Face of Flanders: Chris Dercon


An art historian with no background in theatre, Chris Dercon was recently appointed to director of Berlin’s beloved Volksbühne - and the Berliners are not happy

An unusual choice

The business world is well aware that Flemish executives are in big demand, with many in high positions around the globe. There’s a similar situation in the arts world.

But not in Berlin.

Berlin’s Volksbühne was launched in 1914 to bring the best in German theatre to the masses at democratic prices. It was situated in East Germany from 1949 to 1990, and its return to a unified Germany was quite emotional.

Two years later, the East Berliner Frank Castorf became its director. In 2015, the Volksbühne announced that he would be succeeded by Chris Dercon of Lier, Antwerp province, starting in 2017.

The Berliners were not happy.

To be fair, Dercon is an unusual choice. Though his CV is beyond reproach, he is an art historian, with no background in theatre.

The 59-year-old arrived in Berlin this month to take up the post, fresh from his job as director of the Tate Modern in London, which he has held for six years. Prior to that, he held top posts at MoMA in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and, crucially, Haus der Kunst in Munich, which he turned from a simple provincial museum to a powerhouse on the city’s arts scene.

Too loud

None of it good enough for the Berliners and the jealously guarded traditions of their People’s Theatre. He introduced himself this month not with a theatre piece – the Volksbühne has a reputation for fostering cutting-edge playwriting talent – but an open-air dance festival.

I’m a supporter of theatre without borders

- Chris Dercon

The event featured Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker dancing her own 1982 piece Violin Phase on the tarmac of the famous Berlin Tempelhof Airport. “I’m a supporter of theatre without borders,” Dercon told De Standaard. “Popular theatres have a long tradition in Germany, but you can also turn the thing around: what does theatre mean today in and for Berlin?”

The Volksbühne has an ideological background, he admits, but he doesn’t. “Ideology doesn’t interest me, but politics does. I bring that engagement with me through the artists with whom I work. And there’s no point to art that seeks conflict for the sake of conflict. We need to come together.”

The old Volksbühne, he states, boldly, “was in my opinion too loud and too quick to start shouting. I would replace that with Beckett: silence and whispering”.

Photo by Dazaifu89/Wikimedia