- Foreign Affairs Festival
It is no ordinary festival that begins by chasing its audience backwards, in pajamas, through a blocked-off street while a man in a wheelchair wielding a Steadicam shouts directions through billowing smoke. This scene of mass panic in which willing festival-goers fled an invisible swamp monster was just the first of several sequences filmed by the New York–based Nature Theater of Oklahoma (Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper) for a science-fiction movie named Germany Year 2071. With its mixture of relational aesthetics, giddy improvisation, and genre-bending, it set the tone for Foreign Affairs, a festival that took "uncertainty" in its various manifestations (or elisions and evasions) as its motto. What wascertain, however, was that this would mark an end for this particular festival, which, under the direction of Matthias von Hartz, has struggled to find a distinct identity within the programming juggernaut that is Berliner Festspiele.
Foreign Affairs has always provided a place for political and aesthetic excess, challenging audiences' endurance and tractability with durational and site-responsive work. It presents itself as a scrappy Gesamtkunstwerk, one bent less on harmony than on productive disjunction and the exploration of the interstices of theatre, video, music, and dance. This year's festival once again offered its customary surfeit of music and visual and performing arts. Its primary focus, however, was on the playfully hybrid work of South African artist William Kentridge, the director/designer of the audacious Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovich's The Nose(2010), whose distinctive graphic animations with their Dada-inspired flipbook look and collage sensibilities spilled into all available spaces, including windows, basements, and freight elevators. Kentridge was everywhere, onstage and off, dancing through the throngs with light-footed rotundity like some Santa Claus of postmodernity, while established artists of the international performance circuit (Needcompany, BERLIN, Forced Entertainment) mingled with fresh voices from the southern hemisphere (Nastío Mosquito from Angola, Neliswe Xaba from South Africa).
Belgium's NTGent and Les ballets C de la B opened the festival with their production of En avant, marche!directed by choreographer Alain Platel, with Frank van Laeke. Platel creates "collective rituals," visceral and celebratory manifestations of emotional states in which the narrative is subsumed into moments of pure physical performance, often exquisitely suspended between rigorous craft and fluid improvisation. The plot of En avant, marche!(such as it was) concerned a band musician (Wim Opbrouck) who, after a diagnosis of laryngeal cancer, is demoted from trombone to cymbals. Unwilling to go gently into that one note, Opbrouck's nameless character danced, sang, spat, and sputtered in polyglot rage, switching from Flemish to French, German, English, and Italian (a speech about his cancer came from Pirandello's L'Uomo dal fiore in bocca). Believing that music was his life force, he endeavored to keep it going at all costs. When one of two aging majorettes confessed her love for him, she was rudely rebuffed, so much was he in thrall to fear and self-pity and in love with his own out-sized suffering. Only in a last frantic, awkward, and lumbering pas de deux with a band member did he seem to resign himself, his dance of death becoming a dance of life again.
Although a complex, pathetic, and sometimes repugnant figure, Opbrouck's trombonist was vividly realized and ultimately disarming. Platel took inspiration for the piece from the brass bands still common in small Belgian towns with their proud provinciality and musical exuberance that offer a microcosm of a vanishing sort of social cohesion. And indeed, it was the production's irresistible musicality—a semi-professional orchestra from Berlin complemented a virtuosic septet onstage—that gave the evening its formal coherence and spirit. Drawing eclectically from Verdi, Schubert, Mahler, Holst, and jazz, the band endowed the surreal proceedings with an often raucously voluptuous sonic atmosphere that attested to the transformative, death-defying power of art. Platel and van Laeke's piece, in the postdramatic indeterminacy of its genre, evidenced the creative fluidity the festival was after. "Theatre," and certainly "drama," surely proved inadequate descriptors for a production...