Ernest Berk (1909-1993) was a pioneering choreographer, electronic music composer, improviser, dance therapist, and pedagogue whose versatile career spanned decades and reflected deep involvement in leftist politics and Buddhism. After establishing a career in Germany as a young man, the political climate preceding WWII led to his exile in Great Britain, where he remained until returning to Germany in the 1980s.
Berk was born in 1909 in Cologne to British and German parents. He pursued studies in music composition and violin as well as in dance and improvisation. His teachers in Cologne (among them the legendary Mary Wigman) were associated with the Dresden expressionist school, which emphasised non-Western dance traditions and integrated percussion performance and composition into choreography. These studies inspired Berk’s collection of folk instruments, which over the course of three decades grew to be one of the most expansive in Europe.
Berk presented his first solo choreography in 1929 and from then on was a highly sought-after performer and choreographer. In this early phase he met his future wife Lotte, who was also a dancer, and Jewish. In 1933, they founded the Ernest und Lotte Berk Schule. As members of the communist party, the Berks were strong adversaries of the Nazis. After Lotte was banned from performing in Germany in 1934, they relocated to Great Britain. There, over the decades, Berk deepened his interests in Buddhist, Tibetan, and Indian traditions, and worked with many non-European dancers. He also dedicated himself to the composition of electronic music and musique concrète, at first mainly for his own performances but then also for theatre, television, and film. As a composer, he would go on to collaborate with a variety of other experimental artists including pianist John Tilbury, composer Basil Kirchin, visual artist John Latham, and filmmaker David Gladwell. Over the years he became recognised as a pioneer in the British electronic music scene alongside figures like Daphne Oram and others at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Throughout his entire career, Berk put great emphasis on pedagogy. In 1985, Berk returned to Germany and shortly thereafter began teaching music therapy and improvisation at both the performing arts and music departments at the HdK (now UdK) in Berlin. An unabashed nudist, lifelong eroticist, and practiced Buddhist, he was a charismatic personality and beloved teacher. As such he influenced an entire generation of European students and artists.