At the Ruhr Valley's Ruhrtriennale arts fest, industrial ruins turn into supersized 3D paintings and machines dance a macabre ballet. Six weeks of theater, music and art are underway.
Germany's Ruhr Valley, a region dotted by ironworks, steelworks and coal mines, was once the country's industrial lifeline. But the boom days subsided in the late 1960's, and hardly any of the old industrial sites operates any more.
The icons of a once flourishing industrial culture weren't demolished. Today, many of the aged machine halls, power plants and gasworks house creative events. Such are the venues of the Ruhrtriennale (Ruhr Triennial), launched in 2002 and now one of the region's most high-profile festivals. Its Belgian founding director Gerard Mortier, who'd given the Salzburg Festival a modern image, transformed abandoned work halls and gave his new festival a notably post-industrial touch.
Multiple Ruhr cities now play host to six festival weeks of music, theater, dance and performance art, drawing audiences from around the country thanks in part to the innovative approach of combining monuments of art and industry. With a new director general appointed every three years, the 2014 programming represents the last round at the helm for visionary multimedia artist Heiner Goebbels.
Northern Duisburg's power plant is immense: a concrete and steel structure 160 meters long (520 feet) with endlessly high ceilings - its industrial-age design intended for anything but art. Here Heiner Goebbels stages "De Materie," a work of music theater by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen that offers a philosophical take on the relationship between humans and the materials that surround them, narrated through historical examples.
The premiere of "De Materie" marked a strong opening for this year's Ruhrtriennale. In the piece, the Ensemble Modern, which specializes in contemporary music, delivers the same chord 144 times with hammerlike precision. Meanwhile, a chorus of eight soloists stands on a kind of balustrade. The singers proclaim the Dutch Declaration of Independence from 1581 and provide instructions on shipbuilding. A tenor positioned opposite them riffs philosophically on the infinite divisibility of the whole as white zeppelins drift peacefully over a series of illuminated tents positioned on the stage. Barracks? Storage facilities on an unknown planet? Various theories make the rounds in the audience.
Giant live paintings
Against the backdrop of the stage's immense depth, Heiner Goebbels' sets seem like 3D paintings. "This hall gives you the impression that people are worthless," Goebbels told DW. As such, the protagonists onstage struggle in vain to fill the massive space.
In act one, figures in green spacesuits depart from abstract, white structures. The protagonists look like playthings. The images that follow are romantically suggestive: a deep yellow planet illuminates a foggy stage upon which singer Evgeniya Sotnikova, depicting a 13th century nun, sings about sex. In act three, two dancers do a clown-like dance at the furthest end of the stage to boogie-woogie rhythms. Given their distance from the audience, they seem like little ants.
More surprises in act four as a herd of sheep emerges to melancholy sounds - in dim light and seemingly in thrall to the ever-present zeppelin. The animals trot across the stage in a moonlit atmosphere, their bleats rounding out the music in unpredictable ways. A natural collective, the four-legged stars fill the expanse of the stage and emit a farm smell. It's a bold production idea.
Raining cats and dogs
Italian director Romeo Castellucci, responsible for the second opening production at the Ruhrtriennale 2014, also puts animals onstage. But here, it's a matter of long-dead animals. There's little vitality in fact in his take on Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring), and it's a production that takes some getting used to. Although the piece was originally conceived for an orchestra and ballet troop, no dancers take the stage.
A translucent wall of cloth separates the audience from the stage, which, illuminated, shows a barren and monotone grey floor. Grey containers resembling upside down milk cans are draped from a ceiling construction. Some have electronic counters attached, seconds rushing by in bright red displays. Stravinsky's score sounds out from loudspeakers.
Then things get going: bone dust begins falling out of the containers - from animals' bones, as the director explained at a press conference. The machines move: revolving, changing position and hobbling left and right. There's a comical quality to it at times: machines rather than people doing the dancing to Stravinsky. The director uses the dust as a kind of marionette, sometimes raining down in wide columns, sometimes narrowly and sometimes with great force - all at the machines' behest.
75 pulverized cattle skeletons
Suddenly, the machines fall still. The milky air gets clearer, revealing a landscape of dunes on the floor formed from the animal dust. At the heart of Stravinsky's original is a human sacrifice; in Castellucci's version, it's clearly the animals.
"Today, industry connects us with nature. The victim has become something industrial," the director commented. The audience later learns that 75 pulverized cattle skeletons were used to achieve the six tons of dust used in the production. Castellucci stresses that despite the seeming intent, he doesn't want to moralize.
The music carries on as the curtain closes, but then it opens once more. Men in protective garb and gas masks shovel the dust back into huge containers.
The explosive premiere of Stravinsky's milestone work in 1913 had protests and fistfighting in the audience. Nothing of the kind at the Ruhrtriennale, but instead, noticeably restrained applause. Castellucci's "Sacre" proved a bit difficult to stomach.