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Pews You Can Use

An Israeli choreographer turns a venerable Berlin shul into a performance space

A.J. Goldmann
July 08, 2009
(Dancers: Bernhard Musil; Neue Synagoge dome © Anka Belz.)
(Dancers: Bernhard Musil; Neue Synagoge dome © Anka Belz.)

Berlin’s Neue Synagoge—begun in 1859, set ablaze on Kristallnacht, and lovingly restored to at least some of its former glory in the 1990s—has already seen its share of history. But there will be a bit of new history in the onion-domed building on Saturday, when Israeli-born choreographer Nir de Volff premieres Action!, the first dance performance ever held in its confines.

Using historic sites for artistic purposes is not uncommon in Berlin, where directors, choreographers, and musicians are often invited to make site-specific works. In the past year alone, the director Christoph Hagel staged a Haydn opera inside the Bode-Museum, the choreographer Sasha Waltz used the interior of the Neues Museum for a dance performance, and Sir Simon Rattle brought the Berlin Philharmonic to the just-closed Tempelhof Airport for a concert. But for de Volff, who lives in the German capital, the Neue Synagoge offered a unique opportunity. “In Berlin, there are all these potential places with nothing really happening in them,” said de Volff, a Petach Tikvah native who moved to Berlin in 2003. “But they are very powerful with their architecture and their history.”

His new piece, de Volff said, is an exploration of the nature of faith drawn from his own experiences and those of his three collaborators, Elik Niv, Rahel Savoldelli, and Margret Sara Gudjonsdottir. Though loath to discuss the work in detail before its premiere, de Volff offered a summary of some the show’s basic elements. The piece will unfold in four different locations in the synagogue. In one portion of the show, God grows bored and enlists the performers to make a film. In another, a preacher stands on a soapbox and pontificates about nothing. In yet another, a singer surveys the audience and prophesies, in song, how each of them will die.

“What I’m interested in is how you take reality and twist it with irony, humor, or a lot of darkness,” de Volff said.

Although the building no longer functions as a synagogue—it’s now a museum—de Volff said that its history constrained at least some of his artistic choices. A dream, he said, was to invite in local prostitutes and interview them as part of the performance. Though this didn’t come to pass, de Volff does warn that the show begins with something not often seen within synagogue walls. Even so, he stressed that even when outlandish, Action! never violates the respect that the building deserves. “There will not be a cheap provocation. Provocation maybe. But there’s logic behind every single thing we do,” he said.

After studying dance in Tel Aviv, de Volff spent several years working in Amsterdam prior to moving to Berlin. After three years spent with a large dance troupe, he decided to focus on his own projects. “I wanted to make small ensemble pieces focused more on my journey as an Israeli, not being part of a Benetton collection—different people, different colors, different backgrounds,” he said. One recent project was 3Some, a personal and often political piece about the complex, at times fraught, relationships between Israelis and Germans. The hour-long show had a successful run in Berlin and was also performed in Amsterdam and Prague.

When de Volff and his newly-formed company approached the synagogue two years ago about using their space, he found officials there surprisingly receptive to the idea. “I think they were open and waiting for the right person to give the first try,” he said. “Maybe it’s also the last time.”

A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Berlin. His articles on art and culture have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Christian Science Monitor.

A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Munich. His articles on art and culture have appeared in, among other publications, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News Magazine, and The Forward.