Friday, May 27, 2016

Faki Day 3: Nazism and the Circus, Clinginess, Death in Bengal

It's early afternoon on Day 4, and there's a peaceful air over the factory Medika, as though we have been here forever. People mill about cleaning, cooking, talking, and rehearsing with a distinct sense of eternity.

Medika used to have a wifi password "OVO NI JECUCANJ" which I'm told in Croatian means This is not a squat. The reality is that it kind of is... a squat, but without much of the angst which can happen from communal living (at least during festival time). Staying here for Faki, I keep thinking about how the festival provides all the things which arts festivals (even quite prestigious or well-funded ones) promise but don't deliver: food, a roof over your head, people who care about you. Some kind of sense that something might happen other than networking and CV-building. In short: it's provision of the bare necessities allows actual risk - by which I mean, it opens a space for possibilities, and not just execution of a pre-organised marketing strategy.

Day 3's performances were a distinct change of pace - with just 4 new works on the program. Lab on Stage's Klette or the Desire for Surrealistic Clinging kicks things off, followed by Roxana Küwen's beautifully-realised performance lecture about fascism and circus in Nazi Germany, and ending with Kolkata-based Syed Taufik Riaz's work From Dust We Come and to Dust We Go. Punctuating the performances was Sura Hertzberg's Straight Jacket, the only casualty for today, as I was but a brief voyeur on her experiment, which was essentially a recreation of an asylum in the halls of Medika's fluorescent graffiti-stained walls,and barred windows. (Yes, it was spooky).

Klette or the Desire for Surrealistic Clinging

I'm not afraid to say that I was eluded by the work done in this dance, performed by Austria-based Lab on Stage. Ostensibly about the flux between subject and object, and their level of 'stickiness', the dance revolves around two performers with Velcro on their bodies, with which they stick or un-stick each other in a manner reminiscent of the titular klette (German: a type of nettle). A nominated 'third actor'  - a humanoid cardboard 'L'-shaped object, stands in for an array of diverse furniture. The two performers move through various states of negotiation, stuck together for the beginning and subsequently removing themselves, achieving a possible freedom, before rebuilding a different relationship again.

The performance seems to be hinting at a sense of disconnection in relationships - the separation and negotiation between them, and the object as a barrier or facilitator (or both at once). The combination of white and beige outfits and the Ikea-like object (looking like it's straight from a Danish design studio, complete with environmentally-friendly cardboard aesthetics) seem to point to a kind of bourgeois setting, as does the heteronormative pairing of female/male. The audio track is a frustratingly elusive voice over delivered by an actor in monotonous tones - it was as if the words were escaping me as soon as I heard them - loosely speaking of a "haptic desire for communication" and a frustration as disconnection, or inauthentic connection. Perhaps they were meaningless or perhaps they just went directly into my subconscious. Either way, I seemed to forget them immediately.

The possibilities are thoroughly exhausted by the pair over the course of the 40 minute running time - but this is an ontological examination, and therefore will never be resolved in an easy way, its metaphor remaining frustrating outside the realm of rational conception. But hey, that's why it's dance. The effect is a kind of meditation on dependency of people and objects.

This is where I stop writing - the material too esoteric for me, too deeply involved in a metaphysical conversation to communicate anything which resonated beyond into the human. That might be too much to ask of a piece like this.

Circus/Freedom/Enforced Alignment

Roxana Küwen is part of a collective which aims to preserve the memory of Nazi persecution of circus artists during the 1930s and 40s. Such institutions are not uncommon in Germany, which seems at times sadistically dedicated to flogging this particular dead horse, a point which often mystifies outsiders.

The human tragedy of Nazism must never, ever happen again. Human beings must never, ever again be mislead by ideologies which seek to dehumanise, divide, and objectify other human beings. We must always strive for common humanity, as impossible as this may be, to have empathy with each other, not to reach for the military option.

Even as I write these words, in the current context, it seems like a struggle lost: unfortunately, this is a horse very much alive. Dehumanisation is rife in the refugee discourse, (now generally accepted as being led by Australia), the Far Right is not co-incidentally becoming fashionable again in Europe, (again, 49% of Austrians voted for a Far Right president last week, who's party was founded by a former SS Officer and Nazi Party Minister of Agriculture. 49%.) and in general, the world seems to be doing the groundwork for another slide into military activity and its associated human suffering, preceded by the neoliberal policies of the 90s and 00's. I can put it like this - 'seems to be' and so on -  but the wheels seem to be very much in motion, with far-right groups watching on silently, with glee, as the cards fall their way.

So, if shows such as Circus/Freedom/Enforced Alignment were ever timely reminders of how such ideologies caused massive wide-scale suffering to human beings on a scale never previously seen, and the need to resist these in a collective human way, it is right now. Küwen's performance lecture tells the story of Jewish circus artist Irene Danner, who hid with her husband and family whilst continuing to perform nightly in a traveling circus. Küwen begins the show juggling, with the sound of gunshots interrupting and causing her to drop balls in a painful interruption. She proceeds to tell us some facts about the Nazis treatment of circus artists being a story untold - as opposed to the well-documented histories of theatre artists and musicians - that, for example, in 1933 all circuses were forced by law to put a Swastika in sawdust in front of the arena, or that today's big circus companies have erased their previous collaborations with Nazism from their publicly available information (although it may seem like all of Germany punishes itself regarding the second world war, there are certainly important instances where this is not the case, and yep, some of them have products in your kitchen or garage).

Irene's is one of the few available documented histories of persecution, precisely because she seems to be the one who escaped it. Roxana carefully interweaves her story with circus performance - telling the story of her painful childbirth while tumbling on a trapeze, or representing the puncturing of her uterus to induce birth using a white ball exercise, suddenly dropped to the floor with a thud.

It's a simple conceit but it's really satisfying, fusing perfectly the magic art of circus with its devastating interruptions. Where these aren't necessarily they aren't used - for example, the story of Irene trying to rid herself of her 'Jew smell' by sucking sweets (reminiscent of today's skin whitening practices in India or the Middle East) is told whilst offering the audience a sweet - again, it's a simple device, but it's all that's required.

The most breathtaking moment is a story of evading the Nazis told, somehow, whilst performing a foot-juggling exercise: a perfect metaphor of cat-and-mouse, only with higher stakes.

It's an incredible story told with honesty and skill, and again, because I can't really say this enough at the moment, a perfectly-timed reminder of what can happen when our common duty of humanism is neglected.

From Dust We Come and to Dust We Go

Do any reading about Bengali theatre traditions and you soon get caught in an absolute mess of information, in part because of translation or representation to an outside world, but mostly because the theatre traditions are so diverse and rich as to be overwhelming. Group Theatre, Jatra and Street Theatre seem to be the common stories told about these traditions, and while these are not to be devalued they seems to be a frustratingly small selection of what is actually going on there. In part this is pragmatic: Kolkata alone has 4 million people, the traditions extend at times thousands of years, and so the process of understanding from the outside can, well, make you feel like an idiot very quickly.

So I'm hesitant to draw conclusions of Syed Taufik Riaz's work From Dust We Come and to Dust We Go, beyond the obvious - it's probably about death. It's a type of street performance (or as Riaz calls it 'individualist act'), performed outdoors, incorporating symbolism and practice from the traditions local to West Bengal and incorporating outside ideas of materiality. Riaz descends the stairs holding a mug, which he proceeds to fill past the point of overflowing, before giving it to a spectator (me). He paints the eyes of his co-performer (Stephanie) and gives her a set of painted eyes, as she holds in her hands whilst stumbling around the space, whilst he proceeds to collect scratchings from the courtyard of Medika, constructing a painting with them on a piece of paper. The piece of paper is set on fire before the two, with Felber released of her blindness, burn candle wax onto their hands and ascend the stairs.

The speed of the performance indicates a fascination with time and space, creating almost a mystical contemplation. At the same time, contemporary political elements are incorporated: the mug features Manipur poet/activist Irom Chanu Sharmila's hunger strike to overturn the AFSPA or Armed Forces Special Forces Act - a 1958 act granting the state powers to arrest and detain individuals without cause (ironically she was re-arrested in March for returning to her hunger strike) - and the other side showing a portrait of the Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, recently executed by ISIS. There is a fascination with violence, archaeology and the body on display. The symbolism of the blind beggar seems drawn from the streets of Kolkata, an image of poverty reinforced by her semi-begging posture - both hands outstretched, as though waiting for rain.

The elements are as interesting for their dissonance as they are for their connection - the scratching from the decrepit surrounds of Medika to use them in an artwork is almost absurd given that it's mostly concrete. This is probably a metaphor about dust - the beggar a metaphor for death, the dust of the space a symbol of its composition, and together a reference to the human body as made of dust. But a reading of the piece is also made comic on account of my lack of familiarity with its reference points: I, and I think much of the jaded bunch at Medika, experienced a curious, brief access to another world. Is there value in that? I think so - to me it drew close attention to that which I don't, and indeed can't ever, understand - bringing me away from rationality to a place of intuitive comprehension, and perhaps, in some ways, a higher consciousness.

Klette or the Desire for Surrealistic Clinging (AUT) 
Concept by Handler - Pardo - Torres
Performed by Andrea Maria Handler & Arnulfo Pardo Ravagli
Graphics, Costume and Stage Design by Adriana Torres Topaga
Costume Assistant: Julio Andres Escudero
Music by David Longa
Co-production with the Cie. Off Verticality - Rose Breuss and Tanz*hotel - Bert Gstettner

Circus/Freedom/Enforced Alignment (NED/GER)
Devised and Performed by Roxana Küwen
with CiNS Collective

From Dust We Come and to Dust We Go (IND)
By Syed Taufik Riaz
with Stephanie Knobel

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