English translation of the film interview
A talk with Johann “Hans” Kresnik
Choreographic beginnings in the ballet studio at Bühnen der Stadt Köln (civic theatres in Cologne) and at Theater Bremen (1967/68)
JK: It was a one-off opportunity… some association… I think it was a women’s association that money gave for young choreographers during the year. Marianne Wick, the assistant of Aurel von Milo did it, we soloists took part and then at some point I said, I can’t take it anymore – this Dave Brubeck music and footballs hang down from the ceiling. What am I supposed to do with that? So I said, “OK I’m not gonna do it any more.” Then we had the idea of doing our own thing. Good, and then I thought, as I knew Leo Navratil and schizophrenia painting and poetry, he sent me a poem about schizophrenia that I turned into O sela pei and it became very successful. Then we invited Hemlut Baumann, Neumeier, Pina Bausch and Jochen Ulrich also did something. It became more and more successful. My second thing was the assassination of Rudi Dutschke – Paradies?. It was banned after the first performance. We couldn’t perform it again because the APO-movement (extra-parliamentary opposition) was in the audience for the first time with their flags and long hair. That kind of thing was unbearable for an opera house, that these long-haired apes should come into the theatre. Kurt Hübner in Bremen heard about it and he brought me to Bremen straight away. But I had worked with Balanchine, Kranko, Agnes de Mille, Béjart and with all these famous people, and my question was always: why am I doing this with you here, this stuff without storylines? I mean, it’s legitimate, neo-classical ballet and I have no problem with it, but I’d had a very Socialist-Communist upbringing and I was then in the Marxist movement in Cologne and I thought we had so many topics before 1945 and after 1945, and then we immediately brought out the assassination of Rudi Dutschke. I was called to Bremen immediately afterwards and there were people there like Zadek, Fassbinder, Neuenfeld, Minks, Bruno Ganz, Jutta Lampe and whoever they were and I thought, ‘Oh god! How can I measure up against these icons?’
I stayed with my political content. I’d had a discussion back then with Kurt Jooss – Der Grüne Tisch had been a big influence on me – and Kurt Jooss said, “Hans go on in this direction, with political ideas and such.” So I continued in Bremen with Kriegsanleitung, Schwanensee AG, Paradies?, PIGasUS, the election propaganda between Johnson and Nixon. Back then, of course, the critics were not used to seeing content. They didn’t know anything. They knew everything about Swan Lake and Giselle but didn’t know anything about my stuff. There was lots of confrontation with critics. I used to be someone who wouldn’t shut up that easily and always upped the ante. I worked out that the nearer I am to the political content, the more the German dance world is interested in it – “so what’s going on there then?” Then came Pina Bausch. She too had an insanely difficult position. Thankfully, I had directors such as Hübner, and Stolzenberg. Pina Bausch as well as Susanne Linke had Hoffmann Wüstenhöfer as a director. They gave the choreographers time and opportunity to learn and try things out. Today’s choreographers either have less or none of this.
Pina Bausch, Reinhild Hoffman, Susanne Linke, Gerhard Bohner
JK: My background is very different. I didn’t go to that Kurt Jooss school in Essen (Folkwang). I had never been to ballet school. I didn’t need it. These three ladies had a very different background. Bohner is again something quite different. We spoke with each other but we had very different themes. I couldn’t really do much with Pina Bausch’s themes and she could probably do absolutely nothing with mine. But it wasn’t a problem. We were moving in parallel but the content of our work never met. The large theatres were laughing at us. They said, “Look what’s happening in Wuppertal or Bremen, it’s all rubbish.” Yes, and then suddenly we were successful and then came Herr Everding and Götz Friedrich. I was asked whether I wouldn’t want to be the boss in Hamburg or at the Deutsche Oper, and I said, “No, I’m not going perform Romeo und Julia and Swan Lake, the classical pieces, on a Monday and then have to put on my experimental works in a backroom somewhere.” Neither Pina Bausch nor I went. We stayed where we were. Then came Gerhard Bohner, Reinhild Hoffman was in my group, and that’s how it all developed. Slowly, the big theatres gave up trying to get us there, as we wouldn’t have gone. How could the things I did at the start of my career, or Pina Bausch’s things, be shown at the Deutsche Oper or Staatsoper München? People would have been offended. It was also important for people to finally learn that there is something other than classical or neo-classical ballet that had validity. But we only encountered each other at a premiere, over a whisky or a beer and that was essentially it.
Choreographic theatre versus dance theatre
JK: There was no German dance theatre back then. I thought in Cologne, “What do I call it when I use dancers who speak no text but have the same content as theatre? How do I put it together?” As I’m metaphorical and come from drawing and painting, I thought, “Choreography and theatre. Ah! Choreographic theatre.” I developed this name and it remains today. There was unfortunately no successor. Then came the phrase “dance theatre” from Pina Bausch. They are two very different things. The critics were very confused back then, asking, “what’s that and what’s that?” They only knew classical or neo-classical ballet. This is how the name came about and became fixed, but it had no successors.
What has changed?
JK: Yes, a few things have changed. The dancers I had available back then were mainly classical dancers. I had to bend and mould their bodies so that something different would emerge. Dancers are now extremely well trained and educated, much better than before. They have modern, they have classical and they have new training methods, like when Klinsmann started using rubber bands, Pilates and everything else with the German national football team. We had nothing like that. At most we hopped through the ballet studio with a few weights, or put a woman on our shoulders and did a few pliés and such like. All that has changed, but unfortunately the choreographers haven’t changed and haven’t kept up with the dancers. There are great dancers. The figures have definitely changed: They no longer look like I did back then, like a small muscleman that who probably wouldn’t be able to get to his toes or something. They are all tall and slim and very differently trained. I find that great. Hopefully, there will be a few new choreographers there too.
From Berlin to Bonn – scandal
JK: My contract was with the Berlin Senate not with the Volksbühne. It expired. Momper and others, the culture senator and whoever, came here and said, “Hans, we’re 45 billion in debt here in Berlin and we can’t extend your contract.” Then Bonn was at the door and the director said, “Come to Bonn, we’re going to rock opera and drama, come join us.” I went, but also because I loved my group and I thought they’d at least have a five-year contract. Then we discovered that in Bonn you can’t open your mouth, you can’t say anything against anyone or anything, and when I did a piece about Hannelore Kohl the city almost collapsed. It was a catastrophe for them. No one noticed that I really wanted to show a politician, like Macbeth, who goes so far that the wife no longer goes with him. She’s left behind, even by her sons and everything, and I made a martyr out of her. I mean, her death didn’t happen out of the blue. That was still more or less acceptable in Bonn, but then when I tried to make my mark, for example with revivals of Goya, but then we had the stuffy set in the auditorium saying, “Heavens! What on earth’s that?” I was too blatant for Bonn. My contract wasn’t renewed after three years. I did the five years for my group so that they had contracts, but then they went and threw out the whole group instead of just getting in another choreographer. It was all related to cost-saving measures and politicians. The entire group was out along with another 30 people. The director’s contract was extended and he also got BMW. If we have these types of directors then many dance groups in Germany will disappear.
Artistic models and role models…
JK: Lots of Fellini films, lots of Pasolini. I’ve already done three pieces about Pasolini: theatre, choreographic theatre. He created the concept of consumer fascism at the start of the 60s. We have nothing but consumer fascism today; it is an exploitive form of capitalism that you can no longer keep up with; it’s everywhere you look. You have to find today’s themes in very different places. There’s lots of content. If I still had a group, I would work with these themes. But I had a group for more than 40 years and that’s enough.
… and key works
JK: Classical ballet, definitely. Regardless in which form, Swan Lake, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. And naturally Beethoven’s Ninth is part of that. You can’t rewrite Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s there, it should be there, and that’s important. There are naturally influences and role models – Der Grüne Tisch by Kurt Jooss. There are dancers there, like “der rote Jean Weidt” who did solo pieces with a political content. There are many pieces from earlier you need to keep to learn from them and see how things were then. Pieces by Gerhard Bohner and Pina Bausch –we don’t always want to put on Pina Bausch, as at some point it crumbles away – as well as Cranko, but the most endangered pieces are my own because no one can recreate them. Some have tried but it doesn’t work. But classical works must definitely be preserved, as well as classical dance.
One’s own heritage
JK: I’m not vain enough. If I’d started thinking about my past and my past pieces then I’d have died a long time ago. I don’t have to. I can’t assess it. Important would be pieces like Kriegsanleitung für jedermann that we performed as guests at the Deutsche Oper when the police came and occupied the theatre as the audience was beating each other up because of the content. The Berlin Senate had said no war material had been built in West Berlin, but it wasn’t true, as they had built all the electronic stuff for the combat tanks and everything in West Berlin. Someone said they hadn’t built any war material and I said, “Well, you’re lying.” You can make weapons or tanks using a few small parts. So those things may be a part of my heritage or Schwanensee AG, which was seen as a catastrophe by the critics, but it wasn’t true.
Re-enactment of Francis Bacon (2012)
JK: I’m not very vain, but I have to say I’m the only one who has done five painters, who has done so many female biographies. I don’t think there is anyone in Europe who has done as many premieres as I have. Francis Bacon came about in response to the great demand to re-enact the piece with Ismael Ivo at a festival last summer. I never thought it would be so successful. There were six additional performances and the festival was extended by almost a week because of it. Then it went to Brazil and Ismael Ivo received an award from the president. Francis Bacon was a very difficult piece for me, because when you look at Francis Bacon’s pictures, for example the picture of the Pope, for which Bacon spent ten years thinking about how he could put the Pope on canvas at all, I’m there thinking, “How can I put what Francis Bacon has painted on the stage?” It was a very difficult process. I did it with Ismael Ivo, who was never trained in classical dance. He was an actor. It was easier to do the piece with him than with a highly qualified dancer. It would have been more difficult that way. Ismael Ivo has a particular charisma and that’s why the piece was successful. I think it will be repeated in the Volksbühne.
Deviations from the original
JK: Yes, there are different people in it, and one extra character was installed, at Ismael Ivo’s request. I said, “OK, we’ll have one more.” I worked more with the bodies, as the people who danced the premiere with Ismael had different bodies and I always focus on the body. When I work with a singer I always work with the physical limits of the singing or the voice. I do the same with actors. I can’t ask a fat actor to do three pirouettes, for example. Everybody can dance, even fat people, even people with physical disabilities, everyone can move. But you have to work within their physical limits. I found a few ways to work with the dancers so that they didn’t try to copy what they couldn’t do. I think I read some good reviews about the piece in Stuttgart ages ago. I haven’t read anything else since. It said it was like a great echo. I don’t know. I know that all performances were sold out immediately. Ismael had charisma written all over his face and I said to myself, “OK, then good.”
Recorded at the Volksbühne Berlin on 24/4/2013
Interview guidelines: Isabel Niederhagen, Riccarda Herre
Interview and editing: Isabel Niederhagen
Camera and editing: Andrea Keiz
A DIEHL+RITTER production as part of TANZFONDS, an initiative of the Federal Cultural Foundation