PuSh Blog

“It’s about not being able to understand, and still being happy”: International Theatre Journalism Exchange Program

August 31, 2010

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is part of an international theatre journalism exchange. He and two European journalists, Carmen Van Cauwenbergh (Belgium) and Alexander Schnackenburg (Germany) are investigating the PuShFestival (Canada), PAZZ(Germany), and Het Theatrefestival (Belgium). Articles by the three writers are appearing in a number of publications including Urban Mag (Belgium), Realtime Arts (Australia), Plank Magazine (Vancouver), and a new website dedicated to the project called Performulations (Germany).

29 August, 2010

Het Theaterfestival, Antwerp

Joyful adventures in not understanding

Part one: Unfold

By Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, photo Nicole Beutler: Anja Beutler

I’m sitting at a table listening to a group of young Belgian writers converse in Flemish. I don’t understand a word, but it’s clear these people are masterful in their ability to push mellifluous flows of speech at each other and receive them effortlessly. It’s the same with speakers of any language. When you don’t understand a language you can really hear the music in it. The best playwrights make the most of this and the best actors are finely attuned to the writer’s musicality, making it a joy to listen to.

But when the talking stops, space is left for other kinds of communication to take precedence—the moving body, breath, the acoustic character of a room, the scenographic configuration of a performance space. These elements are always there, but we’re so habituated to seeking out linguistic meaning that syntax becomes the dominating modality pushing other kinds of communication into the background. In text-theatre we hear the writer’s expressed intent and we think we’ve understood something. Maybe we have, but sometimes it feels like just so much blah-blah.

In the last two days at Het Theatrefestival I’ve seen a few shows that for me, a speaker of English (and Greek), presented different kinds of language barriers and freedoms. The first, Unfold by kabinet K/Kopergeitery (Belgium), begins with a girl, about 10 years of age, standing before a gauze curtain that stretches across the stage. Her back is to us as she contemplates a column of postcards, letters, and old photographs hanging on the fabric. Behind the gauze another child appears at a microphone speaking a poem in Flemish. Then the first child exits and reappears at a sewing machine behind the gauze. It looks like she’s sewing the postcards into a strip of the same fabric. I don’t know what the child at the mic is saying, but about a minute into the poem laughter sort of falls out of the audience. There’s something very genuine and relaxed about their collective response. Together, the voice of the child, the scenographic elements, and the audience’s gentle laughter conspire to open me up to the performance event. I don’t know why I’m so full of delight and easy anticipation, but I immediately feel that with kabinet K/Kopergeitery I’m in good hands.

Images continue to appear and disappear behind the gauze: an adult male carries one of the children across the space, another man performs a brief duet with another child; eventually the gauze is pulled away and the two men and three children create a tableau. Are they a family of sorts? One of the men picks up an electric guitar and sings a ballad, while the girl returns to the sewing machine. We enjoy a guitar and sewing machine duet. The individuals break off into tasks such as drawing a picture of a house with windows that float away from it or making a tent from a large piece of white cloth on the floor. One of the highlights is watching the children perform a contemporary dance trio. The technique and choreography are such that the children’s bodies aren’t distorted in the way they are in ballet and some other dance techniques. The movement seems very natural to them, unforced and yet performed by the children with aesthetic focus. It’s the most enjoyable contemporary dance I’ve seen in a while.

At times the five performers gather for more “family” snap-shots. There’s a tender balance to the energy between the two men and three children, something very reassuring; the impression is of harmony, of a functioning group that has the creative tools and understanding to deal with what comes, including crisis, although there is no crisis presented. Unfold engages us without the necessity of dramatic conflict or even of the angst or cynicism common to so many contemporary dance performances. Children and adults co-habit in creative play. They move, invent, and sing. And even though the songs are in English I’m only dimly aware of the words (as I write I can’t recall a single lyric) – it’s more the spell woven by the playing and singing that stays with me, subdued and unassuming, but openhearted and seductive. Post-dramatic theory posits a number of textual and non-textual modes that can create interest in a performance without resorting to conventional tactics. In Unfold there’s no apparent story or characters. To me it feels pre– rather than post-dramatic. It’s as if the children haven’t yet internalized the forms of 19th and 20th century dramatic structure. Is Unfold about something? The program notes say, “It’s about not being able to understand, and still being happy.”