Sunday, March 1, 2015

100 Grad Festival - Saturday

Berlin's annual 100 Grad (100 Degrees) festival is an opportunity for Berlin's three main independent theatre houses - HAU, Ballhaus Ost and Sophiensaele - to improve their brand and market themselves as key centres for new theatre in Europe. The rules are simple: anyone can make a submission in November each year, the performers don't get paid and come from everywhere anyway, and it costs €17 for a day pass to as much theatre as you can handle. The venues get free labour, and the performers go home with some photos of their 'Berlin stage moment', or access to an audience that, due to low expectations, are likely to see any actual art as a bonus.

If the above sounds like reluctant critique, it's because although it's clearly problematic, 100 Grad is one event where I just can't muster the cynicism. Sure, there are many things not to like, and it may be continuing a sorry tradition of Berlin being a mecca for new models of artist exploitation which are then exported to other contexts, but there's something about drifting between the three venues, meeting old friends in bars, and the unique character of each venue that leaves you spellbound, regardless of your predisposition. It's quintessentially theatre - and literally irresistible. Entering its final year this year, it will be replaced by something else next year, (probably more problematic, and developed "in dialogue with various venues, artists, and the Berlin Senate department for culture and the economy". Hmmm. Sounds exciting. Will the artists finally get that minimum wage they've been seeking over the last, well, since forever? Something tells me, no).

Not to mention the generally high quality of work. Berlin is a place where many skilled performing artists live, and many more take the chance that 100 Grad offers to come here and perform. The result is more hit than miss, and a surprising amount of artfulness for a festival that is only loosely curated.

This year, the festival runs over four days, Thursday-Sunday, and takes in a seemingly endless number of shows. A lot of dance, a mixture of mostly German and English language,

Some of which this reviewer saw - but not many.


(Minsk, Belarus)

Mauser is a militant enaction of Heiner Müller's 1970 play of the same name, which addresses a paradox of dissent and collectivity. The audience enters the space to find themselves milling about nervously on stage with their fellow audience, whilst officials roam around enacting a mock registration process. There follows an oddly choreographed text segment, which combines menacingly spoken sections from Müller's play and rigid, military movement. Finally a symbolic massacre of the audience takes placethrough the medium of balloons.

Müller's text is based on his experiences living under the German Democratic Republic, and no doubt some of his observations resonate with the performers, who live in a place where clapping in public is illegal. It is also a Lehrstück - 'teaching play' - in the tradition of Brecht, and is a kind of response to his Die Maßnahme ('The Measures Taken').

The only other play I have seen from Belarus was a Kafka reworking that heavily relied on Brechtian techniques, setting up something of a theme with dialectics. Surprisingly, my most persistent thought during Mauser, which is a work-in-progress, was that this kind of valuable theatre work is often done by those who need it the least. Despite the perilous government, Belarus remains in a European critical sphere, and in this context a line like "ignorance can kill more than guns or disease" does not appear to be a particularly new thought. Critique burdens - or at least the New World would have you think so.

I don't subscribe to this theory - and there was enough in Mauser to point to a healthy future as a kind of participatory examination of ethics, and a worthy response to Müller's text. I will be interested to watch where it goes.

by Heiner Müller
Experimental Theatre Golova-Noga


Warning Signs

Having left the earnestness of ethics, it was strange to enter the evocative blue light of HAU's foyer for Warning Signs, a Noir poem with a live DJ from Berlin-based performer David Kantounas. Taking us through the streets of Berlin, into its hofs and corridors in pursuit of an elusive woman. It's a verbal barrage of words that dreamily wash over you, moving you around against your will, and zooming in and out of details in the world, with a particular emphasis on the Noir stock elements - dreams, shadows, and memory collude into and chase for a woman who will never really be found. All delivered in deep baritone.

Listening to the words roll out, I couldn't help but think there's a reason this kind of text doesn't really exist anymore. The particularities of the language and its focus on male castration anxiety and subjective gaze always lent themselves to a patriarchal perspective - in the 50s, this was forgivable in some sense as it acted as a metaphor (in certain films, at least) for anxiety over a collapse in patriarchal hegemony following World War 2. Sometimes, its still a language that's adopted with success - Sin City springs to mind as an example, benefiting heavily from its labeling as a stylistic exercise and surprisingly resonant storytelling via Frank Miller.

But while this form may have meant something to Poe or Bogart - now it usually just reads as empty nostalgia. The novel format of 'monologue with live DJ' also felt like an opportunity lost or at least half-way, providing a simple trajectory and very much mirroring - rather than interacting with - the story, and guiding the audience through the dynamics. I'm sure there is a potential in the form if it is made with a commitment to art - I didn't sense that here, though it may be the kind of performance that suffered from its impromptu staging of 100 Grad.

Warning Signs
by David Kantounas / Dream Epic Theatre
HAU 2, Foyer

The Dolphin Who Loved Me
(Poznan, Poland)

The title of this show is an interesting thing in itself. I confess my Australian politeness, as it addresses the strange words on the page, dismissed the possibility of the play being about beastiality. That subject is so taboo that you simply could not make a show about it. My mind instead took the reference to the 1977 James Bond film, and the dolphin, and kind of put those together into some kind of, probably fairly standard, show that has something to do with dolphins.

How innocent of me.

The title of The Dolphin Who Loved Me is quite literal - this is a performance that takes as its key event a sexual encounter between a woman and a dolphin in the 1960s. Like the title, the show gently mocks your inability to conceive of this happening - it only slowly emerges that this is the subject through fragments of text- as it applies itself to the task of investigating this beastial act through the tools of contemporary physical theatre.

What unfolds is a surprisingly poignant investigation of love and desire. The romantic ideal of 'becoming' the love object is realised by the performers earnestness and attention to detail, and the experience complicated by an disturbingly open eroticism that explores the perversion. The performers twitch and move to recordings of dolphin experiments being performed by NASA in the Caribbean, they also simulate sex, and sometimes just float around the stage in a very banal way or do something that looks strangely like yoga or meditation. As well as capture the rhythm of the dolphin, its essence expressed through a kind of total physical belief, this also folds dolphins and humans together in a collapse of subjectivity. In itself, such a close study in the sphere of the dolphin would be kind of taboo - it's just too real. It's a disturbing level of identification, and in the context of beastiality it results in a shocked audience trapped between its primal instinct and its cultivated self - unable to consider the subject matter without, too, identifying as the animal.

The subject of how 'humanness' is meaningfully constructed is further challenged as each performer gets their nonsensical 'performative moment' later in the play. This stock feature of postdramatic performance here takes on a double dramaturgical meaning - not only referring to the theatricality and constructedness of what came earlier, but demonstrating in contrast its (ironic) meaningfulness. When Jamina Polak begins her improvised monologue of free association English gibberish, it is the first words we have heard from a performer at all - and absolutely meaningless. Subsequently, male performer Jan Sobolewski explains that he has prepared a song, Tears For Fears's Mad World for us. By the 10th different rendition, I found myself longing for the sea (where things just made more sense).

In other contexts, this kind of anti-performance would be read as derivative - here I felt it really completed the play's argument and its challenge to the constructed nature of the human being. 'Why shouldn't a dolphin and a human fuck?' it seems to say - a no doubt false provocation, but nevertheless one that engages these questions and threatens to destabilise identity in an act of ontological slipperiness. The quasi-spiritual journey that marks the final segue, as Angelika Kurowski adorned in yoga pants and soothing, hypnotic tones takes us on a journey to the waters of Japan, before encouraging us to 'give the dolphins our energy' (in an absolutely twisted sexual reference) neatly connects this kind of neo-spiritualism and the play's more taboo subject matter, in a heavily ironic way.

This proved too much for some audience to take, and many left this performance. Was they unable to face this reality - that they are animals? Or was it a simple response to the repulsion of post-dramatic techniques? There are very real questions in The Dolphin Who Loved Me, and the thing is carried by an absolute commitment and dramaturgical deftness (Szymon Adamczak), elevating it from a standard post-dramatic rendition into a thorough challenge to established ideas of desire. It goes where other performance dares not tread, and it reaps the benefits. Eeee-eeeeeeee *squeak*.

The Dolphin Who Loved Me

Directed by Magda Szpecht 
Dramaturgy by Szymon Adamczak
Music and video by Karolina Mełnicka 
with Jaśmina Polak, Jan Sobolewski, Angelika Kurowska



Also viewed:
The Mule and the Liger, by The Mango Society - absurdist undergraduate humour about the end of the world. Sophiensaele.

Conduit, by Jorges de Hoyos with Nir Vidan, Leyla Postalcioglu - Fascinating and unsettling dance piece about sacrifice, performed to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Ballhaus Ost.

100 Grad ends today.

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