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“Die Grauzone der Toleranz”: review and the interview with the creator

In October, a dance performance entitled "Die Grauzone der Toleranz" ("The Grey Zone of Tolerance") premiered at the Delphi Theatre. Choreographer Stephan Ehrlich and videographer Ziyad Hawwas joined their creative efforts to explore the homosexual community and understand whether it is as friendly towards its members as we think. Numerous films and books talk about its cohesion, implying hostility from the outside, but as everyday life shows, sometimes it is precisely those from whom we expect understanding and support, who turn out to be hostile towards us.

Mikhail Belilov, an artistically gifted dancer with a vivid charisma, whom we know from his interview for our magazine, was chosen for the leading role in the dance performance. Unfortunately, we did not get to see him on stage in Magdeburg, where he was performing for a long time, so we were delighted to hear about his new project in Berlin.

It is worth saying that the choice of the artist for the lead role in the performance was rather fortunate. The dancer's unique physique and appearance - his burning eyes reflecting his troubled soul and his suffering, striking presence and artistry - makes the dance all the more poignant. The problems touched upon by the creators are shown in a more incisive and serious way in the reflection of a young man of extraordinary looks, who is saved neither by his talent nor "beauty privilege".

The theatre chosen for the première is the Delphi, which has an interesting history. This old cinema, built in 1929, used to show silent films. Stars like Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang are said to have appeared here. The cinema survived the war, was abandoned for years, and reopened in 2012 as a cultural centre for dance, theatre and opera. Fortunately, its interior has remained intact. The theatre's spacious antiquated interiors and its special atmosphere allowed us to see a performance from a very different angle.

To be honest, I am always wary of modern dance performances because quite often contemporary choreographers like to fall into the desire to deny everything and everyone and therefore want to make their work unlike the others, to go completely against the canons and show the "real and ugly". As a result, sometimes these performances remind of what Nikolai Tsiskaridze sarcastically refers to as "waffling on stage". Stephan Ehrlich and Ziyad Hawwas have pleasantly surprised me with their "classicism" in a good sense of the word: their work is not pretentious, and there is no wish to make a showoff effect and sweep us off our feet. To add up, the means of expressing the idea through dance do not look secondary or lose out to the video sequences. The dance steps and movements can definitely astonish the audience by their freshness and their uncommon character. So, the performance comes out both thrilling and unexpected in the way it unrolls.

"The Grey Zone of Tolerance" follows the protagonist step by step through his day, slowly revealing the storms of his soul through the dance and video: the calm and cozy morning in his home is replaced by the noise, bustle and chaos of the big city, where each of us plays some role, judges and is being judged. For the gay man, the strain becomes almost overwhelming after an impromptu “walk of shame” under the light of other people's eyes, leading to spiritual exhaustion and new suffering. We realise that similar turmoil, which makes things even worse, happens to him day by day.


Choreographer Stephan Ehrlich and videographer Ziyad Hawwas have answered some of our questions about their new work in the following short interview.

There are a lot of works dedicated to the topic of tolerance and homosexuality. Why did you decide to choose this theme for your work too? What sides of the problem did you want to tackle in it? What is the grey zone of tolerance for you?

Ziyad: The choice of topic came from our personal experiences as gay men, knowing that it has not been tackled before; tolerance within the gay community; internal homophobia, toxic masculinity, transphobia, fat shaming, ageism and racism. Shouldn't the oppressed be the ones who have the most tolerance? Tolerance has mainly been talked about between straight and gay but not from within. What really made us feel that we made an impact was the feedback from friends and colleagues (straight and gay) who really got the point after watching the performance and had discussions with us about it and how they reflected on it which proved that this topic was much needed to be discussed

Stephan: There are many artistic works that deal with the intolerance and rejection of straight people towards gay people, but, there are almost no critical questions in art about tolerance within the gay community. Ziyad and I noticed that. We found that gays are not automatically more tolerant just because they are gay. Gays can live and think as judgemental and intolerant as straight people. The grey zone of tolerance is not a ballet. The piece is a collage of dance and video art. For us, the grey zone of tolerance is when you pretend to be tolerant but do not live by it.

To me, your ballet has a lot to do with performative behaviour some of us might have from time to time. Besides, I see some correspondences to the fashion industry. Do I get it right or did you plan to incept other meanings into your work?

There is no correspondence to the fashion industry at all but we get why you thought that way because of the 2nd act when the protagonist walks in something resembling a catwalk, but that was to show how it feels like when going out in the gay world and how intimidating a human being feels during the process. It is like going to a meat market except that you’re the product, not the customer.

We also wanted to use the whole space at Delphi and not have a classic theater setting with the audience facing the stage, so the runway was the way to connect the 3 acts from the 1st act on stage, till the 2nd half of the 2nd act at the bar going through the catwalk, then back to below the stage in the 3rd and final act. We had to adapt to this huge room, otherwise it would have swallowed us.

How did you get the idea to create such a visual material for your ballet? What is it about for you?

It was a long process of brainstorming together and it led us to re-creating what we already do in our daily lives, a basic journey that most of us make in a city which is riding the U-Bahn or playing ping pong. The ballet is the abstract part of the piece and the video had to provide the solid part that shows the intolerance, we mixed that with the ping pong scene, for example, which showed the grey zone when we watch the protagonist being attacked by rainbow coloured ping pong balls without seeing who he plays with along with short text examples from gay dating apps showing intolerance.

The homage sequence was a reminder that pride was a riot, not a corporate sponsored party void of substance like in the west, meanwhile our people are still being arrested, tortured and killed in the rest of the world. Solidarity is intersectional and literally none of us are free if all of us are not free.

How did you meet Mihael and how did you start working together? Could you say a few words about the process of creating this piece of art with him?

Ziyad: We met Mihael through an open call we announced and he was chosen as Stephan was looking for a classically trained ballet dancer.

Stephan: I knew I needed an above-average dancer with a distinctive personality for this piece. The dancer must be able to carry a whole evening alone. Mihael is a very good dancer and he is very unique in his personality. The challenge for me was to make the idea visible through a young dancer. It was a very intensive development process that led to detailed work. We spent many hours in the studio looking for means of expression in addition to pure dance technique.


As I understand from some of our private conversations, it is quite challenging to be a freelance creator.

It is a constant challenge to always be on the hunt for funding and not get accepted most of the time as it needs loads of work to finish each application that has completely different requirements than the other; it is like a job on its own!


Text and interview: Julia Pneva

Photographer: Andreas Krause


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