About one third of the way through my time in Terni, I began to get the sense that I, a foreigner, a gringo from a culturally confused Leone film, had arrived at some kind of crossroads.
It's interesting, what's happening in Europe. There's certainly a wave of anti-EU sentiment, from Germany to Norway and certainly the UK, and this raises several questions about the utopian dreams that the political body once represented. This young, educated, mobile class - you know them - English speaking, experienced, working and moving between states, partnering across races and healing old wounds - may in fact never get the political agency they were promised. Likewise, the various fabrications upholding European cohesion lie exposed by a playful Russia - recently, for example, Hungary's decision to withhold gas supplies to Ukraine.
Not co-incidentally, Hungary has been following a largely traditional line with its cultural offerings of late. Likewise on a cultural level we see smaller festivals like Terni - whose 'satellite' feel in the programming is very much a product of such mobility, entering a fragile period of existential crisis born of an uncertain future. It's by no means the only festival going through this. Everywhere here, there's a crawling sense that these smaller, multi-disciplinary, multi-kulti festivals are no longer at the crest of the wave. As the cultural pull swings back towards tradition, one senses that they are, unfortunately, swimming against the tide.
I'll resist saying more about the context (although there is certainly more to be said - about xenophobia, about fascism, about the turning of blind eyes. About my home state, Australia, leading the way with all of this. Perhaps another day).
Terni is still a remarkable phenomenon. I couldn't really get my head around it at first, as the festival seemed to spring from nowhere - a small town, holding an international-standard, curated festival of high quality dance and theatre, blending the local with the international, and coming together in what everyone, even the locals, described to me as an Italian comune notable only for its insignificance.
Nevertheless, European theatre has been gathering here for almost ten years now - and what I saw, particularly on a local level, impressed me. This was encompassed by the In Situ work Do you see what I mean, where local volunteers led participants around the city blindfolded. What struck me about this work was not so much the concept, but the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by the local volunteers (a fact which I`m sure pleased the creators). The volunteers seemed to clamour to form a connection with their new audience of visitors, leading them around the city, each giving their own version, like some kind of intimate tour guide.
The In Situ work introduced an intriguing program. The festival held a mix of established theatre work - a kind of 'who's who' of EU theatre for the last three years, and more experimental visual art and dance work. Zilla! and Hate Radio were not the most cutting-edge work I've seen, both being three years old now, but there was a satisfying completeness to the argument and reality of both that warranted their inclusion.
The more speculative investigation was left to the non-verbal performance, with Mains tenant le Vide (Hands Holding the Empty) and LÌncontro (The Meeting) providing interesting counterpoints of scale - one a kind of broad, holistic experience, one more interested in the poetry of small movement. A night of three local dance pieces was a nice compliment to this, giving a chance to experiment, but by no means amateur contributions from Lucia Guarino, Roberto Costa Augusto and a site specific work Public W.
All of it was bound together by Mladen Alexiev's A Poem, the accompanying performance of which I sadly missed. The slogan/battle-cry 'The Rain Will Not Erase It' was willfully appropriated by the locals and seemed oddly fitting somehow, sitting at some cusp of memory and the natural world, and a painful plea to not be forgotten.
My official capacity was as a visitor for the Mobile Academy - a kind of cultural administration compliment to proceedings, which brought together two university professors from York, Steve Purcell and Gary Peters, with participants from Latvia, Poland, Germany and Italy. The week saw us undertake some relatively liberal activities alongside the festival, such as talks, interviews with the artists, and production of various cultural formulae. Given the stakes outlined above, this seemed an oddly placid response to a fairly precarious situation, and while we may have provided proof of something for the festival, I fear we in no way fired it up to the rigorous degree that it will need to shield itself from future turbulence.
'Should such an event even be saved?' the neo-cons will ask. The answer will come from the people of Terni, and, I hope, from their continued collective enthusiasm. For what its worth - I congratulate the organisers on a successful 2014. I will be back.
The Terni Festival continues until September 28th.
As mentioned my visit to Terni was supported by Mobile Academy through Krakow theatrical Reminisces - http://krt-festival.pl/?lang=en`
An interview with Mladen Alexiev is to follow.