Sunday, December 2, 2012

La Clemenza di Tito: It's all about the music

Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito and Elina Garanca as Sesto at the moment when the emperor grants pardon, in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)


This experience of going to the Met HD opera series has been a real eye-opener. Some operas I have enjoyed, others I have endured. La Clemenza di Tito falls mainly into the former category, with the advantage that when I started to nod off, it really didn't matter that I may have missed some of the action, there wasn't much going on, and it was possible to figure out what had happened.

The Music
It was Mozart. It was lovely. The music rises, falls and sways. The harmonies melt into each other. You can pay attention to the story line, or not, or just listen to the music and the singing. This was so much nicer to listen to than the last opera (Thomas Adès) that was jarring, discordant and atonal.

Characters and Portrayals
Tito (Giuseppe Filianoti): What can I say, the guy is a wimp. He loves and forgives everyone. It is hard to take his passionate declarations seriously because he is so wishy washy. He's a nice guy and that doesn't make for great dramatic tension.

Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli): The fickle lady. She wants power and claims that she was charmed by the Emperor Tito and now is jealous that he passed her over. Uses Sesto's attraction for her to attempt to get her revenge on Tito. More peevish than evil. Slight channelling of Magenta from Rocky Horror Picture Show, especially the hair.

Sesto (Elina Garanca): What a beautiful performance. Garanca carries all the dramatic tension in this opera in trying to reconcile Sesto's love for Vitellia with his faithful service to Emperor Tito. Garanca's sweet singing and tormented acting are superb. She absolutely carried the story.

Trouser Roles
I was curious about the trouser roles, sung by Elina Garanca as Sesto and Kate Lindsey as Annio. These obviously have to be sung by women because no men have the register needed to hit those notes. The visual impression of women dressed as men wooing other women was that this was Mozart's version of soft porn. Lots of heaving bodices too. My mother pointed out that maybe back in the day these roles would have been sung by castrati, which are admittedly in short supply nowadays.

Production Design, Sets, Costumes
Can't say that I was impressed by the production design, sets, and costumes by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. La Clemenza di Tito is known as an "opera seria," an opera dealing in serious, historical themes. It is set in Roman times. Nonetheless, the costumes came from the period contemporary with Mozart. I liked the black dress worn by the self-indulgent character Vitellia: the wide panniers of her underskirts emphasized her breadth and impact on the action, while revealing her lack of depth as she turns. It was the perfect graphic representation of the character's shallowness. In general, the textile flounces and flourishes represent the frivolity and superficiality of the characters.

The chorus, with the women wearing some sort of pale wimples on their heads, was most unattractive. These are the same people that we have seen week after week. They are an ordinary looking mixed bunch. But these costumes made the women look tired and ancient, dressed in winding sheets as if ready for the tomb: a zombie chorus. The men had a different, equally unflattering look.

Overall impression: Now I understand what people mean when they talk about the beauty of the music in opera. I could listen to this without having to watch it.

Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia
(AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)

Well, opera seria was a throwback even in 1791. When you look at the "great composers" of opera seria, it is easy to see that most of those famous in the day are not exactly celebrated today. Not so Mozart. Like many opera seria, this one was designed for the courts, in fact it was commissioned. What a wonderful opportunity for potentates to see themselves as nearly as important as a Roman emperors, with self-satisfied nods. One can almost see their complacency across the centuries, but of course, their main contribution was to give opera a bad name as music for the elite. I also happened to read somewhere that this libretto in different editions and the story in general were set to music numerous times, the royals had a great appetite for seeing themselves depicted as great leaders.
Mozart manages to rise above all of this, in fact it soars. For amateurs, it is hard to pin down why. Certainly he follows the form pretty closely; da capo aria, recitativo secco with continuo and repeat. In essence I understand this to mean that an aria is sound, a second melody is introduced and then the first melody is repeated and embellished (ABA for fiddle players). Mozart does have some ensembles, however, and they work beautifully very crisp and polished.

I found the recitativo interesting because the traditional harpsichord continuo is played on an organ and this for me introduced a historically discordant note, not necessarily in a bad sense. I think this staging played a little with time as well, messing with our heads in a gentle way. Comments on set and costumes will bear this out.

There are certainly some characteristic features of the day that we do not often see today. One is the character who "tells" us what the main characters are feeling or doing, in case we haven't gotten it. One example was Publico, who mid-way through Act II sings to us that Tito is conflicted. Another is the use of women in the trouser roles. Joan is right that castrati did play some of these roles in the day and they are in short supply today. Gender in opera and when women were allowed on stage is an interesting topic in its own right. At least these women (both of whom were superb) stay in role throughout the performance and do not have to be women playing men, who then have to disguise themselves as women. I kept having the feeling that these women, particularly Sesto (Elina Garanca) were playing with our perceptions keeping us just ever so mildly off-balance in the way that they are 95% in their male role and 5% testing the boundaries of what it means to be male.

The set also left me with questions. What does it mean to set a story in ancient Rome and have it falling apart as it would have been centuries later (crumbling columns, headless statues, etc.). As for the costumes I agree 100 percent with Leslie, except that I would add that having them contemporary late 1700s does a couple of neat things -- it messes with our heads again playing with the sense of time; it allows the court to "see themselves"; and you can imagine Mozart's production staged that way, cheap to costume. In particular I loved Vitellia's dress for all the reasons Leslie has identified. I also found the translucent screen very intriguing. When we first see the first crowd scene praising Tito, it looks like a painting by one of the old Masters, think Rembrandt's Night Watch, grand and dark. Then the translucent screen rises and we see them in action, at the end in the fade to black, the effect is once again reversed and a little unsettling. A technique adapted from the cinema perhaps? I don't know.

I would like to have heard more in the interviews about doing opera seria and how the various people who worked on the costumes, set, props, interpreted the opera and worked with the conductor to bring it to life. Usually the interviews are far more informative and this production would have benefited from expert guidance to viewing an older form. Or just sit back and listen and enjoy!
Elina Garanca as Sesto (photo uncredited on Internet but probably Ken Howard of the Met Opera)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Visually Interesting, Musically Jarring Opera

Jaime Verazin as Ariel in the acrobatic opening sequence. (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

The Tempest by Thomas Adès
Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast
November 10, 2012

Apparently I don't have a taste for modern opera. I certainly didn't care for Thomas Adès's opera adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Chalk this up to my musical ignorance, but music that lacks melody sounds like a cacophony of random sound to me.

The first thing I noticed, after taking in the spare but evocative Cirque du Soleil-esque sets and costuming, was the fact that the sound was somewhat flattened. Looking carefully, I noticed that the performers were not miked as they had been in the previous operas I had seen. In this case, not having microphones was a blessing.

Wraith-like waif Audrey Luna in the role of Ariel sang in the register of nails on a chalkboard. When she sings "bow wow, bow wow" in reference to the watch dogs barking, she might as well have been howling to the moon.

For me, one of the highlights of the Met live broadcasts continues to be the intermission interviews. Librettist Meredith Oakes talked about the modifications that had to be made to Shakespeare's text. Character relations were clarified, the text needed to be compressed because singing takes a lot longer than speaking, and she commented on the difficulty of singing in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Again, I am showing my ignorance here but the meter of each line sung appeared to be completely random, with no discernible rhythm or melody. Even the interviewer asked the singers about the difficulty of learning how to perform Thomas Adès's work. The music was impenetrable, as far as I am concerned.

I loved the Cirque-inspired costuming. Prospero's (Simon Keenlyside) tattoos were the literal representation of wearing his heart on his sleeve: the story of his life and powers is painted on his skin. Caliban (Alan Oke), in a mohawk haircut and warrior-like face paint, looked more old and sad than threatening; the portrayal humanized the character. His aria telling the shipwreck survivors not to be afraid because the island is full of noises, and recounting how his dreams are so beautiful that when he awakes he cries "to dream again," is almost melodic and is a lovely moment.

Setting the play in Milan's La Scala Opera House works as a nod to the theme of Prospero as magician-worker or director who literally orchestrates the action: he causes the storm that brings the ship to his island; he has been controlling and commanding Ariel and Caliban. Even librettist Meredith Oakes works with this staging concept, incorporating the line "Words, words, words," which is not from The Tempest at all, but from Hamlet, the quintessential play-within-a-play play.

Prospero's final acceptance that his carefully laid plan has been undone by the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with Ferdinand, is handled with grace. Less graceful is the moment that the King of Naples, dejected in the belief that his son has drowned, discovers that Ferdinand is alive, and he is awkwardly and precariously hoisted up onto his men's shoulders to be carried from one side of the staging to the other. Meant to be "uplifting," instead it was ungainly.

The closing scene is of Caliban raising his hands to the side of his head in the gesture that he has used repeatedly as the story unfolds to denote a crown, meaning that he has been restored as the king of the island. But the gesture also suggests that he is clutching his head in pain or madness. It is a disturbing final note on which to end the performance. I sympathized.

Simon Keenlyside as Prospero (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Well, I wasn't expecting much. I certainly wasn't expecting to like the music. It is the rare piece composed after 1900 that I take a fancy to. But in some ways this was worse and in some ways much, much better than I thought it would be. As I looked around the Met before it began, I was struck by the number of young faces; clearly this production speaks to a new audience and that's a good thing. It wasn't so obvious in my movie theatre, but it was competing with 007.

Adès without the right libretto would have been purely bad. I give full marks to the woman who not only brought a complex Shakespearean play into, well, the 20th century, made it rhyme in a pattern that could actually be sung (Meredith Oakes). I also loved the idea of setting it in La Scala in Milan to go with the theme of Milanese-Napolese conflict, and just the theatre of it.

The music: the first act was so dissonant and so jarring that I had a hard time remembering it was supposed to be conflictive (a major storm, conflict-ridden personal relations, aerial Ariel and earthy Caliban both have quarrels with Prospero). In the second act, I finally figured out some of his musical moves (like many, many key changes, when I thought it was minor key and unusual intervals that only truly expert singers could sing). And at the same time the music was occasionally melodic for a whole line at a time. In the interval, I had some of my findings confirmed by the principals as they were interviewed. By Act III, I could make sense of it, but my question was why? Why go to so much effort to make the music so challenging that few can sing it and very few actually like to listen to it?

I thought of Leslie's comments on previous operas that the plot line in opera is weak, the lyrics repetitive and not as rich as theatre. This work reveals the truth in that statement at the same time as it is certainly not true for The Tempest, which drives and drives and never repeats. I also liked the two drunks who provided (some, not enough) comic relief in a very Shakespearian, and operatic, tradition.

By Act III, as I was prepared for more postmodernism, the opera takes a sudden turn toward at least some traditional forms: the happy ending for the lovers, the denouement à la Mozart in which everyone is reunited and/or revealed, a return to the La Scala set, another appearance by the drunks, etc., I agree with Flor that the Act should have been tightened (and shortened?)

The cast: had a heavy load to carry and acquitted themselves but the truly remarkable performer had to be Audrey Luna, who "sang" notes that I was not previously aware were in a human's range. If I only knew who Gonzalo was, I would laud him too for the low range, but the Met literature does not give the entire cast and that I do not applaud. Simon Keenlyside was worth seeing and remarkable as always.

Would I recommend it? Only to the adventurous. However, I will point out that the crusty elderly couple who were heard to remark loudly after Act I that it was "even worse than I expected" were talking about how magical it was by the end.

Here's the New Yorker capsule review: "In her bland and badly rhymed libretto for Thomas Ades's opera 'The Tempest,' Meredith Oakes drains nearly all the poetry out of Shakespeare's play, a void this prince of British composers can only partly fill. The genius of the piece lies in the sustaining magic of the orchestral writing, guided on the podium by Ades himself, but the vocal parts (except for the stratospherically high soprano role of Ariel and the lyrically pliant music for Caliban) are startlingly underwritten, giving a strong Anglo-American cast - boasting such talents as Simon Keenlyside, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, and Toby Spence - little to sink their teeth into. Robert Lepage's ingenious production is not devoid of Las Vegas kitsch, but it helps to humanize the cold and dazzling beauty of the score."

The music at the start was jarring, then it improved as the story developed. The lovers duet near the end was sweet. But the ending needed a bit of tightening up in term of structure. Some of the verses were inspired and others pedestrian. I found the acting pretty good, especially by the principals. And the staging was inventive.

Our audience here in Asheville was mostly gray-haired and this time they thankfully did not give the standing ovation (a gesture that has lost its meaning with overuse) that they have given other operas, blocking the curtain calls for those of us who remain seated.

What can I say, I'm right, the New Yorker is wrong. The libretto that was needed was a work that could be sung. That's what opera is. Meredith delivered. On the other hand, I totally agree that the parts of everyone in the court lacked all magic.
Lestyn Davies as Trinculo, Kevin Burdette as Stefano, and Oke as Caliban. (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dialogue on Opera

I've never considered myself an opera fan. Some of my book club friends are diehard opera fanatics. They "live, breathe, and eat" the emotion. Me, not so much.

In general I found opera far too screechy. Seeing a big bunch of people shuffling around from one side of the stage to another to stand and sing in static groups did not excite me. At the urging of some of these friends, I'd been to some light opera over the years: Gilbert and Sullivan, zarzuela, and a couple of Puccini's works over the years. I liked the G&S lyrics. Being able to understand the lyrics definitely helps. I have always liked Bizet's Carmen.

A year ago, at the recommendation of my opera-loving friends, I saw the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast production of Comte Ory, and loved it.

My mother has always been an opera fan. This year at her suggestion, we signed up to attend the first six performances in the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast series.

My friend Jenny, in London, Ontario, is also going to the live broadcast series. The first opera we saw, each in our respective cities, was L'Elisir d'Amore. Here is our reaction to the performance in what is becoming an ongoing dialogue on opera.

L'Elisir d'Amore by Gaetano Donizetti, 13 October 2012

Jenny wrote on 14 October
What did you think of the first opera of the season? I attended alone so have not shared commentaries yet. In general I thought the staging and use of painted 2-dimensional scenery was effective for a comedy, loved the translucent curtain, and beautiful costumes. The cast was very good though Belcore (Mariusz Kwiecien) was not as convincing, perhaps due to the ambiguity of the character himself. I thought Ambrogio Maestri stole the show as Doctor Dulcamara.

The conception of the production as less farce and more comedy arriving from the characters worked I thought, though I admit that I have never seen a traditional staging of this opera. What was less clear for me was Adina's position as a farm owner and person of some power. Maybe I missed a key line, but I would also have missed the use of the riding hat if it had not been referred to by the costume designer. Did you sit for the backstage and interview segments?

I admit a preference for melodic Italian opera and this is one of the most melodic. "Una furtiva lagrima" by Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino was very very good although he lacks Pavoratti's silken tones, I could not believe the way he modulated his voice through the long lines he had to sign. Wow.

My response:
My first reaction to these live broadcasts is that seeing an opera is a completely different experience from hearing it. Seeing the action unfold, and having the subtitles opens up a whole new world in terms of understanding what is going on. I need these extra inputs, I guess because I am not sensitive enough for "the music itself to speak to me."

Another thing I really like about the Met broadcast is the "half-time show," the interviews with the director, set designer, costumer designer, props manager, and performers, etc. These shed new light and insight on what we are watching. I particularly appreciated hearing the costume designer mention that Adina was wearing a riding habit, which underlines her wealthy status and her role as a woman in charge. Until hearing that I could not, for the life of me, figure out why she appeared to be wearing a top hat.

L'Elisir d'Amore is a completely flimsy farce. This is not to say I did not like it. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It had a lot of playful counterpoint and was great fun. We left the theatre feeling elevated, although certainly not enlightened.

Otello by Giusppe Verdi, 27 October 2012

Jenny wrote on 29 October
So what did you think of Otello (other than the fact that Johan Botha is butt-ugly and Michael Fabian is eye candy...)?

Seriously I thought it was well cast and Iago was the embodiment of evil. So OK, marks for acting. I did not know the opera and love Verdi's music so, I confess, I was waiting for a recognisable aria, and it never came, so that was disappointing -- although entirely my fault for not reviewing what I would be hearing.

My biggest comment is about the production itself. I thought it seemed very dated, almost from the "just stand and sing" days. I say that because the crowd scenes were so crowded they could hardly do anything else and there were a number of them. They definitely did not need that many singers to produce the required sound, more about having the big look... Later, during the interval someone casually mentioned something that led me to believe that this has been revived for some 20 years -- maybe it was the comment that Renee Fleming sang her first Desdemona there in 1994. And maybe I misunderstood. But the light bulb went on and I now believe that it is safe to say that this one could benefit from a reconceptualization and some modern staging before the scenery falls apart.

My response
On Friday night we searched for a synopsis on the Internet to review prior to seeing the performance. I am glad that we did because it fleshed out the context and relations that would not necessarily be apparent.

It is interesting that you mentioned the crowd scenes. Yes, they were crowded and seemed to have unnecessary children. I figured that was because Cypress is a small island and doesn't have enough room for everyone.

I liked the sets: dark, brooding and heavy. They had some unusual moving pieces, platforms raising people to step into the next scene. That struck me as a bit odd. Technology should contribute to smooth transitions, not draw attention to itself.

We agree that Botha is one unattractive fellow. I don't know what Desdemona sees in him: power, wealth, older man, governor of Cypress, I guess. Nicolas Sarkozy-Carla Bruni syndrome. When he was lying on the ground "beached whale" was my mother's comment. My own reaction was one of slight confusion: When you are a perfect sphere, which way is up?

I thought Iago's performance was great. He was subtle, very subtle. I liked Emilia too.

Apparently this is one of Renee Fleming's signature roles. I loved her performance. She has a heavy burden of acting to carry this role and make it credible, and I think she pulled it off: Loving without being completely sappy; sincerely pleading Cassio's case, genuinely shocked at Otello's brusque treatment. I do have to mention that she is looking a bit long in the tooth, more like the ingénue's mother than the ingénue.

Michael Fabian sounded like a hockey player in his half-time interview, but with all of his teeth. Yes, he was yummy!

I was nervous coming into this production. Whereas L'Elisir de Amor was fun and lighthearted; I was afraid that Otello as a drama might be too static and introspective. In fact it had a lot of action to carry the plot. Every time the action slowed down, Iago was right there to mix things up again. He really kept things moving along.

In terms of opera appreciation, I find that I miss the revelation, introspection and beautiful that theatre conveys through language. Seeing the skeletal lyrics as subtitles really hammers home the point that the music is supposed to convey the depth of the emotions, while exploring human sincerity, frailty, and manipulation. In fact music should be a superior medium, able to transcend linguistic barriers. As a person with a trained musical ear, I am sure that you are able to appreciate the emotional content of the music to a degree that I do not. All this to say: I am enjoying the operas but I find the simplistic words very flimsy structures on which to hang great events. I am having Very Serious Doubts about opera as High Art.

In summary: I have enjoyed both of the operas that we have seen greatly, but I still would not listen to opera music without the visuals. Give me a good piece of theatre any day.

Jenny wrote on 30 Oct
In fact we are probably in more agreement than disagreement on opera and theatre. Opera IS theatre, I would rarely listen to anything except a favourite aria, and of course the overtures and intermezzos (no words), and specifically, I have never understand the fascination for the radio broadcast from the Met. Having said that, people who have fluency in Italian (French, German) might experience it differently.

As I understand it, the paucity of words is partially our paucity of comprehension of the language and partially the history and structure of the art form. The key lies in the concept of Opera as High Art. It might be High Art for North Americans but for Europeans, and historically speaking, not so much. The reason for the skeletal subtitles is that the singers repeat entire lines, sometimes multiple times. That way everyone in the theatre can grasp it, even if they are in the cheap standing room areas at the back and top of the house and even if the singers are not projecting really well (and un-miked). The subtitles don't repeat (and of course did not exist until recently). Operas appealed to everyone back in the day; I was surprised when I discovered how many incorporated jokes and farce since I thought of it as Very Serious Stuff. With all that, you are right that repetitive words, even if well chosen, are not the height of beauty and subtlety in language and must be welded to a musical structure and visuals to be maximally effective. Ah, but when it works it is sublime.

I would love to take a real opera appreciation course. Occasionally the opera society here has a lecture but it is almost invariably on a single opera and not on the structure or development of the art form itself.

I hope that you have tickets for The Tempest. That should be very telling since it is - in English - modern music (not my favourite usually) - sets and blocking with touches of Cirque du Soleil. Is the art form High? Is it comprehensible and compelling for contemporary audiences? Or, is it dead?

My response: Flimsy repetitive lyrics

The opening scene for Otello has the soldiers and the townspeople of Cypress waiting for Otello's ship to arrive, as a storm rages at sea. The gist of the lyrics is:

O the sea is strong and the ship is in danger, the ship is in danger!
O the sea is strong and the ship is in danger, the ship is in danger!
Tra la la! Tra la la! Tra la la la la!
Repeat as needed.

After the chorus has sung it twice, the subtitles don't need to keep appearing. We get it. It is not much in terms of thematic content for five minutes of performance. The chorus did provide a necessary counterpoint to the evil Iago, leaning up against a post and interjecting: "I hope the ship sinks." Still, it seems like an awful lot of sturm und drang to convey so little content.

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I am looking forward to seeing Thomas Ades's operatic adaptation.

More reactions on opera from Jenny and Leslie to be posted…

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Farewell to the FITB

Bogota's venerable theatre institution is in decline. Here is a review of what I saw at this year's festival, followed by some reflections on why the FITB might not make it into the future.

The 2012 Ibero-American Theatre Festival (FITB) in Bogota featured a mixed bunch of productions, ranging from the sublime to the banal. Here are brief reviews of the nine performances that I saw, organized by category: Outstanding, Better than expected, Good entertainment, Just okay, and I want my money back.


Translunar Paradise

Ad Infinitum Theatre, U.K.
A small and unpretentious production whose strength was the ability to portray intense and honest emotion through gesture. An old man who has just lost his wife takes items out of a suitcase and relives the moments that these items represent: their meeting and courtship, going to war, her getting a job, a miscarriage, her final illness. The two actors use hand-held masks to cover their faces as the older self, and remove the masks as the younger self. A third neutral person on the stage provides music, sound effects, and lends a hand as different props need to be moved or a mask needs to be held in place. The third body might sound obtrusive but she wasn't and the action and interaction between the characters flowed flawlessly. This was a beautiful production made all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Teatro Cinema, Chile
Puppet theatre set and staging is used to tell the story of two boys who are sent away to live with their less-than-adoring grandmother during the Second World War. As the two learn to cope with the harshness of life, the cruelty of war, and the contradictions of human nature, they evolve into a horrifying combination of innocence and depravity, caring and callousness. The constant violence is suggested and stylized rather than graphic. The overall impression is of a fairy tale gone bad. A deeply disturbing and beautifully creative production.


Donka, A Letter to Chekhov

Finzi Pasca Compagnia, Switzerland
This is new generation circus, in which performance is used to invent images and tell a story, rather than just being a series of different tricks to entertain. The pretext for the storyline is the life of Anton Chekhov. Images evoke different aspects of Chekhov's life: skating, fishing, hospital beds. These, in turn, become the setting for lyrical circus: aerial acts, juggling, German wheel, shadow play. The audience can see how some of the illusions are created and projected, but knowing that gravity is not really being defied does not distract from the ingenuity; the image is still delightful. This is the art of theatre: knowing that what you are seeing is not real, and yet being able to embrace it in its context. To quote reviewer Alison Croggan: "Maybe the key phrase is a quote from The Seagull: 'Life should be represented, not as it is, not as it should be, but as it appears in a dream.'" For more of Croggan's excellent review see:
On a negative note, the sound at the Jorge Eliecer Gaitán Theatre was extremely distorted, at least at the balcony level.



Productions Illimitées, France
The preview video for this quirky, quacky show made me laugh out loud, and so did the performances by Patrice Thibaud and Philippe Leygnac. The two of them clown about in scenes that range from a piano recital, the tour de France, a cowboy shootout, a silly chase, and being swallowed by a lion and having to escape through its bowels. Don't look for messages about the meaning of life, this is just great fun.

Tom Tom Crew
Strut & Fret Production House, Australia
The break dancing and tumbling were good. DJ Luke Dubbs puts some cool sounds together. Tom Thum's vocal dexterity as a beat box performer was truly impressive (how does he make those sounds?). Ben Walsh's percussion, à la Stomp Out Loud was high energy. All in all, this was a fun show, but was it particularly memorable? Maybe not. This is an example of how the theatre festival has shifted away from theatre and toward entertainment. The performers make an effort to keep the energy level high, but it felt a bit forced. Tom Tom Crew was fun, family fare, and there is a place for that, but it did not leave the impression of being fresh and new.


The Blind (Los Ciegos)
Teatr KTO, Poland
Based on the book Essay on Blindness by Portuguese author José Saramago, this street theatre adaptation by Polish director Jerzy Zon could have used a bit more continuity between scenes. Nonetheless, I would consider that is was very good quality street theatre. The scale is right, the images have impact, the soundscape envelops the audience. As part of the series of conferences with directors, Jerzy Zon gave a very interesting talk, discussing his work as a director, this production in particular, and its relevance to contemporary society. He referred to how, because of censorship, Polish theatre came to depend on metaphor and subtlety. He is also a fan of the succinct. "If you can't say it in one hour, you can't say it in three hours," he maintains. Although this production is very much abbreviated, Zon wanted to stay true to Saramago's intention. He resolves this dilemma by eliminating language and developing the images, while using music to provide ambiance and commentary.

The book and the play examine the fragility of the constructs of society; how we and the people who surround us could slip into barbarity, with only small vestiges of humanism. This is a particularly suitable theme for street theatre because the play unfolds around you in a way that makes you part of the performance as well as the audience. Therefore the decision to present this show in a stage venue, with pricey tickets, was somewhat inappropriate. This could have been a festival highlight if it had been presented free of charge to a wider public. At one time the festival embraced this concept as part of its mission: to bring good quality theatre to the people, particularly the people who can't afford to pay. The FITB missed the mark by charging for this show. Instead of giving something back to the people, it took a socially significant production with artistic merit, and excluded the audience for which it was intended.

Cayetana, su pasión
On the subject of exclusivity, this show took the cake. This was the festival's keynote inaugural performance. Friday March 23 at the Teatro Julio Mario Santodomingo was the biggest gathering of Bogota's well-heeled "gente de bien" that I have ever seen. The show itself reviews how flamenco has evolved over time. It was technically proficient, with a lot of flamboyant gesturing, posturing, stomping, and whipping about of skirts. The flamenco musicians were suitably passionate with their lamenting wails and intricate clapping. The audience enjoyed the show but flamenco really isn't my genre.


A Play About Mirjana and People Around Her

Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste, Serbia
Performed by renowned actor Mirjana Karanovic, famous for her many roles in the films of director Emir Kusturica, to whom she was married, Karanovic is apparently a big favourite with people who are familiar with her trajectory as an actor. Not knowing her or her films, I was not able to bring any previous appreciation to the performance, and what I saw did not impress me much. This show was banal and uninteresting, and lacked the sense of personal commitment and intimacy that are usually characteristic of plays in which a single performer is central.

Julius Caesar
Centre Dramatique National Orléans/Loiret/Centre, France
Director Arthur Nauzyciel claims to place utmost importance on Shakespeare's text but he doesn't understand the language and runs roughshod over it. His production is a send-up whose final message is that Shakespeare and his language are no longer relevant to the modern audience. This production was a tedious mockery. If you don't think that Shakespeare is relevant, don't perform it. The cheap, amateur production of Julius Caesar that I saw as Shakespeare-in-the-Park in Ottawa last summer had much more vitality than this expensive production.


Farewell to the FITB

Bogota's Ibero-American Theatre Festival, the brainchild of Argentine actor and theatre impresario Fanny Mikey, hosted every two years, began in 1988. I arrived in Colombia in 1989, so I have been privileged to have attended every festival except for the first one. I've seen a lot of very good productions over the years, a fair share of mediocre ones, and some that were truly outstanding. Mikey opened Colombia to the world of international theatre. She convinced renowned international productions to come to Colombia, and she raised the level of expectation and sophistication of Colombian theatre-goers.

It saddens me to observe that the festival is in decline, and to predict that it will probably have trouble surviving. There are several reasons for this:

It is over-priced: FITB ticket prices are way above what most Colombians can afford to pay. The festival has always been accused of being elitist, a charge that is largely true. Festival prices have always been expensive but this year they were positively prohibitive. Lukewarm sales meant that some productions had to offer cut-rate tickets at the last minute. This loss-cutting strategy can backfire: People will be reluctant to pay full price in advance if they start to expect that they can pick up cheaper last minute tickets. The ticket prices should be less expensive, period.

Commercial saleability is being prioritized over artistic merit. Since Fanny Mikey's death in 2008, there has been a shift toward bringing in productions that fall under the category of performance and entertainment (such as circus), rather than theatre. Mikey's vision of the festival was well rounded: she made sure that the offerings included creative and avant-garde pieces as well as more accessible offerings, children's theatre, and good quality street theatre.

Street theatre is being neglected. Part of the FITB's success was due to the quality of the street theatre. The last couple of festivals were disappointing. This year I didn't bother going to any street theatre at all. The fact that the festival provided next to no information about the street theatre productions, and only a vague schedule about when they would be taking place, did not exactly drum up much excitement either. Part of the justification for the festival, in its requests for public funding, was that it emphasized the aspect of making innovative theatre available to all. If the festival fails to make a social contribution, it will be less likely to continue to receive public funding and/or corporate sponsorship.

The festival's organization was deficient. Shows announced during early ticket sales were cancelled. Information about the productions was not made available ahead of time. Venues were switched and tickets had to be changed. The festival staff was largely ignorant about the shows. None of this bodes well for the festival's continuity.

So farewell to the FITB. We had a good run. A few years ago if I had been asked whether I would make a point of coming back to Bogota for the festival, my answer would have been yes, but now I don't think that it would be worth it. Fanny Mikey, may you rest in peace. I am truly sorry that your legacy will likely not live on.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Bogota FITB

Julius Caesar
Centre Dramatique National Orléans/Loiret/Centre
American Repertory Theater
Teatro William Shakespeare, Bogota
Friday, 6 April 2012

Conference with director Arthur Nauzyciel
Jorge Tadeo Lozano University
Saturday, 7 April 2012

Getting Lost in the Search for Meaning

French director Arthur Nauzyciel is adamant on the subject of the importance of turning to the original text for meaning and he laud's Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for its richness. In his reverence for the text, however, Nauzyciel appears to have forgotten that the play was meant to be spoken, and the decision to deliver the lines as they are written, in verse format, results in unnatural breaks and denaturalized language, making it difficult to understand.

Nauzyciel defends this choice, noting that Shakespeare's language is not naturalistic because "nobody talks that way, either then or now." Much of Shakespeare's language is inaccessible to the modern audience, but instead of performing for understanding, Nauzyciel has opted to isolate, distort, and even eliminate the language. The effect is that rather than privileging the text, he strips it of meaning.

I suppose that the effect might be less jarring for a French speaker than for a native English speaker. Nauzyciel acknowledges that when his version of Julius Caesar is performed in the United States, people complain about the way the dialogue is delivered, but he doesn't get these complaints elsewhere. This performance was in Bogota, and the subtitles for the Spanish-speaking audience, projected at the top of the stage, were always slightly delayed so that they didn't coincide with what was happening below. Technical difficulty or deliberate choice?

The performance is highly stylized: The actors can't walk and talk at the same time. Speeches are delivered in rigid, stylized tableaux. In the opening scene between Flavius and Murellus, the actors are stilted in their speech. Flavius appeared to forget his lines before recovering and barrelling through the text at a frenetic pace, mumbled and often inaudible. This production was mounted in 2008, and the actors were reunited for this performance. So if it appeared that Flavius forgot his lines, he probably did.

Taking the comparison of undermining the spoken word further, Brutus's servant Lucius is portrayed as a mute. He has no spoken words at all; his dialogue is delivered in sign language. He is also a spectator, seated to the side of the stage and observing the action through most of the play. This convention works within the context of the play. Like the audience, Lucius is an observer, a bystander on the sidelines of history, and the performance is subtle and poignant.

Sara Kathryn Bakker as Portia and Calpurnia is clear and understandable. Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen speech" is delivered with crystal clarity (whereas in subsequent appearances his English was pretty hard to understand). Nauzyciel presumes that most of the audience will be familiar with this speech and will understand it, so he throws the public that bone.

While the dialogue is rushed, movement is slowed down and drawn out. The performers move as if through a dreamscape. This is an interesting choice. Much of the play takes place at night. The conspirators meet at night. Portia is awakened and confronts Brutus because he is hiding something from her. Calpurnia has a premonitory dream of Caesar's death. The dream, its telling, and making something real by telling it, is one of the themes that Nauzyciel emphasizes. He considers Julius Caesar as a precursor to the world of Hamlet, whose universe is populated with ghosts, intrigue, and murder. He also emphasizes that he wanted to make sure that no death is banal. Each character's demise is staged deliberately, and drawn out in detail, given its moment.

Language, Nauzyciel insists, rather than action, is the vehicle for furthering the plot. Julius Caesar is murdered because Brutus is told that he should be murdered. The doubts that Brutus expresses lead him and his followers to suicide. The recounted premonition comes true. The word becomes reality. Julius Caesar was the first play that Shakespeare presented at The Globe Theatre. Nauzyciel considers this play as a sort of "manifesto on the theatre" as a place in which the word can change the course of the world.

The 1960s staging and costuming neither adds to nor detracts from the play. The themes of political power and corruption are universal, and are as relevant and contemporary now as they were in Roman times or in Shakespeare's time. This is a play that can work in any historical context. Nauzyciel's version cuts some scenes from the original, but he does not adapt the text. Opting not to make the text consistent with the staging, makes the period staging somewhat gratuitous. What does work is the suggestion of anonymity and timelessness achieved by having all the actors wearing the same sort of suits. Nauzyciel explains that he never works on developing character but rather on the text and with the actor. Following this logic, a number of the actors have performed different roles at different times. They become interchangeable.

In terms of interchangeability, Shakespeare often played with concept of mirroring. Cassius tells Brutus: "And since you know you cannot see yourself / So well as by reflection, I, your glass, / Will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of." The structure for the entire second act was inspired by Brutus's line: "I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time." Nauzyciel explains that he took inspiration from the mirrored symmetry in the way that the phrase reflects itself perfectly.

Music plays a significant role in this production. Nauzyciel was clear from the start that he wanted to include a jazz trio as part of the staging. He explains that he uses the music to keep the production contemporary, and to suspend time between different actions. He emphasizes that the music is not meant to be a chorus, or to comment on the action onstage, although the use of the song "Suicide is painless" to introduce the scene in which Brutus and his followers will kill themselves is a pretty obvious chorus commentary. Nauzyciel says that wants the music to serve as a gentle counterpoint to the violence. As well, because the text is so dense, Nauzyciel explains that he wants the music to give the audience a break from the intense listening. This concern is pretty unnecessary, given that as it was performed, the dialogue melded into an unintelligible soundscape.

Nauzyciel uses an empty theatre as a backdrop. Often the actors deliver their lines to the "empty house" at the back of the stage, with their backs to the audience. The overall impression, underlined by the way that the lines are being delivered, it that this production isn't for the benefit of the flesh and blood audience.

The play ends with the actors dancing and singing Nelly Furtado's "You Don't Mean Nothing At All To Me," a contemporary version of the dance often used to end a play during Elizabethan times. The song title is awfully ironic, given the performance that has just unfolded.

I appreciate the director's emphasis on prioritizing the original text, but he has become so focussed on the words that he has lost the meaning. Arthur Nauzyciel needs to look at his 2008 production with fresh eyes and fresh ears because it has gone stale and fails to achieve the most basic of its intentions, which is to convey the meaning of the story through language.

Joe Broderick with Arthur Nauzyciel.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

FITB XIII: Gemelos

Photo from: Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá

Teatro Cinema
Santiago, Chile
Teatro Nacional Fanny Mikey, Saturday 24 March, 3:00

A Tale of Innocence and Perversion

Based on the book Le grand cahier (The Notebook) by Agota Kristof, Gemelos tells the story of a pair of twin boys who are sent away to escape the bombings in the city during the Second World War. The story is told with classic fairy tale iconography: two innocents must cling together and learn to survive, an absent mother, a wicked grandmother, an even crueler outside world. The boys learn about fortitude, compassion, deceit, manipulation, and finally love, but the lessons are self-taught and the version of humanism at which the boys arrive is a dark and twisted vision.

This production describes itself as "cinematographic theatre," which I would consider a bit of a misnomer: Although the opening scenes are framed with a camera shutter that closes and opens on different views, the overall image is that of puppet theatre. The puppet theatre sits on the dimly lit stage, with its curtains drawn, as the audience files in. The impact is slightly alienating: puppets are generally not the medium of choice for adult theatre. Seen through the lens of a camera, or within the frame of the puppet stage, the characters are made small. They are reduced by circumstances that are much larger than they are. Don't be put off by the genre though; this was a beautifully conceived and executed performance.

The three human characters move with the stiff woodenness of puppets. There is no sophistication. The simple neighbor girl --who is used and abused by the priest and then by the soldiers-- is a defenseless rag doll. The childlike response of the twin boys to their situation is crude, innocent and honest in its simplicity. They deliver their lines with the innocent frankness of the child who observes that emperor has no clothes, making the truth impossible to ignore.

The young boys focus on surviving. They beat each other up while repeating: "This does not hurt me. This does not hurt me," to train themselves not to feel. They labor hard on their grandmother's farm, to become strong, hard, and self-sufficient. They learn to ignore the insults of the villagers who consider their grandmother a witch and their mother a slut. They learn to disregard their grandmother's scorn for their mother. The cruel lessons of life give them the strength demand more food from their hardened grandmother, and to go to the shoemaker and demand shoes (who tells them that they do not have enough money for two pairs or shoes, but who gives them the shoes anyway, along with a pair for their friend, and a leather ball… just before he is taken away to the concentration camp). They confront the priest who has been sexually abusing the mentally deficient neighbor girl who they protect. They demand that he provide the girl and her mother with charity for survival, and they fully agree with the priest that what they are doing is extortion.

The fact that the characters are portrayed as puppets is the literal expression of their desensitization and dehumanization. The priest (the one who has been sexually abusing the neighbor girl) understands the monstrosities that the twins have become: "Whatever their crime, forgive them. Poor lambs who have lost their way in an abominable world, themselves victims of our perverted times, they know not what they do."

This was a beautifully complex staging and performance. One of the best pieces I have seen during all the years I have attended the Iberamerican Theatre Festival in Bogota.

Photo from: Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
By Luis Sepúlveda

I would entitle this book: The Shuar Survival Guide to the Jungle.

This novella tells the story of Antonio José Bolívar, an Otavalo native of the town of San Luis, Ecuador, came to the jungle as part of a government plan to colonize the Amazon, in the company of his young wife at the age of 19. His wife Dolores Encarnación succumbed to malaria during her second year. "Antonio José Bolívar Proaño knew he couldn't return to his village in the mountains. The poor forgive everything but failure" (p. 33). He wants to hate the jungle for defeating him and taking away his wife, but "in his helplessness he discovered he didn't know the jungle well enough to hate it" (p.34).

The Shuar, natives of the Amazon, took pity on Antonio José Bolívar and taught him how to work with the land (p. 32-33). He learned their language and joining their hunting expeditions (p. 34). He told them about the farming life in the mountains of the Andes: "They work. From sunrise to sunset." "What fools, what fools!" pronounced the Shuar.

After surviving being bitten by a poisonous equis snake, Antonio José Bolívar is given the hallucinogenic natema beverage during the Shuar Festival of the Serpent. He befriends Nushiño, who washes up in his canoe after being hit in the back by a bullet from the Peruvian military (p. 38). Antonio José Bolívar learns to know the jungle, to track like a Shuar, to swim like a Shuar. "He was like them, yet was not one of them" (p.40). He had to go away from time to time, "so that they could miss him."

Antonio José Bolívar lives peacefully in the town of El Idilio on the Nangaritza River for many years. He accidentally rediscovers that he can read and finds that he has a predilection for sentimental love stories, which are supplied by the traveling dentist who plies the river trade.

One day as Antonio José Bolívar is pushing 70, the Shuar bring the body of a foreigner who has been killed by an ocelot. A hunter has killed the ocelot's litter and wounded her mate. The Shuar and the townspeople realize that the female feline is now on a rampage for revenge. Despite his misgivings, Antonio José Bolívar becomes involved in the hunting party that is sent to kill the animal.

The book is a vision of the encounter between two worlds: that of the Shuar who live their traditional lifestyle in the jungle, and the Andean settlers, trying to bend the world to their way. The moralism is simplistic, but the descriptions of the Shuar traditions are magnificent, and particularly vivid if you have ever visited the Amazon.

Catching monkeys
Take a coconut and make two holes in it, a larger one and a smaller one. Run a string through and tie a knot inside that will not go through the smaller hole. Tie the other end of the string to a tree. Place some pebbles inside the coconut. The curious monkeys, who have been watching this process, will come down from the trees, pick up the coconuts and hear something rattling inside. They will thrust their hands in through the larger hole, grasp what is inside, and then be trapped because the greedy monkeys will not give up their prize. They will struggle all night, and the next day can be collected easily because they are exhausted (p. 56).

Camping in the jungle
If you must sleep out in the jungle, set up camp near a burnt or petrified tree because bats roost there, and if they are startled they will shower you with guano, warning you that danger is near (p. 97).

Passing on
When the Shuar elders decide to pass on, they drink themselves into hallucinatory ecstasy on natema. When they have drunk themselves unconscious, they are carried to a distant hut and anointed with sweet palm honey and left there so that the jungle ants will do their work. The following day the clean white bones are gathered (p. 41).

Antonio José Bolívar recounts the experience of sex with the Shuar woman, shared as part of Shuar hospitality. The Shuar women prefer to remain on top, because that is a more powerful position for her lovemaking, and she narrates the action, putting it into words to make the experience more sacred and powerful. The Shuar do not kiss.

Shuar customs
Spitting repeatedly to show you he's telling the truth (p. 117).
Fart noisily, so no lazy tazantzas (sloths) will hear you (p.117).
The Shuar always leave at the end of a story, to avoid questions that might lead to lies (p. 118).

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories only takes a couple of hours to read. The strangeness can be overwhelming. Sepulveda provides an apt vehicle to tell his story through the eyes of a man who arrived in the jungle as an outsider and then learns to understand and love it. It is a romanticized view of a world, in which animals embody the spirit of nature.

Antonio José Bolívar reads corny love stories. We, the readers, are not meant to take him too seriously, but at the same time, he hits upon a grain of truth and captures something essential which is the fact that this world existed and, to a considerable extent, still exists to this day.

One of the book's strongest points is its catalogue of Shuar practices, that range from the practical to the peculiar; things that may seem absurd to us and yet make perfect sense within the Shuar cosmovision.

This is a lovely book and a gorgeous glimpse of a world that most readers will never experience except through the printed word. I was reminded of the small towns I saw in 1992 while traveling on rickety cargo boats down the Amazon River from the Colombian port of Leticia, where Colombia borders with Brazil and Peru, to the mouth of the Amazon in Belem, Brazil.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ben Okri: Capturing the Living Reality of Life, Spirit, and Community

Saturday 28 January at 10:30 at the Adolfo Mejía Theater in Cartagena, Ben Okri spoke to Rosy Boycott about his work.

1991 winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road, Nigerian writer Ben Okri had been scheduled to speak at an event that the British Council had organized for English language educators. The event ended up being cancelled because not enough teachers registered (Information publicizing the event was not even sent to her school, said Sally). Okri's presentation to the general public at the Adolfo Mejía theater, the largest venue used by the Hay Festival in Cartagena, sounded as if it had been prepared for an audience of young people.

Okri began by looking at the question of why societies need writers. "Authors, as artists, let us step back and look at the whole picture… They show us things about ourselves that we didn't know existed." Writers, he says "keep us connected to the long story of humanity." "Authors are not about finding answers, but rather for holding a mirror up to society." A writer's work can enter the "common consciousness," contributing to the forging of identity. He notes that a country that forbids writers from working or publishing is a country that is at war with itself

Okri discussed different forms of writing. Poetry, he says, is pure, natural response to life; it is a way of "apprehending life" in words. The short story is a more indirect and formulated format. An essay is a form of reflection or meditation. Reflecting on his own creative process, Okri says that when he starts writing he does not know where the story is going to lead him, "You discover where you are going by getting there." Writing drafts represents the process of discovering what you are trying to say, he adds.

Okri talked about his life. Born in Minna, Nigeria, he moved to London with his family at age 1.5 because his father had won a scholarship to study law. At age seven, his family decided to return to Nigeria. His father had already gone ahead to pave the way for the family. Ben did not want to go to that strange African country; he wanted to stay with his mates. His mother said that she understood his feelings, but that she would appreciate it if he would accompany her to the ship. Young Ben agreed to his mother's request. He boarded the ship and was enjoying the tour of the facilities "when suddenly his mother realized that they had cast off and set sail." It took him years to forgive his mother, he said. Their return to the country in 1967 was inauspiciously timed, coinciding with the start of the Nigerian-Biafran War.

The civil war divided ethnic clans and the family spent many years hiding their mother, who was an Igbo, a member of the rival minority in the area in which they lived. The war was brutal. Okri recalls seeing rivers of bodies, and witnessing acts of courage and cowardice. His mother was a major influence in Ben's life, fostering a love for story-telling: instead of telling him things directly, she would tell him a story.

While his mother represented the oral tradition, Okri's father introduced him to the world of books with the large collection he had brought back from England. Every day he instructed his son to dust the books, but warned him not to read them. The forbidden enticement was irresistible. In his early teens Okri began to devour the classics of English and world literature: Aesop's Fables, The Arabian Nights, Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and so on.

Okri's early attempts at journalism did not meet with much success, so he tried his mother's approach of using stories to tell what he wanted to say. He quickly encountered the African dilemma of how to tell a story using a language that is foreign to the lives of the people. He struggled with the challenge of trying to capture the living reality of life, spirit, and community. He needed to find language, imagery and symbolism that would allow him to tell his stories without having to over-explain. In The Famished Road, Okri seized upon the iconographic image of the spirit-child who is born, sees the injustices of the world, doesn't like them, and dies. Over and over. The spirit child is the vehicle for Okri's story, allowing him to move between the world of the spirits and the living, and to create an African magical realism.

Okri ended with a reading of his 30-point prose poem "Healing the Africa in Us," which begins with the reflection: "Heart shaped Africa is the feeling center of the world. Continents are metaphors…" and goes on to explore how "We have to heal the Africa in us if we are going to be whole again." The piece is a bit long to reproduce here, but it may be viewed at
I'm not convinced that it helped my find my inner Africa.

Is it too bad that the event for young people was cancelled because Ben Okri's presentation was both exotic and universal in his recounting of his personal history and the way he explained how authors harness their lives and feelings to share experiences through their writing. It was, however, disconcerting to listen to a presentation that had obviously been prepared for a different audience. In fact, as I did some research to double check a few factual details about his life, I encountered articles and interviews in which Okri makes the same points, pretty much verbatim. He has apparently been on the Hay Festival circuit since 2010. No wonder his presentation sounded rehearsed rather than fresh and spontaneous. Nonetheless, Ben Okri is a warm and engaging speaker, and it was enjoyable to hear him talk about his life and work.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cartagena Hay Festival 2012 – The Occupy Movements (Los Indignados)

Friday 27 January at 12:30 at the Santo Domingo Convent in Cartagena, Morris Berman, Daniel Alarcón, and Francisco Goldman held a panel discussion moderated by Jon Gower on the Occupy Movements.

Morris Berman is an American cultural historian and a social critic. He has written a number of books on the state of Western civilization. His latest book is Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011). He currently lives in Mexico.

Peruvian-born writer and journalist Daniel Alarcón has lived in the United States since the age of three. He is currently based in Oakland, CA and is a visiting scholar at University of California Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.

American novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman is the son of a Guatemalan Catholic mother and a Jewish American father. He is currently the Allan K. Smith Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He splits his time between Mexico City and New York City.

Welsh writer Jon Gower, known for his lyrical prose, was assigned the task of facilitating a discussion on the occupy movements by these three rather disparate novelists and academics. Gower launched the discussion by suggesting that the American Dream could be redubbed the American Hustle, and inviting the panelists to comment.

Morris Berman says that he is not at all surprised by the emergence of the occupy movements. He says that his books predicted these protests. So great is his aplomb that one might think that he was the architect behind these movements. Although Berman views the tendency toward grassroots protest with satisfaction, he expresses concern over the vagueness of the movements' goals. "The movements have energy," he says, "but they lack analysis." That analysis, he considers, is necessary in the process of bringing about real change. He sees the role of the occupy movements as a form of permanent education: holding a mirror up to society, but he feels that, as things stand, they are unlikely to bring about change.

In Oakland, California where Daniel Alarcón lives, the protests turned into riots. He says that Oakland is a culturally diverse and economically depressed city, and suggests that these circumstances made it more susceptible to violence. "The movement didn't begin as a riot," he clarifies, "but it turned violent." Alarcón is optimistic about grassroots movements as an engine for change. "All change will come from culture; there is no hope for change via politics," he says.

Francisco Goldman says that the recent years have been eye-opening in terms of public awareness of the US's economic disparity. The occupy slogan "We are the 99%," referring to the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the population, struck a chord with many people. He considers the movements to be the unmasking of the myth of America as the land of opportunity, justice and social mobility.

Berman adds to this thought, saying that socialism never got a chance in the United States because people have unshakable faith in the notion of social mobility. He says that the economic underclasses tend to consider poverty as "a temporary embarrassment" from which they are soon to emerge. Berman considers that this belief in the possibility of social advancement is largely delusional and states that the statistics indicate that most people will stay in the social class into which they are born. Berman refers to the belief that it is possible to improve one's lot in life as "the great snow job," and says that the belief in social mobility has become so deeply ingrained in the population that it is not even questioned.

Alarcón comments that rising tuition costs for universities indicates that schools are not a government priority and is indicative of a general lack of social funding.

Goldman does not believe that it will ever be possible for the United States to once again have a prosperous working class. He considers that the education situation is an apt metaphor for all of the US's problems: "The problem with the United States is an ignorant, uniformed people," he says.

Jon Gower asks the panelists if they feel that this situation is limited to the United States or whether there is general discontent worldwide.

Berman says that he believes that world protests are connected. He refers to world systems analysis, a neo-Marxist methodology for social analysis, and claims that "the arc of capitalism is 600 years long and now we are witnessing the breakdown of capitalism." Whether the system can be corrected or will have to "disintegrate," Berman says that he expects that a major crash is coming. In terms of what will come next, Berman says that "as the system breaks up it will become more decentralized and sustainable, with less imperial control." He cites the US secessionist movements as an example that this process is already under way. Berman sees this as a positive thing, and as evidence that capitalism doesn't work anymore.

The panel fell short on the goal of discussing the concerns, aims and prospects of the occupy movements. Admittedly it is a huge topic, with many different facets, but the discussion failed to provide much of a comprehensive overview. Alarcón and Goldman had some pertinent observations. Berman made some interesting points but he was more interested in flogging his own theories and making sweeping predictions, despite his insistence that everything he said would be based on facts and statistics, and his condescending dismissal of the members of the audience who challenged his affirmations and auguries during the question period at the end of the session.

I couldn't help but remember Gary Shteyngart and David Aaronovitch bantering at last year's Hay Festival and wondering out loud, "Who comes up with these conference topics and decides who will be on the panels?" I wonder too. It occurs to me that anti-conspiracy theorist David Aaronovitch would have made a lively debate opponent for Berman.

"Say what?"

Friday 27 January at 17:30 at the Casa Mapfre in Cartagena, Morris Berman was scheduled to speak on the social and economic situation in the United States today.

Having had a taste of some of his controversial theories earlier in the day, I was looking forward to hearing Berman expand on his ideas and the possibility of some juicy debate.

Berman arrived late, strode to the platform, pulled a sheaf of papers from his valise and proceeded to rattle off at full speed, in Gringo Spanish, an essay summarizing his recent works. As he droned on, his less-than-impeccable accent got noticeably worse to the point of being unintelligible. Several people walked out of the venue. I held out, hoping that the question period would be more dynamic. After what seemed like an eternity, Berman finished his reading, announced that he would not take any questions from the public, got up and left.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Diplomacy Through Culture: Fomenting Cultural Understanding Through the Arts

On Friday 27 January at 10:30 at the Casa Mapfre in Cartagena, Graham Sheffield spoke to Peter Florence.

Graham Sheffield is the cultural director for the British Council. He is in charge of making sense of a disperse arts program that spans 110 countries. His core mission: To build trust and enlightenment between cultures.

Sheffield describes the relationship between the British Council and British Foreign Office as one of a "stretchy arm"; the former being in charge of cultivating cultural relations and the latter handling political and trade relations. He clarifies that the role of the British Council has evolved over the years so that it is no longer solely concerned with promoting British culture and offering English classes, but rather aims more toward mutual dialogue and understanding through culture.

Having been a producer for BBC 3, the director of the Southbank Centre, and then the director of the Barbican Centre, Sheffield found that it was possible to work implementing "curated ideals," which implies easing audiences into trying new things. He notes that innovation is necessary for survival in the arts, because audiences will not remain satisfied for long with tried and true offerings. Ironically, sometimes productions that appear to be the safest bets have turned out to be the biggest flops.

Peter Florence comments that all art is dissident, in the sense that it needs to mark a difference from what has come before, and that risk-taking therefore is a key part of the artistic process. Sheffield nods in agreement and adds that the British Council aims to foment innovation, excellence, diversity through different actions that include cultivating new talent and drawing in new audiences. They note that audiences in Britain and other countries are increasingly savvy and sophisticated as a direct result of access to the Internet, which has allowed exposure to different artistic proposals.

Both Sheffield and Florence agree that subsidies for the arts are a double-edged sword. To qualify for subsidies, artists need to take risks and come up with innovative proposals. Sheffield feels that subsidies should be granted when the risks taken are in benefit of the public. Taken to an extreme, however, when the arts that are wholly funded with public monies, he considers that this tends to lead to stagnation. If arts income comes solely from sales, then processes of "extreme Darwinism" take over, killing off projects that might have flourished with a bit of encouragement. The bottom line, Sheffield notes, is that all artistic productions lose money; ticket sales can never compensate for the cost of development and performance, which means that some sort of subsidy system is always needed. Both Sheffield and Florence have noticed that there has been an influx of private investment in the arts, resulting in a "partnering or mixed economy." In general they view this as a positive thing, while noting the some investors "need to be better partners." This also raises the issue of objectionable sponsors. British Petroleum-BP has been a long-time patron of the arts but questions have been raised about the environmental risks and damage of its oil exploration and production activities. Nonetheless Sheffield considers that this should not disqualify the company from sponsoring the arts.

The British Council operates all over the world, including in some war torn countries. In these countries the need to invest in cultural development is more important than ever, as part of the rebuilding process, says Sheffield. A long term inter-country commitment to develop artistic projects is part of that process.

He observes wryly that currently the public places more trust in cultural institutions and expressions than in private institutions like banks or the government. "Politics have become debased," he says.

As he speaks about the work he does and its importance, Sheffield's enthusiasm shows. Graham Sheffield is a man with a mission: to foment mutual cultural understanding through the arts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Leslie's Picks for the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá 2012

Here are my picks for this year's theatre festival. Despite the concerns raised by a number of cancellations, it looks like there will be an interesting selection of performances this year. I have the appointment to swap my "bono" for tickets this Saturday 4 February, so if there is anything you'd like to see with me, drop me a line.

When possible I have included outside reviews, as well as the theatre festival blurb, and video clips to provide a feel for what the performance will be like.

Cayetana, su pasión
País: España
Compañía: Ballet Flamenco de Cecilia Gómez
Dirección, coreografía y baile: Cecilia Gómez
Duración: 1 hora 30 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Danza Flamenca
Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo
Del 23 al 26 de marzo.
$130.000, $100.000, $75.000, $50.000 y $30.000

Esta pieza, de la bailarina Cecilia Gómez, constituye un homenaje a la figura y esencia artística de la Duquesa de Alba, marcado por la majestuosidad de los vestidos y la sensualidad de movimientos de flamenco contemporáneo. Los primeros seis actos de la obra giran alrededor de sus numerosas aficiones: el baile flamenco, la pintura, la poesía, los caballos, sus amistades y los toros. En el séptimo acto trasciende el título nobiliario para mostrarla como mujer y fuente de inspiración. Con músicos en vivo, para las presentaciones en Colombia contamos con la participación especial de Antonio Canales.

País: India
Compañía: Madhavi Mudgal
Dirección y coreografía: Madhavi Mudgal
Duración: 1 hora 10 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Danza Odissi
Teatro Gimnasio Moderno
Del 23 al 26 de marzo
$120.000 y $75.000

La consagración al arte es, literalmente, una premisa del grupo de bailarinas Odissi que representa esta pieza teatral. El estilo de vida ascético de sus participantes, en el que se entregan no solo a la enseñanza sino a los cuidados de su maestra (Madhavi Mudgal) conservando tradiciones milenarias de la India, les permite profundizar en su espiritualidad en una forma única, a través de la que son capaces de ejecutar, con genuina solemnidad, una balanceada mezcla de movimientos tradicionales con sofisticados giros, gracia y sensualidad, adornadas con majestuosos y tradicionales vestuarios y accesorios.

País: Chile
Compañía: Santiago a Mil y Teatro Cinema
Basado en la novela: El gran Cuaderno
De: Agota Kristof
Dirección: Juan Carlos Zagal y Laura Pizarro
Duración: 1 hora 50 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Teatro cinematográfico
Idioma: Español
Teatro Nacional Fanny Mikey
Del 23 al 26 de marzo
$120.000 y $70.000

Nestled within this year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a celebration of Spanish-language theater that features productions from Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Spain. The first entry in this festival within a festival is “Gemelos,” a haunting, theatrically novel story of endurance in the face of want and neglect, from the Chilean troupe Compañía Teatro Cinema.

The show, which plays through Saturday at the Pope Auditorium at Fordham University, is performed by a trio of actors on a miniature stage that resembles an unusually grand puppet theater made of carved wood, with a plush red curtain. The company’s name suggests its desire to fuse a solid bond between techniques used in theater and in film. The smaller dimensions of the stage in “Gemelos” (the title means “twins”) help smooth the way for the blending of effects from both mediums.

Miniature sets and props are easily manipulated to create changes in perspective, so that a character seen in a sort of long shot, profiled against the horizon, reappears in close-up almost instantly. Or an iris effect that recalls silent movies is used to whisk us briskly between scenes.

The narrative of “Gemelos,” which follows the hard fortunes of twin boys growing up in an unnamed country in war-torn Europe, would require a huge (or minimalist) production if it were staged full scale. The reduced size allows the designers to retain atmosphere without compromising narrative complexity. The boys can catch fish, work in the fields, blackmail a pedophile priest and give succor to an army deserter without major scenery changes.

But the shrunken dimensions of the production are apt too for a tale told largely from the point of view of two boys caught up in the brutalizing march of history. The well-known horrors of World War II blend with disarming ease into the other gothic nightmares the twins must survive in “Gemelos,” which manages the unusual feat of allowing us to experience familiar sorrows from a distinctive, slightly disorienting new perspective.

First performed in 1999, “Gemelos” was adapted by Laura Pizarro, Juan Carlos Zagal and Jaime Lorca (founders of the precursor to Compañía Teatro Cinema) from the 1986 novel “The Notebook” by the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof. Ms. Pizarro and Mr. Zagal direct the current production and appear in it with Diego Fontecilla. Mr. Zagal has also composed the melancholy, highly effective musical score.

For all the inventiveness of the staging, it is really the actors’ precise, stylized performances that capture and hold the attention. They wear half-masks that recall commedia dell’arte, and move in an angular, mechanized style that makes them resemble eerily ambulatory marionettes who have somehow escaped their string-pulling masters. Mr. Fontecilla and Mr. Zagal, as the twins, speak in contrasting voices, often in unison, to suggest their deeply entrenched emotional interdependence.

When the boys’ father goes off to war, their mother, unable to support them, takes them to live with their bitter, cruel grandmother in the countryside. Played with mesmerizing witchiness by Ms. Pizarro, her voice a shrill snarl, this crone starves and beats the boys. They react against her abuse by conducting their own course of self-discipline, re-educating their hearts and minds to ignore physical hardship and remain staunchly indifferent to the ridicule and abuse they receive from the locals. As the ugly truths of the war slowly impinge on their lives, however, the boys gradually worm their way into their grandmother’s heart, eventually learning to manipulate and even dominate her.

At nearly two hours without an intermission, “Gemelos” would probably be more effective if it were a good 20 minutes shorter. The grueling nature of the story eventually wears you down. Moments of redemption or simple pastoral beauty — a lovely sequence in which the boys learn to catch fish, for example — are relatively few. But the production’s sheer theatrical charm goes some way toward softening the harshness of its story. Memorable too is its depiction of neglected children whose instinctive love for each other allows them to retain their resilience and innate wisdom and to acquire a measure of moral maturity that their elders have somehow lost.

País: Serbia
Compañía: Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste
Dirección: Iva Milosevic
Duración: 1 hora 35 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Teatro contemporáneo
Idioma: Serbio con subtítulos en español
Teatro Nacional La Castellana
Del 23 al 27 de marzo
$120.000, $100.000 y $70.000

Mirjana Karanović as Mirjana was completely alienated from the Others, who are on the verge of being emblematic. They are intruders in her life. The others are characters reduced to marionettes, characterized by their impossibility of communication. They are flat, and they are the products of the context in which they live. (...) The Man has long time ago become the consumer and the good, unable to be alone, out by himself. The importance of this play lies in its unobtrusive intention to disclose the dreadfulness of the abyss behind the images of illusion.
Ana Isaković, Danas

Play about Mirjana and people around her is a realistic picture of lives of ordinary people, who, no matter how trivial that might seem at first sight, represent an inner journey into our personality and points to silent emptiness of the man whose potentials are tamed and who has long time ago forgotten why he exists. (...) While enjoying in this, in a way, tragicomical drama, we can recognize a part of our life so often imprisoned in everyday routine. This colorful confession about Mirjana and people around her actually represents a serious analytical representation of our trivial reality which touches, shapes, impedes or even occupies our life. This play is important because it sees the things in a clear way and calls a spade a spade, but also because it invites us to personally search for sense and self determination.

Tom Tom Crew
País: Australia
Compañía: Strut & Fret
Dirección: Scott Maidment
Dirección musical: Ben Walsh
Duración: 1 hora
Género: Teatro musical acrobático
Coliseo El Campín
$90.000, $75.000, $50.000 y $25.000
Del 23 de marzo al 1 de abril

Esta pieza cargada de energía y que mezcla acrobacias de circo con llamativos ritmos musicales atraerá sin duda la atención del público colombiano. El vértigo de los movimientos de grandes acróbatas australianos se funde maravillosamente con técnicas de beat-box ejecutadas por uno de los más grandes exponentes de esa técnica vocal, Tom Thum, así como con las fantásticas mezclas del DJ Luke Dubbs y con la genial y recursiva percusión de Ben Walsh. Puro talento australiano combinado en un solo espectáculo que rescata los valores de la cultura musical urbana y entusiasmará a la

El dictador de Copenhague
Compañía: Proyecto El dictador de Copenhague
Dirección: Martha Márquez
Género: Drama
Duración: 1 hora 40 minutos
Teatro Libre del Centro
27 y 28 de marzo
$35.000 y $20.000
Este conmovedor trabajo ha sido destacado con el Premio Nacional de Dramaturgia
del Festival de Teatro de Cali en 2010 y constituye una reflexión sobre la impunidad, la justicia y la fragilidad de la raza humana. En esta historia un maestro de escuela pública de un pueblo llamado Copenhage se ve envuelto en un difícil dilema moral (entre la posibilidad de hacer justicia por mano propia o dejarlo todo en manos del destino) cuando tiene que enfrentar la llegada al pueblo del asesino de su hijo, un violador de jóvenes
que no pudo ser capturado por falta de pruebas.

La cosmética del enemigo
Compañía: Casa Ensamble
Basado en el libro de Amélie Nothomb
Dirección: Ricardo Vélez
Género: Thriller sicológico
Duración: 1 hora 20 minutos
Sala Buenaventura – Multiplex Casa
Del 28 al 31 de marzo
Esta intrigante trama sucede en la sala de espera de un aeropuerto y convierte al espectador en un pasajero más. Aquí, los personajes se ven envueltos en un thriller psicológico, que desvelará poco a poco, a través de pequeñas historias y detalles que no dejan de lado el humor y la ironía, el lado oscuro de la psiquis masculina. Basada en la novela de Amélie Nothomb que se convirtió en un gran acontecimiento de la literatura francesa en 2001.

Los Ciegos. The blind
País: Polonia
Compañía: Teatro KTO
Inspirado en la obra de José Saramago
Director: Jerzy Zon
Duración: 1 hora. Sin intermedio
Género: Teatro físico
Palacio de los Deportes
Del 28 de marzo al 1 de abril
$60.000 y $40.000

Basada en Ensayo sobre la ceguera, de José Saramago, esta obra plantea una gran puesta en escena llena de sorpresas, música y efectos impactantes, pero en su esencia se mantiene fiel a la novela que la inspira: no contiene diálogos y gira, enteramente, alrededor de la expression corporal de la danza y de los gestos. Transcurre en un pueblo en el que una extraña epidemia deja a su población ciega y en donde un grupo de personas establece su propio orden. Esta pequeña sociedad termina revelando las tendencies bárbaras y salvajes de sus miembros. No obstante, sus esperanzas reposan sobre una única persona que puede ver y que sabe la verdad: que no todos han perdido la vista.

País: Georgia
Compañía: Teatro Estatal
de Música y Drama Tbilisi Vaso Abashidze
Director: David Doiashvili
Duración: 2 horas 25 minutos. Con intermedio
Género: Teatro clásico en versión contemporánea
Idioma: Georgiano con subtítulos en español
Teatro Libre de Chapinero
Del 29 de marzo al 1 de abril
$120.000, $75.000 y $40.000

The last night of the showcase saw a clash between Robert Sturua’s fine Rustaveli Hamlet and the premiere of a Macbeth directed by David Doiashvili. Those like me who chose the Scottish Play were rewarded with a spectacular production, making the most creative use of light and sound and foregrounding the witches in a manner which I think the great Sturua himself would have appreciated, leaving them on stage for most of the play and using them for some surprising doubling, from the Porter to Lady Macduff. The Macbeths played off one another superbly, and one quickly forgot that the actor playing the husband was still a student at the Academy. Yet for all the production’s showy acrobatics, video projections and amazing moving lights – even real fireworks to show the fall of Dunsinane – one can’t help feeling that a director who closes the play with the murderous couple in an amorous dying clinch may not have completely grasped its meaning. Still, the fact that this technically complex production had to be played in the foyer of Tbilisi’s Music and Comedy Theatre, while the main house is under reconstruction, is a tribute to Georgian persistence and ingenuity – as indeed was the whole festival, which may have made a shaky start but gives promise of developing into a major event in the European festival calendar. And there is always the legendary Georgian hospitality, which was much in evidence throughout.

Donka, una carta a Chejov
País: Suiza
Compañía: Compagnia Finzi Pasca y Chekhov
International Theatre Festival
Dirección: Daniele Finzi Pasca
Duración: 1 hora 30 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Circo contemporáneo
Teatro Jorge Eliécer Gaitán
Del 29 de marzo al 8 de abril
$120,000, $100,000, $60,000 y $30,000
Donka: A Letter to Chekhov is precisely what it claims to be: a theatrical letter to Anton Chekhov. (Reflecting Chekhov's passion for fishing, "donka" is the Russian word for a small bell attached to a fishing rod, which rings when there is a bite.) Writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca glances off almost all of Chekhov's writing, including his sojourn to the penal colony of Sakhalin, where he took the first census of the convict population and campaigned for education for the many children born there, but the key here is lightness.

The Chekhov summoned here is more the letter writer than the tragedian. Donka leaps from the playfulness and surreality that shines in some of his earlier, lesser known short stories, or the love of absurdity and wicked sense of humour of his letters, which must be among the most enjoyable authorial correspondence ever published, and which reveal a man who is a far cry from the melancholic Russian depressive his name commonly summons. Chekhov the sensualist was, for a long time, edited out of the biographies: but a sensualist he was.

He was a man of the theatre, with passionate relationships with actors and directors (among many others, the avant garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Chekhov were regular correspondents). And he also shared the love of his peers for circus, which in early 20th century Russia entered the theatre as an art form. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remains, at least to my knowledge, the only person to have written literary works for circus. It's this tradition of circus which is summoned in this show.

Rolando Tarquini, in a white summer suit based on a famous photograph of Chekhov, represents the writer, although he doesn't, as it were, play Chekhov: Donka is an exercise in metatheatrics as much as anything else. Rather, he and his fellow clowns present a show in which various images are introduced - skating, fishing, hospital beds - that become symbolic of different aspects of Chekhov's life. These in turn become occasions for some sublimely lyrical circus acts. Using standard circus tropes - aerial acts, juggling, the wheel, shadow play - the company creates visual fantasias that quicken into an imaginative life that is purely their own.

The performers are as skilled as any I've seen, but what is most breath-taking is how the choreography and design lifts circus into poetic performance. There are moments of joyous wit, as when two acrobats lying on the ground are projected onto a curtain front-stage, so we see their vertical images as they move on the horizontal plane. The vertical image shows an apparent chair act, in which the performers appear to be - quite literally - defying gravity. At the same time, the performers on the ground are perfectly visible. We are in on the joke, and enjoy its ingenuity: at the same, we catch that childlike astonishment - look, she is walking on his fingertips! - that is something like wonder. Then there are others, as in a set piece where an ice chandelier descends on the stage and is smashed to pieces by the cast, which aside from their compellingly strange beauty, foreground the sense of transience that is the emotional timbre of the show.

Maybe the key phrase is a quote from The Seagull: "Life should be represented, not as it is, not as it should be, but as it appears in a dream": this is a performer's dream of Chekhov. Underlying its lightness is a preoccupation with death, a search for what vanishes (where is the soul?) and what remains behind. A recurring image is Chekhov's death bed, and close to the end is an absurd representation of a duel, where the duellists spray endless bottles of sparkling stage blood all over the stage. As the show unfolded, I began to find it almost unbearably moving: as each act succeeded the other, its images created and dismantled before my eyes, Donka's transparency, ingenuity and beauty began cumulatively to reveal something about the fragility of the act of making theatre.

Donka strikes me very much as a recognition of and tribute to Chekhov's delight in the serious play and illusion of theatre. To represent death on stage is an absurdity: Donka allows us recognise this, and then, by exposing its artifice, reminds how it is theatre itself that is mortal, a gesture drawn on the air that shines for a moment and then vanishes forever, to exist only in the memories of those who saw it. Chekhov understood this as well as Beckett did. Yes, it's a show about pleasure, and is a crowd-pleasing, sensuous riot notable for the beauty of its design and lighting. But it reminded me how profound pleasure can be.

País: Australia
Compañía: Strut & Fret y el Festival de Brisbane
Dirección: Scott Maidment
Duración: 1 hora y 10 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Cabaret circo
Teatro Faenza
$130.000 y $75.000
Del 31 de marzo al 7 de abril

Cantina is a darkly funny, vintage-inspired circus cabaret show that has gathered significant interest in the lead-up to this years Fringe.

Hyped as The Garden’s “must see” show for 2011, it follows a recent trend of popularity for modern vaudevillian circus-cabaret shows led by La Clique and Smoke & Mirrors. Polished, professional and incredibly entertaining, these offer a programme that goes above and beyond the standard set of circus acrobatics and trickery.

Managing to fuse coy, sexy, intense and comedic, Cantina delivers on expectations, earning its stripes amongst this class. Taking its inspiration from violence and passion of 1950’s Paris, the cast performs solo and in company to enact the theme through dance, movement, music, acrobatics and contortion.

The show opens with an elevated meeting between lovers, with Chelsea McGuffin (La Clique, Circa) showing that women really can do it better as she walks the tightrope in heels.

Finland’s Henna Kaikula (Cirkus Cirkor) performs a ‘rag doll’ act that will shock and delight. Her sickening displays of disjointedness had the audience gasping and cringing in disbelief, and its conclusion was met with much relieved laughter.

Mozes (La Clique, Acrobat) captivates the hushed audience with a dark and dangerous aerial swinging performance that is visually powerful.

In the occasional weak point, the drama of the show is overplayed but this is a small criticism in an otherwise well-directed piece. It is technically and physically challenging, with beautiful choreography and costuming. The show is backed by a fittingly manic soundtrack of pianola, and music from Nara Demasson(Vulgargrad), who performs ukele, guitar and vocals.

The cast is talented and experienced; no one artist is just an acrobat, just a strongman, or just a dancer. Perhaps the only exception to this is contortionist Kaikula, who appears noticeably one-dimensional within the group. However, she is so exceptionally good at what she does that all is forgiven.

Cantina is a must-see, though comes with a warning for the easily offended - it does contain a moment of full frontal male nudity.

For those not put off by this, note that the show contains a lot of floor work, particularly in the first half, so if you want a clear view of the stage without having to crane your neck or rise from your seat, it’s highly recommended that you arrive early to get a front row position. Now sit back and enjoy!

Compañía: Colectivo inventarios
Duración: 1 hora 15 minutos
Género: Performance
Teatro R101
Abril 2

Esta segunda iniciativa del colectivo promete ser una experiencia inolvidable para el espectador. El montaje no convencional invita al público a hacer un recorrido en la privacidad de tres mujeres a través del contacto directo con elementos de su cotidianidad, en su propia casa. Entre recuerdos personales y objetos acumulados, los invitados en esta
“casa tomada” podrán hacer parte de una ingeniosa puesta en escena que involucra
diferentes lenguajes escénicos tales como la performance y el happening. Un
inventario que pone al desnudo íntimos secretos y los rastros del paso del tiempo.

Vertical Road
País: Gran Bretaña
Compañía: Akram Khan Company
Dirección y Coreografía: Akram Khan
Duración: 1 hora 10 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Danza contemporánea
Precauciones: El espectáculo utiliza luces estroboscópicas.
Auditorio León de Greiff, U. Nacional
Del 4 al 8 de abril
$120.000, $75.000 y $40.000

Vertical Road is Akram Khan's latest contemporary ensemble work. Khan has assembled a cast of very special performers from across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. With a specially commissioned score by long-term collaborator composer, Nitin Sawhney, Vertical Road draws inspiration from the Sufi tradition and the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi. Exploring man's earthly nature, his rituals and the consequences of human actions, Vertical Road becomes a meditation on the journey from gravity to grace.
By Sarah Crompton
There are nights when I wonder why I spent so much of my life watching dance – and other nights so visceral and original that I have no doubts.

Akram Khan’s new work Vertical Road definitely falls in the latter camp. Created for a wonderful company of eight, it is a meditation on spirituality, on the difficulty of pursuing the “vertical road” towards truth and enlightenment when engrossed and in thrall to the “horizontal path” of contemporary life.

If that sounds dull and difficult, any doubts are dispelled by an opening in which, to the sound of running water, the huge figure of Salah El Brogy butts his head against a membrane-like skin of silk that hides the back wall. As he moves his arm, ripples spread through the fabric, like waves. In front of him crouch the other seven dancers, bent double and still. In the next scene, they stand with heads bowed.

When El Brogy appears among them, they finally move, pounding clouds of white dust from their draperies, like statutes from some lost world coming to life. To the relentless beat of Nitin Sawhney’s powerful score, they twitch and whirl in ritualised movement, their legs heavy, arms fierce and fast. They look other-worldly and mystical, interacting with El Brogy, who seems to take the role of a searcher for truth, both teacher and taught. The dance is relentless, thrilling and compelling.

It is sometimes hard to follow and slightly loses momentum about two-thirds of the way through. But its quality lies in the way Khan and his committed performers have embodied in dance the thought he is pursuing. And the end, where El Brogy is again in a spotlight, convulsively reaching up to heaven as his body roots him to the floor, is incredibly moving.

Compañía: Teatro Nacional Radu Stanca de Rumania contemporánea.
Dirección: Mihai Maniutiu
Duración: 1 hora 20 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Teatro clásico en versión contemporánea
Idioma: Rumano con subtítulos en español
Teatro Nacional La Castellana
Del 4 al 8 de abril
$120.000, $100.000 y $70.000

Măniuţiu’s Electra premiered at the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, and won several awards, including best directing and dramaturgy, at the Marida Festival in Spain.

Electra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, seeks the aid of her brother Orestes to avenge the murder of her father by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon for his sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia to the gods during the Trojan War.

Mihai Măniuţiu graduated from the National Institute of Theatre Art and Cinema in Bucharest, he describes his style as an “ars combinatorica”, which can be seen in the current fusion of two classical Greek texts with a contemporary arrangement of Romanian folk music.

País: Francia
Compañía: Productions Illimitées y Compagnie
des Indes
Dirección: Michéle Guigon, Sury Firth y Patrice
Duración: 1 hora 20 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Teatro gestual
Teatro Gimnasio Moderno
Del 4 al 8 de abril
$120.000 y $75.000

When a show starts off with peals of uproarious laughter, where can it go from there? Well, in the case of the two man French comic mime show,Cocorico, it set the standard for the remaining 74 minutes.

Running for just 60 minutes may have sufficed, but the audience was surprised, charmed, delighted and intrigued by the timing and the miming of Patrice Thibaud and his partner, contortionist musician, Philippe Leygnac throughout. Their boundless invention at showing human dynamics and interaction through keenly observed and beautifully interpreted body language was hugely absorbing.

They go through a gamut of the rejected lover to cowboy to de Gaulle to a full brass band to James Bond to clown, to name only a fraction of what was on offer.

It is all done seamlessly, with Thibaud morphing skilfully from one to the other. Their imagination created the show, but their skill allows the audience to use their own imagination in Thibaud’s words ‘ complete the proposition...’

This show is a delightful blend of adult and childhood; playfulness and thoughtfulness. Their versatility is also shown in their clever shadow shows that intersperse the act.

A visual treat of mime, mockery and music that transcends language with sophisticated innocence.

Julio CesarPaís: Francia
Compañía: Centro Dramático Nacional de Orleans
Dirección: Arthur Nauzyciel
Duración: 3 horas 10 minutos. Con intermedio
Género: Teatro clásico en versión contemporánea
Idioma: Inglés con subtítulos en español
Teatro William Shakespeare
Del 4 al 8 de abril
$120.000 y $75.000

Esta adaptación del clásico shakesperiano, ambientada en el contexto de la alta burguesía
norteamericana de la década del 60, destaca no solo por su refinamiento, su elegancia y el estupendo desempeño de sus actores (del American Repertory Theater de Boston), sino por la impactante forma en la que se resuelve una escena cuyo montaje siempre ha sido complejo. Gracias a un magnífico recurso de escenario, el público se ve envuelto en el asesinato de Julio César, casi como en un coliseo romano, donde el crimen pasa a convertirse en un solemne entretenimiento y en un desgarrador testimonio del comportamiento humano. La obra está acompañada por un trío de jazz.

Leonardo – Trabajo Practico No.1País: Argentina
Compañía: La Arena Circo
Dirección: Gerardo Hochman
Duración: 1 hora 10 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Nuevo Circo
Idioma: Español
Palacio de los Deportes
Del 4 al 8 de abril
$60.000 y $40.000

Inspirado en la intrigante vida y obra de Leonardo da Vinci, este espectáculo utiliza
la animación de objetos, el video, las ilustraciones animadas, la música en vivo, la destreza de ocho actores-acróbatas y, como hilo conductor, el libro de recetas del maestro. Todo empieza cuando un grupo de estudiantes prepara una investigación sobre Da Vinci y son atrapados por la personalidad del genio; así toman vida las reflexiones, descubrimientos, obras pictóricas y escultóricas, inventos fallidos y no realizados, estudios anatómicos y hasta la magnífica máquina de volar que aparece en el escenario.

Sinopsis de la obra
Un grupo de jóvenes universitarios prepara un trabajo de investigación sobre Leonardo da Vinci.
Buscando información en libros, se van zambullendo en el universo “Leonardesco” y casi sin darse cuenta se ven envueltos en los temas, las reflexiones, la producción y aspectos de la personalidad del Genio del Renacimiento, convirtiendo todo lo que descubren en escenas de gran carga visual atravesadas por un inquietante y poético contenido expresivo que funde los dos lenguajes.
Sus estudios anatómicos, su obra pictórica, sus notas sobre cocina, sus reflexiones sobre el ser humano, la relación con sus maestros, colegas, discípulos y sus métodos compositivos son algunos de los aspectos que se abordan en esta puesta en escena que visita la época de los hechos, pero desde una perspectiva actual.

Translunar Paradise
País: Gran Bretaña
Compañía: Teatro Ad infinitum
Dirección: George Mann
Duración: 1 hora 10 minutos. Sin intermedio
Género: Teatro gestual
Teatro Nacional Fanny Mikey
Del 5 al 8 de abril
$120.000 y $70.000
An old man, recently bereaved, sits and sits, the minutes ticking by with painful slowness. He makes tea, and out of habit pours two cups, one for him and one for his dead wife. And still he sits. Watching him in anguish is the spirit of his wife, desperate to help, to tell him that it is OK to let her go. She tries to move ‘her’ cup away; she flutters round him in the house they have shared together for so many years. He makes a desolate attempt to sort through her belongings. A small case contains all her most treasured possessions – her favourite necklace, a bundle of letters – and these he lingers over sorrowfully. Each object becomes a conduit for a milestone memory from their shared life: their courtship and marriage; a baby that doesn’t survive infancy; the relived trauma of wartime injury after he is demobilised; the difficult patch in their marriage when she is given the opportunity to study or to forge her own career path. And eventually the inevitable as one partner (she) dies after a long illness and the other (he) is left to grieve.

It is a simple, universal story. Interview anyone over the age of seventy, speak to your parents (or grandparents, depending on your age!), and some version of the story above will emerge. That, for me, is a positive not a negative. At the heart of the success of this piece is the universality of the story, and the beauty with which it is executed.

There is not a second of Translunar Paradise that hasn’t been plotted with infinite care, nor performed with immaculate craft and precision. George Mann as the widower and Deborah Pugh as the spirit wife are a perfect match, their wordless storytelling exhibiting the expertise in mime and physical performance that a Lecoq training gives you, yet going way beyond the technical into a really gifted subtlety and expressiveness. Handheld masks are used beautifully to represent the characters in old age, the masks flying away as memories unfold and the characters become their younger selves. Each moment of transformation is seamless, and there are some particularly lovely sections where a removed mask takes on a puppetesque quality, the older character observing a younger self or partner. Objects are manipulated with tender care: a cup fought over between the real and spirit worlds; a necklace that dances with exquisite joy; the little suitcase that has its own narrative in the play, representing the one thing that she (when younger) has to hang on to, and that he (when older) has to let go of.

The physical action is supported by an onstage, visible accordionist (Kim Heron) who provides the perfectly-pitched soundtrack – playing or whistling snatches of songs that have accompanied the couple’s life journey, from ‘We’ll Meet Again’ to ‘Girl From Ipanema’; tapping out the interminable ticking of a clock with the accordion buttons; providing the labouring breath of a dying woman with the instrument’s bellows.

A word also about the audience. I don’t think I have ever seen a more attentive audience, at the Edinburgh Fringe or elsewhere. From the opening image of the widower sat at his kitchen table to a closing ‘life flashes by’ whirlwind of reprised memories as the ghost departs, the whole audience is almost holding its collective breath, and as the lights come up to rapturous applause, it is clear that there is hardly a dry eye in the house.

A near-perfect example of contemporary wordless theatre – and proof (should anyone need it) that theatre without words can engage the head, touch the heart, and nourish the soul just as effectively as any other form. A little taste of paradise on earth!

Leonce y Lena
Compañía: Teatro Cluj. Dirección: Gábor Tompa.
Duración: 1 hora 30 minutos. Sin intermedio.
Género: Comedia clásica.
Idioma: Rumano con subtítulos en español.
Teatro de Bellas Artes de Bogotá
Del 5 al 8 de abril
$120.000, $90.000 y $60.000

Con una alucinante puesta en escena que se mueve entre la estética rococó y
la pintura expresionista alemana, maquillajes recargados, suntuosos vestuarios
y coreografías, este montaje nos cuenta la historia de Leonce, el príncipe de
Popo, y Lena, la princesa de Pipi, los dos monarcas que huyendo de matrimonios
obligados, se conocen, enamoran y casan en el camino, sin saber que el uno era el
prometido del otro. Esta obra, una de las menos representadas de su autor, Georg
Büchner, precursor del teatro moderno, está catalogada como obra maestra den-
Compañía: Teatro Cluj. tro del género de teatro farsa.

Of the few performances of Leonce and Lena I have seen in my life, all of them treated Leonce and Lena as nothing more than additional material in relation to authors such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet as if Büchner’s text itself was insufficient to catch and hold the public’s attention for an hour and a half. As a result I had some very unclear images and suspicions about the theatrical value of the text itself. I had never clearly heard the voices of Leonce and Lena on the stage and, to be honest, never understood what it was all about. It was sabotaged by other noises all the time.

Then suddenly, at a time when in Romania everything is analysed through the notion of money, economic crisis, immediate profit and the necessary cut-off from the cultural budget, the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj and the director Gábor Tompa opposed the ésprit du temps, shook the dust off Leonce and Lena and gave them time, silence and attention. Carmencita Brojboiu (costumes and set design) gave them an abandoned, closed and quiet space. It looks like a found space, though it is a set built in a theatre studio.

Silent groups of individuals in classical, aristocratic suits first look timidly through broken windows, gently and silently stepping into this ruined, perhaps once splendid palace. These silent ghosts stay inside the shadow and look at us.

Suddenly white light and gentle music offer them shelter. With a lot of sensitiveness Gábor Tompa asks the characters to open their lips and try to speak again. After a moment of concentration and recalling the words, these fairy-tale puppets enter the light and start to talk. First with hesitation, then with ever-increasing self-confidence, they recalled their old play – an exaggerated eloquence from times gone by, a senseless rhetoric of dolce far niente.

And we had the pleasure of discovering the beauty of the text, the humour and poetical imagination of Büchner, the forgotten taste for fairy tales from our childhood where the princess always finds the right prince (as it is supposed to happen), and we admired the majesty of theatre, executed as a divine ritual by an excellent team of actors. They reminded us that a good performance has the power to change human lives, minds, directions and destinies; it reminded me of how I fell in love with theatre in my adolescence and why I have chosen the difficult position of a theatre critic. I have to confess that after almost 20 years of practising theatre criticism, I most often hate theatre and only sometimes I love it (an adaptation of one of my favourite Artaud quotations: ‘Theatre is more often terrible and only sometimes magnificent’).

They simply reminded me of why I love theatre, by showing me the pure power of theatre. This performance was a ritual revealing of the substantial motivation of existence in art and for art – a declaration of love made to theatre. The last line of the performance is added by Gábor Tompa and it says, literally: ‘Let’s build a theatre, let’s build a theatre’. The actors sing it in an oratory way, with airy voices that are joyful and light-hearted. Incidentally, this oratory element fits the spirit of Büchner’s masterpiece excellently.

The music composed by Vasile Şirli gives a happy artistic perspective to the whole concept: each character presents himself in an oratorio style, through melodic song and some key words describing his situation: ‘I’m lazy, I’m not doing anything’ is the refrain of the servant Valerio. These short melodies label the characters as a set of figures from a luxury musical box. The characters are sweet, joyful, predictable and controllable. They also dance in an elegant, old-fashioned way, carefully moving their feet as if they might break (choreography by Florin Fieroiu).

The satirical line of the play is still there, but it is not aggressive and it is not connected to any actual fact or real figure (although we have had a lot of them in Romania lately).

Valerio (Gábor Viola) and the Governess (Csilla Varga) represent some burlesque elements such as big noses in their appearance. Still, their expressiveness is not exaggerated to mimics. Their faces remain almost like masks under the heavy make-up – serious and self-confident. It is interesting to note that all the characters play and execute their destiny model without looking into the eyes of the others. This confirms they are mechanical dolls, each of them on their predetermined trajectory. In the excellent scene of recognition when several masks fall down one after another (masks with sleepy or even deadly calm faces), all the characters are facing the public. They speak directly to us and do not look at each other. They recognise it is a play for “cartoon mannequins and clockwork mechanism.” Still, the performance is not an apology of alienation and loneliness. Gabor Tompa’s performance is full of emotion, tenderness and forgiveness.

A happy coincidence of artistic inspiration and skills, original thinking and attentive reading of the literary material, admiration of the classics, and also the necessity to impart some important contemporary messages to the public gave life to this strong, compelling performance. Gábor Tompa’s Leonce and Lena is a poetical piece, a romantic story in which the satirical element is tired and lightweight, non-offensive, even disappearing at the end of performance, offering room for the mysterious notions of love and destiny, and letting the old King Peter (Loránd Váta) have 24 hours of party time, as he had previously ordered.

Leonce and Lena from Cluj (excellent, detailed work of Balázs Bodolai and Enikő Györgyjakab) are two images that have escaped from a child’s imagination or from a tiny book with colourful pictures. They are silly and funny, useless and sweet; precious mechanical dolls with empty porcelain heads in which, suddenly, the mechanism of love has just been started.

The senile King Peter and his entourage also seem funny and distractive, because they look too ancient to be harmful to anybody. This out-of-time satire with no anger and revenge, with no aggressive meanings, is the main quality of the performance

“In my opinion, Leonce and Lena is an ideological play about the stagnation of a revolution; a situation that I see not only in the events of the past 20 years, but also in many other aspects. And I feel the same desperation that Büchner may have felt. What is attractive in the whole story is that I could not express myself about those 20 years after the 1989 through political theatre. I can talk about this period only if the show somehow contains moments of hope, something we call love”, says Gábor Tompa.
Very delicately, Tompa introduces two burlesque policemen in the play, who pass through the stage only once, looking for a dangerous criminal. Their appearance is so funny and absurd and fits into Büchner’s world so well that it is immediately integrated as something logical. The scenography of Carmencita Brojboiu, an open/closed no-man’s-land, was able to support even these intruders who were once probably in the Securitate and are now merely clowns.

Leonce and Lena from Cluj offer us therapeutic laughter, and are light, happy and optimistic. And when, at the end, Leonce announces with a mechanical voice: “Tomorrow we start all over again. Goodbye”, we wish to come back..

Shows to look out for after the festival

País de bicicletas
Nilo Cruz, el primer latinoamericano ganador del premio Pulitzer, escribió esta
obra que cuenta en su reparto con dos actores y un director colombianos. El eje
de la historia es un triángulo amoroso entre tres cubanos que huyen en una balsa.
Con toques de realismo mágico, este viaje esconde mucho más que las dificultades
propias de una aventura transoceánica a la intemperie. Amistad, erotismo, conflictos,
diferencias sociales y sabor caribeño en una puesta en escena que destaca el uso de multimedia, para darnos a conocer a través de flashbacks, el pasado y el futuro de sus protagonistas.

Cruce sobre el Niágara
Esta historia, escrita por el peruano Alonso Alegría, se desarrolla en 1859. El Gran
Blondin, un acróbata que ha caminado en la cuerda floja sobre las cataratas del Niágara
en catorce oportunidades, se destaca por haber ejecutado un acto peligroso a mitad de camino en cada una de esas ocasiones. La obra explora el desarrollo de una inusual amistad entre el artista y un aficionado, Carlo, que desemboca en la participación de éste en una más de esas peligrosas caminatas. Esta vez, el Gran Blondin cruzará las cataratas mientras carga a Carlo en sus hombros.

El Club del Tropel
El Club del Tropel es una joven e irónica mirada al espectáculo del coliseo romano
y lo traslada a un ring de boxeo. Animado por una banda de rock, el público podrá
presenciar diferentes combates que parten de la improvisación y las espontáneas
propuestas del réferi, quien ejercerá como director de orquesta a lo largo del espectáculo, marcando la pauta de los personajes y retando su imaginación a través de sus juegos y reglas. Esta puesta en escena cuenta con la participación de más de 30 actores, que encontrarán en este Festival el espacio ideal para participar en un show donde “todo vale”.
Compañía: Casa Ensamble
Dirección: Beto Urrea
Género: Improvisación
Duración: 1 hora 10 minutos
Teatro Arlequín-Multiplex Casa Ensamble
Del 2 al 8 de abril

Él solo
Compañía: La Compañía Teatro Danza
Dirección: Carlos Ramírez
Género: Danza Teatro
Duración 1 hora
Teatro R101
4 de abril
Como su nombre lo indica, esta pieza está enfocada en una sola persona. Se dejan
de lado las pretensiones estéticas de escenografía o vestuario: lo importante es
el proceso de creación como un trabajo espiritual y dinámico. El público podrá
seguir al actor y bailarín Carlos Ramírez en dicho trabajo, donde las palabras no
son tan importantes como la actuación y la gestualidad. La particular propuesta,
que ya ha sido presentada con éxito en grandes escenarios como el Teater Exit
de Croacia, es un ejemplo del desarrollo de nueva dramaturgia colombiana en la
innovación de lenguaje teatral.

Las listas
Compañía: Los Históricos (Colombia / España)
Dramaturgia: Julio Wallovicz
Director: Marc Caellas
Género: Comedia negra
Duración: 1 hora 20 minutos
Teatro Estudio Julio Mario Santo Domingo
26 y 27 de marzo

Este montaje de la obra escrita por Julio Wallovicz y dirigida por Marc Caellas, define con una gran carga sarcástica una nueva perspectiva para el papel del artista en la sociedad, en la que éste deja de cumplir un rol marginal para convertirse en una especie de moda. El arte como tal se democratiza, el mundo se llena de creadores y pierde el sustento de la clase trabajadora; ahora todos se ocupan de participar en la vida bohemia, se dedican a soñar con la fama, y dejan de lado las labores básicas, lo que genera un caos y, eventualmente, el fin del mundo.

Compañía: La Gata Cirko que está detrás de ellas.
Dirección: Felipe Ortiz
Género: Nuevo Circo
Duración: 1 hora 15 minutos
Teatro Estudio Julio Mario Santo Domingo
2 y 3 de abril

Una mirada que hace zoom a cuatro historias distintas (la de un vendedor ambulante, la de una artista callejera, la de un hombre solitario y la de dos policías) en el marco de una propuesta que combina el nuevo circo con teatro, danza y poesía en un ambiente cotidiano: el de la calle, el barrio, la ciudad. Las magníficas coreografías, interpretadas por famosos artistas colombianos procedentes de las distintas ramas del arte escénico y dirigidas por Felipe Ortiz, hablan de lo habitual, son visualmente sorprendentes, y dan fe del profundo bagaje en improvisación teatral.