Iulia PopoviciContemporary Performing Arts in Romania
Four performing arts works that might appear as not having much in common, and yet, the lines that connect them – from 2008 to 2013, from choreographic installation to theatre production – are drawing an entire fractured but passionate landscape.
When they started researching and artistically reflecting, back in 2008, in the framework of the international project “What to Affirm, What to Perform/ Mapping the Invisible History”, on the “Hammer Without a Master”, a legendary but largely undocumented Romanian dance performance from 1965, Manuel Pelmuș, Brynjar Bandlien and Florin Flueraș first thought about reenactment. That was, largely, the context of the whole project – but soon it proved not to match the reality in the field. Stere Popescu’s “Hammer…” was, in the end, a founding legend meant to channel contemporary energies. Constantly in search of historic and ideological legitimacy, it has since constituted an enormous pressure for the Romanian contemporary dance that appears to have been born as a consistent form of art only after 1990. Were its roots being forgotten or perhaps they never existed? “Memory means movement”, said Brynjar Bandlien, and that’s how the “Romanian Dance History” was in fact shaped: by moving away from idealising the past and its memory.
“Romanian Dance History” (RDH) is not a contemporary dance performance but a project about absence (of history, of past, of public conscience), presence (of the moving/dancing body) and the present. Many episodes of the series are context-based and as such they involve happenings and interventions during performances (for example, during ImpulsTanz in Vienna) given by renowned Western choreographers (with or without their previous knowledge), for instance, Manuel Pelmuș considered the moment he was officially handed the Berlin Art Prize as an “RDH”performance. In its authors’ questioning of the mechanism of legitimacy, RDH researched and re-codified, at a certain point, the socially infamous Manele (a type of Turkish-influenced Roma music, related to turbo-folk) dance, inviting members of the audience to join the artists performing rhythms usually associated with poverty and criminality.
Every performance within the “Romanian Dance History” project is basically marked as a “new” episode because its authors strongly believe in emphasizing the role that context and presence (of both performers and audience) play in the narrative the performance creates. RDH has turned into a continuous challenge of the cultural network of prestige built around contemporary dance: it’s always ironic, playful, apparently unstructured, sometimes rough, interactive and participative; it plays with the performers’ atypical physicality, of bodies with or (mostly) without formal dance training, and with the expectations of regular dance audiences. It doesn’t believe in the idea of artistic masterpiece, so unnatural for an art based on the ephemeral, and it totally rejects the burden of national and artistic representativeness. In the end, “Romanian Dance History” is a project of cultural hacking and social disturbance – one cannot entry history smoothly, one has to slam the door and then rewire the whole concept of historicity.
Gianina Cărbunariu’s “Typographic Majuscule” (2013) also deals in a challenging way with the ideas of memory, history and reenactment – this time, of real events, as they were recorded in the secret police (Securitate) 1980s surveillance files. A year before, Cărbunariu made “X mm out of Y km”, a conceptual performance entirely based on one five-page transcript from a well-known dissident’s surveillance file, an artistic approach trying to investigate, with a very theatrical means (embodiment, the practice of rehearsals), the idea of ‘absolute reality’ so commonly associated with the archives of the communist secret police. With “Typographic…”, the author-director went back to the search for truth and heroism during communism, again, using what she calls ready-mades: the whole script exploits materials from a high-school student’s 200-page Securitate file and interviews with former surveillance officers (preserved by the Educational Department of the institutional body currently in charge of the Securitate archives), and so does the video-projection in the performance proper.
In 1981, Mugur Călinescu, a 16-year-old boy, was writing pro-union, anti-dictatorship slogans on the walls of his hometown in northern Romania. It took the secret police a long time to identify him, and what followed was a well-orchestrated campaign of interrogation, surveillance and defamation. Gianina Cărbunariu’s performance is a fictitious – yet based on real documents – story of this frantic and disproportionate search for the author of the inscriptions and of Mugur’s subsequent social exclusion, the way everybody (except his powerless mother) – his father, his friends, his teachers – fails to understand or support the young student. But, in the same time, „Typographic Majuscule” deals with something more than the never-ending issue of the communist social legacy: the question of how to (theatrically and artistically, in general) represent the past. In her unique documentary theatre language that she has explored throughout the years, mainly starting with “20/20” (2009), a performance about the ethnic conflicts in Transylvania in 1990, Gianina Cărbunariu is never in search of the ‘truth’ but of the social or community beat.
Moving at an accelerated pace, using non-realistic techniques and their own versatile physicality, all actors in “Typographic…” play multiple characters – with the exception of Mugur, the protagonist himself. Even if involved in direct dialogue – with his parents – he doesn’t actually exist. He is not the hero of his own story – each and every other character, as well as instances of social life take unwarranted ownership of Mugur’s existence. The young boy is deprived of his identity twice: first, by the representatives of the party-state, and then again by his social group. And so, in Gianina Cărbunariu’s vision, the constructed narrative of Romanian communism as a history of permanent clash between the people and the state, of victims and perpetrators, becomes one of complicity, coexistence and silent, anonymous heroes. And that continues today.
Aesthetically and thematically poles apart, “Parallel” and “Quartet for a Microphone” tell the same story of the Romanian independent performing arts scene: they are both artists-driven, process-based projects, produced outside any traditional frame and essentially obscuring the lines between different professional positions (dramaturge/dramatist, director, choreographer, performer) in creating a work of performing arts and generating meaning.
When she decided to do “Quartet for a Microphone”, Vava Ștefănescu had no producer and no money. She just had an obsessing idea, about a performance – with three dancers in a phone booth and a form of live sound mixing directly reacting to the movement – that was in the same time “a choreography of bodies and a choreography of sounds”. By that time, the year 2008, the National Dance Centre in Bucharest, whose artistic director was Vava, was reaching its most glorious moment: it became an integral part of international projects and it was generating its own ones. Inviting internationally renowned dance pieces, the Centre was also the main grant-provider, nationally, for the production of new work. But Vava Ștefănescu had an urge to reinvent herself – with a choreographic installation originally designed for visual arts galleries and museums, away from the performing context in which she had become one of the landmark names of the post-1990 contemporary dance scene in Romania.
In the end, the production of “Quartet for a Microphone” was financed privately, by an audience member, the founder of a cultural website that works based on voluntary contributions. After a series of initial performances, ‘Quartet…” entered a dormant period, and it was not resumed until 2013, with a different ‘cast’, even if with the same gender distribution – thus becoming (because it depends so much on improvisations, body relations and the performers’ personal artistic experiences) a substantially different rendering of the original concept: taking contemporary dance out of the dance floor.
“Quartet…” is a visual and sensitive experience, forcing the three performers locked in a claustrophobia-inducing booth to fight for space, to explore their bodies, to adjust themselves to a rhythm of life dictated by alien music, while creating their own sound environment. They are totally exposed to the gaze of the audience that surrounds them, held captive in their own world but too close to (enjoy) a different intimacy, alone alongside others. The performance is shaped through the eyes of the spectators that are otherwise left to witness a struggle for existence. But witnessing means engaging in the production of meaning, as part of this complex dynamic of relationships between movement and sound, the noises of live bodies and composed music, the bodies reaching their human limits and the powerless outside gaze.
There is no fixed script and no pre-written music score, except for the general conceptual lines, nothing pre-exists the evening performance except for the space and the individual sensibility of each performer. “Quartet for a Microphone” is a one-time meeting of performative states of bodies and minds.
Somehow, a similar scenario unravels in “Parallel”. A collaboration between a very young stage director (Leta Popescu), an equally young actress (Lucia Mărneanu), her professor at the University, an experienced actor and choreographer (Ferenc Sinkó), and a multitalented performing artist with no formal training in acting (kata bodoki-halmen), “Parallel” was co-produced by GroundFloor Group and Colectiv A in the framework of the “Temps d’Images” Festival in Cluj, organized by the latter. (Co-)producing meant, in this case, giving the project the first ever chance to exist (happen) in front of a festival audience, creating a basic safety net for what most producers in Romania, independent or not, would have considered an extremely risky endeavor.
And that, because “Parallel” is the first and only performance piece dealing with female homosexuality and corporeality that was made in Romania (or Romanian, depending on the identity approach and on the emphasis put on language and ethnicity – subjects that “Parallel”, which is originally performed in English, also tackles) in the last decade. Or ever, if one doesn’t count Antonia Behr’s collaboration with Romanian choreographers. Based on Lucia Mărneanu and kata bodoki-halmen’s personal experiences, “Parallel” is a collective work developed out of improvisations and a lengthy process of investigation of identity issues: the self-perception of gender and sexuality, social acceptance and rejection.
It’s not group therapy, it’s not a form of coming-out, it’s not advocacy but it is a delicate theatrical statement. The fragility and delicacy of the work originates in the profoundly performative nature of “Parallel”, in the personal way in which it involves the two performers, the non-normative ambiguity of their bodies and the complex role-playing they assume. Lucia and kata start by engaging in what appears to be an extreme fitness session, mixing clumsy aerobic exercises and expertly handled dumbbells. Then, the already exhausted bodies are explored, their femininity rejected and slowly subjected to a process of apparent transformation. Is it a type of travesty, an act of male impersonation, a nod to transgenderism? No, none of these, not exactly. Lucia and kata’s metamorphosis speaks about how the (gender) appearance of our body is supposed to naturally match our inner identity and how unnatural but socially normative this assumption is. There’s a whole world of ambivalence in how the two performers’ bodies change – and why: it’s not a masculinisation but an exploration of other territories, away from the limited repertoire of forms and images in which society sculptures the human corporeality. And the social gaze materializes into words: Lucia Mărneanu’s scene of misogynistic and homophobic stand-up comedy and kata bodoki-halmen’s make-believe drag king show. Both are popular theatrical forms of entertainment and they are both to be watched as shows; but they are also, both of them, artistic means of hiding behind masks and challenging the dominant perspective, the gaze, the stereotypes, the laughter, the buoyancy. Laughing comes naturally but it also hits you back…
“Parallel” is, in the end, a performance about the refusal to choose who you are according to the master narratives, not only in what concerns sex and gender. In its own sense, “Parallel” is hacking, just like “Romanian Dance History”, our social identity programming.
Iulia Popovici – is a cultural journalist and performing arts critic and curator. She is editor for the performing arts section at the “Observator cultural” weekly cultural magazine (Bucharest) and co-curator of the Independent Performing Arts Platform in the framework of “Temps d’Images” Festival, Cluj.
She writes about the alternative performing arts scene, collectives and artists in Romania and Eastern Europe, engaged art and documentary practices, as well as about regional identity and the social challenges of contemporary art (in magazines such as “IDEA”, “Scena.ro”, “Long April”, “Criticatac.ro” – Romania, “UBU”, “Le Bruit du Monde” – France, “Szinház” – Hungary; “Dialog” and “Teatr” – Poland, “HowlRound.com”, “Critical Stages”, etc.).
Previously, she worked for the “Ziua” national newspaper and was a member of the editorial board of the leftist platform “CriticAtac.ro”. She is currently a member of the directorial board of ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency (Romania).