Doomsday at the bio-farm

by Nina Branner, 22 Aug 2017

Rudi van der Merwe: Trophée | Credit: German Palomeque
Vierfelderhof: a non-profit organic farm in the picturesque rural Berlin suburb of Gatow, transformed for an afternoon into a modern dance hotspot. It is Saturday afternoon, and to reach the location of Rudi van der Merwe's site-specific performance “Trophée”, Tanz im August has provided shuttle busses from HAU2. As we gather before the busses we find out that a huge neo-Nazi demonstration, which will lead from Spandau station to the former Spandau-Wilhelmstadt prison will prevent us from arriving on time. The right-wing extremists are commemorating the suicide of Rudolf Heß, one of the Nazis in Hitler's cabinet, who committed suicide in the prison on August 17, 1987. Our journey is prolonged by 30 minutes. But hey, isn’t one of the charms of a site-specific piece that everything can happen?

Although one can only shake one's head in indignation about a Nazi demonstration in 2017, the parade ironically does provide for a convenient thematic and suspenseful back drop for what awaits us at the Vierfelderhof. Here, among geese, ducks and Bio-Schweine, in the sweet scent of wildflowers and haystacks, van der Merwe has turned a lovely green field into a battleground.

Under low-hanging white skies and a generous cascade of sunshine, three performers slowly approach us from afar with threatening, military movements. They are dressed in magnificent golden tops and wide blue skirts, evoking baroque fashion. Their faces, however, are covered by white masks, signaling the hard, impersonal quality of war. The evocative “soundtrack” by Swiss multi-instrumentalist Béatrice Graf, played on a drum kit and a trophy – a reference to the title of the piece - in which she has put a microphone that is connected to a sound box with pedals. Creeping, metallic noises float through the country air. The simple set– a fence of white crosses which during the peace gets rearranged into a graveyard - speaks its clear language. Possession, hunting and conquest – these are keywords in van der Merwe's 45-minute piece. The visual depths that this location offers, all 300 meters, gives the performance a filmic touch which, together with the sound effects, makes for a threatening, aggressive atmosphere. It gives me the creeps.

“I could shoot before I could talk,” reveals van der Merwe in the Q&A session on the bus back to the city. “Trophée”, he tells us, is inspired by his own experience of growing up on a farm in South Africa, being forced to hunt by his father and not coping well with the ruling, testosterone-driven idea of masculinity. The three representations of the trophy in the performance – the trophy wife, the hunting trophy and the war trophy – each symbolize power relations, be it between the sexes, between man and nature or between nationalities. I thought of soldiers, killers and professional henchmen. The performers reminded me of the evil female chaperone from the TV-series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale from 1985 (which is also one of the books that van der Merwe has recommended for the TIA library). Scary!

Van der Merwe’s “Trophée” is personal, but of great relevance: it is a reminder that the urge to conquer and possess lies within each of us. The performance has been perceived differently depending on the country it has been shown in, van der Merwe explained to us on the bus. In South Africa, for example, the performers were perceived as European colonialists coming to conquer the land. At a Brandenburg farmhouse (organic, yes, but still) surrounded by piggies and hens, it rather led your thoughts to man's cynical exploitation of animals and nature. Van der Merwe himself stopped hunting when he was 12 and has since become a vegetarian -  to the chagrin of his father, he jokes on the bus back to HAU. After seeing “Trophée”, it will certainly be a while before I have a pork chop.

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The Bloggers

Lily Kelting Born 1986, Stage editor, Exberliner magazine. Works internationally as a freelance dramaturg, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Postdoc at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Originally from New York City, she lives in Berlin.

Nina Branner is a freelance cultural journalist from Denmark, based in Berlin. She has studied at the University of Copenhagen, Berlin University of the Arts and at Copenhagens Academy for Music, Dance and Performance with awarded choreographer Kasper Ravnhøj. She writes about theater, performance and music for publications like Weekendavisen and Gaffa. Writing for Exberliner since March 2016.