Falk Richter goes Down Under: »The Complexity of Belonging«

by Joseph Pearson

1 May 2015

Australia: what if the Berlin dance and theatre scene were to go »down under«, and create a site-specific production using local materials? You write the script on-site, in English, based on impressions, conversations, and local cultural objects. You have an Australian bathe the text in the vernacular. You conduct your casting there, engage local actors and dancers, work with them in a laboratory of ideas to incorporate their own stories – such as that of a queer Aboriginal, Joel, whose tale needed the permission of community elders to be included. The piece is then performed for an Australian public. What then does Berlin learn from Melbourne, and vice-versa?

»The Complexity of Belonging« is the product of that collaboration. Falk Richter’s new work opened the Melbourne Festival 2014, and he teamed up with his longtime collaborator, the choreographer Anouk van Dijk, with whom he created such pieces as »PROTECT ME« or »TRUST«. She is now the artistic director of Chunky Move, an Australian contemporary dance company. Her presence in part drew Richter abroad, and he now brings Australia to Berlin. The cast will be touring Europe, with stops in Utrecht and Paris, and the guest production at the Schaubühne will show in late May 2015.

The production will, like other Richter-van Dijk creations, be a mixed media melding of dance, text, music, and image, with non-linear storytelling. There are five dancers and four actors on stage, reciting large amounts of Richter’s prose, and moving to the music of Malte Beckenbach (»TRUST«,»For the Disconnected Child«, »NEVER FOREVER«).

Visually, as Richter tells me, »They are performing in front of a huge Australian sky, it’s beautiful. It’s a huge photograph, 8m high and 32m long. It feels like the Outback, this landscape that creates both opportunity and fear. It is rough and dangerous for humans«. This conceit of landscape makes me think of dioramas one might see at a Natural History Museum, with stuffed animals posed before them, and, indeed, Richter tells me, the dancers at the end of this piece end up on pedestals.

Falk Richter is now far from the terrifying openness of Oz’s deserts, and is sitting drinking sparkling water outside the Schaubühne with me, in the meek spring sunshine, discussing his impressions of the Antipodes.

As a Canadian, I realize I have plenty of rivalry and fraternity stored up for my Aussie Commonwealth siblings. On one hand, there’s the suspicion of machismo and right-wing politics, of those rowdy, alcoholised, snowboarders who invade our mountain slopes. But on the other, there’s the admiration for their tough sense of humour, so different from our endless apologies. And there’s the dizzy envy – we almost need to shield our eyes – before people who have seen so much more warmth and sun, and are proportionally less uptight.

Falk Richter’s impressions at first seem to bear out my own, but his piece goes beyond such stereotypes. It is facile to talk about the »Aussies« and »us«. And, in his play, the actors complicate the predominant generalisations in their own voices, for example in the scene when they undermine stereotypes of what it means to be »a real Australian man«:

Stephen: If a real Australian man hits an animal on the road and doesn’t quite kill it he’ll stop, get out of the car and finish the job himself.

Josh: I’m not sharp
I’m not driven, career focused
I’m not that buff tanned gay guy that takes posed selfies with other buff tanned
gay guys who work in PR, on the beach or by the pool in Mykonos.
I guess I’m not sure where I fit in.

A central aspect of Australian life, connected to the question of national identity – and something familiar to me also in Canada – is the history of violence regarding the indigenous, or Aboriginal, populations. It is a subject that gives a German, used to thinking about his own country’s history of genocide, pause.

Richter tells me, »On the surface, Australia is this fun place of beer drinkers and the beach, but if you watch their films, especially the ones that deal with Aboriginal issues, they go to the core of genocide, or deal with domestic violence, rape within the family, this incredible violence that is everywhere hidden underneath. And I realized that few people talk about what it means to be Australian, about their history, and are afraid to say something wrong. And in this there is a connection to my country, to Germany, and Germans who don’t know how to talk about their own past. These questions came up there in everyday conversations in the theatre«.

One such film source was »Romper Stomper« (1992, director: Geoffrey Wright). Richter explains, »This is a film about neo Nazis fighting the ‹Asian invasion’. Russell Crowe is the main character and there’s a scene when he’s quoting Mein Kampf. For me, who had just arrived in Australia, there was a strong link to my own cultural background. These people are discriminating against Aboriginals, against Asian people, and they are actually using Hitler’s race ideology to do that. There is a connection here to Australia’s history – as one of the last countries to maintain a white-only immigration policy«. Indeed, the White Australia policy was only fully dismantled in 1973, and anti-discrimination legislation introduced in 1975.

This is connected to the Aboriginal question. White Australians came on boats and almost extinguished the local population. Now, new immigrants come on boats, and right-wingers entertain fantasies of their own society being overrun. Australia is very much in the international news spotlight for its draconian policies regarding migration. Most recently this year, the UN said that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers violates the Convention on Torture.

»Some white people see Asians as a threat, and there is this paranoid vision of Asians flooding the country«, says Richter, »There is this fear that the same thing that happened to the Aboriginals will happen to them, that somehow they will be erased. This mirrors the situation in Germany at the moment, with PEGIDA. If you see interviews with them, they say incredible things like ‹in two years, we will be forced to go to a Dresden mosque for Christmas’«.

»How then did the Australian audience react to an outside viewpoint looking squarely at their history?« I ask.

Richter replies, »They enjoyed the show, as the show is entertaining and fun and has beautiful text and dance parts, but after the premiere I talked to some audience members and one woman said to me that this evening is ‹a little bit like your best friend telling you stuff about yourself you don’t want to hear, but you appreciate anyhow’. I understood from feedback that a lot of Australian theatre makers don’t normally talk about politics and history in their shows as much. In one audience talk, I spoke about the Australian films I had seen, and said I was excited, and I was told ‹we don’t feel we are well represented by such movies’. It was a mixed reaction. I think they were flattered that some guy from Europe came over to work about their country, but at the same time I was told ‹don’t dig too deep’«.

»And, coming back to Berlin, do you see this city, this society differently?« I ask.

»I realized that while in Germany we are controlled by hierarchies, in Australia
they call each other ‹mate’, by their first name. They even call their Prime Minister by his first name, something that would be impossible in Germany. A lot of people say the idea that ‹everybody has a fair go’ has become a myth in Australia, almost propaganda, because it is no longer true for example for immigrants and Aboriginals. But as a theatre maker, you go there and have the feeling it is a wide-open space, not like here in Berlin where the tradition is weighed down by comparisons. It’s quite an open society and I had a very warm reception. I liked how people look positively into the future, aren’t disillusioned, and have a get-up-and-go attitude. And I liked how much less stressed they were. I thought about all these things coming back to Berlin«.

I’m now thinking about the broader question of belonging, as it was posed by the researcher Eloise in Richter’s text:

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the world has been losing its well-defined and stable models of life, relations, work, lineages. Traditional, normative ways of »Belonging«, nation, religion, ideology, language, culture, gender and sexuality dissolve, get more fluid and flexible… Where do I fit in there?

I ask him to speak to the ways in which the questions of national belonging and racism go beyond Australian concerns.

Falk Richter replies, »Yes, I have to say that for me that although the piece involved Australian performers and is set in Australia, the issues about identity and heritage really connected to the situation in Berlin. Going to Australia, asking them what is their identity, what is it to be Australian, is the same thing as me being occupied as a German writer with the question here in Germany: what is a European, German, or just Berlin’s identity? The most important question for me at the moment is: who do we include, who do we exclude as a society? How do we define what it means to be German? The German majority has this phantasm of the white Aryan German, although they wouldn’t use such language. But they feel it, and this becomes important when dealing with minorities, such as Turkish-Germans, for example. In this process, Germany is behind compared to countries like America and Canada, which have defined themselves as immigrant countries for a long time. It was interesting for me to see how that works in Australia. In one sense, they are more advanced than Germans. Although it is a racist country, with this idea of white superiority, there is also a large group of people who believe in integration and defining Australia as a country of difference. For me, this is a personal and intellectual project, which will continue for many years, and Australia was one step in this process«.

Guest Production: Complexity of Belonging (Chunky Move, Melbourne)

A project by Falk Richter and Anouk van Dijk
Concept, Direction and Choreography: Falk Richter and Anouk van Dijk
Text: Falk Richter

Premiered on 26 May 2015