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Text JF. Pierets Photos Dennis Veldman
Hovering between vaudeville and jazzy chansons, conference and cabaret; playing for full houses in New York, Berlin, Zürich and London (just to name a few cities), Sven Ratzke is not easily captured in a few words. Describing him as a classy performer and an intelligent improviser dressed in eccentric costumes, with a strong scent of Berlin nightclub cabaret, might be a start. We leave it up to him to clear things up.
What makes it so difficult to describe Sven Ratzke?
I do so many different things that it might be difficult to categorise, to place in a box. People often have to actually see the show to know what it is all about. I am not an easy act for the program leaflets. I always say I like to flirt with the 1920’s vaudeville, that kind of popular improvisation theatre with its interesting mix of songs and comedy conference. The idea that once you are on stage, anything is possible. And yes, maybe it isn’t easy to capture my performances in one word, but then again: I am not a big fan of all those boxes. They might be convenient sometimes, but not for me. As a consequence it remains a bit elusive and it takes much more time to bring it across to the audience.
Do you really think it takes a lot of time?
Let’s say it took me a while before I defined my genre as a performer. I am not the kind of cabaret artist that comes straight from the academy. I am a ‘learning by doing’ kind of person. Learning by traveling the world. It is a very personal approach and finding my form was quite a journey. I was raised in an old hippy convent where I performed in front of all the adults. Ever since I was a kid, it was obvious that I was going to be on stage but when I went to an actor’s studio, I hated it. I wanted to make my own pieces so I started off in theatre but soon, I switched radically to performing songs by Fassbinder, Brecht and Weill. I loved and still love those three-minute mini dramas so it was a very logical step to take. Of course the performance still lacked identity but it was a good start. Soon after that, I found myself in the Berlin scene with people like Georgette Dee. I was standing barefoot on stage because I didn’t have the money to buy the shoes I really liked.
And now you are performing all over the world.
Sometimes I wonder: when did that happen? I realise that I have to be more aware of the great life I am living. On the other hand, you still need to keep on working. As an artist you never reach a point where you can say: ‘that’s it’. You lose things very easily and you have to keep on evolving. The more fame, the more misery! How is that for a quote?
Since last year you have been playing ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ in Berlin and now the show is coming to The Netherlands.
I don’t see myself as an actor but when they asked me to play Hedwig, it was too beautiful a role to just let go. It is a theatre play about Hedwig, born a boy named Hansel in East Berlin, who fell in love with an American G.I. and underwent a sex-change operation in order to marry him and flee to the West. Unfortunately, nothing worked out quite as planned and years later, Hedwig is touring the US with her rock band, telling her life story through a series of concerts. I made the play my own by doing a large part of the re-writing and making a new German translation. Apart from the music band it is a one-man show in which I perform all the characters.
Do you relate to such a character?
Hedwig doesn’t belong and I very much relate to that. I always wanted to play something different, something extreme. Hedwig is neither man nor woman. She is very in-between. That raises many questions and for some people it is troubling, for others it is like a warm bath. Yet it is a universal piece about someone looking for her other half. Besides that, I always dreamed of playing a woman. To physically undergo that transformation and look at the possibilities as an entertainer. As a woman, you have many more possibilities then when you are a man. When I place my foot on the table, all of a sudden that is seductive instead of tough. Since I have been playing that part, I noticed I want more of the same. I want to explore the transformational side of me.
‘When I arrive somewhere and things are not arranged properly, I just go home. Does that make you a diva? No, it is being professional.’
Yet you don’t define yourself as an actor.
No, and that is because I am quite obstinate and I have a lot of ideas. I always thought that being an actor was something very creative. That you are creating something at least. But you are still at the service of others. That is why there is so much of myself in Hedwig: she could be my sister, so to speak. It is my energy. Even if I would play, for example, a joker or a Nazi, it would still be me.
Back to the creations that are entirely your own. I guess it isn’t easy to switch from Hedwig to an entirely different performance.
One week, I play Hedwig and the other I play my own shows. So switching from one gender to another is indeed a duality that needs focus. But I also switch between playing in sold out concert halls in New York and small villages in The Netherlands. As a performer you have to be flexible in your response to the audience. The US for example is very different from Berlin. In Berlin the audience reacts like they have already seen it all. In New York they say: ‘give it to me baby’. So you give it to them! That is an entirely different atmosphere and as an entertainer you have to be able to anticipate. You have to find a form you are comfortable with and that is versatile enough to reach the largest possible audience.
The press talks about you in terms of ‘the unparalleled sex bomb of German variety’ and ‘an artistic phenomenon that continues to surprise’. Are you becoming a diva because of all these superlatives, Sven?
Of course I am! I love divas! Diva behaviour isn’t a negative thing, you know. When you are misbehaving, you are called a Prima Donna. A diva is someone who gives everything and expects the same from you. When I arrive somewhere and things are not arranged properly, I just go home. Does that make you a diva? No, it is being professional. Nowadays there are no divas anymore. Everybody is approachable and I really don’t like the fact that everyone’s life is out in the open. I like a bit of magic. Take Marlene Dietrich for example. She dressed in a suit, smoked cigarettes and – allegedly – had affairs with both men and women. She was androgynous, not because she thought it was progressive but because some things just are what they are. In contrast to the present time in which everything we do is public, she was very mysterious. Of course that added to the image.
You are a nostalgic person.
I do have a tendency for nostalgia. I can get very sad about lost grandeur but I love classiness mixed with street credibility. Even though I will never perform in a T-shirt and like my glitter, I am still one of the common people. I like playing in clubs, very close and intimate.
You said earlier that you are stubborn, that you want to decide everything yourself. How does that work?
With every project, I insist on my own crew. My own musicians, photographers, technicians, you name it. Even in the shows, during encounters with wonderful artists like soprano Claron McFadden or Nina Hagen, I am the producer. I like my independence and I don’t want an agent to tell me what to do or where to play. I intend to keep it that way because even as an artist, I have a strategy to continue growing. You have to keep a close eye on yourself if you want to stay fresh. If you move between a sad song and wild hilarity, you have to be focused. It still has to be authentic. So although performing is an addiction, I still want to be in control and keep all my options open. Luckily the world is full of opportunities!
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