Saturday, May 26, 2018

Faki Kronik Day 4 - Diaries, Shoes, and Playful Light

I'm actually not into festivals, in the sense that I suspect these days they are mostly city-branding project which have taken the concept far away from the idea of anything festive. Faki is different. For one thing, this is its 22nd year - a long lifespan for a festival, and one which seems to exist as much as anything else due to its inevitability, i.e as a simple routine. 'Should we do another festival?' never seems to be a question, and hasn't been for 21 years. It's a bit like asking 'should I have a birthday this year?' - you will have one anyway, even if you're in denial about it.

As the festival carries on, a diversity of approaches to the festival theme of physical theatre is revealing itself in the curation of Nathko Jurdana. The kaleidoscope is mirrored in the responses to the performances themselves, many of which are open to multiple readings. Physical theatre thus becomes a rich site for discussion and interpretation, bringing alive the graffiti-soaked walls of the former pharmaceutical factory Medika with discussions on power, impulse, and desire.

Two shows to write on today - the playful performance experience Peep Diary and the earnest tragedy of Anne Frank as told in Hey Kitty. Both are exceptional approaches to the form, with different advantages. As we move into the last real day of the festival, with Sunday featuring only a panel discussion with myself and Belgrade-based critic Radmila Djurica and Jurdana, the accumulation of ideas, meetings, and expressions reaches breaking point, and in doing so forms a complete picture of the festival - a significant cultural event and a resounding success by any measure.

Peep Diary

It's a cynical audience at Faki. People here are beat-up and jaded, in the best possible way. It's a feeling that pervades the building, too, and it also infects audiences. I've seen the most naive, beautiful offers in the theatre fall flat on their face here, simply becuase they are met with the full force of Faki's powerful, demonstrative 'meh'.

There are definitely times when this quality is really great - it has its downside, however. So it was that a young child and I were (with a few exceptions) pretty much the only spectators to really take up the offer of Peep Diary, an immersive spectacle where the audience controls the light with their cellphone torch.

From this simple* but ingenious frame, a delightful spectacle blooms. The three performers (Alice Monti, Fabio Castello, and choreographer Elena Copelli) begin in crouched positions behind frames covered in bubble-wrap, chanting softly. After being offered instructions, the audience enters the space to find them. Soon, they emerge from their cocoons, and begin to play with the lights, the space, and each other.

The central metaphor is drawn from nature, bringing to mind the movement of fireflies or bioluminescent fish under water. The soundtrack points to various moments of ecstasy and revelation, carrying performance through different formations and graceful swoops, all the time guided by the surrounding lights.

The concept of audience-as-lighting designer has limitless potential, and I took up the challenge with puppy-like over-enthusiasm, making various gobots, side-lighting states, expressionist concepts, picking out body parts, even at one stage replicating the flight of an eagle on the wall behind a performer, for them to reach towards it longingly. There is a thrill to this kind of connection on stage, an experience of being recognised by a star within this starry sky, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to activate my spectatorship.

The journey of the show essentially remains constant, moving through slight variations.This seems deliberate - both performers and spectators content to sit in largely constant state of wonder, in a world constructed of only light, sound, and packaging material. Finally, the performers take the phones of the audience, turning the gaze inevitably back onto the spectators and their own bodies in space.

I was obviously smitten by the simplicity and effectiveness of the concept - particularly its focus on light, the result of research from Elena Copelli on its use in relation to audience participation and site-specific performance. A welcome addition to Faki, as it would be other other festivals.

Hey Kitty

Rima Pipoyan is a choreographer, director, and dancer from Yerevan, Armenia. Blending cinema and choreography to tell stories, Pipoyan's interest are the rhythms and timings of stage aesthetics.

It's not an interest that naturally lends itself to the story of Anne Frank, who's relationship with time is one of waiting in confined conditions, and the rhythm of whose life was savagely interrupted by her ethnicity and a fascist/nationalist wave that brought about a devastating ideology called Nazism. Frank is one of the most commonly known victims of the Holocaust, yet details of her story seldom reach popular culture unfiltered. Even the title of the published book, The Diary of a Young Girl, is bestowed upon it by publishers posthumously, the title offered by Franks herself being The Secret Annex.

Of course, the diaries themselves were personal accounts and never intended for publication. Nevertheless, going back to the source text is revealing of Frank's construction of her femininity, and her clinging to symbols of normalcy in a crazy reality:

"Everywhere I go, upstairs or down, they all cast admiring glances at my feet, which are adorned by a pair of exceptionally beautiful (for times like these!) shoes. Miep managed to snap them up for 27.50 guilders. Burgundy-colored suede and leather with medium-sized high heels. I feel as if I were on stilts, and look even taller than I already am."
Anne Frank,  The Diary of a Young Girl (original title: The Secret Annex)

Hey Kitty begins with shoes. They first appear in a kind of clown gesture, with the shoes as an object of curiosity and finally ending up on the legs of a table. Upon being worn, the shoes seem to take on a life of their own, controlling the movement of the wearer, and pulling her around the stage. The shoes are here a floating metaphor, perhaps standing for poverty, lack of mobility, or a more direct reference to the fact that shoes could not be worn in the annex. The comic movement - heavily informed by Pipoyan's training in classical ballet - is offset by the haunting music, forever reminding of the tragedy behind the comedy.

As the show progresses, Pipoyan moves into something like dance, creating almost Chekovian scenes of poverty, whilst intermittently returning to the black-and-white film projected occasionally behind her. The imagery here is unquestionably tragic, but continues its playful and feminine character. A scene with a overhead light is particularly inventive, as Pipoyan bumps it, pulls it, places it against her body to block it, and finally swings it to create an image of trauma. These are hopelessly romantic gestures for me, and it's a kind of beautiful nostalgia to see Pipoyan earnestly and deftly utilise these techniques drawn from mime, dance, and clown to construct the narrative (somewhat reminiscent of Roxana Küwen's circus retelling of the stories of Irene Danner in Faki 2015).

The play benefits hugely from Pipoyan's empathy with her subject, including their shared womanhood, which seems to subvert traditional depictions of the tragic heroine. The frivolity of the end, with its image of defiance, dignity, and playfulness, hits a note of universal symbolism, as it returns to the central metaphor of the shoes. There is another element to the story, an (unknown) poem from an unknown 12-year old girl, which creates a kind of triangle between them. Together, they are an undeniable trio of female authors, and Pipoyan wears their burdens proudly throughout this performance, warmly received by the Faki audience and adding yet another string to the harp that is this year's theme of physical theatre.

Peep Diary

Choreography and concept: Elena Copelli
with Alice Monti, Fabio Castello

Hey Kitty
Idea, choreography, libretto and directing by Rima Pipoyan
Composer: Anna Segal
Dancer: Rima Pipoyan

Film Directed by Davit Grigoryan
Film Music: Elena Rykova

Images: Ivan Marenic

*I acknowledge the complexity of manufacturing smart phones, as well as rights issues connected with their manufacture in terrifying working conditions, and the massive wealth and hierarchy required to simply be in a position to acquire one. When I say 'simple', here, I mean from the perspective of the artist, appropriating something from the given social circumstances.

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