April 4, 2019
Gentrification is a big deal in Berlin and a piece about it was not unexpected. Der Palast (The Palace), a new piece by Costanza Macras DorkyPark is a 3-hour performance divided in two parts. Despite its length, time passes fast. In colourful, glamorous outfits, and around a multi-layered changing set, it’s seven dancers, three actors and three musicians of many ages and nationalities, dance and act in a sort of cabaret.
Der Palast opens with a picture by English photographer Tom Hunter, whose work frequently illustrates social concerns in the style of Old Masters. In Macras’ piece, Hunter’s pictures are applied to Berlin’s rapidly changing neighbourhoods. Forcibly evicted people and shops closing down are just some of the effects, which conspire to create new and almost surreal narratives.
Gentrification (planners prefer to call it ‘urban renewal’) involves renovating deteriorated urban neighbourhoods to which more affluent residents are then attracted by more desirable (and expensive) housing, businesses and improved resources. While it usually it improves the material quality of a neighbourhood, it potentially forces relocation of current, established residents and businesses to lower-cost areas. Very often, it also shifts a neighbourhood’s racial and ethnic composition.
Such changes have transformed Berlin’s centre since the fall of the Wall, starting with the occupation of abandoned buildings for various kinds of social and artistic endeavours that created a compelling platform for creative and partying people. The process is unstoppable, and very much interwoven with an increasingly cultural trivialisation.
Der Palast flips between fact and fiction, showing all the facets of the changes through characters that are multi-cultural, eccentric and colourful, but who seem to lack strong identities. Far from encouraging people from different backgrounds and cultures, Macras reflects that one of the side effects of regeneration of neighbourhoods is to expel diversity. The owners of redeveloped properties are often part-time inhabitants, or not even that. They may be international but do not represent any new global culture. They are a single homogeneous group despite their different backgrounds. This tendency can be seen everywhere as cities or neighbourhoods in cities become as global corporate subjects with no real identity. It is certainly something that Berlin, capital of freedom, is severely risking.
As the work deals with the fragile and complex theme, its outcomes are as humorous, bizarre, offbeat and perplexing as reality television. One of the most striking sections involves a ‘Lego-land’ reality, where the subjects move like Lego figures, robotically, inflexibly and unemotionally as they try to halt their eviction and save their building.
Another memorable one is a television talent show, well-staged and performed. The somewhat obnoxious and ridiculous performances have a ‘theatre of the absurd’ about them, where there is no logic, no real dramaturgy, just a concatenation of tragi-comic scenes. The performers are full of hyperbolised expressions. Their dance seems extremely precarious and dangerously improvised. They express extreme happiness, yet artificial faces scream ‘fake’. Through it all, the show’s leader keeps the humour and wit coming, keeps the show going, despite its peculiar participants.
The quality of acting as such is good and the content witty, the humour merging into the work’s darker core and message that gentrification is a social dynamic that causes drastic changes.
Der Palast doesn’t really trigger deep reflections about the issue but by making it a humorous and sometimes over-the-top, Constanza Macras is able to talk to her audience and get her point across. And who knows? Maybe it will help acknowledgment that gentrification is complex. Maybe it will help give space and voice to new and good practices. As the work shouts out: more less, less profit. Putting humans before money seems to be the real challenge.