Shall we dance?
… with Tina Satter at the Schaubühne
by Joseph Pearson
18 April 2023
The romance of tap dancing conjures images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spinning through an art deco dance hall; of Broadway auditions for the coveted spot in a »Chorus Line«or at the Radio City Music Hall; of a pair of young hopefuls,as they tap above the »La La Land« lights of Los Angeles. Tap summons the glamour of dancing cheek to cheek, white tie and tails – dress up, feather boas, cufflinks, and actors who break improbably into song. The patina of old-world glamourfor many is the stuff of late-night movies. »Shall We Dance«and »Top Hat« were New Year’s standards on public television when I was a kid: you’d see out the retreating yearas if it were the distant past.
Director Tina Satter, who brings »House of Dance« to the Schaubühne’s FIND 2023, tells me, »Tap dance is anachronistic, even in the US. It’s not common, the way ballet is. Tap was more the give-a-kid-something-to-do-after-class kind of thing. But it still has a romantic and aspirational show biz gleam to it. I was curious to play with this idea that if I only learn to do this weird special thing, my life will change. It will take me away from this small town. There’s an implicit theatricalisation here – it’s the stuff of many movies. Once we started playing with costumes, top hats, and sparkly tailcoats, there was this instant elevation of the material. It’s show biz! It was an immediately coded way to deal with people’s sense of being an artist«.
Tina Satter has seen around more than one shiny corner of the contemporary dramatic world and checked off a bucket list of theatrical experiences: her work has played in experimental venues, off-Broadway, on Broadway, and she even recently premiered a film of »Is This A Room«, the play she brought to FIND 2022, at the Berlinale. I ask her how »House of Dance« originated.
Satter replies, »House of Dance« came out of a commission through Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players at the Abrons Arts Centre in the City. When we went downstairsto the space, it felt like an old tap dance studio, so the ideastarted in this site-specific way, because there wasn’t a proper stage. The show that came out of this turned out to be so meta. I wanted it to unfold in real-time: a group of people coming together for an afternoon of dance rehearsal, getting through it with the pleasure of making something together. I also wanted to work with actors, not tap dancers who had professionalised this very specific skill that takes years to master. These actors would be expected to do it as if they knew it, adding a feeling of vulnerability to the piece. Because they have to lean into it, and work even harder by learning this skill in an abbreviated period of time, it’s moving«.
I say, »When you talk about aspirations and being an artist, there is also the stark economic reality lurking in the background. Your play is set in a provincial town, not in the bright lights of Broadway. During my interview with the Wooster Group the other week, I asked them how things look economically for hopefuls in the US avant-garde scene these days. What do you think?«
Satter replies, »The experimental scene is shrinking in New York. There’s very strong experimental ability out there but the way they work (anywhere but downtown) is not experimental anymore. And off-Broadway – quite different from Broadway – can be obsessed with what the audience wants because these theatres are subscription-based. They’ll poll the audience after a preview, and if the audience is confused, the artistic director will tell you so in the notes and ask for changes. Attending to the subscription audience, and working without state money, means you reach a common denominator of legible art that does not promote mystery or experimentation. I often teach and mentor younger writers and directors, who ask me: how do I get started? But most of the places that helped me are gone«.
»What’s your experience been of bringing a piece first performed in the New York scene by American actors to the Schaubühne’s ensemble?«
Satter replies, »I did not know before I came here how physically skilled these Schaubühne actors are. They have a physicality that is singular. I’m not used to having the luxury of my actors offering me all these options for how a scene should look: in the US this is again about the economics. We don’t have time because the space costs money. But here in Berlin, we have time to play with each other. It’s very exciting«.
»I imagine that finding a tap teacher was difficult in Germany –«
»She wasn’t easy to find! But Christoph [Buchegger], the production manager, did his homework, and during the Bauprobe [mock-up of the set design] in November, he introduced me to someone really wonderful, a local tap teacher originally from Portugal. This meant that by the time I got here in the spring, the actors could do basic tap and had very good drafts of the dance numbers for the show. I’m very grateful!«
»The other obvious transformation is the space. You were originally inspired to make a site-specific piece in New York City. Where are you performing in Berlin?« I ask.
She replies, »It’s happening in the Globe Theatre, and we are always thinking about the space: what does it mean for the Globe to be a tap studio, and not one set in a small American town anymore, because they are speaking German? We imagined with our dramaturge, Bettina Ehrlich, a grand civic building in a small town that has become a community centre. There’s a faded grandeur to the room because it is in a town that doesn’t have the money to turn it into something fancy«.
We turn to sound design.
She replies, »I’m always thinking about the look and feel of things from the very beginning, and sound here is also important. The sound designer, Chris [Giarmo], and I have a close working relationship. I wanted the sounds of diegeticdance class music, the baseline sound of a piano accompaniment played by Henri [Maximilian Jakobs], for there to be spirits that rise above the classroom together, short bursts of song. And so, Chris made a score where we record the actors singing and speaking, so their voices echo in the sound design – so they come together«.
As our talk comes to an end, we reflect on Tina Satter’s first production at the Schaubühne, at FIND 2022, »Is This ARoom«. It was a verbatim re-enactment of the FBI transcript of the arrest of the whistleblower Reality Winner. I ask Satterwhether she also uses found texts as material for »House of Dance«.
She replies, »When I was first writing the play and researching online, I came across these videos – truly weird, even for the US – of a subculture of YouTube tap teachers who give wild monologues. Look at me. I’m on stage! I take one of these videos verbatim, and somehow, incredibly, it works for the actors. There’s collage here. Most of the play I made up. But the truth can be more exciting, more strangely rhythmical, than fiction«.
»House of Dance« premiered on 19 April 2023 during FIND 2023
by Tina Satter
Translated from English by Gerhild Steinbuch
Director: Tina Satter
German World premiere
Premiered on 19 April 2023Video