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Things Learned At: Dockville
Andy Thomas , August 22nd, 2014 10:09

Andy Thomas travels to Hamburg to the Sommer Festival at the Kampnagel Theatre and MS Dockville at Wilhelmsburg Island on the Elbe River. Here are some things he learned about naked experimental theatre, radical art, ballet and Thurston Moore being ace. Photos by Pablo Heimplatz

Michael Clark is a post-punk genius

Back in the early 80s Michael Clark rejected the confines of the Royal Ballet for the more progressive surrounds of Ballet Rambert. Speaking at the time the Scottish dancer explained where his head was at when he set up the Michael Clark Company in 1984. “My inspiration comes from real life. I bring life and work together. Going out to watch a punk rock band at night and doing classical ballet during the day just didn't work. Now they fit.” I had my own Michael Clark epiphany in 1987. To the music of The Fall, Clark and his Bodymap clad dancers swirled and agitated around Mark E Smith and his band. It was a stunning introduction to Clark's revolutionary and hip aesthetic. But nearly 30 years on does his work as a choreographer still have the same power?

Part of Clark's appeal back in the 1980s was of course his choice of music, be it The Fall or Laibach. The opening act tonight as part of the Sommer Festival sees the company in metallic body suits (by Bodymap's Stevie Stewart) enter to the sound of Scritti Politti's The Boom Boom Bap. It's an inspired choice in a set that includes six tracks from White Bread Black Beer. The dancers interact with visceral intuition, their skewed bodies and angular limbs creating the impression of some android dance troupe. Charles Atlas' impressionistic lighting heightens the overall effect. It proves a gentle entry to the second act as PIL's 'Albatross' booms through the room. Where other contemporary dance uses music to great effect, in Clark you have a choreographer who feels the music as a fan.

That is clear as his dancers lunge and contort to the sound of New York Dolls' 'Looking For A Kiss' and 'New York' by Sex Pistols. The last time we had seen his Company dance at The Barbican it was to a live show by Relaxed Muscle. Jarvis Cocker and Jason Buckle's alter egos aren't here tonight, so instead a film of the band is projected behind the dancers. Despite their absence the demonic electro rock creates a menacing sonic and visual backdrop for the alien shapes of the dancers. By the time 'Beastmaster' pounds the hall we are left in no doubt that 30 years on and despite his CBE, Michael Clark is still kicking against the mainstream. Following the show we are reminded again of his countercultural genius by a screening of the brilliant 1984 film Hail the New Puritan Directed by Charles Atlas.

Experimental theatre is best done naked

According to the Kampnagel programme, Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeack made a name with the provocative performance Kein Applaus für Scheisse! (No Applause For Shit). Tonight's show was to be the final part of a Trilogy following 'Spirit' that saw the company "ransack Eastern philosophy, pop culture, tarot, psychomagic and the Cirque du Soleil to brew a golden cordial out of their conquests". The programme for tonight's show of 'Wellness' drew is in further promising a “merciless, analysis of the neo-liberal self in a training course that encompasses cross-fit, psychotherapy, beauty pageants, sex and yoga”. With that on offer how could we refuse? As the crowd enters the hall fresh from the Michael Clark show, four dancers are already on stage dressed in gym gear flicking blankly through copies of Glamour magazine to Lana Del Ray's 'Brite Lites'. It would appear to act as a biting satire on the vacuous nature of celebrity culture as one of the members bemoans a review of their last show. Nothing prepares us for the agit-theatre that follows.

A Dominatrix come yoga teacher instructs her pupils through various asanas, before being hoisted above the dancers now stripped of their gym outfits. Above the naked foursome she pours oil from her huge prosthetic chest, ordering them to breathe deep. What follows is one of the most brilliant but bizarre shows I have ever seen. To the psychedelic strains of Funkadelic's 'Maggot Brain' the four dancers sprawl and intertwine like some synchronised alien orgy. The effect is as mesmerising as it challenging as acidic lighting bathes the oil covered dancers. After 20 minutes they are clothed again and are being instructed to perform for the audience. The tuneless singing and bitter response from the Dominatrix, now in her role as judge, proves a brilliant send up to TV talent shows. As well as eating up and spitting out pop culture with some disgust, the show also pays respect to the legacy of the great choreographers. People like Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham whose quote "The only sin is mediocrity" rings true as we leave the hall with our heads spinning.

WELLNESS - Florentina Holzinger & Vincent Riebeek / CAMPO from CAMPO on Vimeo.

The world needs more political artists like Rabih Mroué

During a busy weekend we only had a taste of the three week long Sommer Festival but what a taste it was. As well as Michael Clark and Wellness we saw an incredibly moving piece of Lebanese Theatre. Visual artist, Actor, Writer, Director, Rabih Mroué is known for his work that incorporates videos, photography and text to “deal with issues that have been swept under the table in the current political climate of Lebanon”. His 2007 work about the Lebanese Civil War, How Nancy Wished That Everything Was An April Fool's Joke, was banned in Lebanon but embraced in by the avant-grade theatre world. His show A Few Seconds was one of the highlights at last year's Sommer Festival and he returned this year with his most personal work to date. His brother Yasser, who was shot by a sniper in the Civil War, narrated Riding On A Cloud. Losing the ability to speak properly and suffering from memory loss he began to shoot videos to make sense of the world around him. It is those videos that form part of tonight's performance intermingled with shards of memory to portray his personal view of the war. The heavy subject matter is offset by some dark humour in a truly moving 65 minutes.

Toilet brushes can be political

Our Saturday begins riding bikes in the sunshine around the Schanze and Karolinenviertel neighbourhoods. These are two great little areas packed with record shops, Turkish restaurants, and Portuguese cafes. It's where Hamburg's alternative scene of the 1980s began and despite the regeneration and house price hikes it retains some of that left wing spirit. That is particular strong around The Rote Flora. This former theatre has been squatted since 1989 after an attempt to turn the building into a mainstream theatre. In the years that followed the building became an important cultural and political centre until 2013 when the building was sold to a developer for demolition. That lit the fuse for the riots that followed leading to the police to set up danger zones and a strict stop and search policy. The people of Hamburg responded carrying bags of flour and leaves disguised as drugs, anything to piss off the police. One hooded protester was captured on TV having a toilet brush confiscated from his back packet. Others followed suit and their Situationist type stunts are now immortalised by the many toilet brushes hanging from windows on the houses opposite. As for the Rote Flora it continues to act as a symbol for Hamburg's alternative scene.

Most of Hamburg's rain falls in the summer

After a night of thought provoking dance and theatre at Sommer Festival we were ready for what a more mainstream festival could throw at us. Located over the Elbe River in the industrial area of Wilhelmsburg, the Dockville Festival is situated in the shadow of the factories that line the River in this part of town. It would have made an atmospheric backdrop as the sun went down over southern Hamburg. But any hopes of lounging on the banks of the Elbe with a Weissbier were dashed by the constant grey skies and strong winds that battered the site over the weekend. By Sunday night the heavy drizzle that hung in the air for the past two days had turned to driving rain. It caused Wild Beasts' Hayden Thorpe to apologise for bringing the English weather. Still it was a resilient crowd that wasn't going to let a bit of rain spoil the delights of Kendal's finest.

Thurston Moore creates a joyful noise

We arrive at Dockville late on Saturday afternoon after getting seriously lost on the bikes around the south side of the Elbe River. Thankfully we enter the site just in time to see Thurston Moore take to the stage. I had first seen Sonic Youth around the time of Daydream Nation, but had only recently come back to Moore's music after discovering Trees Outside The Academy. I was curious whether tonight's performance would find Moore in acoustic mode as on the Beck-produced Demolished Thoughts. A wave of heavy ambient noise from the stage provides my answer. With his eyes closed, Moore starts to strum his battered Fender, the motorik leaning drumming of Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley adding to the drone like sound. It's the first of five songs the band play tonight off the forthcoming LP, we later discover will be called The Best Day. My Bloody Valentine's Debbie Googe is also here tonight as is guitarist James Sedwards. The four-piece create a formidable sound, with layers of undulating noise and some breath taking changes. The waves reach a peak on their finale, a blistering, throbbing dedication to poet and activist 'Grace Lake'.

Berlin's Oracles have a formidable record collection

"Shoegaze, Psychedelic, Krautrock, Afrobeat, Elektronik, Alles wunderbar vermengt." So read the programme notes for a band we had not heard of but were curious to track down. A quick glance at their website (with YouTube clips ranging from the psych-garage Tropicalia of O Bando's 'Fossa Boboca' to Peter Brown's Paradise Garage disco classic 'Burning Love Breakdown') made us even more determined to make our way to the small Maschinenraum stage mid afternoon on Sunday. So what would emerge from a band with such disparate tastes as Dollar Brand to Pink Fairies? The opener 'Journey Back To Dawn' finds the band somewhere between Temples and Ash Ra Temple. While raw and somewhat shaky there is certainly more than enough to keep us interested. On the next song 'Melt Tonight' (which we discover is the band's forthcoming single) their sound is fuller and more assured. The kaleidoscopic 'Agharta' has echoes of both Syd Barrett and Can, and is stretched out to a freaky finale that Thurston Moore might approve of. By the time of the closing track 'Gazing From Without' we are beginning to think we are looking at our new favourite psyche pop band. Look out for their new EP 'Stanford Torus'.

Hamburg's festival crowd love the piano

Looking at the programme on the way to the festival on Sunday we were interested to see the names of two pianists who had already been featured by The Quietus. But before Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds we are treated to a truly magical solo piano performance by Munich's Carlos Cipa. He might have been a new name to us but the swelling mid afternoon crowd braving the cold winds shows the following he has over here. The hush that falls as he takes to the stage is further proof both of the respect for this 22-year-old and of young Germany's love affair with classical piano. Despite the unfortunate sound-bleed from the nearby dance stage (a constant problem at the Vorschot Stage) the beauty of his playing is clear from the first notes of 'Cold Night'. The first three numbers are taken from his 2012 LP The Monarch And The Viceroy. It was released on the Denovali label that brought their Swingfest Festival to London back in March. While his main influence may be Satie and Debussy, there is a strong jazz flavour to his playing and Keith Jarrett comes to mind on 'Perfect Circles'.

Not only technically brilliant, his compositions are as challenging as they are evocative. By the time he closes with the stunning 'The Whole Truth' we have forgotten about the wind blowing off the Elbe. Another German player who has obviously also listened to Keith Jarrett's influential Köln Concert is Nils Frahm. Like Carlos Cipa the Berliner began on solo piano with LPs like The Bells and Wintermusik. But more recently like on the 2013 LP Spaces he has increasingly turned to electronics. And so beside his grand piano sit keyboards, laptop and a sampler. And as the deep bass notes reverberate over the mist rising from the packed crowd on 'An Aborted Beginning' I'm reminded of the minimal dub of Rhythm & Sound. Spaces found Frahm compared with fellow Berliner Klaus Schulze, and there are certainly touches of his electronic pulsations on a track like 'Says'. Nils Frahm's association with the Erased Tapes label has seen his neo-classical work remixed by techno producer Max Cooper. And that's where Frahm seems to be right now; somewhere between Berghain and The Barbican. By the end of his set the heavy drizzle has turned to driving rain. So despite our best intentions to stay around for another Erased Tape artist Ólafur Arnalds, the thought of a warm and dry Turkish restaurant has us heading back to the bike park for the long ride back into Schanze.