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He came to Berlin to change the world. Then the world changed Berlin.


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BERLIN – Not long ago, Sir Henry stood on the main stage of the Folklore Theater in what was formerly East Berlin and directed the universe.

at Quarantine, For Solo Human, Sir Henry, and his given name John Henry Nigenhuis, did so as part of an interactive musical installation that sent a planet rising in a computer-driven world using motion sensor technology.

As he gracefully waved his arms, a delicate celestial dance appeared. Earth was pushed through a galaxy that expanded and contracted at his command. His gestures were also controlling the cosmic sound scene, adjusting pitch and volume for a “space chorus” that matched the Bach intro playing from MIDI. Sequencing sequencer.

The “quarantine” that was broadcast on Volksbühne site During the summer lockdown related to the pandemic, the musician’s first solo work was on the theater’s main stage where he worked as a music director for nearly a quarter of a century.

The 56-year-old Canadian said, “The first six months of catching Covid were a blessing because I was able to dig in my apartment and get pregnant.” His interactive facilities merge his passion for music with his interest in computer programming, a pursuit that has continued since his studies in the 1980s at Kings College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On a windy spring evening, I met Mr. Nijenhuis at the back entrance of a sealed Volkswagen Pony. Dressed in an elegant brown herringbone coat, he led me through a maze of stairs behind the scenes to the theater’s red saloon, a nightclub-like setting that has been outlawed since the start of the pandemic.

He balanced himself precariously on a stool, filling two glasses of water from the long-abandoned bar basin. He was wearing a black shirt, unbuttoned at the top; His shoulder-length gray hair was pulled tight in a high ponytail.

Seeing him so comfortable and at home in an empty theater shouldn’t come as a surprise. Few people in the Volksbühne have been here longer than they have been.

For at least a decade after the end of the Cold War, Folklore Theater was arguably the most radical and technically daring theater in Europe. As a music director, composer, and occasional actor in theater since 1997, Mr. Nigenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s artistic boom while living through dynamic changes that have redefined the city – not for the better, in his opinion.

He enjoys his memories of post-Cold War Berlin, a wild bohemian site of artistic experimentation spiced with a vibrant clash of East and West.

Mr. Nijenhuis shamelessly embraced the revolutionary spirit of East Germany in the theater. “We had a job explaining socialism to the creeping West in Berlin,” he said.

“In Volksbühne, you can always smell it if the director wants to change the world,” he added. “And if they don’t want to change the world, you’ll say to yourself,” You might be in the West End, too. “

He said the theater “served as a bulwark against the inwardly invasive forms of capitalism”.

Unfortunately, this atmosphere has evaporated over the years. “Nowadays, Berlin’s reputation has become a place to party,” he said.

However, few other North Americans, if any, left their mark decisively on Berlin’s cultural scene in the difficult years following the reunification. Mr. Nijenhuis worked over 50 productions in nearly 25 years in Volksbühne.

“John is the mastermind of music,” said director David Marton, who has worked with Mr. Nijenhuis since the release of “Wozzeck” in 2007. In an email, he suggested that Mr Nijenhuis “may not be recognized enough because he works mainly in theater and“ theater music ”is not much appreciated”.

Mr. Nigenhuis was born in 1964 in Newmarket, Ontario, to Dutch parents and raised 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 combination, for example,” Stairway to Heaven “with” Putting on the Ritz “or Ravel’s” Boléro “with” Take five. “

But career opportunities for musicians in Toronto were limited.

In 1996, he was invited to participate in an arts festival in Berlin. The place in Prenzlauer Berg, in the former East, did not have a piano, so he had to deal with a living room member. This strange experience gave rise to his nickname, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a 1960s lounge organist. Sir Julian.

Although his appearance at the festival did not go as planned, Mr. Nijenhuis soon began working in nearby Prater, a smaller venue run by Volksbühne. His extensive music profile, knowledge of Kurt Weil and Prokofiev, as well as Fats Waller, pop and rock, made him coveted in the experimental and culturally vibrant milieu of 1990s Berlin.

Of the moment, he said: “You can exit the door and find yourself in an event.” “There were many of those destroyed homes and bomb destroyed homes that were hosting continuous experimental music.”

That summer, he replaced the skyscrapers of Toronto for the charcoal-heated homes of Prenzlauer Berg. If Berlin offers him a new home, Volksbühne becomes his new creative family.

At that time, the theater was firmly under supervision Frank Castorf, Agitator who worked as Art Director from 1992 until 2017. Mr. Castorf was fond of making ground beef from the classics in Long evenings are demanding Designed to shock theater-goers out of complacency.

But as the city gradually developed into a national capital and headquarters for many of Germany’s largest corporations, the environment inevitably transformed.

By the early 2000s, Volksbühne was struggling with its ideological focus, and as its products became increasingly self-referencing, their audiences began to drift apart. While the actors and directors were throwing Marxist provocations at the audience, the city was quickly succumbing to the capitalist forces that their theater was supposed to defend.

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

“It was very easy to fall into a quiet sleep and wake up when the city was gone,” he added.

While Berlin continues to have a free reputation, Mr. Nijenhuis believes the city has lost a lot of its creative spirit. “It was a change from a very adventurous and daring city with bold and adventurous artworks to an irreversible bourgeois pleasure palace,” he said.

When Berlin settled, Mr. Nijnhus took home. In 2015, he bought an apartment in Prenzlauer Bergand and married American poet Donna Stonecipher.

Increasingly, Mr. Nijenhuis has found creative fulfillment away from traditional productions, by programming and performing interactive musical installations such as “Quarantine”. Over the past fifteen years, he has also collaborated with German author and director Alexander Kluge, who has recorded films for him and accompanied him to live shows.

In one Last look, He was walking around on a grand piano singing Monteverdi and Purcell melodies while Mr. Kluge, a prominent figure in German culture, American poet and novelist Ben Lerner read their works.

Mr Nijenhuis is one of only two band members in Volksbühne for a while (it was rare for Berlin performers to reside in the same theater for the 15 eligible years and was rare under Mr Castorf, who had a penchant for shooting). However, the last era Administrative and technical disturbances In the theater he was trying. By his own admission, he was “placed in a broom locker” for two years by an art director who did not appreciate his contributions.

Mr. Nijenhuis’s most recent appearance on stage, is in a production The Oresteia In October, he showed what could happen when his eclectic talents and tastes are unleashed. Inspiring The musical selections ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.

“If I had stayed in Toronto,” Mr. Negnes bowed to tell me. “Maybe I was going to be a bus driver.”

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