Last Saturday, Marco Goecke, the ballet director at the Hannover opera, smeared dogshit in dance critic Wiebke Hüster’s face. A violent incident like this—a highly celebrated choreographer attacking a critic—is unprecedented in dance history. But as shocking as the attack itself is, the reaction to it has been equally dumbfounding.
On Sunday, the Staatsoper Hannover published a statement describing an “incident” between Goecke and Hüster that had violated “the dance critic’s personal integrity.” The house regretted that “the audience was disturbed by this incident,” the statement continued, but leadership would not be rushed into a decision on this “internal personnel issue.” It wasn’t until Monday that the house decided to suspend Goecke and ban him from the Staatsoper Hannover premises.
With his attack, Goecke placed himself in a long tradition of men who try to silence women through humiliating gestures. In daily life, such behavior might begin with “Fuck you Greta” bumper stickers or sexist and racist commentary under social media posts by prominent women. From there, it escalates to physical and psychological threats, then to sexual harassment, acid attacks, femicide. The cycle of women expressing their opinions loudly, then being punished for it, is as old as the patriarchy itself.
Goecke was obviously not interested in a conversation about art with Hüster; instead, he wanted to show her that he had power over her. First, he tried to physically intimidate her, threaten her, and belittle her by using the informal second-person pronoun Du in German, although they’d never met. These are common strategies to make another person feel inferior. But the final step—smearing dogshit in Hüster’s face—is one of the most humiliating gestures imaginable. Goecke’s attack on Hüster is not “embarrassing,” as German journalist Axel Brüggemann wrote recently, because the choreographer didn’t smear a symbolic object like a poster: Goecke attacked a person. It’s not “embarrassing”; it’s violent and inhumane.
In an interview with a local radio station, Hüster said that she stayed calm during the conversation with Goecke. When he came up to her and blocked her path, she remembered thinking, “‘I’m sure he’s angry, but he has the right to a conversation with me.’ So I stood there, calm and relaxed, because I had nothing to feel guilty for. I panned the piece, but it wasn’t a personal attack; it wasn’t unfair, exaggerated, ironic or cynical. That’s not my approach.”
As Hüster’s newspaper (the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) later reported, the attack took place in the crowded lobby of the Staatsoper Hannover. Hüster stood on the stairs in a state of “shock and panic” and, after she processed what had happened, began to scream. No one intervened, she said in the interview, and Goecke was able to leave unhindered. He went back to the hall, and soaked up the post-performance applause as if nothing happened. Reportedly, he blew kisses to the audience.
In the days following the attack, prominent members of the German arts and media scene played down Goecke’s behavior. The award-winning author and columnist Sibylle Berg, for instance, wrote on Twitter, “This was not an attack on freedom of the press. Excellent artists are exceptional people, it’s not like everything goes for them but—shit happens.”
On Monday, Goecke made his own statement, one that showed neither insight nor regret. He didn’t even apologize. He described himself as the victim of “destructive criticism” which he refused to put up with anymore, a textbook example of how perpetrator-victim roles are frequently flipped in instances of abuse. He implied that it was Hüster who started it. “The symbol came because she threw shit at me for years, too,” Goecke said. But what Goecke called “shit” is simply part of the job that Hüster has held for decades and performed conscientiously. In her radio interview, Hüster said that “she wanted to act against this kind of myth formation,” adding that it wasn’t correct that she had “been following him with negative reviews for 17 years.” She had also given him effusive praise. But the interviewer seemed more sympathetic to Goecke’s story, asking Hüster if the attack had made her ask herself “critical questions,” if she thought she’d made a mistake. Of course she hadn’t. She was doing her job.
On Tuesday, Goecke backpedaled a little, asking—in general, not from Hüster personally—for “forgiveness” because he “lost his temper” (an obvious attempt to downplay his actions). At the same time, he asked for understanding “at least for the reasons it happened.” He added that cultural criticism has changed and should consider reforming “a certain form of destructive, insulting coverage that weakens the entire cultural industry.”
Hüster does not write such coverage. So the questions become: What does Goecke expect from criticism? And what do institutions like the Staatsoper Hannover expect too? Apparently, it is not a serious engagement with the work, or journalism that combines passionate praise with blunt criticism. Instead, it seems that Goecke, like many other artists, believes that critics mainly exist to praise them. As Jeffrey Arlo Brown wrote in VAN, “The critic’s profession is important precisely because it isn’t to advocate for the musician. It’s to advocate for the music.” Similarly, Hüster said, “My calling comes from my passion for dance. I see myself as a lawyer for the art form.” She added that Goecke would not discourage her from practicing her profession.
This afternoon, the Staatsoper Hannover announced that Goecke was leaving his position as ballet director by mutual agreement, effective immediately. Still, the media—in the New York Times, Goecke complained of “personal struggles” such as his mother’s illness and his pet dog entering old age—and the Staatsoper have continued to downplay the severity of Goecke’s attack on Hüster. In her statement, Staatsoper Hannover artistic director Laura Berman said, following a two-sentence apology to the critic, that she and her staff “are extremely worried about Marco Goecke the person,” that he is “absolutely devastated,” and added that his ensemble of dancers “showed his excellence at the premiere last Saturday.” She wrote, “We don’t believe that the work of an artist should be damned on the basis of a single ill-considered act, as disgusting as that act may be.” Inexplicably, considering that Hüster is a professional critic writing for one of Germany’s most reputable newspapers, Berman also blamed anonymous commenters on social media for increasing the pressure on artists like Goecke. “Good, responsible criticism is in danger, since polarizing statements create more attention and more clicks,” she wrote. Of course, clickbait is bad for criticism. So is the reflexive tendency to turn violence against a critic into a discussion about criticism—rather than about violence. ¶