Monday, May 16, 2022

He came to Berlin to change the world. Then The World Changed Berlin.

Berlin – Some time ago, Sir Henry Vauxbuhne stood on the main stage of the theater that was once East Berlin and operated the universe.

In “Quarantine, for Single Human,” Sir Henry, whose given name is John Henry Nijenhuis, did so as part of an interactive musical installation that sent a planet spiraling through a computer-animated universe using motion-sensor technology.

As they gracefully waved their arms, a delicate astronomical choreography emerged. Earth hurtled through a galaxy that expanded and shrunk at his command. His gestures also controlled the cosmic soundscape, adjusting the pitch and volume of a “space choir”, consistent with a MIDI-playing Bach preface. Sequencer.

“Quarantine,” streamed on Volksbühne’s website During the epidemic-related summer lockdown, the composer’s first solo work was on the main stage of the theater, where he has worked as a music director for nearly a quarter of a century.

“The first six months of Kovid was a blessing because I could just pierce my apartment and conceive,” the 56-year-old Canadian said. His interactive installation combined his passion for music with his interest in computer programming, a lifelong pursuit since his studies at King’s College University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the 1980s.

On a stormy spring evening, I met Mr. Nijenhuis at the rear entrance of the closed Volksbühne. Wearing a beautiful brown herringbone overcoat, he led me through a maze of backstage stairs to the theater’s Red Salon, a nightclub-like venue that has been out of bounds since the epidemic began.

Balancing himself precariously on a stool, he filled two glasses of water from the sink of a long unusable bar. He wore a black buttoned up shirt at the top; Her shoulder-length brown hair was pulled back tightly in a high ponytail.

There is hardly any surprise at seeing him so comfortable and at home in an empty theater. Some people at Volksbuhne have lived here longer than that.

For at least a decade after the Cold War ended, Volksbuhne was arguably the most radical and artistically adventurous theater in Europe. As a music director, composer and occasional actor at the Playhouse since 1997, Mr. Nijenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s artistic flower while living through dynamic changes that have redefined the city – and not for the better , in his opinion.

He savors his memories of post-Cold War Berlin, a wild, bohemian outpost of artistic experimentation spiced with lively conflict between East and West.

Mr. Nijenhuis unashamedly adopted the revolutionary spirit of East Germany in the theater. “We had the task of explaining socialism to the West that encroached in Berlin,” he said.

“At Volksbune, you can always smell if the directors want to change the world,” he said. “And if they didn’t want to change the world, you’d say to yourself, ‘You can be in the West End as well.'”

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The theater was “a dam against indiscriminate, aggressive forms of capitalism,” he said.

To his regret, that atmosphere evaporated over the years. “Nowadays, Berlin has a reputation as a party venue,” he said.

Nevertheless, few, if any, other North Americans have so decisively made their mark on Berlin’s cultural landscape in the major years following the reunion. In his nearly 25 years, Mr. Nijenhuis has worked on more than 50 productions at Volksbuhne.

“John is a mastermind of music,” said director David Marten, who has worked with Mr. Nijenhuis since an acclaimed chamber version of “Wozzeck” in 2007. In an email, he suggested that Mr. Nijenhuis “is probably not recognized enough” because he mainly works in theater and ‘theater music’ does not get much credit. “

Mr. Nijenhuis was born in 1964 to Dutch parents in Newmarket, Ontario and grew up in Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his father worked for British Airways. After college, he spent a decade in Toronto, developing a style of piano that he described as a “two-handed mash-up, for example, ‘Stayway to Heaven'” Putting on the Ritz ” With, or with Ravel’s “bolero”. Take five. ‘”

But professional opportunities for musicians in Toronto were limited.

In 1996, he was invited to perform at an art festival in Berlin. Formerly the site of Penzlauer Berg did not have a piano, so it had to do with the living room organ. The curious experience led to his nickname, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the lounge organist of the 60s, Sir julian.

Although his festival attendance was not in line with the plan, Mr. Nijenhuis soon began working in nearby Prater, a small venue operated by Volksbuhne. His overall musical profile, his knowledge of Kurt Weil and Prokofiev, but also Fats Waller and Pop and Rock, made him popular in the culturally operative and experimental surroundings of 90s Berlin.

“You can just walk out the door and find yourself at an event,” he said of that moment. “Many of them were ruined houses, bomb-ruined houses that were playing experimental music.”

That summer he traded Toronto’s skyscrapers for the coal-heated homes of Penzlauer Berg. If Berlin offered him a new home, Volksbuhne became his new creative family.

At that time, the theater was firmly directed by Frank Castorfo, A provocative writer who worked as an artistic director from 1992 to 2017. Mr. Casterf had long been fond of making minnows out of the classics, the evening’s demands were designed to shock theater goers decently.

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But as the city gradually developed into several of Germany’s largest corporations as national capital and headquarters, the surroundings inevitably shifted.

By the early 2000s, Volksbuhne struggled with its conceptual focus, and as its productions became increasingly self-referential, its audience began to drift away. And while actors and directors were throwing Marxist provocations into the audience, the city was quickly bowing to capitalist forces, their theater to the rescue.

“I was seated in a wonderful family,” Mr. Nijenhuis said. “We were all on the same page. I had a job to do, very creative people and I was a little bit lost by what was outside this building.”

He added: “It was very easy to fall into a peaceful sleep and wake up as the city moved.”

While Berlin continues to enjoy an independent reputation, Mr. Nijenhuis believes the city has lost its creative soul. “The transformation has taken place from an adventurous, very adventurous city to an irrevocably bourgeois pleasure palace with thrilling and daring artifacts,” he said.

As soon as Berlin was settled, so did Mr. Nijenhuis. In 2015, she bought an apartment in Penzlauer Bergand and married the American poet Donna Stonesifer.

Increasingly, Mr. Nijenhuis has found creative fulfillment, away from traditional productions, through the programming and performance of interactive musical installations such as “Quarantine”. For the past 15 years, he has also collaborated with German writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, for whom he has made films and accompanied live performances.

in one Recent appearance, He tinkers around on a grand piano singing area by Monteverdi and Purcell as Mr. Cluj, a legendary figure in German culture, and his works were read by American poet and novelist Ben Lerner.

Mr. Nijenhuis is one of only two cast members of Volksbühne (qualifying for artists in Berlin is rare to stay in the same theater for 15 years and was rare under Mr. Castorf, a trend for firing people was) . Nevertheless, the recent era of managerial and artistic turmoil in theater is trying; By his own admission, he was “kept in a broom closet” for two years by an artistic director who did not value his contribution.

Mr. Nijenhuis’ most recent appearance in the making of “The Oresteia” in October showed what could happen when his talent and generous taste were given a free rein. Inspire Music selections ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.

“Would I have lived in Toronto,” Mr. Nijenhuis leaned over to tell me. “I probably would have become a bus driver.”

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