Koffler Arts

Back to Babylon: One Last Dance to the Abyss

In collaboration with Koffler Arts, the Art of Time Ensemble are heading back to the Weimar era for one of their final shows. We spoke to the ensemble’s director Andrew Burashko about his journey into the legendary “human swamp of unfettered sexual desire.”

Back to Babylon: One Last Dance to the Abyss
Still image from the German series Babylon Berlin.
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Whether your ideas of the Weimar era come from the depictions of Berlin cabaret culture in the writings of Christopher Isherwood, Bob Fosse’s film musical Cabaret, or the more recent glitz of the TV series Babylon Berlin, life in that moment feels, from a century’s distance, sticky in all the good ways—full of newfound freedoms and hopes that those who lived in it would grasp only fleetingly, as resentments in the broader culture turned against them. It was a Dance to the Abyss, as Art of Time Ensemble’s upcoming series of performances is titled.

“I've always been fascinated by the prurient proclivities associated with the Berlin of the twenties,” Art of Time’s founder and artistic director Andrew Burashko tells Arcade. “In particular, this idea of Berlin being a human swamp of unfettered sexual desire.” 

For 25 years, Burashko’s ensemble has been doing its own sly, lascivious shuffle along the line between “high” art and low, through performances and recordings that celebrate all the weird little nooks between the two—from the Beatles and Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell, Gavin Bryars, and Radiohead. All that comes to an end this year with a final sweep of performances before the ensemble calls it a day. How fitting, then, that among its final shows, the ensemble journeys back to the Weimar for a weekend concert series at Harbourfront Centre (February 23-25), co-produced by Koffler Arts. “This idea of art music and popular music mixing,” says Burashko, “really, there was no time that I can think of where that was more prevalent than in Weimar Germany.”

In one last night of clubbing through the smoke-filled decadence the Third Reich would be so eager to stamp out, Dance to the Abyss will explore the glorious historical and cultural frictions in the dirty pop music of its time, with excerpts from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, as well as some of Mischa Spoliansky’s cabaret classics, along with works from less remembered composers. Singer Patricia O’Callaghan and composer John Millard are among the performers joining the ensemble on stage, while actor Martha Burns has a Dadaist surprise in store that we don’t want to spoil.

As Burashko points out, Weimar culture didn't happen in a vacuum, but was rather just one of the livelier beachheads for the post-war currents in modernism then sweeping Europe, which brought radical formal innovations across literature, music, art, dance, and cinema. A moment of “looking forward, and not looking back,” he says. Against a backdrop of political and economic volatility, the music played in Berlin’s cabarets found productive friction between the classical avant-garde with the newly arrived sound of American jazz, while the surrounding scene pushed the limits of conventional taste and morality. The music tells the story of a point on the other side of the Great War when all roads felt open. Not that everyone agreed. “Hitler,” Burashko suggests, “was the product of the Weimar Republic as much as anyone was.”

Integral to Burashko’s vision for the Weimar shows is what happens to music when freedom and hope are snatched away. In his introduction to the novel The Bass Saxophone, writer Josef Skvorecky recalls ten regulations for dance orchestras as set forward by a regional Nazi official during Czechoslovakia’s occupation. In their weirdly specific and funless details, Burashko tells me, we might begin to understand some of the sad absurdity of what never made it out of that moment.

  1. Pieces in fox­trot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the reper­toires of light orches­tras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type reper­toire, pref­er­ence is to be giv­en to com­po­si­tions in a major key and to lyrics express­ing joy in life rather than Jew­ish­ly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tem­po, pref­er­ence is also to be giv­en to brisk com­po­si­tions over slow ones so-called blues); how­ev­er, the pace must not exceed a cer­tain degree of alle­gro, com­men­su­rate with the Aryan sense of dis­ci­pline and mod­er­a­tion. On no account will Negroid excess­es in tem­po (so-called hot jazz) or in solo per­for­mances (so-called breaks) be tol­er­at­ed;
  4. So-called jazz com­po­si­tions may con­tain at most 10% syn­co­pa­tion; the remain­der must con­sist of a nat­ur­al lega­to move­ment devoid of the hys­ter­i­cal rhyth­mic revers­es char­ac­ter­is­tic of the bar­bar­ian races and con­duc­tive to dark instincts alien to the Ger­man peo­ple (so-called riffs);
  5. Strict­ly pro­hib­it­ed is the use of instru­ments alien to the Ger­man spir­it (so-called cow­bells, flex­a­tone, brush­es, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instru­ments into a Jew­ish-Freema­son­ic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also pro­hib­it­ed are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quar­ter beat (except in styl­ized mil­i­tary march­es);
  7. The dou­ble bass must be played sole­ly with the bow in so-called jazz com­po­si­tions;
  8. Pluck­ing of the strings is pro­hib­it­ed, since it is dam­ag­ing to the instru­ment and detri­men­tal to Aryan musi­cal­i­ty; if a so-called pizzi­ca­to effect is absolute­ly desir­able for the char­ac­ter of the com­po­si­tion, strict care must be tak­en lest the string be allowed to pat­ter on the sor­dine, which is hence­forth for­bid­den;
  9. Musi­cians are like­wise for­bid­den to make vocal impro­vi­sa­tions (so-called scat);
  10. All light orches­tras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of sax­o­phones of all keys and to sub­sti­tute for them the vio­lin-cel­lo, the vio­la or pos­si­bly a suit­able folk instru­ment.

So what happens when the mundane bureaucracy of fascism turns its attention to the stage, and tries to codify art in these ways? What did it sound like when we got not just to the edge of the abyss, then fell in? Work with the rules as given, in the best way possible, Burashko thinks. Break out the red-hot hoochie coochers, with a two-minute version of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” that Burashko describes “as slinky and sleazy and raunchy as possible”, then repeat it, four times , applying more of the rules each time. See how much hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi is left to ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho to, by the time you’re done.

Among the better known composers featured in the show, Burashko is particularly excited to showcase three works by Erwin Schulhoff, including his “Hot-Sonate” for alto sax and piano, five jazz etudes, and a cheekily surprising Dadaist piece. Burashko has maintained a deep fascination with Schulhoff’s music since he first encountered it in a New Music Concerts performance some three decades ago. 

Schulhoff, a German Jew born in Prague, was celebrated as a brilliant composer during the ’20s and ’30s, and performed as a lead pianist with the top orchestras of the time. But it was Schulhoff’s “restless spirit” that continues to draw Burashko back. “He was influenced by serial music, by impressionism, Dada, and neoromanticism,” he explains. “He was influenced by Dvořák and Janáček. He was a communist by the social realism precepts of the Soviet Union, but primarily a lot of his late music was influenced by jazz, and he was actually a brilliant jazz musician himself. His jazz-influenced compositions, while they weren’t jazz, in that they weren’t improvised, were so much closer to what jazz, as the dance music of the ’20s, was meant to be.”

Now that Art of Time, after a quarter century, is coming to its end, Burashko is clearly looking forward to the other side of this final stretch. “Life is short,” he says. “And I’m exhausted  from everything or by everything that has nothing to do with the art, of just sustaining an organization and all the work that goes into it. I just have no interest in doing that anymore.” And what if programmers still come calling, with requests to perform? “I’m hoping there will be some kind of life for Art of Time as a touring entity. If anybody wants to present any of our work, I’ll be there in a second.”


Dance to the Abyss, co-produced by Koffler Arts, runs at Harbourfront Centre from February 23 to 25. You can learn more and purchase tickets here. Wednesday, February 7, the Koffler gallery hosts Dr. Peter Harris for a free talk exploring Jewish contributions to the Weimar era.

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