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Berlin ballet woos new crowd with a dark show in a techno club

By Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) - Berlin's state ballet has teamed up with a leading techno night club to produce a dark, avant-garde show with bondage masks and a bus wreck set in a former power plant that showcases the city's vibrant alternative cultural scene.

"Masse" (mass) features three performances by choreographers scored by DJs who regularly play at the Berghain in a wasteland in the city's ex-communist east which grew out of a gay, fetish joint and is known for its booming sound and hedonistic parties.

The show, staged in the hitherto derelict main hall of the power plant behind the club, epitomizes the city's experimental spirit which many fear is under threat from gentrification and rising rents and costs.

"The menacing atmosphere of the Berghain was an inspiration," said choreographer Tim Plegge, whose piece features ballerinas wearing bondage masks and one dancer smothering the rest with smoke.

Electronic music resonates around the 17-metre (55 ft) high brick and cement walls of a hall that has been transformed into a techno temple and opened to the public for the first time.

The barren set, featuring a bus wreck and twisted steel, is also the debut stage design of German artist Norbert Bisky.

"I wanted to create a contrast with the beauty of the dancers' movements," said Bisky, whose works feature in a variety of collections including at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). "Firstly, the world is not just perfection and beauty, secondly the hall is a very raw, forbidding place."

Bisky said he wanted to draw on the "catastrophic mood of recent years" and growing skepticism about unbridled urban growth.

CHANGING CITY LANDSCAPE

Berghain is one of the many clubs or alternative culture venues in Berlin located in industrial buildings that were long derelict due to the city's tortuous 20th century history, destroyed by World War Two and then divided by the Berlin Wall.

"It's a very special place, an unrestored industrial building with morbid architecture typical of Berlin," said spectator Fritz Stahlberg, 57, after the premiere of the show, which runs till May 25 but is already sold out.

Berghain and ballet fans who failed to get tickets have tried to sneak into the plant in the day and wait for the show.

"You couldn't have a classical ballet here, just as a contemporary ballet like this wouldn't necessarily fit into your usual opera house," said Stahlberg.

The Berlin state ballet company, one of the largest in Europe, said the show was also a chance to reach a new public.

"It's a possibility to both reach a new public that wouldn't usually be interested in ballet and to bring opera-goers to a techno club they would otherwise never step foot in," said Nadine Jaeger, spokeswoman for the ballet company.

In its wild heyday following reunification in 1990, Berlin attracted hoards of artists and became known for its graffiti-covered squats and wild parties and cultural happenings in warehouses, swimming pools and factories.

But in the last few years, property prices have jumped in the city that its mayor once branded "poor but sexy" and investors have reclaimed real estate once left to squatters, forcing many alternative culture venues to close or move on.

On top of gentrification, clubs are facing a higher tax rate as well as a new system of royalty payments squeezing profit margins, forcing many clubs to shut, a phenomenon known by locals as "Clubsterben" or "club death".

But Berghain is pushing ahead with its experimental edge and becoming more ambitious in scope. The club's publicity-shy owners in 2010 bought the plant built in neoclassical style as part of east Germany's post-war reconstruction program.

While the club attracts techno enthusiasts from all over the world, it has also branched out into high-brow culture, displaying artworks by famous artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans and hosting small classical concerts and shows.

The club said its original plans to fully convert the plant's main hall into a venue for major productions have been thwarted by the higher taxes and royalties. "Masse" takes place in one corner and risks being a one-off show.

"We should be doing more co-productions like this," said Berlin state ballet's artistic director and first soloist Vladimir Malakhov.

(Reporting By Sarah Marsh, editing by Gareth Jones and Belinda Goldsmith)

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