Last Wednesday 19 August I danced in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Europe’s biggest and most central train crossing station. It’s the highest security milonga I’ve ever been to. 500M from the German chancellor’s office, this building is in constant readiness for terror attack. It’s on the site of the former wall. The director of the annual Hauptbahnhof Festival of contemporary Music, of which the Contemporary Tangonacht was one component, desribes the building as “an oracle”. Andreas Rochholl has been organizing this festival for 7 years, and next year, the 8th year will be expanded from one to five days, with tango classes twice a day and a milonga with live music every night. (Here’s our interview about the 2016 festival.)
It was my first year.
And it was one of the most stimulating milongas I’ve ever attended.
Andreas talks a lot about music and sound. He’s a musician and opera director. I loved DJ Mona Isabelle’s music. But for me what was most stimulating was the physical space (I’m a sculptor) and the interactions (and community organizer). The dance floor had no fixed footprint. The perimeter changed constantly. I generally plow along in the outside lane no matter what, but here it was impossible to find the outside lane. It was interrupted by elevators, furniture, onlookers. As the number of dancers changed, the edge would flow to the inside or the outside of these obstacles. There was no line of dance whatsoever. It was simply impossible to accommodate the traffic of travellers dissecting the space without swerving into what would have been the next lane. We all understood. It was part of the improvisation.
And then it became something not only to respond to, but to play with, the same way I play with different instruments in the music, play on the rhythm, play with the melody. I found myself diving and racing through the other dancers, at times parading with the floor cleaning machine who passed directly through the milonga, at times pursued by frantic travellers and their suitcases.
I was stimulated to dance with the unfamiliar surroundings. One dancer marked me to press the button of the elevator, then made a waiting dance, and then danced into it. An observer came to block the door, so we wouldn’t be whisked down to the train platforms but remain visible as part of the scene, separated only by the glass of the elevator column. Other people meanwhile were figuring out how to dance on an escalator.
There was also the stimulation to interact with the business of the place. Some travellers stopped to watch us, for hours. Others were so absorbed in navigation that they couldn’t see us at all. It was fun to play with their oblivion, to try to draw them back to their physical reality. We danced circles around them, we tapped their suitcases with our toes, We followed them or blocked them with the rhythm of a rebote or sent voleos flying under their maps. They were unwitting, or latent participants. As were the trains and cleaners, who persisted stoically in polishing the metal edges of the staircases, proudly adorning their building the way we adorn our dance.
When it came time for my moment on film, Andreas positioned us at the top of a staircase looking down at the milonga, and I was drawn to mark colgadas out over the staircase.
I had fun, lots of fun. I kept thinking I should take a break, but for nearly 4 hours, I didn’t.
But the most important stimulation was the invitation itself….
The Hauptbahnhof is not a place to dress up and go and sit and hope to be danced. It is not a place you go to consume sexy women in the dark. Everyone knows it’s not going to be possible to have a glass of wine and show off your legs, to focus on seduction. This was a different invitation. This was an invitation to create something, to transform an ordinary space into art, to weave magic from chaos. And everyone knew their creativity would be required. Everyone knew their attentiveness and improvisation would make or break it. Everyone knew that they mattered.
I believe that the decision contemporary cosmpolitans are faced with is the choice between consumption, celebrity, and creativity. This event evoked our best, creativity.