Routes Inside and Outside Our Heads

The Aarhus-section of the Nordic Performing Art Days (19-21 June 2014)

Nomadic festivals and conferences are almost a natural way of being for theatre makers and theorists up in the North where social, strategic and cultural collaborations are more than welcome by the relentlessly communicating and cooperating countries. This platform is also a collaboration among the Nordic ITI-centres, being its 14th issue, and having the Danish International Theatre Institute (ITI) as main organizer this time, under the generic title: ‘The performing arts facing globalization, digitalisation and co-creation’, divided into different topics that will pop up on different sites of this ambulatory festival.

Under the main guidance of Susanne Danig, this year’s festival director a great number of institutions, performing and contemporary art venues and individuals take part in the organizational work from almost all Nordic countries – the list is three-column wide, one-page long in the programme and I simply cannot even imagine the complicated and intrinsic network-like logistics laying behind, though it makes clear that bold creativity and persistent professional connections are the key to a successful series of events like this. Throughout twelve days of the festival round-table discussions, presentations, workshops and of course performances are held at four stations of the route that leads from Jutland through the island of Funen to the capital city in Zeeland. Each of the host cities marks a topic – so the attendee can really and metaphorically conceive their map according to their interests. In Aalborg there is a workshop held focussing on New Communities with the perspective to extend it into a yearly repeated series of meetings and with the aim to generate long-term working relationships between young Nordic performing artists. Aarhus hosted a series of discussions, presentations and performances on the topic of new and emerging platforms, new methods and possibilities and their impact on performing arts. In Odense public and professionals saw within three days sixteen performances for young audience and could attend two seminars on the same topic, whilst the very last station, Copenhagen gave space to the CPH Stage festival with 115 theatre groups playing, presenting and meeting.

Aarhus with emerging platforms, non- and for-profit connections, unconventional performing arts spaces and conceptions is the most attractive for me, so this is the place and the three day-long adventure I unscramble from the huge puzzle. From the five performances offered at this stage of the festival I found the below ones the more complex, incentive and artistically and also socially intriguing ones – an almost conventional dance performance, a more installation-like musical event are left out of this account, and one that was not possible to harmonize with my schedule. However, the two events below that balance on the boundaries of different genres, even tackling with scientific dimensions from certain respects, and raising the stakes of arts and culture in recent societies, show off some qualities beyond aesthetic considerations.

Phoenix (by Wunderland): all labels fit, all labels fall down

One by one, getting some simple and rigorously explained rules from a team-member of the Wunderland group, we start a journey of real and virtual territories, made up by city landscapes and the coastal scenery, mythological and fairy-tales sets and also closed spaces (tents, trucks, pubs, boats). And, as this time the performance is held to professional visitors and artists of the Nordic Performing Art Days, I daresay, this is also a funny coincidence in which a temporary community is outlining throughout the performance.

Phoenix, the production of a nine-member international team called Wunderland and residing in Aarhus is a site-specific theatre in the broadest possible meaning of the term ; from its nature tackling seriously with environmental aesthetics, some of its parts based on residents-tourists connexions, and at least once we, as partakers participate in the experience to actually create ephemeral art. The audience is turned into co-creator by a definite gesture from the very beginning – even earlier, I would say, as finding the location, the starting point from which we start our own, very subjective route can be regarded as ground zero; the point we have to reach in order to start.

The harbour we are invited to by this performance reveals several layers of time, progressively – and maybe somewhat aggressively – unfolding city reconstruction plans: from one hand small streets of fishermen’s cottages and ambulatory selling points of fresh fish, on the other hand huge concrete blocks of flats just being built and in front of them even the seabed is reined by concrete grounds. The bay embraced by the old and new, the natural and high-tech environment is dwelled by small tarnished boats and this time of the year – being early but already sun-drenched summer – inhabited by often cheerfully loud companies of their owners. Already full of sharp contradictions, inspirational terrain for the Wunderland group and for our next hour’s experience this landscape will open up for short monologues, poems and experiences closely tight to mythology and concepts related to the sea.

Starting point is a trailer from which we will get an interactive sound system with a GPS. Actually, with the headset put on from the very first moment, we are cut from the sound of the harbour (a mixed background noise of the waves of the sea and the industrial din of the construction and some of the bigger fishing boats), and the voice of the guide will lead us through the curlicue ways of the performance. When entering into a closed location – a tent or a boat –, we have to leave the headset on the threshold and are awaited by one of the artists to go through the next experience. The voice of the guide leads us from one station to another, giving explicit directions, and also a very scattered white line – sometimes paint, sometimes white pebbles leading through the uneven ground of the harbour – shows us the way to the next scene. One accentuated moment is marked by the voice of the narrator that leads once to a chair out in the open air, with a view both to the natural and the high-tech surroundings and tells a lyric short story by a contemporary writer (I assume), and even the recorded noise of the sea can be heard as a soundtrack boundary between the real and virtual, natural and artificial setting – a text- and soundscape as the company itself says in their own presentation.

The tents, boats, the track, the pub, the secluded part of the shore are all settings organised in an alternating space-time-experience pace as the co-creator and event-traveller will go through a series of scenes that are triggered by their own presence, and very often, cannot take place without their own acting. All little scenes recall bits – characters, scenes, short stories – from Nordic mythology, Christianity, own tales and mixtures of elements of stories and persona, we are actually introduced to a one-hour long series of rituals, more or less personal ones, more or less leading towards different inner worlds, imagination, states of mind. In the first tent, that is very similar to a Mongolian-like yurta, I am actually shocked by the ninja-ish dancer’s hidden face, black robe, vivid eyes, and then I am actually led into a short spiral route that brings me barefoot to a small vessel with water to wash my feet. No words at all, I have to find out what the dancer wants me to do – but simple, unambiguous setting and invitation gestures make it very easy. Actually, the obstacle I have to overcome here is the somewhat shivering fear raised by the hidden face of the actor/dancer. In contrast, the very last tent will be a huge and orange two-storey playground of powder-like sand in which I have to descend on a steep ladder and where I am awaited by an actor dressed in orange and encouraged to throw the sand on the walls of the tent, so that the whole construction is trembling and producing the noise of heavy and dense raindrops – in a way combining in this very last station the two elements that played a focal role throughout the whole route: water and send, but one could even extend it to air as well, or even to all the four (or five) cosmic elements, if you will.

One of most outstanding still more than minimalist moments of our own creation are the lighthouse with the unusual guestbook that invites us to write down everything that we see around and this way from the distant spots in the sea to the description of the interior of the lighthouse and passers-by there is an avalanche that embraces even former descriptions and reflections growing into a contextual, self-referring mega-text.

Once during my route I am surprized to be able to jump into a rocking boat in the sea that is very small, very heavily moving and scarily on the verge of falling apart, still, that calm voice gets me to step without hesitation on the extremely unstable ground of that particular node – where my only task is to lean back and watch the skies above, switch of the headset so to be able to hear the waves of the sea. A short meditation, basically that none of us leaves out – as I interview later my colleagues during the next-day theoretical session. On the other hand, narratives that rise in our heads differ strikingly, depending on predisposition, knowledge, own fears and imagination, almost as if we were taking part in totally different performances-routes. The stories we make up, the texts and the sound we hear and we add to or leave out from our own narratives will lead to hundreds or thousands of performances – exactly the number of participants.

In the field (by Secret Hotel) – a cross-genre walk in our heads

Secret Hotel, a project of performing artists and dramaturges creating site-specific, audience-based, and participatory performing arts – invites the partakers into a room of Godsbanen, Aarhus’ cultural production centre and with Christine Fentz as a gentle guide for our following experiences. From the small conference room and from the overhead projector and the woman standing behind it is almost possible to infer that we would be soon part of a performance. Actually, it is an interactive lecture-like performance or performance-like lecture, with all of us sitting around on the most different chairs and armchairs possible (having no idea whether they were carefully selected and well ahead thought so, or just a coincidence of the circumstances here that let us select among them).
Places, homes, huge hooks around distant homes of nomadic people, and then our concepts and thoughts and feelings of home again, all with some personal memories shared and from time to time interrupted, not to explain, but to experience the ever changing, shrinking and delating notion of time. These intermezzos are real refreshments during the performance: an actor-singer stands up from the chaotically scattered audience and sings or makes repetitive movements slowly or faster. We are asked to estimate the time passed meanwhile. And we find out that almost no one has the sense of physical time.

The whole performance lecture is made of some interwoven threads out of which one is ours, i.e. the audience’s own conception of home – we are asked to draw them however realistically or metaphorically we wish, and at the end of the whole event they will serve as a final slideshow on the overhead projector. Apart from this obvious involvement of us, partakers (I am reluctant to repeat the word audience as I do not find it proper in this context), the whole event is built on small particles from the rites and myths of the Siberian Tuva to the short scientific texts and add up to a puzzle that involves a constant readiness to stay engaged in the multiple levels of it.

As the very last bit of this encounter a huge pot arrives with creamy soup that we share with contented murmur and actually I realise that we start to serve each other, look around if there is someone left out, and we do not leave the room for quite a while. I have no idea how this multigenre, in-the-mind, out-on-the-imaginary-pastures event works when the partakers are not theatre professionals, getting together as a team as a series of workshops, round-table discussions, seminars and some performances are already behind us. Experiencing the same event with a totally casual gathering of people would be the real test of this community-building, meditative and inclusion-targeted one.

And all beyond

In perfect harmony with the slogan of the Aarhus days, seminars, workshops and discussions are held. During a session with focus on for- and non-profit cooperation we boldly work out a hypothetic structure that would totally pull down the boundaries between above two spheres. Later there is a slow-food presentation during which on site-specific walking events – Sinta Wibowo’s Sidewalks from Brussels is the most intriguing one. Among several other presentations, the one of a socio-critical performance of Annika B. Lewis, who named her own project after the undercover journalist Günter Wallraff raises vivid reactions. The performer encounters her project in which, after a long preparation period, she entered the for-profit scene offering to companies the man-in-the-box idea that would allow the nakedly crouching employee to reveal their hidden potentials as a workforce. And, ironically, or more sadly, getting almost hired by one of them.

published: Svet a Divadlo, Prague, 2014/summer