August 17th, 2005

operesque

Tanzalarm!

It's morning and I'm lying in bed watching German kids' channel Kika. It's a much nicer beginning to the day than the reports of Baghdad bombs and hiked oil prices over on BBC World. On comes this bizarre show Tanzalarm.

"Hallo Freunde, wollt ihr tanzen?"

"Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

What a great concept this "dance alarm clock" is! Each week a dozen kids in orange T-shirts, accompanied by some adults with dubious hairstyles and a big garlic frogodile, bully the employees of some German concern into dancing with them. This week it's a major German railway station. Employees dance with the frog-crocodile and sing about their duties as they punch tickets and wave the train out of the station.

The message is an oddly contradictory one. Tanzalarm strips the uniformed officials of their Reichian "character armour" (not to mention their dignity) only to impose even stricter standards on them: not only must these real ticket inspectors, sales staff and platform managers go about their usual duties (selling tickets, punching them, waving trains on their way), they must also dance in tightly-choreographed sleazepop routines while they do them.

Another example of Dionysus usurping the throne of Apollo? Or a kind of musical chairs in which Apollo surreptitiously re-asserts his austere rational authority by donning Bacchic garb and grabbing a lyre (is that you in the green suit, Apollo)?

Anyway, Tanzalarm is a lot of fun, and very German. Although I could imagine something similar in Japan, where pop-culture schoolkids and superlegitimate train-drivers might very well meet up in some wholesome TV sexypop dancefest emphasizing collective values. I could imagine similar displays on North Korean morning TV shows, or propaganda films made shortly after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Even Brecht's summer camp film Kuhle Wampe has something of this sense of joyous collectivity about it: the ant scouts scuttle happily by the lakeside (a lake close to Schloss Lanke, the tumbledown house I mentioned the other day, and where it now looks likely I'll be playing a concert myself on September 11th) while Eisler's "Solidarity Song" plays.

What's striking here is the way dance is stripped of any marginal, oppositional status and becomes an expression of social legitimacy. Gone is the conflict between instinct and society (that eternal, insoluble conflict late Freud spoke so much about); here to have your ticket inspected is a joyous submission to collective energy. Rational instinct! The instinct of systems! Instinktprozess!

There's nothing humiliating about Tanzalarm's Instinktprozess, though: the inspector himself is also submitting to the choreography, which is nothing less than a metaphor for the harmoniously-performed social contract.

This week I've gone to two slightly more "oppositional" dance events, both part of the Tanz im August season. In the first, Julia Cima (a colleague of supercool Boris Charmatz) danced the whole 20th century in a piece called Visitations. In the second, an unnamed company did an untitled piece lit by torches held by the audience. Puppets and puppetlike men lay immobile, or rolled very, very slowly across the stage, much more slowly than the speed of the audience's attention. Just when some people were starting to walk out, dramatic "hard breaks" punctuated the performance: a sudden pall of dry ice filled the theatre, white lights shone dazzlingly into the audience. At the end a figure—it was hard to tell if it was a man or a puppet—danced in mid-air, guided by wires. It was both boring and extraordinary, an interesting place to be for an hour. I spent the time thinking about Beckett, Butoh and Bunraku, and wondering about the English phrase "paying attention". We pay money for the chance to pay attention. It must be pleasant.