Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Flogging the mechanical horse in Timișoara: Youth Everlasting And Life Without End

Like your best friend at a party, fairy tales are always with us – even when we need them to get lost. Petre Ispirescu’s fairy tales, collected from various sources and published in the 1800s (à la Brothers Grimm),  are a source of Romanian national mythology – everyone seems to have seen  them countless times as puppet shows, television, or school curriculum. Though saturated in culture, specific or detailed perspectives on them are lacking. In this way, they are like other unexamined cultural phenomena, sitting under the surface like a crocodile, unquestioned yet potentially lethal.

Performed for three sweaty June nights in public space in Timișoara, Youth Everlasting And Life Without End revives one of Ispirescu’s most loved stories for Europe’s Centriphery project – a roaming collaboration that develops cultural projects across ‘peripheral’ locations of EU states over a multi-year period. Romania’s entry to this theatre-Eurovision takes the form of a spectacular live-action puppet extravaganza, with gargantuan characters parading around Piața Libertății (Freedom Square), to the sound of a wailing multi-harmony rock soundtrack.

 


Photo: Flavius Neamciuc

There’s a lot to like about this situation, which offers the artistic community of Timișoara a chance to strut their stuff. The costumes by Lia Pfeiffer are a highlight, as are the gargantuan puppet-heads made from recycled materials by Ciprian Tauciuc. The music by Sol Faur, with sound by visiting artist Connie Zenk, pulls you along in its ebbs and flows, incredibly supported by a quartet of vocalists (led by Choir master Beatrix Imre Leila) that begin in the first minute of the performance and do not stop until the 90th.

It’s all fuelled by an army of hundreds of volunteers, who have come in over the course of months in Timișoara and surrounds, amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Both from a managerial and community perspective, this may well be the real star of the show. As well as hundreds of roles in set and costume construction, some 50 volunteers appear in the production itself – carrying placards, holding puppet-rods, or assisting lighting and tech. All of this accumulates into a community theatre event of epic proportions – Ispirescu’s fairy tale is not so much revived as it is dragged from the grave, kicking and screaming by the collective energies of the Banat region.

Photo: Flavius Neamciuc

Fireworks aside, Youth Everlasting’s treatment from director Ovidiu Mihăiță emphasises the supernatural components of the tale, presenting a stage heavy with ritual and totemism. The story has difficult moments, with weird additions by Ispirescu including the Prince’s choosing specifically “the youngest” of the three sisters, for whatever reason, but is left largely untouched by the process. This approach limits it to a (spectacular) re-telling of a well-known narrative, rather than a radical contemporary re-reading. Some questions on the subject of death are left unexamined – can we really, for example, address death today (as “Europeans”? As Romanians/Hungarians/Serbians/Germans? As "humans"?) in the face – or is it something that can only be approached through the fairy tale, as a naïve, essential platform for belief? Is the story of a prince escaping the problems of the material world – for immortality among three beautiful princesses – still the best vehicle through which to think about these questions?

It’s easy to suggest that incorporating a more horizontal approach to direction - one that includes communities challenging and pushing back against cultural assumptions of fairy tales - would have deepened the exchange and enriched the work (beyond contact with the regional centres and towns of Timișoara that preceded the project). As it is, Youth Everlasting is a massive, wide-scale achievement that nevertheless leaves some stones unturned. The stones are worth considering, leading up to the production's future performances, and Timișoara’s hosting of the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

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Youth Everlasting And Life Without End (Tinerețe fără bătrânețe și viață fără de moarte)

Director - Ovidiu Mihăiță

Scenography - Ciprian Tauciuc

Sound – Conny Zenk

Music – Sol Faur

Choreography - Xiri Tara Noir

Costumes - Lia Pfeiffer

Lights - Călin Cernescu

Puppet master - Cuța Gornic,

Choir master - Beatrix Imre Leila.

Graphic design - Livia Coloji

Production - Bogdan Cotîrță.

Cast of 60 professional actors and musicians from Timișoara and the country, along with art lovers and volunteers from the local community.

My visit to Timisoara was supported by the Centriphery Project, Association Prin Banat, and European Capital of Culture 2023.

 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Soul Chain

I have only really seen the works of a few Israeli choreographers, and for some reason, each time I have felt the eerie presence of military on the stage. In some cases, this was quite literal – as with Dror Liebermann’s Neither Soft Nor Light in 2016, which was performed by an ex-member of the Israeli Special Forces. But often the presence has been more implicit, and points to the intertwining of military in Israeli cultures – maybe best seen in their famous compulsory conscription program, which has seen many contemporary artists, poets, and even supermodels get a good feeling for life from behind the gun.

In the case of Israeli-German choreographer Sharon Eyal’s Soul Chain, the presence is more abstract, in the form of the relationship between choreographer and dancer, and the fixed chain of command existing between both. Soul Chain begins with a whisper – two tip-toed, uniformed dancers move diagonally across a smoke-defined stage to the early pattering of Ori Lichtik’s soundtrack. Over time, it accumulates into a sort of organism or ‘shared body’ – the dancers float largely in unison, one occasionally standing apart, like a school of fish, as the music gathers and falls into various peaks and troughs.

 

Photo: Andreas Etter

The choreography sits in a sort of uneasy dynamic, never quite certain of the outcome for these fish-entities. What’s certain is the presence of discipline – if they are a collective, it is one without solidarity. The outcome is a kind of targeted aesthetic strike, executed by a group that has had the humanity drilled out of them by countless repetitions and exactions.

“Such is dance”, you might say. Yet the work, which won Germany’s DER FAUST prize for choreography in 2018, has drawn an unusually large following, reproduced across stages in Europe, among them, this re-staging from 2019. Given it’s fairly clichéd regurgitation of staid concepts (the human as animal, subject to control and existing relationally), we might well ask, viewing this in 2021 amidst a public health crisis that has seen a perhaps unprecedented crackdown on assumed rights, what exactly is the attraction.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Making Sense of Self-interest

As your correspondent sits at his beat-up wooden desk, looking out at the autumn leaves beginning to fall, trying to make sense of things while simultaneously being flooded with various demands, it seems a tricky time to really think.

This writing platform is a chance to make sense of something - to try, through the seemingly modest act of performance criticism, to bring some sense of meaning to the mess of today's existence. One way to exist, of course, is to retreat completely from trying to make sense of anything (and there are a lot of options for us to do this today). It is much harder, I claim, to really engage the dilemmas and issues facing us but outside our individual sphere of concern, which might be ethical, social, and collective. 

It is also less comfortable. Engage such questions and you quickly find yourself punished in unexpected ways: like the one who takes the time to check on someone lying on a street corner only to be attacked, we are often disciplined for our attempts to share precarity and act in collaboration. The world, especially 'The West', is set up to favour self-interest, under a guise that this is something 'essential' and inevitable about humanity. But any close observer of people - writer, poet, painter, actor - normally finds something much more optimistic, which is why there is not much art about Adam Smith. 

 


"Goodbye Mummy" - advertising poster for Milk on Rosenthaler Platz Berlin, marking both the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a new comic high-point for psychoanalysis.

It has been commented before that this writing platform is weirdly not self-interested, but instead is unashamedly engaged with social and collective questions. "How does it make profit?" I am sometimes asked. This is obviously not the point, and profit can't be the purpose of everything - although there are also personal benefits to me that come from developing critical thinking publicly and in collaboration with others, and yes sometimes these are material (although less and less). The project here is always to generate something that is of social and collective benefit - to create a 'critic', and perhaps, 'critics'. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Stop Writing Criticism!

Stop Writing Criticism!

This website is often mistaken for a blog, but I never think about it that way. To me (and the Oxford dictionary) a ‘blog’ offers personal perspectives on interesting subjects. Criticism – which this platform is dedicated to – offers something neither personal nor ‘interesting’, at least not in any entertaining way. It contributes to the development of critical writing and thinking, in a situation where this is becoming increasingly difficult. Occasionally people fail to understand why that is a problem, and why criticism today is equally necessary and impossible.

Criticism grew up in the 19th century alongside the philosophical strands of positivism and empiricism, as an (I think undeniably) Eurocentric practice that aimed to offer an alternative to the former’s claims to objectivity. Criticism, even when it is authoritative, suggests that there is no one single way to read a play – that assertions do not exist in a space of consensus/dissent, but are ‘contestable’ in argument. Unlike positivism, criticism does not aim to create an understandable and describable reality, but attempts instead to show its contradictions and hidden sides, and ask questions about it. In this, criticism is more like empiricism's continental sister, dialectics, which proposes these contradictions as in-built to the composition of any assertion, and attempts to demonstrate them.

Why is this distinction important? If we look at the phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’ – a term I will use but disagree with – we can see a specific type of dialogue play out: Person A commits an offence, Person B attacks that offence, the mob joins person B and Person A is ‘cancelled’, supposedly a win for the majority. But what is occurring here is only assertion and counter-assertion: there is no ‘contest’ of ideas, there is no argument or examination of any principles, or the difference between them. This becomes more complicated when Person A’s assertion is unambiguously violent – consider a self-identified white supremacist or sexual predator – and in that case, the argument exists that they should be removed from public space (a la the Nuremburg trials). But, inside a critical culture, that would be the case only as an exception.

Criticism is therefore opposed to a generalised cancel culture (even if this is, for me, a ‘straw-man’ idea). I don’t think this is anything to do with protecting a ‘nuanced’ view, to use an idea that is commonly proposed, for example by the open letter circulated in 2020. It is because criticism is exactly the opposite of the situation described above – it is exactly an examination of founding principle, through argument. Why was a work made? Upon what principles was it founded? Are its assertions valid in the context of its presentation (culture)? Exhausted by the perceived contest on the internet, we are becoming worse at asking these necessary questions, and making these demands of ourselves and others.

Thinking about the language of ‘cancel culture’, one identifiable feature is its creation of assumed principles. Maybe you know this from emerging language on the internet: the prevalence of sarcasm and irony, which contain always a silent ‘of course!’ inside a statement, intended to dog whistle to a self-validating audience. This performance of “I’ll just put this here” is undeniably powerful. But it is exactly the language that criticism is designed to un-mask. Criticism and critical thinking carries the objective of examining this gesture: ‘of course!’. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Tereza Vejvodová’s Delimitation - published on Czech Dance News

I have quite a few dialogues these days with colleagues from the dance world. While my own conception is that I will only ever be as good at writing about dance as I am at dancing - and I have been famously compared to a drunk newborn baby foal with a rhythm problem - I acknowledge that their influence is rubbing off on me and I seem to be getting "better"...

...as I hope can be proven from this recently-published review of Tereza Vejvodová’s fantastic Delimitation, which addresses pandemic alienation - in the context of more general alienations offered by capitalism - through the mechanism of an apartment search in a big city.

https://www.tanecniaktuality.cz/en/emerging-critics/tereza-vejvodova-brings-back-the-human-touch-an-outside-view-of-delimitation

This article's publication follows from a week-long online workshop, part of the program Writing about Dance (in the Time of Corona), which I haven't even had time to write about but greatly appreciated. The workshop saw critics from Prague-based Taneční aktuality (Czech Dance News) and Performing Arts Hub Norway take a group through the basics of writing about dance.

It's difficult for me to read such initiatives as anything but a beacon of light in a context of critical darkness. Writing and reading critically, you notice at the moment a strange and scary - but not unexpected - trend against critical thinking. This lack of appetite can be attributed to a few different things, but it might be summarised like this: creating a work in the performing arts is hard enough at the moment already, without the 'inconveniences' of  some asshole writing about your work. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Dissecting the European Fairy Tale - A week in Timișoara

 The next week, your correspondent is reporting from Timișoara, Romania, and the project “Centriphery”. This EU project promises to unite a swathe of volunteers from different backgrounds for various workshops, events, and happenings over the month, centred around a public premiere of the work “Everlasting Youth & Life Without End” in Timișoara’s Liberty Square (Piața Libertății). Friday’s open-air premiere is based on the works of Petre Ispirescu, perhaps Romania’s fabled storyteller who collected many folk myths as a publisher in the 1800s while rarely venturing from his hideout in Bucharest.

If it sounds a complicated scenario, it is – the Banat region, of which Timișoara is the unofficial capital, comprises ethnic Serbians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Germans, and spans the first three countries. It’s a very European project, promoting a sort of impossible multicultural situation that absolutely should not function. The choice of Ispirescu as a foundation for this work seems to skew Romanian, however, as he is seen as one of the linguistic founders of today’s Romanian state. Moving Fireplaces is a lead-in project for Timișoara’s anointment as European Capital of Culture 2023 – a cycle which is sure to bring an elevation to this region’s distinct cultural richness.

At this intersection between cultures, states, peripheries and centres, your correspondent hurtles his usual way forward, the squeak of he CFR train soon to be replaced by the incessant drone of Romanian traffic. 

 


 Bringing such a massive project to light is a huge community undertaking, and it may be that your correspondent is more there as a support than a critical voice. Nevertheless, I am , as usual, guided by certain questions: What (deeply embedded) role do folk tales play on the formation of culture? Are they escapable? And in re-creating them for the stage, do we undertake to reproduce the (often undesired) underlying meanings in their construction and ideology? Is returning to the source – as many of these folk tales are first encountered in childhood – a way of re-claiming and re-invigorating them, using the stage as a distancing frame or a mirror for reflection

As the train makes its final lurches in to Timișoara, I can’t help but be reminded of the time an esteemed colleague told me about a Romanian myth where a guy sets his wife in the concrete of the walls to punish her. While there may be radical readings of this action – a feminist perspective might reclaim it by indicating a certain feminisation of the structures, for example. A queer reading might usurp the gender binary by re-casting it as a simple performance of gendered violence deriving from two individuals trapped in their roles, where the expression of a violence patriarchal control is a means of resolving the internal conflicts within, that can only be expressed by a learned violence. Class analysis might read the two as trapped in a sisophysian struggle by their inability to develop authentic solidarity that would overcome their circumstances. But in whichever perspective, the horrific violence against women seems to jump out of the story – suggesting that such myths are the starting point for the cultural normalisation of many political gestures in today’s Romania.

All of which makes taking them on a dangerous game. The next week I look forward to the events, happenings, and meeting the Banatians and their history. Is myth a trap from which one can be released?

Stay tuned!!

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Should Faki Festival 24 have happened?

Sitting at my little wine-stained wooden desk in Berlin, it finally feels like there is a bit of time for your correspondent to rest. It's been a long few months, which the absence of writing activity proves. Summer is normally easier in Berlin, but this time seems like an exception - the challenges mount, there is no end to the work, most of it seems urgent, and looking back only seems like a trail of missed opportunities for intervention.

The thing is that, as I have previously mentioned, from my little desk I observe a period in which a particular version or idea of culture dies. Depending on your point of view, this can be an extreme thing or not. What does it matter that performing artists are not able to continue their practice anymore? What does it matter that training has stopped, or that our collective cultural fitness has been lost? Is it a problem that we have forgotten how to talk to each other without a screen, that people have retreated into little bubbles, and the ability to cross those bubbles -  to access spaces and situations that enable that - have been removed?

As much as I might try to navigate around it and produce optimistic and resistant actions, the last 18 months have been a feeling of not only watching much of what I love die, as so many artists give up their traditions and culture becomes a strange surfac-y mix of Netflix, Zoom conferences and live Sport. There's also a heavy sense of despair and fear for this great unknown - what happens when you remove the openness from communities? What happens when they can no longer change? What happens to our resistance when culture and its workers are implored to just roll over and die? What about criticism - what becomes of our critical thinking, when there is nothing to write about - nothing to discuss? Can we reflect anymore on phenomena in our situation? Or are we too close to it, too involved, too intertwined with the headline to even respond with anything other than hot-blooded outrage?

Of course, there are nuances the story I have told here, and many exceptions. But for me, it is difficult to avoid this narrative, and I see it everywhere around me.

Happily, on a purely personal note, things have been going along pretty smoothly and the next period will also see me do quite a bit of writing, which I am excited about. I will detail these projects as they come up. For now, I want to dedicate some writing space to a particular event that has occupied a lot of my thinking lately, and which strikes at a few of the questions I have outlined above.

FAKI FESTIVAL 24: SHOULD IT HAVE HAPPENED?

In December 2020, I was invited to be Artistic Director of Faki Festival 24, the festival I have visited and written about on this platform and others for the last 7 years, and where I claim to have seen the best theatre in Europe. To say this was a dream come true is both an understatement and also an absurdity - it's a festival that is pretty painful to love, being run on few financial resources in a former factory in Zagreb, Croatia. Artists stay in squat-like conditions, perform in makeshift stages or found spaces, and the entire festival is without fees and staffed largely by volunteers. It is 100% dependent on exactly the community togetherness that I have detailed above as being obliterated during the pandemic.

Big Koala, unofficial mascot of Faki Festival 24