An arts festival with barely a stage in sight

BRUSSELS — As Brussels’ biggest performing arts festival kicked off last weekend, there were few traditional stages in sight. Instead, ...


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

There are practical reasons for the flurry of site-specific performances 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 upheaval, many performance venues in Brussels have been booked with shows rescheduled this year.

The constraints have led to creative programming, showcasing areas of the city that even frequent visitors may not necessarily know. To see “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance”, a family puppet show created by Daniela Ortiz, spectators had to stroll down a side alley of the large Cinquantenaire park – and stop in front of the “Monument à la Pionniers Belges au congo.

Unveiled in 1921, this sculpted tribute to the colonization of the Congo is deeply uncomfortable to watch today. It features racist images and inscriptions that present Belgians as the saviors of the local black population. Since Belgium recently started to publicly acknowledge with its brutal history and remove the statues associated with it, “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” could hardly be more timely.

Ortiz hails from Peru and remains based there. Here, she attempts to evoke the fate of Congo’s colonial era through animal puppets manipulated by two performers behind a curtain. In the story, the central character, an okapi, is captured by cheerful white puppets representing the colonizers.

From a Belgian zoo, the okapi (a close cousin of the giraffe, originally from the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo) then aspires to the independence of its native Congo and conspires with other animals to overthrow the colonial regime. (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 works as a counterpoint to its monumental Brussels backdrop. Unfortunately, it was far too short and sketchy to make it a captivating theatre: Initially advertised for an hour, the performance ended up lasting 25 minutes.

There was more to remember from the unclassifiable “Madama Chrysanthemum” by Satoko Ichihara, another work that was created in a premonitory setting, the museums of the Far East. 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 were closed for nearly a decade, for security reasons, so “Madame Chrysanthemum” was a rare opportunity to look around. Ichihara, a Japanese writer and director, also offered a playful introduction. The impassive Aurélien Estager, one of the two actors of “Madame Chrysanthème”, welcomed the public outside the Chinese pavilion and proceeded to a simulation of a visit to the surrounding monuments.

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

The critical light in which the show presents Japan’s royal family has made it unplayable in Japan, Icihara said. Its surreal twists probably wouldn’t help. Throughout, Estager takes on the role of a dog named Emperor, and Takenaka plays its owner, who dreams of being impregnated by an emperor (which is deliberately unclear) even as she tells Masako’s story. .

While “Madama Chrysanthemum” diverts its orientalist setting 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’s a testament to the ingenuity of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts that organizers have secured permission to stage an entire show inside the Senate Debating Chamber, with spectators watching from the senators’ lion-decorated seats Belgians.

“Se questo è Levi”, created by Italian company Fanny & Alexander, features excerpts from interviews given by Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who recounted 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, has finished with an answer, anyone can chime in, using the microphone on each senator’s table.

It may be contrived, but it’s still oddly moving to address Levi, who died in 1987, so personally. When I asked him, “Do you think you can erase a man’s humanity?” Argentieri, who mimics Levi’s demeanor down to the way he put his glasses on his forehead, looked at me for a few seconds with unspoken pain before responding.

Would it work in other contexts? It’s debatable, but in the Belgian Senate, Levi’s eloquent reflections on the Holocaust and its legacy had the gravitas of an official audience, for posterity. Maybe we should hear them more often.

“Se questo è Levi”, like almost all the other Kunstenfestivaldesarts productions, has been 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 in other places subtitles are used.) This may seem normal for the course in Brussels, the multilingual home of the main institutions of the European Union, but the city’s theater scene is not quite used. to her.

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

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

The range of languages ​​can be somewhat dizzying, as was the case with “Hacer Noche”, a two-hour Spanish show presented in the old railway museum nestled above Gare du Nord. The play is a calm and sensitive conversation between the director, Bárbara Bañuelos, and Carles Albert Gasulla, a cultured man who works as a parking attendant. But there’s plenty of translated text to absorb hearing the Spanish, and at times I wish the subtitles had slowed down to let their points about class, sanity, and precarious work land.

Still, that’s a minor complaint. In its current form, the Kunstenfestivaldesarts shows Brussels in its best light: a city of converging cultures, as open to addressing its past as it is to welcoming others.

Kunstenfestivaldesarts
Various locations in Brussels, until May 28.

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