Wer bezwingt hier wen? - Deutsche Oper Berlin

What moves me

Who’s dominating whom here?

A French anthropologist is severely injured in an attack by a bear. In Berlin, heraldic animals are flesh-and-blood witnesses to different chapters in the city’s history: Nazism, WWII, the GDR and the end of Socialism.

The Anthropocene denotes the period in which mankind has been the main factor affecting the globe. I have long had a fascination for larger-scale theories that challenge our hegemony as a species, for mindsets that work on the fixed assumption that all of us – fauna, flora, the full spectrum of non-human players – are in a co-existent relationship on this planet. And this idea also informs my art.
Along with the dramaturg Carolin Müller-Dohle I stumbled on a book entitled »In the Eye of the Wild« by French anthropologist Nastassja Martin. Martin recounts the story of her trip to the Kamchatka peninsula, where she was attacked by a bear which mutilated parts of her face. She vividly describes feeling and smelling the animal’s breath in an encounter that almost has the intimacy of a kiss. Russian surgeons rebuilt Martins jaw, inserting a splint. French doctors judged the interventions to have been incorrect and put her through their own course of operations. Martin compares the operations to a Cold War being fought on the battlefield of her face.
Curiously, Martin has never viewed the incident as a traumatic event. She talks of it as a kind of re-birth, the beginning of a transformation. In an echo of the spiritualism of Kamchatka’s indigenous people, she thinks of herself as half-bear, half-woman.
It’s a hybrid aspect that extends to our performance of BÄR*IN in the Tischlerei of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, in form as well as story matter. We approach Martin’s account not chronologically but as a refracting prism. The various levels of the story – physical, emotional, objective - are rendered by a body-art performer, two singers from the Deutsche Oper and an actress delivering the blocks of text.
Then we’ve got a second strand – the story of Berlin’s real-life heraldic bears - that clashes deliberately with the motifs dominating Martin’s description. Right up until 2015 the City kept brown bears in an enclosure at Köllnischer Park in the old centre of former East Berlin. The first bears, an embodiment of strength, took up residence in 1937, a gift from the National Socialists.
Three of the original four were killed in an air raid in the Second World War and were later replaced. From then on there was a continuous ursine presence, culminating in the hype of the 1980s, when East Berliners were invited to suggest names for the cubs.
Notwithstanding the abusive practice of keeping animals captive in such cramped conditions, the bears were a constant in a city undergoing periodic upheaval, from a world war to the Wall and Reunification. It’s an angle we’re interested in: bears as players – in the form of a three-person troupe dressed as bears.

In 2021 Franziska Angerer was awarded the Dr. Otto Kasten Prize by the German Theatre and Orchestra Association. BÄR*IN is her first work for the Deutsche Oper Berlin © Agentur Focus, Konrad Fersterer
 

The bears relate their biographies in song styles reminiscent of the respective decades, ranging from 1930 chansons to Neue Deutsche Welle, techno and hip-hop – another aspect of BÄR*IN’s hybrid nature. Arne Gieshoff’s music is multi-layered, with two singers, a six-person instrumental ensemble and electronic compositions combining with Martin’s text to form the basis of the evening. The bear band makes its abrupt entrance at the halfway point. I’ve worked with Gieshoff several times. Here he's got dreamlike musical sequences illustrating Martin’s autobiographical account and opening up their own realms. This atmospheric stuff is what the singing bears clash with – and the two styles end up fusing into a hybrid musical entity.

I’m interested in what the end result is when individuals think only of their own interests. After all, we have an innate awareness that we live not at arm’s length from our environment but fully dependent on it. Which is not to say that this meshing implies harmony. As in Martin’s case, it can mean a person ending up as prey. That’s not a romantic thought but one that goes straight to the core of our being. Yet in a way it still consoles me.

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