Carnival of old masters and new

Melisssa Madden Gray

Micahel Laub, The HC Andersen Project

Micahel Laub, The HC Andersen Project

“Tradition with Future” was the catchcry of the 2003 Zuercher Theater Spektakel held amidst the heady heat and electrical storms of summer at Lake Zurich. It is a treasure-trove of the avant-garde and the contemporary in an old-world, carnival set-up.

Outdoor stages, buskers, boaters and bathers, big tops, multi-culti gastronomic stalls and wooden box-like theatres join a complex of permanent venues. Lift the top off any of the magical performing spaces and you might find, for instance, the frenetic activities of Richard Foreman’s ‘brain’, Ong Keng Sen’s sonic global travellers, the drag-singer of Rina Yerushalmi’s take on the Oresteia, or the unrelenting cries of Michael Laub’s naked, shivering little match girl. It’s a strange, rarefied art world, yet simultaneously accessible and community-based.

Artistic Director Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann sees the divisions theatre/music, theatre/dance as no longer valid, and has focussed this year on “Performance Art; the Mediterranean” (enticingly subtitled “blood-revenge, exodus and erotic”) and Australia. She has also included Swiss and youth theatre, local and world music in the Club and the Alpentöne festival. “We do not choose a theme,” she says, “we choose artists, and let the theme reveal itself.

“I want to introduce people to the Old Masters (such as Foreman and Mexican Guillermo Gómez-Peña) before they’re not there anymore. They have been so formative for so many contemporary artists.” Naturally, the political comes into the equation. “The fact that we have companies from Israel, Turkey, Italy, Algeria, Palestine [shows] that there is an intense movement of intellectuals and artists [who] work even in a situation of intense political problems…I think culture and the arts is our platform to create something better. And cultural identification is the beginning of tolerance.”

The Australian presence was well-received—I didn’t get to see Back to Back’s Soft, but it reviewed very well—“poetic and touching” (Musik & Theater)—while Acrobat, wild and wiry on the lake stage (Zurich’s spires and mountains formed an extraordinary night backdrop) received roaring crowds and rave reviews for their explosive “stripping back” to the “essentials” (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) in a highly charged performance of artistry and energy. Sans glitter, sans forced smiles, Acrobat’s is a strong Australian aesthetic—beards and bodyhair and not much else, sunburnt, springy ‘outback’ forms and the nasal tones of the vernacular whirling around the soundscape. One Zurich critic wrote that Tim Barrass’ intense guitar and sample score of “noise, nonsense phrases and trashrock” was worthy of a separate review, another that “this is Circus in the time of Acceleration…a one hour hellride through the centre of the earth to the end of the world.”

From this ‘outback’ realm of simple body and little language to the multifarious MoMO, Neil Thomas and Katy Bowman’s Museum of Modern Oddities. Obscure and perfect at the end of a long wooden walkway, Odd Hours—an ‘installation bar’ created with Andrew Morrish and Zurich artists—was billed to run “from midnight to 7 in the morning of the night before.” ‘Time’ was its broad conceit, and it was a haven for festival guests and for the locally found objects fantastically explained. MoMO became a hub of hilarity—the curator/performers allowing an easy mix of their own brand of infotainment and crowd mayhem. The night I attended, Thomas massaged feet with a vintage contraption, a pickpocket tried his luck, Bowman told a story of a little boy who tried to dig his way to Australia with a spoon, a hillbilly band wandered in, dancing erupted, and Morrish was expert on a vast collection of “CG Jung’s trouser buttons.”

Time was also of the essence in Richard Foreman’s theatre. In sweltering heat, the New Yorker prefaced his latest work Panic! (How to be Happy) by announcing that art is important, but that you don’t have to die for it, and placed a clock facing the audience so that we could monitor the seconds spent sweating. There were many walkouts that night—whether because of the heat or the idiosyncratic nature of Foreman’s work was unclear—but stayers were treated to what the papers dubbed a “search for sense by eccentric desperadoes” (Tages Anzeiger, Zurich) or in Foreman’s words, “a mirror” in which to observe him. “Let’s all join…the misfit club,” said the rosy-cheeked, falsetto trilling pirate…and so we did.

Trademark voiceover loops with a jumpcut score of Schönberg, Mahler and punkrock, crashing glass, sirens, pings, and telephones. An intricate, dissected set of strings and seesaws, spheres and feathers, cabbalistic symbols, magicians’ tools, Egyptian eyes, unwieldy phallic constructs, a giant vagina with hovering bee, a cardboard magic-mountain, and ornate dolls costumed perhaps to echo the performers (a pirate? a highland hell’s angel? a Lolita? a gypsy vamp?). We are in familiar, but endlessly inventive Foreman territory.

This is a landscape of permanent, almost automaton activity and frustration, “Not Yet!” was the most frequent voiceover interrupting the actors’ frenzied rituals of pleasure/death/meaning-seeking. “This is my ticket to a much better life,” says one of the women, and her intermittent hope and resignation in the chaotic circumstances is unusually touching. “Most of my art/life is about wanting grace, transcendence, and the constant failure to achieve this,” said Foreman in a fascinating workshop for actors run concurrently with the festival. “I get irritated with art that doesn’t show this.”

Foreman’s world is unrepentantly his own. It goes nowhere and everywhere. “This is my private collection of lost ideas and the whole world feeds itself with my vanity. Okay?” booms the voiceover (God or Foreman?). “This is the paraphernalia of my youth,” and “this play is like the sacred text of a forgotten people.” ‘Old master’ he may be, but the machinations of his Panic! are as intriguing as ever.

Michael Laub’s The HC Andersen Project had great reviews in Zurich, and I caught it in Berlin. Laub melds snippets of the contiguous kitsch and tragedy of Andersen’s fairytales, artwork, diary entries and Hollywood portrayals with his more perverse predilections and the private stories of his performers. The show begins with Hildigunn Eydfinsdottir’s simple story of her “favourite dress” (in which she received her first kiss) and segues into Andersen’s story of the little match girl. Laub pushes his artists to their extremes. He says he knew in rehearsal that asking Eydfinsdottir to take off her dress and recite the fairytale would make her cry (Taz, Berlin). The images of Astrid Endruweit’s manic red shoe dance, Stephanie Weyman’s contortion from beauty to frothing-faced masturbator (taunting Andersen and us) and the little mermaid’s non-dancerly feet simply crossed to form ungainly, joli-laide flippers pounding helplessly on the floor, will remain poignant and stark in my vision of the Zurich idyll.

Zuercher Theater Spektakel, Zurich, Switzerland, Aug 14-31, 2003, www.theaterspektakel.ch

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 4

© Melissa Madden Gray; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004