to the group. Moments should grow organically and not be brought out artificially. The performance did not need literal images of war or revolution, but the performers do. It is the job of an actor to digest all these literal ideas and then produce something that is not obstructed by clear-cut definitions. This is a problem we dealt with throughout the rehearsal process.

There is a sequence that was performed continually over the production. An almost march-like walk forward; accompanied by steady and rhythmic movements. We all joined in with this movement and it quickly became a centerpiece of the performance. It was the one example of unity in the dance, that then got cut up as other vignettes and scenes emerged. I think this is very much in tune with Müllers ideas of predictability and averting expectations.

This aesthetic image was not designated by the story, dialogue or the characters, as is common in drama, but rather by the status, the space, the silence, the musical and visual rhythms etc. The story in our performance was rather fragmentary. The characters are some men and some women, but who they are, or what their purpose is, are questions that are never answered. The scenes are stuck in primal motives, they exude hidden fears. Sometimes the importance is laid onto the visual, figurative and theatrical aspects, then onto the text that is sparse and open-ended. The theatrical dimension towers over the drama. It is clear that our performance sits squarely in the postmodern.

The piece also had technical aspects that intrigued me, primarily the use of lighting. We used four stage lights and a projector. The lights were positioned on either ends of the stage and the projector was in the middle. The strong stage lights obviously brought the attention to the performers, but also made the setting more intimate. This was contrasted by the projector that shot out images of the Berlin wall and various other historical moments. I feel it was a good juxtaposition that grounded the big historic moments with the small scope of our own performance.

The music that was chosen had been used in a radio drama of Müller’s Hamletmachine. It is rhythmical anti-pop, or, as they state on their bands website:

It was made from a range of instruments carefully beaten together from mostly stolen construction site, scrap yard and do-it-yourself supplies, consisting of steel parts, barrels, drills, hammers, saws and an untuned electric guitar. The sound monster awakened to life; was crowned by Bargeld’s blood-curdling screams and feverish texts, impregnated by doomsday fantasies that revolved around ruin and destruction, illness, downfall and death.(Einstürzende Neubauten)

Again, this was contrasted by the performers themselves. A group of young people in a postmodern dance performance is a far cry from “destruction” or “illness.” But put into the context of the dance, it suddenly took on a life of its own. The rhythmicality of the song elevated the climax of the piece to a more undefinable, raw place that would’ve been almost impossible to reach otherwise.

The physicality of the performance was invigorating to me. Dance is not something that I feel much passion for and it was challenging to focus on it so heavily. Over time I came to know my limits very clearly. Primal movements that deal with instinctual, raw moments are what come easily for me, and more importantly, from an honest place. More nuanced and constrained movements are difficult as I tend to throw my whole weight and being into it, which can override any subtlety. The same instinctual, no-fear frame of mind can be used with nuance, as it can with power. It all hinges on going with the moment and finding a rhythm.

A scene that I will bring as an example happened at about twenty minutes into the performance. It was about a confrontation between me and the other performer. The idea was for it to be an almost schoolyard level of aggression. As I knew the performer and how he moved and what his rhythm was; the scene was easy to play out. All we had to do was mirror each other’s energies and be honest in the emotions. I also discovered how to feed my own nervousness and pre-performance jitters into the scene as fuel. There is always potential energy that can be repurposed to fit whatever the scene demands.

This, to me, is one of the most important points I have learned. When you are in the moment, the primary thing you can do is to open yourself up to vulnerability. Anything can be a fuel for the next movement, the next breath. You have to let other parts of your brain take over and hope that you’ve done the work beforehand. If you work, study and show up, the subconscious will always take over the moment and guide you to find the exact right moments and the right rhythms. And if that does not happen, that is alright too. The pressure in a performance should be merely a physical one, analytical thinking should be left at the door.

The rehearsal process opened my eyes to these particular truths about my own movement and body. I find it incredibly interesting how my mind learned to deal with the constant physical battering and also how it started to think with a more instinctual pattern. Relying on my fellow performers became paramount and it was fascinating how a common language developed between me and a few other people. It is something very difficult to describe, and maybe it should not even be attempted. The mere knowledge that the language was there made the final performance so much easier.

This bond became increasingly important during the finale of the dance where the whole group improvised and played off of each other. If there had not been that rehearsal process, then we would not have developed that common language. I was ready to follow people and could do it at an almost subconscious level. The public was forgotten and what mattered most were the other people next to you, breathing in the same pace. There was also a sense of insurance that you would not be left alone in your improvisations. Improvisation means that it is impossible to fail. Your failure can be the exact thing another performer needs to spark his/her inspiration.

Our performance, based on Heiner Müllers Heartplay, is a postmodern piece that greatly broadened my theatrical horizons. Actively participating in this dance gave me a greater sense of Müllers own life, his inspirations, how he fits into the postmodern canon and how he helped to shape it. My own ideas on theater have changed, as has my understanding of what directing a dance performance entails. Having an idea plays only a small part in the creation of a production, the real work comes in translating this idea into movements, into breath and combining it with instinctual preferences that will hopefully set one towards creating something memorable.

Kalb, J. (2001). The Theater of Heiner Müller. New York: Limelight Editions.
Kushner, T. (2001). Foreward
Ganter, T. (2008). Searching for a new German identity. Oxford: Peter Lang.

The internet
Einstürzende Neubauten. (2015) Biography [Online]. Available at: https://neubauten.org/en/biography (Accessed: 11 January).

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