Ballet at Berghain: High Culture at Berlin's Legendary Techno Club

By Tobias Rapp

Among Europe's most celebrated techno establishments, Berlin's Berghain has a new project. In addition to hosting its famous parties, the club will temporarily open a spectacular new space for sold-out performances featuring a collaboration with the capital's ballet company.

Everyone knows Berghain. That's a surprising thing to be able to say about a techno club, even if it is, as people so often say, the best in Europe.

Whether it's the endless line to get into the club, the bouncer with piercings and a barbed-wire facial tattoo, the legendary sound system on the huge dance floor or the debauchery that takes place in the club's "dark rooms" -- anyone who is interested in Berlin has at least heard of Berghain.

The club has become one of the most important symbols of the new Berlin, alongside the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Berghain represents the new allure that Berlin, the party capital, holds for Europe's youth. This, in turn, has something to do with the excesses they seek in the club's dark corners -- not exactly the things a city usually chooses to advertise as its selling points.

Berghain, the bleakly industrial techno cathedral in Berlin's Friedrichshain district, is the subject of a thousand legends. But that's only half the story.

The other half can be found by going around the building, past the door to the club and up to the main entrance of the former heat generating station. This is the purpose for which Berghain was originally built in the 1950s, providing heat for the nearby boulevard then known as Stalinallee for a few years before becoming a training facility for plant workers. The techno club, massive as it is, has always occupied only half of the building. The spectacular main hall where the boiler once stood remained empty and unused.

This Saturday, that hall will open for the first time to host a performance called "Masse" ("Mass"). A co-production between Berghain and the Berlin Staatsballett, the city's principal ballet company, it involves 30 dancers and three choreographers, with a set by Norbert Bisky, a star in the German art scene working in stage design for the first time. Five regular Berghain DJs and producers composed the music.

Sold-Out Shows

This will likely be the only time the new "Hall at Berghain" will open to the public, which is probably why the premiere and all 10 performances of "Masse" are already sold out.

For these few days, some eight years after it first opened, Berghain will form a counterpart to the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic. A former East German heating-facility-turned-nightclub and a concert hall designed by German architect Hans Scharoun as part of West Berlin's Kulturforum -- in a way these two venues, the two best places for hearing music in Berlin, have always belonged together.

The "Masse" project demonstrates first and foremost the many possibilities Berlin offers, the kinds of performance spaces the city contains and all the things that can be done with them -- but also those that can't.

This is not to say Berghain had no previous ties to classical art forms. The club has hosted ballet performances on its large dance floor, presented operas, classical concerts and experimental music in its "Electroacoustic Salon." The visual arts have always had a place here as well. Works by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans hang above one of the club's bars and artist Marc Brandenburg designed a few of the windows.

But no other project at Berghain matches the ambition and effort that have gone into "Masse," with the new performance hall itself playing the role of the tragic hero.

The space isn't easy to find. Getting there requires ascending several flights of stairs and traversing corridors, a journey that only amplifies the effect when the visitor finally steps into the hall. The ceiling, 17 meters (56 feet) high, is dominated by massive concrete funnels that were once used to pour coal into the boilers. With the boilers now long gone, the funnels now open into emptiness. This is Socialist classicism at its most holy.

The stage itself is large and black and gives the impression that some sort of dark, poisonous mass has leaked out of one corner of the room.

A Long Time in the Making

It's Monday and the final rehearsals are underway. Bisky, the artist, and Nadja Saidakova, one of the choreographers, are onstage clarifying a last few details with the production's technicians: How exactly will the light fall? Are we making any more changes? Later, the dancers arrive and run through their choreography, bodies flowing across the stage.

Techno and ballet are not natural allies. Techno is a music of excess, but its movements are reduced. Dancing through the night in a techno club is about letting go, about losing control. Precisely the opposite is true of ballet, perhaps the most disciplined art form in the world.

Here on this stage, though, where first Saidakova's group runs through its routines, and then choreographer Tim Plegge and his ensemble take over, the music and the movements join together, becoming at first powerful, then more expressive, at times almost classical, then once again something that could just as easily come from a modern pop music video.

"Masse" consists of three segments, which Saidakova, Plegge and a third choreographer, Xenia Wiest, developed together with the musicians. The three parts don't share any clear plot, but in their differences they form a triptych of sound and movement held together by Bisky's restrained set design.

The most important part of the set was already in place: the rear wall. In front of it, a bus Bisky obtained from Berlin's city transport company juts up from the floor. The city slogan "be Berlin" is still visible beneath the smears of grime the painter has sprayed on the vehicle -- "Masse" appears to take place in a Berlin of the near future, where some catastrophe has put an end to both public transportation and promotional slogans.

This project has been a long time in the works. When planning first began in fall 2010, it had little more than the title, "Masse." One way to understand that name could be found in the fact that weekend after weekend, Berghain opens its doors to masses of people wanting to be guided and manipulated. But the title refers to other types of mass as well. There's mass in the physical sense of the word, but also the inertia of the masses, or the way a mass of people devolves together into panic.

Requiem for a Dream

The two men who created Berghain, Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann, initially had very different plans for the former boiler hall. The two tend to remain in the background, and little is known about them except that they never give interviews (this article being no exception) and they love dance and art.

Teufele and Thormann wanted to create a new performance venue in this other half of the building. "Masse" may not look much like that original vision, but then, the performance also serves as a requiem for that dream. When they bought the building from energy giant Vattenfall, Teufele and Thormann wanted not only to free Berghain from the whims of an outside owner -- they also wanted to give the club's heart a second chamber.

Their working name for the space was "Kubus" ("Cube") and it was to be a new and innovative venue -- a concert hall, theater and gallery all in one, with the concerts offering seating for around 2,000 people. The plans were developing well, the club hired a booker to create a program of musical events for the hall and a cooperation with a Berlin theater took shape. A space for grand new possibilities, alongside Berghain's regular operations as a techno club, seemed to be emerging.

Even at that point, it took some imagination to picture a concert hall inside this industrial ruin. Columns within the hall don't just support the concrete funnels in the ceiling, they also divide the space and block sightlines, and would have needed to be removed. Those columns are still there, a problem "Masse" gets around by using only half of the hall. Even so, it's an enormous space, in which 500 audience members will sit in steep rows of seats.

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