Canan Erek, “I like to sit back and watch people”


We met at an unlikely place to watch a dance performance: In the waiting room of one of Berlin’s district administrative offices. That’s where the choreographer Canan Erek has been staging performances that aim to interrupt stillness and function as small provocations for her surprised audience, whose reactions trigger new ideas. “Inspiration always comes from the human condition, from the way we communicate and relate to each other”, says the Turkish-born artist, who initially came to Germany to study near Pina Bausch. Canan Erek talks about what it means to live as a foreigner in different places at different times, she describes an interesting career path and explains why dance can touch a person in unexpected ways.


Even writing the words “the city’s district administrative offices” puts me off any contemplation on art. I guess I’m not alone in this. Why did you ever choose to stage a series of performances in these spaces?

Sure, one doesn’t go in such a place in order to become an audience. Actually that was part of what attracted my interest. The fact that in these spaces people have no choice but to simply sit there and wait. They cannot go away either. So along with the dancers we are experimenting with turning them into an audience. While planning this series of performances I was aiming for an atmosphere where people are waiting with a very specific purpose in mind when suddenly something totally at odds to the place and time happens. I was interested in watching the reactions.


Did someone ever get angry?

Just once; it was a very strange old lady. She said “Oh, you give me a headache, stop it”. But in the end this was also quite funny. Most of the time people are reserved but friendly. And then they want to know what we are doing there and why we are performing in an administrative office. In fact I’m happy about these reactions. I never intended to explain the art of dance in ten minutes; I wanted to sort of push a wedge there somewhere, to emit a tick…And I thought that if we get them, if they are really curious, then they will approach and speak to us.


What has been the most unexpected or interesting reaction by a member of the audience?

There was a woman in Schöneberg who stayed and saw it twice, even though she had already been sitting in that waiting room for some time. So this had been a long day for her. And after we were through she came up to us and said “Ιt’s so nice that you came, you made my day”. I wish that our experience of daily places, of everyday reality, can be influenced by small things; and this occurs for each person in another way. As far as my part is concerned I wish that this series, Dance Poetry, somehow touches even a few people; how this is experienced and interpreted, though, is a personal thing. I am not there to convince anyone about any idea.


Dance Poetry © Canan Erek

Dance Poetry © Canan Erek


Your audience in the waiting rooms of the city’s administrative offices is very mixed, inevitably. In fact you never know whether they even like dance in the first place.

A great many people among the audience have a zero relationship to dance. And I really enjoy listening to their comments during the performance. A woman once said “But I don’t understand, if this is dance where is the music?” To which I replied that we don’t need the music because we have it inside ourselves, with our blood and rhythm and heartbeat…Maybe she gave this thought another minute. Then in the office in Wedding, I happened to eavesdrop on two guys who were talking among themselves – they were Turkish so I could understand every word and I was laughing: “What are they doing here?” “I don’t know, they have taken something”…They were convinced that the performers must be on drugs – otherwise why would they ever dance in such a place?


The series is named Dance Poetry. In what way are these performances related to poetry?

For me poetry as a form is about short pieces – and these performances are short pieces. Poetry can also favour abstraction. Quite often you need to read a poem more than one times and each time you get a different meaning. In the case of these performances, what I did was to create a concept and a structure, I put the stage and choreography together, but then allowed my dancers to interpret these elements however they wished. And finally, because every performance is different from all others, I thought that it is very much like slam poetry, where each time people go on stage they give a varied reading of the same poem.


Do you always work with the same dancers? By the way, this is an international group that you work with.

Actually I’m the only German in it; well Turkish-German. The dancers come from Italy, Korea, the US and Greece. The camera man comes from Mexico. And we have been working together all this time, which is highly unusual; you mostly work together for a project and then everyone goes their separate ways. All the while I have the feeling that it takes so much time to really get to know one another, to understand each other. And if you work in this improvisational way, you need to have mutual trust.


Let’s go back in time: Why did you want to dance for a living, in the first place?

Oh, that was such a long time ago…I remember that I was 10 years old when I consciously decided to make this my profession. I was taking ballet classes but I was obviously taking them seriously.


Was ballet a typical thing for a young girl growing up in Ankara?

I’d say it depended on the family. I came from an educated middle class family, my parents were big city people, so it somehow was the natural thing to do; to send your daughter to ballet class. But they never expected I would take it so seriously – if they had realised it they would have never sent me to ballet class. They saw it as a hobby. But while I had started taking classes two times a week, I built it up to four or five times a week. And ballet ended up being the most important thing for me. If they would have let me, I would have gone to ballet every day.


A performance of "Dance Poetry", ©Marion Borriss

A performance of “Dance Poetry”, ©Marion Borriss


So the plan was to become a ballerina?

Well, ballet was all there was at the time in Ankara. I didn’t yet know there were other options. But by the age of 15 I realised that this is not my world. I started questioning whether or not I wanted to be a swan. And then it just so happened that we moved to Istanbul, and there I got a summer job, dancing in a musical.


How was that possible?

In Ankara I had been attending the city’s first private ballet school. It was ran by a prima ballerina that had formerly been with the State Opera. One of the teachers at the school -a guy who had been giving some jazz classes- had moved to Istanbul a year earlier than my family, so when I arrived there I signed up to his school. And he offered me a job at the musical – it was during my summer vacation so my parents did not object. A year later, at the age of 17, I realised that there was nothing more for me to learn in Turkey, this was the end of the story. The next step would be to aim for a place with the State Opera; but I didn’t want to be a ballerina!


Was that when you decided to leave for Germany and study under Pina Bausch?

Well it was, yes, but I first had to discover her work; you see I had no idea. In the age before the internet, access to this kind of information was very hard. How many opportunities did a 17-year-old living in Istanbul get to see the work of Pina Bausch? But I tell myself that it was fate. There was a German dance teacher, Charlotte was her name, who realised that I was looking for opportunities and ways to leave. I had been thinking about London, until one day she invited me and some other enthusiastic dancers over to her place and showed us a video. And this was Sacre du Printemps and Café Müller. This was 1985. She had been a classmate of Pina Bausch. After watching Sacre du Printemps I felt I knew that this was how I wanted to dance. And Charlotte said, “Ja, ja, you can attend the Folkwang Hochschule. You can apply and do an audition”.


Did your family still think you were not going to be a professional dancer?

That’s right. Because parallel to dance I had been studying Journalism at Istanbul University. It was my compromise, my second best choice. And everyone was happy about it… Only I still had my goal in mind. So when I decided to apply for an audition with Pina Bausch, I did all the applications without telling them a word. And when I got invited to travel to Germany for the audition I was able to do it because I had been earning my own money. This was an ace up my sleeve – I could say, here, I can buy my own ticket to fly to Essen for the audition.


Had they realised you were planning to leave?

My mother more or less suspected it, but my dad was thinking that I would only go to do a workshop. He was thinking that OK, it is holiday, it’s between terms, she is still attending university and she even pays for the ticket out of her pocket. He felt safe. But then two months after the audition I broke the news to them: I had been accepted! And I now had to deal with them realising that I was giving up my Journalism studies and leaving for Germany in order to be a dancer. This was extremely hard for them. My father was asking me to think it over, he was insisting that a career in dance was not in any way secure and that I should get a normal job. I can now understand his point of view, but at the time I felt very frustrated. Anyway he finally realised that if I didn’t do it I would be desperately unhappy – he was not an authoritarian father at all.


"Real Poses", ©Alfredo Mena

“Real Poses”, ©Alfredo Mena


And so you land in Germany and take your first class with Pina Bausch.

The first class was the second time I was meeting her. I had first seen her at the audition where I recall everybody being in awe of her…


You were not?

Well I sort of was, but at the same was not; in the sense that I managed to overcome my awe and go talk to her. I was thinking to myself that since I have travelled all the way from Turkey for the audition, I might as well take advantage of my being here and watch a performance. I had heard that on the day after our audition there was a performance in Wupperthal. But of course I didn’t have a ticket. So I went to Pina and asked her. She was very warm and kind; “no problem, you can come backstage…” she said. I was amazed by how unassuming she was. Pina Bausch was never arrogant; she was open and warm, she didn’t walk around parading any aura of a prima donna.


How did that quality of hers show in her teaching style?

She put great emphasis on each of her students’ personality. To Pina it was important that everyone’s uniqueness was respected and valued; this was at the core of her teaching, it was the quintessence. That and sincerity; she would always ask for sincerity. This was something new to me. During the years I had been studying ballet in Turkey it had been all about technique and form and perfectionism. It had never made much sense to me, even though I was always trying my best to conform. And suddenly, for the first time it was not important whether my leg could go all the way up to my earlobe.


What was most important in Pina Bausch’s class?

Personality. That was all. That was what her work was about. She was interested in her students first as human beings with characters and then as dancers. This was for me an immense change from I had known until then. So I began to accept myself and the way my body looks. As a ballerina one has to be reed thin and I have never been that thin. All these insecurities, all these problems began to solve themselves while I was studying under Pina Bausch.


Didn’t other, new problems arise?

Yes, but they were problems that were related to being alone for the first time in a foreign city, living with a foreign language. It was pretty tough to be abroad at 19 and coming from a sheltered background, with no knowledge of German. But I couldn’t share this with my family or complain because I knew that the minute I would mention it they would go “You see? Come back”. So I was always telling them how nice everything was.


Did you ever take proper German lessons?

Never; I learned by being a parrot. Needless to say that by now I feel completely at home in the German language.


"Dance Poetry", ©Canan Erek

“Dance Poetry”, ©Canan Erek


And what ways did you find to cope during that first year in Essen?

After the first six months I started looking for a job because I needed money; so this was the beginning of being a waitress without speaking a word of German. I lied to the employer: I went there with a friend who was German and she was talking the whole time. And with customers I was like a parrot, repeating their order all the way from the table to the counter – it was also an Italian pizzeria, so it was not so hard to memorise the menu.


You spent four years studying at the Folkwang Hochschule. Can you recall how you envisioned your future at graduation?

This was the second big challenge for me, because back in Turkey my family were waiting for me to return. They thought that after having finally completed my studies I would have no reason to be abroad.


Was it possible to have a career in contemporary dance in Istanbul at the time?

No, it was not. And it is still not possible. There is absolutely no financial support for the arts. Of course there are people in Istanbul who are active in contemporary dance, but I can count them on my two hands; in a city of 14 million people! I couldn’t bear to live as a dancer in Istanbul and be obliged to perform for what at the end of the day is a minority. In my opinion art has nothing to do with minorities or elites. Of course an artist has to be educated and to have a sensibility, but then one can bring art to broad audiences. At least that’s what I am interested in.


By the way would you say that Pina Bausch was elitist?

No, not at all. Her pieces are not aimed at the elite; how could they? They deal with human beings.


Back to Essen and your graduation plans – did you decide there and then that you would not return to Turkey?

That’s right, there was no doubt in my mind. I wouldn’t go back. After all I wanted to be a choreographer; I also had a boyfriend in Berlin – he later became my husband. So I moved to Berlin.


When was it?

In 1990, just after the Wall had fallen. I had been to Berlin before because of my boyfriend and I liked it a lot – whereas I found Essen very ugly. But then came the beaurocratic problems; I was not entitled to a visa which meant that I had to leave the country and go back to Turkey. The only solution would be to get a student visa once again. That was when I learnt that there was a Choreography School in East Berlin, the Ernst Busch Hochschule. I applied and got a place there which settled the visa issue. And it was really like discovering Eastern Europe by living in just one city.


Canan Erek in "Tezat", ©Dave Großmann

Canan Erek in “Tezat”, ©Dave Großmann


Did you live in West Berlin or did you move close to the school?

The latter; The school was in Schöneweide, so my boyfriend and I found a nice cheap apartment close to the school in Lichtenberg. And you know in the 1990s the differences between the East and West were very, very clear.


Lichtenberg is a neighbourhood that is not considered especially friendly to foreigners.

And it used to be much worse; only we had not realised. At the time it was actually a Nazi stronghold. But we had no idea. We were young and adventurous. We found a nice apartment that we could afford so we felt very lucky. But we ended up staying there only for four months. Because we realised that a Nazi was living in the apartment right beneath us. And across from our building lived another one. On weekends their friends would come and they would all do a barbecue where they would sing their nazi songs. So you can imagine the shock I was under. Four months later we packed and we were off.


You found yourself in East Berlin during the most interesting of times. How was the atmosphere at the choreography school?

I was the first student from the West and the first foreigner to be studying there. Everyone else was East German. The teachers as well as the students were extremely busy coming to terms with the huge changes that were taking place in their own lives. A fact that naturally was always a topic of conversation; all the comparisons between how things used to be and how they were changing…


How did you get along with the rest of the students?

Oh to me this felt like a second integration. I was once again a minority which was tough; but it also was a time of learning and exploration. When I think back, I see that it was actually harder for the rest of the students to deal with me, than the other way around. Because to them I embodied what it meant to be a foreigner and a westerner. Plus I was coming from the school of Pina Bausch. People in the East knew who she was, but she definitely was not someone they revered or even admired.


What did your professors think of the education you had received near Pina Bausch?

I remember my professor at the time saying to me “Ja, ja, ja, you come from Pina Bausch, you are not capable of dancing”. This was the approach I had to deal with. They believed this was not dance. To them contemporary dance went as far as dancing barefoot – they were familiar with Expressionist Dance and Gret Palucca’s work because she had lived in the GDR… I was thinking “what is this guy talking about, where does he come from?” but I was suffering in silence instead of responding to all those remarks. You see I could not quit because I needed the student visa


"Tezat", ©Jennifer Zumbusch

“Tezat”, ©Jennifer Zumbusch


But he still kept you in class?

Yes, because I was kind of exotic to them. So I was interesting, but not acceptable as an artist because my thinking was completely different. This silent conflict lasted two years after which this professor finally lost interest in me and left me in peace, allowing me to do my thing. And I didn’t care for what he thought; I just wanted to do my work.


Did your time at the school teach you something about how everyday life must have been in the GDR?

What is remarkable and what has stayed with me is that people who had grown up in the GDR did not have a culture of communication – and this was something I would later once again experience in Leipzig. Because at the stage of their socialisation they were being taught not to say what they were truly thinking. There was good reason for that since one could never be sure if the other person was a Party member or a Stasi informant. People had to be very careful. But I would get so frustrated…We were a small group of students -only seven of us- and there was so little conversation going on! I was always trying to make conversation and I was thinking why the hell don’t they talk? Of course with time we built friendships and I realised that, once they felt secure, they would really open up.

And let us not forget that those students were very well aware of the background of each of our professors; they knew when it was OK to discuss something and when it was not. On the other hand I felt they were more used to sharing and they had more of a common sense – for example when we would have a break and someone had cookies, they would put them in the middle for all to share. Coming from Turkey, this was something I found normal. Whereas my experience in Essen had taught me that West Germans would never do that.


Did the professors express regret for having missed out on the developments in dance between 1961 and 1989?

I think that at that exact moment in time, they were much more eager to hold on to what they had been taught to value. They felt so insecure about everything else around them…For instance that professor I was earlier talking about – he had been a famous, privileged man so when the system changed he believed he would preserve what he had by insisting that his way was the right way. He would never question himself or express curiosity about what he had been missing out on. He was simply rejecting reality. Of course it was different with younger people, they were open.


What about their attitudes to you as a foreigner, as a Turkish person?

Back then I was not really aware of how I was seen by a broader social circle, because I was living in a microcosm that consisted mainly of artists. So there were no strange looks coming my way whenever I mentioned I come from Turkey. However they often exoticised me. In general, though, one should admit that Berlin is a special case. As one moves to other cities the situation can be very different.


"Dance Poetry" in Kreuzberg, ©Canan Erek

“Dance Poetry” in Kreuzberg, ©Canan Erek


You moved to Leipzig for work a few years later. You were the artistic director of the Dance Theatre in Leipzig for three years. What was your vision?

I was really happy to have my company, because up until then I was working alone as a choreographer and doing mostly solo projects, where I would do everything on my own. There came a point when I needed a change. I wanted to work with a big group of dancers. I had also just given birth to my daughter, so I needed more security. So when the offer from Leipzig came, I felt that everything was falling into place. I had a company of 30 people; professionals and semi-professionals. With them I did three full-length pieces and some smaller ones. But I had to deal with more or less the same issues which I had dealt with at the choreography school…The people I was working closely with had all grown up in Leipzig and they were my age. Once again I was not able to freely communicate with them. In the sense that I would have to try to find out whether something was wrong, because people didn’t speak openly. I can deal with anything if you just say it – but that was not the case.


Do you think that it had to do with you coming from a foreign land?

I do think so, yes. I was the only non-German person and the only one not coming from Leipzig.


You said that they were all your age – do you then believe that their attitude had to do with their growing up in the GDR?

Oh yes, I am pretty sure this was the case. Because there was a big difference between people of my age, who had been socialized in this one system, and younger persons, who had grown up under a new system. The ones that were my age -it’s not like they wanted to be mean to me- simply didn’t have the experience either of being foreigners themselves, or of having lived with foreigners. One has to keep in mind that I am talking about the first years that followed the fall of the Wall.


But you did not experience racism – or did you?

Not in the theatre, no. But I have to say that in general I didn’t feel so comfortable in Leipzig; that’s why after three years we came back to Berlin. Let me try to explain: whenever I went to the Post Office, for instance, I would sense that there was sort of a little alarm going off when they would realise I was a foreigner. Or I would go to the baker and ask for “drei Brötchen” and they would go “ha?” I know I didn’t speak sächsisch but by that time I did speak German quite well…The most disappointing experience I had with a doctor: she looked at me and said “Du gehen warten”. I looked at her and said “Was meinen Sie? Sie können mit mir ganz normal reden”. At which she replied “Aha. Sie müssen noch warten”. You see this was happening just because of my name; well this was racism. A little bit here, a little bit there and I finally felt we were not welcome in the city so I said let’s move back to Berlin. Berlin is something else than the rest of Germany.


Do you think that Berlin is still an island?

Yes, sort of. Because there are a lot of us foreigners here. It is an international city. It is cosmopolitan and lively, and it is so exactly because of this amazing mix of people.


"Tezat", ©Dave Großmann

“Tezat”, ©Dave Großmann


Why did you want to be a choreographer in the first place?

I was even doing my first choreography back in Turkey. I don’t exactly know why I wanted this, but it probably has to do with the fact that I am someone who likes to be a leader and to make decisions.


What was the most important lesson that you learnt during your years at the Ernst Busch School?

I learnt what I don’t want to do. That is a pretty important lesson.


Which older choreographers would you cite as influences?

I think the biggest influence on me has been Pina. If not so much aesthetically, then definitely in the way that I think about dance: Why people are moving is more important than how people are moving. And the need to always ask questions…Another choreographer that I admire is Susanne Linke. I have great respect for her. She is a wonderful artist and a wonderful person.


Do you ever start with music? I mean, can a piece of music trigger inspiration? Or a story that you have read?

So far this has never been the case. I never hear a piece of music and think that I would like to either dance to it or choreograph it. And I’ve never felt the need to work with something that I have read, be it a book or a poem. No, my inspiration always stems from the human condition. From the questions that arise from the human condition, from the way we communicate and all the ways we relate to each other.


Are you the kind of artist that is always informed about current trends in dance and never misses a performance?

It’s not possible in Berlin. I am always interested to see what others are doing, but everything is a question of time. I would love to be able to go to the theatre or to concerts more often, but the best I can manage is to watch no more than three performances a month. But most of all I like to watch people. To sit back and watch people. That’s the most interesting thing.


Is there a little notebook stashed somewhere where you write down ideas and then “rediscover” them and turn them into projects?

I have a lot of notebooks and I mix them up all the time. I do many things at the same time, and I am sure that, without me being conscious of it, they all influence each other. In general, though, I try to concentrate on the present instead of planning ahead.


You are involved in cultural politics. What drew you in that direction?

Right, for the past three years now I am on the board of the organisation Contemporary Dance Berlin, that has been around for 14 years. I was a founding member and now I am the chairperson. I had the feeling that everybody was making decisions about the art of dance except for the practicing artists themselves. I strongly believe that we should be able to have a say and express our opinions. Dance is important to me and I would like to share this with as many people as possible, not just with colleagues or professors. So that’s why I got involved cultural politics.


"TEZAT", ©Dave Grossmann

“TEZAT”, ©Dave Grossmann


You have also been very active in planning and initiating education projects. Why is dance an important tool for educators?

Because dance has to do with our body. And the body we have, we keep until the end of our lives. So I think that it makes all the sense in the world for each of us to work with our bodies and relate to it in meaningful ways. In school students are always being taught a specific subject -Math, History, etc- but they are not encouraged to be more sensitive regarding touch, movement, feeling. You know, exercising one’s senses and being aware of one’s body, reflecting on it, has a great potential of learning about life. Dance teaches kids -especially this generation’s digital natives- how to be closer to their own bodies, it teaches them about touching others, about sharing responsibility. And then I do a lot of projects in schools where there is social tension and where it is usually obvious that the kids have never been to a theatre. Most of the time these are students who have less access to the arts; quite often the parents are immigrants and they also have to cope with a series of difficulties.


Do you believe that your having come to Berlin from Turkey makes immigrant families feel more comfortable around you?

I do believe so, yes. However I don’t feel Turkish and I don’t feel German and I don’t want to have anything to do with talks of nations. But at some point I thought that since I have this specific cultural background, I can maybe try to make something useful out of it. Because there can be, for instance, a third generation Turkish family, a family that came decades ago from an Anatolian village, whose members still have a hard time integrating. Even though they might have been born here, it is tough for them to get some cultural input. It shouldn’t be like that. And it does not have to be like that. They simply need someone to open the door for them. Maybe I can do this. I can be a bridgemaker. Because I speak their language. So I can go have a talk with the mama who maybe cannot speak German. The thing is that there are many motivated, good, well-intentioned teachers out there, but if a student’s family is too conservative then the teachers cannot get through to them, they cannot really achieve much.


In your experience, why has it been hard for people who are born here to open up and integrate? Why has it not been hard for you?

It is important to note that millions of people integrate and have integrated – but we don’t talk about them and we don’t tend to focus on them. Instead, we tend to focus on the minority, on the few that stand out. What I think is that in the 1960s and 1970s Germany made a political mistake: they behaved to the Gastarbeiter as though they were here only temporarily. They made no effort to teach them the language and to help them integrate. They saw them as no more than temporary labour. The result was that the Gastarbeiter kept to themselves, they held on to their habits, their traditions and culture. In essence they created a ghetto. That was the first generation. The second generation experienced a conflict – they wanted to fit in and adopt the German culture, which after all came natural to them since they were born here. But their parents wanted to hold on to their traditions because they did not feel welcome by the Germans. And then, during the last 15-20 years there has been a return to conservatism in Turkey – things were very different when I left Turkey.


You are saying that this turn in Turkish politics affected the Turkish community of Berlin?

That’s right. Tayyip Erdogan was the first Turkish Prime Minister who reached out to the immigrants and told them that they represent what is best in Turkey, that they are greatly valued by their homeland, that they work for their country. Nobody had ever told them anything of the sort until then. And he also comes from a non-educated family background so he played this «you are my brothers and sisters» card. Many of the immigrants then began to cover their women even more, because they thought this is the way it should be. They are being told that it is OK to be conservative – in fact that it is the right thing to do. In Berlin one can find old women who go about their lives as if they had never left their villages in Anatolia. They didn’t change anything because either they didn’t feel the need to do so or, nowadays, because the Turkish Prime Minister makes them feel good about themselves.

On the other hand,I think it belongs to human nature to try to hold on to what is familiar. And even though I don’t care to belong to any nation, other people do care and I totally respect this. Even a parallel society can be absolutely fine in my opinion -and I have given this a lot of thought- if people simply live in peace and respect each other. But what is crucial is that individuals know and exercise their choices, that they decide for themselves about their lifestyle. In order for this to be feasible it would help is to have more mixed schools, to have healthy friction among students from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, to offer students motivation to try new things, to encourage them to go out of their way in order to relate to people with different experiences.


What is it about dance that makes it accessible to all?

Any person who uses their five senses will get something out watching dance. This is my conviction. But because it’s a live art form, it all depends on whether one opens up – if this does not happen, then you have no access. It’s a giving and taking. You can’t force anything.


Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, Berlin, July 2014BerlinInterviewslogo