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35th ITI World Congress

The Spanish Segovia hosted the 35th International Theatre Institute World Congress that welcomed representatives from 56 countries. The slogan for this Congress was the call to “Act!” 

Arabic dishdashis and bishts, Indian sari, African designs on wide shirts, strict European suits, and universal popular consumer goods for a hot summer – that’s the dress code for the International Theatre Institute theatre team that comes together once every two years for its World Congress. To exchange ideas and invitations, to talk about their problems, to present a new festival, to watch the plays, to listen to the luminaries, to do a brainstorming session in order to understand how this motley crew of play actors can go on living in a fragmented and global world… No matter how you spin it, ITI is the only theatre organization in the world that unites people of theatre from all continents. 

The young must defend their values

One of the main events started “with an anacrusis” – for the first time the congress featured a student festival titled “The Congress Prologue”. For three days in a row, students from different continents performed their productions in the building and the courtyard of the former women’s prison that had since been turned into the La Cárcel cultural center, as well as on the Palace Square and inside the St Nicholas church, inscribing these productions on the fly into the proposed circumstances of the “adult” congress and the harsh space. The festival featured students from the Bern University of the Arts (“The Theatre of Things”), Slovenia’s school UL AGRFT (“The Conference of the Birds”), Georgetown University (“I Pledge My Allegiance”), Spain’s Paladio Arte (“Nadi”), Shanghai Theatre Academy (“The Taming of the Shrew”), Accademia Teatro Dimitri from Switzerland (“An Old Lodger”), India’s JAPAR school (“Balancing”), Ateneo de Manila University of the Philippines (“A Roadside Café”), Drama Departments from Capetown (“Miss Julie”), and last but not least the University of Alicia Alonso (“A Bitter Skin”). The performances smoothly transitioned into discussions, discussions into performances: for three days in a row the courtyard of La Cárcel buzzed like a beehive. Says Daniel Bausch, professor at the Accademia Teatro Dimitri of Switzerland and the architect behind the student “Prologue”:  

“The beauty of it is that there was no competition, none of that awards and arguments stuff about whose school and whose education is better.  Slovenian actors, who came first, demonstrated a very high skill level.  While the actors from Georgetown, who may not have a classical education, presented an honest, profound, sincere work, and later we had a good discussion on the topics that concern them – about politics, immigration (most of them were born in the United States, but their skin color is different). Overall, it was very important to hear the voices of the students rather than professors at this festival.  The Indians arrived at the Congress with a clown show – I should clarify that they don’t expressly study clownery, but they made one such project.   They borrowed red noses from the Europeans, brought in their own culture, created a show for the children: and right away you realize that there are certain basic, important concepts – timing, working with the audience, the precision of a gesture – that are the same for all of us.”

Accademia Teatro Dimitri that Daniel Bausch represents is a unique phenomenon in and of itself.  It bears the name of one the most famous clowns in Switzerland and Germany – Dimitri (the student of the great Marcel Marceau celebrated his 80th birthday on stage; last year he, unfortunately, passed away). It’s located in a Swiss village of Canton Ticino – a ten-minute car drive from Lugano with its film and jazz festivals, small theatres and cozy cafés, but in the winter life there comes to a halt and the students are simply doomed to bury themselves in their studies. They begin at 7.30 – Tai Chi, acrobatics, step, and so on down the list of subjects related to movement.  In general, both full-time students and special education students can be admitted to Accademia Teatro Dimitri, provided they are obsessed with theatre and love movement.  Rehearsals run from nine in the morning until five in the evening.  “I think people work more in Russia,” Daniel smiles. There are no general humanities subjects as such, only practical training. “Reading a lot, including books on theatre theory, is something they should do on their own,” says professor Bausch. “And I must say, they do.” Instead, a lot of time is allocated to project management – students must be able to describe a project and find funding for it. They study Stanislavski, Grotowski, Mikhail Chekhov, and other gods of theatre science independently.  But they are working extensively on developing the system created by Richard Weber, one of the school’s co-founders, a Czech mime, who created Prague’s Divadlo Na zábradlí together with Ladislav Fialka, where he worked on the development of theatre without words (it’s part of a powerful theatre phenomenon that arose out of the need to circumvent the censorship of the pro-Soviet authorities).

But studies begin with Italian language lessons: two weeks of complete immersion, then lessons during the first semester – and students from Germany, China, Russia, France, and many other countries are already able to speak Italian fairly decently.  Daniel himself grew up in the German town of Bochum, famous for its theatre, which was home to Zadek, Peymann and other famous directors. So the decision to go into theatre business was formed rather early.  Several years ago the private Dimitri school, affiliated with a university in Lugano, began handing out government-issued diplomas. “I can’t claim that theatres are all that desperate to get our graduates,” continues the professor. “They need to think more outside the box themselves, they need to conceive of something new in the profession: do a show, conduct workshops, nurture social contacts, work with children – create their own profession. Because the profession that we owned some twenty, even fifteen years ago, is dying. The older generation of directors caters to their contemporaries, and for the young ones you need to come up with a new language. Today’s artists need to feel responsibility for developing that language, protecting THEIR values.  And for seeking out teachers who could give them such a push.  They’re setting their foot on a new ground, the former one no longer exists.” 

Emotions and rituals

The Dance Symposium is yet another powerful “satellite” of the Segovia Congress.  Every morning all those interested could attend dance classes. Daytime was given to theory – the symposium welcomed masters from the most diverse theatre directions.  Spain’s Vincent Mahiques talked about the Franklin Method in dance, dedicated to interaction between body and mind. Israel’s Ruby Edelman defined the topic of his workshop as follows: “Public demonstration as a natural instinct.”  Belgium’s Coline Billen invited her audiences to “A Dance in the woods”, and Poland’s Jakub Margosiak – to “A Dance with emotion and imagination”. India’s Gargi Malkani acquainted the audiences with creations from the TALEEM Foundation that have to do with health, survival and adaptation. Spain’s Isabel Arance gave a workshop on jazz dance for drama actors. And France’s François Veyrunes proposed to look at dance as a form of relationship.

And in the evenings the dance celebration would set in: the entire town would come together on the square by the Aqueduct (the main attraction of this landmark city and the most well preserved portion of the giant aqueduct of the Roman Empire – a 28-meter stone structure that is held together without an ounce of any sort of binding compound, with the exception of some hundreds of swallow nests).  It was against this grand background, as well as in the small town of La Granja not far from Segovia, that every evening students of the University of Alicia Alonso Dance Department presented a new program that incidentally featured required passages from “Don Quixote” (an homage to Spain and the Russian ballet school) and “Giselle” (the main production in a long – Alonso danced until the age of 75 – life), and, of course, with flamenco.  But there were also many interesting premieres of contemporary choreography – such as “Estudio 3: Miradas” in Alicia Soto’s production, “Spider” in the production of choreographer and dancer Virpi Pahkinen, “Chair Antigone #2” set to the music of and staged by François Veyrunes, “Mimiosumasu” (which means “the start of understanding”) choreographed by Rui Ishihara, “The Urban Dancescape” (music, costumes and choreography by Parimal Phadke), “The Sense of Surface” in Elin Kristofferson’s production, “The Sound of Silence” by choreographer Okbaoui Cheikh, “Rite of Exile – Wounded Eye” by choreographer Anmar Taha, and others.

But perhaps one of the Dance Symposium’s main events was the appearance of the legendary Alicia Alonso herself, who received yet another award to add to her endless collection of orders, medals and titles from all continents. The 97-year-old ballerina is long since unable to rise from her wheelchair, but she continues to be an irreplaceable director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba that she herself founded, an establishment created out of the Russian ballet school (long ago Alicia’s parents brought their constantly dancing girl to ballet-master Nikolai Yavorsky’s private school). Fate was cruel to her, gradually taking her eyesight, but “dancer in the dark” was able to turn her misfortune into a unique ability: virtuosic plasticity of fine movement in place, a high flight and smooth, floating movement across the stage. And congress guests were able to see for themselves that dance still rules her being by watching the inimitable movements of her arms. 

In the footsteps of Daniel Stein, Interpreter

There wasn’t a single ITI congress that went without its own theatre program. The Spaniards, who focused their attention on dance, gave the drama stage to their guests. 

The production of “A Terrified Soul” by Peking Opera is a quintessence of the inimitable Chinese theatre with original voice modulations, tricks, battles, speaking costume details, meaningful masks, and ability to fill a frozen mask from the inside with emotional tension.  There were among congress participants those who saw this art performed live for the first time, such as, for instance, Estonian actress Anu Lamp, who was unable to hide her admiration.  And many spectators were surprised that this play resembled so much Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.  With the only difference being that here the young and vain victor is set on a path of murder by the joyful servants of the proscenium rather than by diabolical witches. And when things came down to the moving woods and the promise that the Chinese Macbeth will fall at the hand of a man “not born of woman”, there was no longer any doubt that the Chinese forces behind the plot have a fairly good knowledge of Shakespeare’s tragedy.  But the finale, where the general with the courage of a Samurai runs himself through with a poisoned sword, thus sparing his victor the guilt of murder and himself the earlier shame, draws a thick line between the morality of the West and the East. 

Cuban play “10 Million” in Carlos Celdran’s production, on the other hand, was an example of austerity and resembled rather a choreographed reading that didn’t take away from the actors’ skills.  The country’s story is told through the story of a dissolving family (the parents’ differing political views play an important role in that dissolution), and the teenage son’s ever agonizing choice between the parents is further compounded by the necessity to make a moral choice, the choice of his own “ideology”.  Rejected by his mother, drawn toward his father, he one day realizes bitterly that his father has betrayed his interests as well. 

But, perhaps, the biggest sensation was caused by Gad Kaynar-Kissinger’s Israeli production of “Shame”, which in its homeland is performed in a small private theatre, but in Segovia was presented under the vaulted ceilings of the university located in the former Santa Cruz monastery.  Unlike his colleague’s productions, the characters in “Shame” bring their real-life story to the court of public opinion. 

There are two of them – Israeli actress Einat Weitzman (who is also the author of the play) and Palestinian actor Morad Hassan. Their paths crossed in Haifa, at the Palestinian Al-Midan theatre. They meet on stage halfway through the act – the Palestinian gently drapes white fabric over the Israelite’s shoulders and takes her backstage: she has already finished her confession, and he has yet to pour out his heart.   Their personal border between Israel and Palestine is that white fabric, that caring gesture. But it is so drastically different from the real border. 

She changes her t-shirts on stage while telling her story, he prepares cocktails and serves them to some of the spectators. TV news come on screen every minute: one moment it’s the Minister of Culture Miri Regev, the next it’s the Minister of Education Naftali Bennett both promising to defund theatres that dare to stage playwrights that assist terrorists.

Once Einat, who was famous through several movies and TV series, dared to go outside in a t-shirt with a stitching of the Palestinian flag (a present from her sister). She was caught by paparazzi camera and instantly became the object of hatred first on the part of social network users and then simply from passers-by who happened to recognize her.  Moreover, she dared to write in the Palestinian publication “Maariv”, dared to speak out against the war with Gaza.  Soon she saw that her name wasn’t in the titles of the new movie that she was featured in, and she heard the following from her agent, “Stop saying what you think, signing petitions, going to demonstrations, posting articles on Facebook. And especially wearing t-shirts with the Palestinian flag. Help me help you”.

Einat’s story is periodically interrupted by Facebook posts addressed to her. Posts wishing her to lose her citizenship, to be thrown to the Arabs to be ripped to pieces, to spend the rest of her days paralyzed, to be endlessly burying her loved ones – are but a small portion of what she read about herself. These days she no longer performs at the Palestinian theatre. But she understands very well how to play her Ophelia from Müller’s “Hamletmachine”: “I go outside in clothes made of blood.” And she now only wears her yellow Palestinian shirt when performing “Shame”.

Morad is a Palestinian from a village near Nazareth, six generations of his ancestors produced oriental sweets. And he, the oldest son in the family, decided that he wanted to be an actor.  He dreamed of playing parts in works by Ziad Rahbani, Ghassan Kanafani.  In Israeli theatres he is only ever given the parts of Arabs. “Thanks to people like me, they would get their collaboration grants,” says Morad, “even though I never saw that money.” He moonlights as a bartender – rehearses his soliloquies in front of bar patrons. He performs in a theatre, whose financing has been frozen because of its repertoire policy. He knows that he will never play Hamlet (or even Guildenstern) or Mack the Knife – his theatre won’t be able to handle such productions.  Morad doesn’t want to fight, he wants to perform and to fight for his values through art. But already certain productions become almost an act of civil disobedience, and Morad is its participant.  Radical colleagues accuse him of being friends with Israeli actress Einat Weitzman (“She is just like the Minister of Culture!”).  And a Jewish girl, who came to the bar, promises to come to his banned production and bring her entire class which is studying Arabic...

Theatre as salvation

The problematic of the production of “Shame” echoed one way or another in the way the congress’ conferences and roundtables operated. The roundtable devoted to theatre in conflict zones discussed the slow death of Palestinian theatres (in particular, the theatre in Ramallah) that were defunded for specific productions, the possibility of those theatres being turned into shopping centers, and the danger of this type of “rebranding”.  The inability of the ITI theatre team, which specializes in conflict zones, to get there once again raised the question of the need for an artist visa that would open up all borders.  But this time, thanks to Indian poetess and actress Rama Mani, these conversations became a document – a petition for the creation of a global artist passport that would turn an artist into a citizen of OURtopia, a world without borders but with the right to a personal opinion in all political questions.  All the more so because every country has its own conflict zones. Even in Japan, where this zone is the space of memory (something Japanese director Sota Shuji discussed).

Many at the congress discussed the salvational role that theatre plays in modern world. Those included Italian director Vito Minoia, who dedicated many years to creating prison theatre and even managed to convince many of the teachers and parents of the necessity to engage teenagers in this type of theatre. And American Emilia Cachapero, who conducted a workshop on developing empathy. And a team out of Burkina Faso (a unique country with sixty languages) that shared its experience in creating a social theatre.

But the most striking statement on this subject was a speech by Konstantin Raikin, who was invited to the congress as one of the two keynote speakers (the other was Spain’s Paloma Pedrero, playwright and director). He talked about theatre being a salvation –from physical pain (as was the case with his great father), from the madness of a revolution (this was how the Polenovo Estate managed to survive – the peasants there were too busy rehearsing for the latest performance to embrace Bolshevist sentiments and “let the red rooster come near” their master), from Stalinist terror (the famous Norilsk Theatre was actually born in a labor camp), from animosity spawned by war (he remains deeply impressed by the recent guest performances in Kiev and Odessa and the roar of applause that had greeted him), from any dehumanization of man.

Olga Foux

Publication date

14 August 2017

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