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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Visual symphony
Animated, Summer 2000. Carolyn Deby in conversation with Micha Bergese. We spoke on a wind-swept, sun-rainy afternoon, cosy in Micha's home, in his leafy north London neighbourhood. The German-born, former star dancer from London Contemporary Dance Theatre has clearly found equilibrium in a career which has so far spanned 30 years and included professional involvement with circus, Derek Jarman, Mick Jagger, contemporary dance, car shows, Tina Turner, the Shaolin monks, and making spaghetti on stage. More on the spaghetti later

Micha speaks often of 'milestones' and makes sense not only of his own history, but of his various choreographies, by delineating the underlying structures, ordering everything with logical precision. Throughout there is an undeniable passion for working with live performance, and for finding cohesion between often radically different elements. As Micha points out, his appointment as director of The Millennium Dome show in - February 1998 offered him the biggest challenge and opportunity of his career - which had started with childhood gymnastics, and ballroom dancing in his native Berlin.

In 1966, Micha made the decision to come to London to pursue training and a career in dance. His first training was in ballet at Andrew Hardy's school. This soon led to an invitation to join London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT): "I got completely obsessed with dance I think we all were in those early years at LCDT. Bob Cohen was a wonderful mentor - a witchcraft master of the company. He had his net cast over us in a very positive way - some didn't like being guided quite so - I wouldn't say single-mindedly - but you know, if one person directs you then that is the direction you get. He had a great insight into the myths of Life and he always was able to translate that into dance'

"We were one family. It was wonderful for us at the time, but it was very difficult for other people to get into the family. We were quite protective and that probably was what destroyed the nucleus in the end. It was not flexible enough. The oxygen couldn't come in.

"I left LCDT in 1979 and still was an associate choreographer until 1981. I could see that there wasn't really room to grow. It was evident with several of us - Siobhan Davies, Robert North. All our styles were very different - my choreography influenced by my German upbringing, my sense for story-telling ... a visual logic. I was always interested in translating from the intellect to the movement'...

Upon leaving LCDT, Micha ran his own repertoire dance company Mantis, choreographing and making programmes with co-director, Tim Lamford. "I put myself on scaffolding once. I had a piece called Continuum based on the Sisyphus myth. Noberto Chiesa built me an abstract mountain made of big, big pipes. I used to swing about like a monkey. What was happening below was a kind of shadow memory of what was going on in this person whilst continually trying to get up and starting again from the bottom'

"In 1987, the money, steam and enthusiasm for contemporary dance ran out in the Arts Council. For me probably too. I suffered from a long run of what I thought were vindictive critics and I just didn't want to put up with it anymore. My first daughter was born and I suddenly was more interested in real life, than being worried about some hacks, who were out to stop me from working. So I stopped, I just stopped. It was probably artistically one of the most painful decisions I had to take in my career.

"Then, I was called by Mick Jagger, and he asked me to work with him. He saw a solo show that I was doing at the ICA, called Spaghetti Junction. The entire process of choreographing the movement and putting the pieces of music together was related to making spaghetti. The first section was the 'hunger' section. It was a cumulative kind of choreography in which, a bit like a piece of systems music, you build on top of something that's existing, you repeat it and build it up, and you repeat it and build it up. It led to then assembling the ingredients, chopping them ... In between, were these dances, which were timed to the process of cooking ... and so I had to co-ordinate the water boiling, with the piece of music, with the dance.

...'there must be something running through my choreography about having layers of things going on, which in depth relate to each other but at first sight might run independently - although they are actually intellectually linked, in structure they're linked."

Micha worked with Mick Jagger on and off for a year and a half, choreographing a new solo show (which unfortunately later was cancelled): "That phone call (from Jagger) took me into a branch of the industry, which yes, made infinitely more money. I could support a family much easier. I started getting interested in how this industry actually works, whether it was rock 'n' roll or large A1 concerts or showbusiness."

Micha's new direction in choreographing for rock 'n' roll expanded to include directing aerial performance for circus, with another fateful phone call: "I received a call wondering if I could start almost immediately to direct a circus show. It was similar to a Cirque de Soleil show, the same sort of format that circus has always had ... it takes finished acts, puts them beside one another, builds a story around the acts they could get.

"I came into the rehearsal studios and saw all these creatures - doing extraordinary things - and I thought that this is going to be fun, this is going to be really fun. I got really fired up about the possibilities of having seven people standing on top of each other and making a very slow moving pyramid, until the seventh person stands on his head on top of somebody else's head ... and then it all tumbles down again. Choreographing that - people with different skills other than dance skills - and using dance language in order to bring a content into their tricks ... in traditional circus, they don't often think about why a movement would happen after a previous movement ... they don't know how to reason their way from one trick to another.

Choreographing it brought the fluidity and the linking and the reason behind moving from one position to another. Positions to them were maybe, the end of the road really, whereas for me it was only a milestone ...

'So that really got me very, very keen on circus skills and then I immediately started incorporating circus skills into any kind of show that I was involved in, and, I started working on the two different levels - on the ground and in the air. From that day on I never saw the space as just flat on the floor ... I saw the space as a cube that needs to be filled.

'In fact what I did do in the Dome show ... was I created a kind of visual symphony on three different levels. On the ground, you would have the bass-line, in the middle ... you would have the harmony and on the top, in the air, you would have the melody. So these three things can be seen as one picture, but you can decide to just look into the bass-line ... Compositionally it was the biggest challenge and opportunity that I'd had ... bringing together all the elements which I've worked with in the past: contemporary dance, circus, and then rock 'n_'roll.

"We were allowed to siphon off a large amount of money from the budget to train young performers ... To have 90 young performers trained ... to perform for a whole year to up to 36,000 people in one day, this is quite phenomenal ... And yet the daily grind is still hard. It was not easy to work in the Dome ... It was absolutely huge. It was all new, the best people in the world worked on it, and they were all just shaking their heads wondering how to make it work ... it was a building site ... freezing cold...

"The Dome ... it's a lifetime of work really. When I see the show I can tell there are different quotes from work that has happened in the past. It's been a very nice way to round off 30 years of work. It's a huge milestone. It gave me, more than it might have given anybody else, a possibility to put all that stuff into one piece of work.

"It just came to me when I looked at the space inside, how to master it, how to break it down. When something is really, really large or really, really scary the only way to deal with it is to make it into parts.

"Well, where do you go? [after choreographing the Dome show] I made a show with the Shaolin monks, which was together with Darshan Singh BuIler. I directed the show and Darshan did the choreography.

"We were allowed to practice T'ai- chi with the monks and we were allowed to eat their food ... They were like young puppies, all over the place, until they concentrated their effort. They did have extraordinary discipline and yet when we were rehearsing ... because they had never been in a theatre show, which has its own religion and its own rules and regulations, they thought it was just a free-for-all. Absolutely bizarre. They didn't know how to behave.

"I've had many choreographers come to me and say, 'how do you do it? How do you get into the commercial world?' The only real advice I have is to let yourself do it. Not to shy away from it. It's only a show after all. You're not actually selling your soul ... Yes, you make a show and you get paid for it. You shouldn't be shy to ask for reimbursement for your services. If you treat it like a service that you have to offer, then it's very straightforward. You have to be able to speak their language, you have to be able to sacrifice probably original ideas that you might put into your own show_

... in any kind of show that you've been asked to do, you have to be absolutely clear with the producer, or the contract has to be absolutely clear as to what is the expectation? You have to talk through the possibilities - really go through it so there is no misunderstanding ...

"One always has the choice to say no ... If you're inclined to do a strip dance in order to sell beauty cream then so be it. You can convince your client that a bare hand is just as good as the rest of the body being bare. It's a negotiation really."

Micha insists on doing all his own negotiation, for whatever project he takes on. Even so, as Micha himself admits, his crowning achievement - the Dome show - has not been without its problems or its detractors. With newspaper headlines criticising the Dome: 'The laughing stock of the Millennium' (1) it surely has not been an easy show. Those 'critics' of his earlier career have come hack to haunt him.

I asked him then if he missed the telling of stories in his transition from contemporary dance. "No. I never lost the blueprint of what's inside me of work, and whilst making the larger shows ... I tried to keep the same integrity in all the works... I followed a very strong feeling which was that live shows are what I do, live shows are what I like, live shows are what I understand. I know what to do. I feel at home there."

1 The Observer, London, 28 May 2000

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001