Home Art & Culture An arts festival with no stage in sight

An arts festival with no stage in sight

by YAR

BRUSSELS — When Brussels’ biggest performing arts festival kicked off last weekend, there were few traditional stages in sight. Instead, viewers gathered at colonial-era monuments, a disused railway museum and even the debating chamber of the Belgian Senate.

There are practical reasons for the spate of site-specific shows at the month-long event, called Kunstenfestivaldesarts, said Daniel Blanca Gubbay, one of its directors, during a break between performances. After two years of pandemic turmoil, many theaters in Brussels were booked up with rescheduled shows this year.

The constraints gave way to a creative lineup, highlighting areas of the city that even frequent visitors don’t necessarily know about. To see “The Weeping Wood and the Okapi Resistance,” a family-friendly puppet show created by Daniela Ortiz, audience members had to wander down a side alley of the large Cinquantenaire Park and stop in front of the “Monumento al Pioneros Belgians in the Congo.

Unveiled in 1921, this sculpted tribute to the colonization of the Congo is deeply uncomfortable to view today. It features racist images and inscriptions that portray Belgians as the saviors of the local black population. Given that Belgium has only recently begun to publicly consider its brutal history and remove the statues associated with it, “The Weeping Wood and the Okapi Resistance” could hardly be more timely.

Ortiz is from Peru and remains based there. Here, she attempts to evoke the plight of colonial-era Congo through animal puppets manipulated by two artists behind a curtain. In the story, the central character, an okapi, is captured by cheerful white puppets representing the settlers.

From a Belgian zoo, the okapi (a close cousin of the giraffe, native to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) yearns for independence for his native Congo and conspires with other animals to overthrow colonial rule. (They succeed, after strangling a human puppet and singing a song.) “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” is full of good intentions, and on paper it works as a counterpoint to its monumental Brussels backdrop. Unfortunately, it was too short and sketchy to make a convincing theatre: initially advertised as an hour long, the show ended up running 25 minutes.

There was more to be gleaned from Satoko Ichihara’s unclassifiable “Madama Chrysanthemum,” another work that premiered on a prophetic stage, the Far Eastern Museums. This complex north of Brussels, which includes a Chinese pavilion and a Japanese tower, is an orientalist fantasy commissioned by Leopold II, the king who also oversaw Belgium’s violent rule in the Congo.

All the buildings have been closed for almost a decade, for security reasons, so “Madama Chrysanthemum” was a rare opportunity to look around. Ichihara, a Japanese writer and director, also provided a fun introduction. The deadpan Aurélien Estager, one of the two actors in “Madama Chrysanthemum,” welcomed the audience outside the Chinese Pavilion and proceeded with a mock tour of the surrounding sights.

The tour ended inside the Museum of Japanese Art, one of the closed buildings. There, on a small, empty stage, Estager and Kyoko Takenaka launched into an offbeat performance inspired by the life of Masako, the current Empress of Japan (who is also a Harvard-educated former diplomat). In a mix of Japanese and French, the text highlights the pressure Masako faced from the imperial court, as well as from public opinion, to have a male heir.

The critical light in which the show presents Japan’s royal family made it unworkable in Japan, Icihara said. His surreal twists presumably wouldn’t help. Throughout, Estager takes on the role of a dog named Emperor, and Takenaka plays his owner, who dreams of being impregnated by an emperor (deliberately unclear) even while telling Masako’s story.

While “Madama Chrysanthemum” hijacks its orientalist decor to tell a very contemporary Japanese story, “Se questo è Levi”, a one-man show, channels the solemnity of the upper chamber of the Belgian Parliament. It is a testament to the ingenuity of Kunstenfestivaldesarts that the organizers were granted permission to stage an entire show inside the Senate’s debating chamber, with audience members watching from the lion-decorated seats of Belgian senators.

“Se questo è Levi,” created by the Italian company Fanny & Alexander, takes excerpts from interviews given by Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote about his experience in the camp in “If This Is a Man.” The audience plays the role of the interviewer: a list of questions is provided and they can be asked in any order. As soon as Andrea Argentieri, who plays Levi, finishes with an answer, anyone can chime in, using the microphone at each senator’s table.

It may be contrived, but it’s oddly moving nonetheless to address Levi, who died in 1987, so personally. When I asked, “In your opinion, can you erase a man’s humanity?” Argentieri, who mimics Levi’s behavior down to the way he rested his glasses on his forehead, looked at me for a few seconds with unexpressed pain. before. answering

Would it work in other contexts? It is debatable, but in the Belgian Senate, Levi’s eloquent thoughts on the Holocaust and its legacy had the seriousness of an official hearing, for posterity. Maybe they should be heard there more often.

“Se questo è Levi”, like almost all other Kunstenfestivaldesarts productions, was translated into three languages: French and Dutch, the main languages ​​spoken in Belgium, and English. (The Senate is equipped with headsets for simultaneous translation, and subtitles are used elsewhere.) That may sound par for the course in Brussels, the multilingual home of the European Union’s main institutions, but the city’s theater scene is underutilized. it.

Since the arts are funded separately for Belgium’s language communities (with the exception of some federal institutions), there is little crossover between French and Dutch-language theaters in Brussels, and many do not provide subtitles. Kunstenfestivaldesarts has attempted to bridge that gap, with partner theaters on both sides.

During the first weekend, “Tumulus” by François Chaignaud and Geoffroy Jourdain, a polyphonic work combining dance and music, was staged at the Dutch-speaking Kaaitheater, while the French-speaking performance space Les Brigittines hosted a new version of Okwui Okpokwasili. powerful dance theater piece “Bronx Gothic”, now performed by Wanjiru Kamuyu.

The variety of languages ​​can be dizzying, as was the case with “Hacer Noche,” a two-hour show in Spanish that was presented in the old railway museum located above the Estación del Norte. The piece is a calm and sensitive conversation between the director, Bárbara Bañuelos, and Carles Albert Gasulla, a cultured man who works as a valet. But there’s a lot of translated text to absorb while listening to Spanish, and at times I wish the subtitles had slowed down to let his points about class, mental health, and precarious work land.

However, that is a small complaint. In its current form, Kunstenfestivaldesarts showcases the best of Brussels: a city of converging cultures, as open to addressing its past as it is to welcoming others.

art festival art
Various venues in Brussels, until May 28.

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