BE Festival 2019: the highlights

People dancing at the BE Festival 2019 afterparty

Seen my last post on BE Festival? (Of course you have, it’s one of only three posts on this blog.) Well, I’ve finally got round to a) developing what truly felt like the longest roll of film in the world & thus have some ~ exclusive behind the scenes shots of BE Festival prep ~ b) digesting and metabolising the shows I saw last week, so I am now proud announce my PRESTIGIOUS TOP 5 SELECTION. Look, I know it’s trendy to whack out reviews six hours after the show on no sleep at all and still mildly drunk from the afterparty, but I like to actually THINK about stuff, you know? I AM AN INTELLECTUAL. So without further ado it’s 

which I know all four of you were anxiously waiting for. Onwards!

Soul Seekers by Mokhallad Rasem 

The principle of this show is really quite simple: the artist, an Iraqi refugee himself, interviews people living in asylum centres in Belgium and France. The interviewees share their thoughts on displacement, hope, separation, and life in general, expressing what is obviously the result of both deep personal reflections and a sense of trust and familiarity built with the interviewer. We meet the asylum centre’s orange cat; we follow the residents in a trip to the Louvre, where the Monna Lisa, appropriately gentle but inscrutable, becomes an icon invested with the power to break one refugee out of his document-less limbo; we observe another one rebuild his life in a small, leafy French village. The medium is not flashy – just talking heads, lingering shots of each setting, images of the interviewees drawing on a whiteboard – but it doesn’t need to be: I know that giving marginalised people a voice is all anyone seems to want to do in the arts right now, but work as sympathetic, generous, and humanizing as Rasem’s is still, in my experience, regrettably hard to find. This means that, while there is of course an underlying thread regarding the interviewees’ experiences as refugees, we also get to hear their more general thoughts on family, nature, love, freedom. But there is a constantly returning, pragmatic, jarring theme: the papers – or, more accurately, the lack of papers. These documents – passports, visas, identity cards – acquire an almost mythological significance: they are keys to the door of life, they are materialisations of everyone’s hopes – and, of course, they never seem to arrive. The protagonists’ regular references to a privilege that many of us take for granted – to be able to work, to travel, to prove our identity as citizens – prevent the viewer from becoming too complacent, and prompt a serious questioning of maddeningly slow, very often dehumanizing state bureaucracy.

PUNK‽ by Paula Rosolen/Haptic Hide

And now for something completely different! Cat was not kidding – this piece had a fantastic energy and mixed the aesthetics of punk and contemporary dance in a really interesting way. It also drew some fascinating parallels (as far as I can tell) between the two as different reactions to the anxieties of the 20thcentury, stemming from a common desire to challenge traditional norms and artistic standards but producing (obviously) very different results. The piece was accompanied by original live music which two of the dancers contributed to playing – a great example of multidisciplinary talent and successful dialogue between artforms (a similar point can be made about Marc Oosterhoff’s Promises of Uncertainty, which, while not as impressive as last year’s Take Care Of Yourself, featured some amazing live music by Raphael Raccuia, who also acted as an experimental demiurge to Oosterhoff’s acrobatic Adam). Overall, Rosolen managed to create an engaging piece which appealed to both dance aficionados and laypeople. And she also included a whole bunch of pogo sticks. Love me a good pogo stick. 

Silence by Ça Marche

Among this year’s entries, this is the one that has surprised and amazed me the most in terms of its use of the theatrical medium. I will try not to spoil it too much, but just as a quick overview of what happens onstage in the thirty or so minutes of the show: a cast of children have to make their way through a frozen apocalyptic landscape and fight for their survival; the same children later use the snowy stage as a playground, free and undirected; evocative, poetic text appears in the surtitles, evoking themes of longing, out-of-place-ness, despair, utopia; at the end, a giant, tentacled monster appears, and the children have to decide how to react to it. What struck me most of all was how willing the creators were to relinquish control of their own work, and how the show still worked because their imagination and vision were strong enough to allow it to stand on its own two legs. I later learned at a feedback session (though I’d suspected as much) that the children had only had a very short rehearsal: they were for the most part free to improvise. This was, to me, a lesson in trust and confidence which (as a self-professed control freak) I will try to take to heart. And obviously none of these comments would have reason to exist if the show had fallen flat, if its formal features had only worked as momentarily entertaining novelties; but they didn’t, and more than a week later I’m still thinking about the creators’ singular visual imagination and about their no less haunting textual description of the world that was, the world as it is now, and the world as it might be. 

Light Years Away by Edurne Rubio

The audience walks into the studio in complete darkness (save some helpful ushers with torches). The atmosphere created by writer and performer Edurne Rubio is that of a cave: more precisely, of the Ojo Guareña complex in Northern Spain. Her voice has a characteristic echo, and I even felt like I was perceiving the damp smell and chilly currents that one can expect to experience inside a cave (though this might be only suggestion coupled with the theatre’s overenthusiastic AC!). After the audience has adjusted to the setting, Rubio steps onto the stage and introduces herself as our guide; she’s holding a small torch but we never see her face. Over the course of the performance, we follow Rubio, her father, and the other speleologists in his group as they retrace their pioneering exploration of the cave in the 60s and 70s. Rubio combines recordings of interviews with the explorers with performance and film to create an immersive, enthralling experience. I have to take a moment to comment on her masterful use of video: from minimalistic shots where the explorers only appear as tiny fireflies in the dark to spectacular visions of the cave’s main halls, Rubio always manages to convey the experience of walking through the corridors, immersed in the darkness, straining one’s eyes to take stock of the surroundings. Some reviewers have commented that the piece is perhaps too long, but I disagree: the long shots of the explorers approaching, briefly bringing light to a corridor, and then plunging it into the dark again are indispensable to communicate the feeling that we are interacting with an incredibly ancient environment where human presence is, for once, the exception rather than the norm. This makes our encounters with our predecessors all the more significant: we learn of the prehistoric individuals who visited the cave over the course of the millennia; we discover its more recent bloody history; and we finally hear from Edurno’s father and his friends how it provided shelter from Francisco Franco’s regime and space to express radical political ideals. One of the final moments of the piece involves a recording of the resistance song “Gallo rojo, gallo negro”; one of the spectators sitting behind me, who obviously knew the song, joined in, and I have to admit to shedding a couple of tears. I am nothing if not easily manipulable through music!

Avalanche by Marco D’Agostin

I walked out of this show thinking that its meaning had completely escaped me – I struggled to extract any significance from the performers’ words and gestures and overall was convinced that it was just Not My Cup of Tea. But curiously enough I found myself thinking about it a lot in the following days, and although I am still not sure what author/choreographer Marco D’Agostin was trying to convey, he has certainly managed to create an uncanny representation of the way in which my specific brain works, sometimes, by a strange kind of coincidence or design. Him and fellow performer Teresa Silva mix fragments of five different languages throughout the show, starting with basic syllables and words and building up to common phrases, popular songs, commercials, quotes. My thoughts follow a similar dynamic sometimes, especially when I’m tired – they will start in a language, transform into another, become fixated on silly old refrains. Watching Avalanche was an instance of that quintessential artistic experience – the feeling of recognizing something of oneself in a work of art, a slight jolt of oh, someone else experiences this? I thought I was the only one. Part of the reason why I didn’t immediately recognize this experience for what it was was that I was very tired, which as I mentioned is the most common time for my thoughts to wander in the way D’Agostin depicted on stage. So in a way I didn’t find the performance instantly striking because it naturally merged with my mental meanderings, and it was only later that I realised how odd this correspondence was. Again, I am not sure if D’Agostin was aiming for a faithful representation of the multilingual brain (and I have certainly neglected to mention other important aspects of the piece, like the performers’ measured movements and interaction with space); but this is what I took from it and what will keep me thinking about the piece for a long time. 

*

And now for some BTS content! I feel that after a huge wall of text on the shows (sorry) it’s appropriate to highlight the other great aspect of the festival – the community that forms for a week between artists, audience, staff, and volunteers, the amazing REP backstage which is transformed into the Festival Hub, the mad race to count the votes for the audience prize, and the truly excellent drinks. I had a really great time (in case you couldn’t tell) and I can’t wait to come back next year!

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