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Breath: The Eye of the Needle

Kultur trotz(t) Krise (Folge 11) – Mit der Summer School „Sainte Réalité“ suchen der Choreograph Ben J. Riepe und seine Kompanie nach Antworten auf die existenziellen Krisen der Zeit. Ein Beitrag von Elena Philipp.

Ten days of training for a new world: This was the motto with which Ben J. Riepe and his company launched their Summer School „Sainte Réalité“.

In their own studio, on zoom, but also in a museum, in the city or a forest, the participants met to share experiences with physical and breath exercises, in lectures, in a performance of the performative parcours "Creature" and by fasting, eating and celebrating together. The goal: to find new connections.

Many people sit spread out on a meadow in the grass, tilt their upper body to the left and stretch their right arm up in the air. © Lisa Viezens

Ben J. Riepe - Summer School Sainte Réalité

Calling everything into question

The idea for the content and concerns of the summer school, which was funded by #TakeAction, unfolded during the corona period. "The first lockdown hit us in full swing," Ben J. Riepe tells us on zoom. "I was in Lithuania with my family and had started rehearsing a piece for Aura Dance Theatre. We had just set up and then had to leave very suddenly. We got out at the last minute, which was a bit of an adventure."

Back in Düsseldorf, where the Ben J. Riepe Company is based, corona made any planning impossible. Everything was canceled, some things at very short notice – a tour of Brazil and Paraguay was planned for April 2020. "There was actually an insane amount going on. Then all of a sudden this break came." With husband and child, Ben J. Riepe moved to the countryside for ten weeks, to his parents. Really being able to opt out, after years at full speed, was also healing for him and his team, Riepe says. "That was a big time of reflection, of questioning the meaning of work, the meaning of art and the pace at which we produce it." So back to zero, outside of things, questioning everything.

How does sustainable touring work?

Ben J. Riepe had started asking questions long before this happened. For his independent company, touring is part of its core business, part of its financial strategy. But isn't international touring actually, besides exporting artistic products, a kind of colonialism? "How can we create global exchange without destroying the environment?" Ben J. Riepe found an answer to this question several years ago: producing locally.

In 2017 and 2019 he was in Brazil for a longer period of time, partly because he had a scholarship from the Goethe Institute in Salvador, Bahia. He speaks Portuguese and developed his projects there together with artists from the region. But the basic configuration was the same and it still preoccupies him today. "I was the white man and, as a choreographer, I was in a position of power." In addition, the German project participants brought the money. How can you work equally like that?

Through funding, they were able to bring Brazilian performers to Germany, organize a first summer school in 2019 and give the artists, some of whom had never left their home country, time to socialize and interact with audiences. "All of this brought me to the idea of sustainability," says Ben J. Riepe. "This constant flying back and forth for a few performances isn’t right." This was reinforced, as it was for so many theater professionals, by the corona situation. "It was very existential. We had been asking ourselves these questions, but they became so pressing. What is our working environment? What does art do, what does my work do?"

A purple illuminated stage. Two people are sitting at a technical console. Eleven people are lying on the floor in front of you. © Lisa Viezens

Ben J. Riepe - Summer School Sainte Réalité

Connecting forms of knowledge locally

As with the international touring that led to the first summer school, the company found itself in a situation of escalation that now led to the second summer school "Sainte Réalité". "What does it mean to connect on location, with a scene, with people?" The ten-day event, in Düsseldorf and partly online, was organized by Ben J. Riepe together with curator and dramaturg Janine Blöß. Professional dancers, students and an interested public were invited to immerse themselves in dramaturgically very consciously designed encounters with academic knowledge and artistic-experimental research, cognitive approaches and sensual experiences. "Artistic research is now recognized, but what about other forms of knowledge such as indigenous or spiritual techniques?" Knowledge to which, according to Ben J. Riepe, we can assign no value by material standards – but which complements and completes a purely cognitive grasp of the world.

For Ben J. Riepe, this is the core of his art form. "For me, doing choreography means bringing different languages, forms and contents into a relationship with each other — into a floating relationship with each other – so that they can exchange, cross-fertilize and expand." In this way, the future can also be sensed. "We have all noticed it through the turning point corona has created – we have to continue differently, but we don't know how. I don't know the answer either, but I know there are other channels we should pay attention to." There it is again – training for a new world.

People sit on several picnic blankets in the park and eat. © Lisa Viezens

Ben J. Riepe - Summer School Sainte Réalité

Life in a symbiotic environment

Riepe and his company had already tried out many things during the pandemic. They passed on elements of their experience during the summer school. For example, they spent a day in the forest with the participants – the place where they rehearsed when that was not possible in the studio. Outdoors, they felt they could finally take a deep breath. At the same time, they said, they became aware that the air they were breathing was considered dangerous as a carrier medium for the covid virus – and the oxygen conduits, the trees, were at risk, too. "The forest was not in good shape," Riepe recounts. "During the time we were rehearsing there, a huge area was cut down because the trees were infested with bark beetles. I realized that, in breathing, all crises come together and our disturbed relationship with nature and ourselves is visible in it."

Breath as the center and the eye of the needle through which all life passes: in dance, we are aware that we all live in a common medium, that air and breath connect us and that bodies (un)consciously synchronize, says Riepe. We humans are not individuals in the literal sense of the "indivisible", but live symbiotically with billions of microbes that make up nearly 50 percent of the genetic material we understand as our body, as microbiologist Thomas C. Bosch explained in a highly instructive online lecture during the summer school.

Breathing deeply, standing with your feet firmly on the ground, rooting yourself – these are the motifs Ben J. Riepe and his team brought back with them from the forest. They then adapted them in the summer school, "in order to understand our place in nature anew." Consciousness and thinking, are these the domain of humans? Not at all. "Plants learn to warn each other, trees jointly develop an antidote to pests. Cells learn. We don't need a brain to think – all kinds of living things think," according to Riepe. At the summer school, neurobiologist Gerald Hüther said this is "scientifically proven".

Ben J. Riepe's conclusion after ten days of training for a new world was this: "I was reconciled to art by these experiences. It’s effect is energetic, healing and connecting." Connection is the basis for cooperation — and the world urgently needs this in order to survive the upcoming crises and to reinvent itself.

In the series "Kunst trotz(t) Krise" (Culture despite the Crisis), cultural journalists Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch take a look behind the scenes of funded projects on behalf of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. What is the impact of the fund's #TakeThat funding as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR program of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media?