How to Move to Berlin: a Dancer’s Survival Guide or 12-step Program or a Gentrification Manual Or… Can Moving Be Called Contemporary Dance?

By Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos


Full Disclosure: This article doesn’t exactly know what form it wants to take yet.

Similar to its author, this article holds a lot of new information from the past year and is still figuring out how to organize and position itself in a larger context of contemporary dance both in San Francisco/USA and Berlin/Europe.

In general, the article and its author are concerned with how to describe the experience of moving. They’re curious, perhaps a little worried/stressed, about the kinds of dances (and dancers) that result from moving and confused about what all is getting produced from it…good/bad art? A larger carbon footprint? Resilient global networks or communities?

Unfortunately, this article is too ambitious (and the author too concerned with pressing existential questions about his own body in space) to give every topic here the treatment it deserves.

We’ll just start simply then…

A lot of dancers move for a living.

I am a dancer and choreographer, and I moved from San Francisco to Berlin in November 2012.

Right before that, I was with Keith Hennessy and the Turbulence: a dance about the economy project moving from cities in the USA to across the Atlantic and also with Sara Shelton Mann to Russia back to Europe and then back to San Francisco. I also got to move around a borderland—from Tel Aviv visiting a dancer friend getting certified to teach Gaga technique and then a few months later to Beirut performing in a festival with other dancer friends.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of dancers move more in Berlin than in San Francisco—perhaps because there are more trains, nearby countries, funding institutions, residencies, cheaper flights… Their choreographies are more regularly nomadic than the local, community-based movement of Bay Area artists. But even then, hybrid movers I first met in San Francisco like Kira Kirsch, Maria Scaroni, Jess Curtis, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Keith Hennessy have always fascinated me. Their moves would be a continual launching through the air to go teach or perform, and then usually a return to their original ground/base. And of course many dancers don’t prefer to move much at all for different conceptual reasons.

I’m newer to this international kind of movement. It’s so expansive-feeling as getting to dance on a huge, expensive stage after mostly performing in smaller, DIY venues.

Once you start moving like this, it’s easy to get swept away by the momentum of it all. It’s easy to leave your ground with jetfueled wanderlust. And it can also become quickly exhausting.

A general observation about the state of contemporary dancers:

Contemporary dancers are and have often been freelancers who need to have the ability to move for work.

“Freelancing” means… exercising the freedom to work or not work/ for as little or as much time as possible and desired/ when possible/ on projects that might be well-paid, not paid well or payless/ either alone or with 1-to-some others/ who are artistically inspiring or not/ and this working or not working can happen in as many or as little places as the solo, duo or group is able to get to and/or desires to be at. Freelancers always hope and strive for the best (though hoping/striving can become exhausting too).

Some symptoms observed in dancers this past year include:

  • jetlag
  • panic attacks realizing how far outside the “norm” one’s life is as their traveling from one art context to another never ends
  • daily compulsive smoking, organizing or yoga behaviors
  • more loneliness or possibly more sex, intimacy and love (specific to gender, sexual orientation, personality type and weather)
  • development of highly specialized performance skills
  • possibly more maturity and calm in the face of perceived chaos and instability

Displacement –> Disorientation—
With too much sporadic moving around on stage, in the studio and then to different cities/countries, a dancer might lose a grounding sense of identity, home, regularity or rhythm.

Dichotomy –> Disintegration—
A dancer can walk a precariously thin line between extremes: over-stimulation and circulation that produces a high like ecstasy or espresso, and then the periods of doubt, fear and coming down that can stress out the nervous system.

Dispersion –> Depression—
Given such an unpredictable lifestyle, a dancer can stand at the cutting edge of shamanic potential by communicating possibly life-changing messages to the world via their conduit/performing body. This “cutting edge” is a border that continually reshapes itself. It’s always subject to the pressures of capitalistic art consumerism that demands constant outward/upward expansion at the capacity of cyber storage and the speed of jet flight. The artist-shaman then is like a soldier or freedom fighter at the front lines wrestling with the ever-pressing drive to create and survive and produce. It’s a worthy endeavor for sure, but years of such activity can exhaust a body. How many fronts can an artist face at once? How long? How far can a contemporary dancer throw their bodies into the unknown and the avant-garde without losing themselves?

How to Move to Berlin: a 12-Step Program for Dancers
Another Disclosure: The following steps are not yet sure of their individual or collective intentions. They’re still deciding whether they want to actually give helpful support to new movers or smash the gentrification-machine, or enable the author to vent some of his hardships/experiences over the past year.

  • STEP 1: ADMITTING Admit the fact that you want to move to Berlin, and it doesn’t matter the reason… though it’s really because you’ve been craving exposure to more art and funding, and you’ve already been in San Francisco for 5 years and are feeling the glass ceiling of the beautiful greenhouse and are anxious for the next stage of growth where you can apply all the skills you’ve absorbed from your mentors and community and practice the political/spiritual life theories you’ve been incubating.
  • STEP 2: CRITICAL SPATIAL AWARENESS Consider how your movement-to-Berlin is complexly situated within a larger context of gentrification—a systematic displacement of at least two financially-broke populations: artists like you who can’t afford Bay Area housing/health insurance and decide to chase the American dream in Europe and then local Berliners (of various ethnic origins) who have been there since pre- or post-Wall when there were more squats and lower rents. You may not know what to do with this information yet, but awareness of environment/context will start to inform the quality of your movement choices.
  • STEP 3: TIMING, LABOR, LUCK Get invited to work on a well-funded dance project with a famous choreographer for almost three months. 😉 Audition/apply for a dance school/ residency, visit as a tourist, or find someone to marry. Once in Berlin you can work on…
  • STEP 4: BUREAUCRACY You’ll spend days on Google Translate learning words like Anmeldung, Ausländerbehörde and Termine as you apply for a 2-year freelance visa, KSK (cheaper health insurance for artists), bank account, etc.
  • STEP 5: KEEP YOURSELF MOVING The cost of living is much cheaper in Berlin than San Francisco, but you’ll probably have to sublet around for a few months until you land a shared apartment or small flat that suits you. If you want to challenge yourself (and if like the author, your network of friends and financial worries are strong enough) then try surfing for free from couch to couch every few days/weeks for a few months. You’ll get to know the city faster and tone your suitcase-carrying muscles, but you run higher risks for emotional/psychological injuries due to constant change and lack of personal space.
  • STEP 6: SERIOUSLY, KEEP YOURSELF MOVING Getting stuck can happen, LITERALLY. It’s ambitious and overwhelming to start a new life in a foreign country. For example, the author got so depressed while unemployed, cold and lonely during February and March that his body literally didn’t want to move off the mattress. To prevent such stuckness, perhaps go to a sauna or a sex club or crowded bar or café or a dinner party or theater show…somewhere warm and cozy and social. Maybe try a solarium or therapy or a quick trip to a nearby country slightly more south where it’s a few degrees warmer. Kundalini is popular as well as talking about the springtime with friends.
  • STEP 7: REASSESS After a few months of nothing concrete to do on a regular basis except staying inside because it’s freakishly still snowing in early April, have a quick check-in with yourself. Ask, “Do I still want to live in Berlin?” or “Would it be better to go back to San Francisco?”
  • STEP 8: BUT STICK WITH IT It takes time to build a social and professional network and digest the new art information you’ve gathered from the shows seen and conversations exchanged.
  • STEP 9: BUT ALSO GO WITH THE FLOW Part of a contemporary dancer’s capital is the energetically free-flowing sense/impression they carry with them into group projects and networking through the scene—how professionally they take on sudden opportunities as well as how gracefully they manage when plans change last minute. To illustrate this point and to practice shifting focus quickly, we stop the 12-steps at number 9 and move onto the last section of the article.

Contemporary Free-Dancers?
My new Berliner eyes see the city as a buzzing hub of energetic economic activity. International movement is produced here, and dances and dancers are constantly imported and exported.

My own freelance-dancer-product was developed in San Francisco by working with Sara Shelton Mann whose company used to be called Contraband, and then I was exported to Berlin to work with Meg Stuart whose company is called Damaged Goods. Does this make me an exporter and importer of contraband and damaged goods?? I hope so!

The names of these dance companies aside, I find the idea of piracy appealing. I could imagine dancers being more like Robin Hood pirates amidst a movement-based economy that would otherwise commodify, exploit and exhaust the labor force.

Maybe dancers should move more like pirates.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of In Dance.