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On the Program This Fall (2006 Feature on European Theater Festivals)

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, 8 September 2006

The fall performing-arts season has arrived, and some of the international theater world’s most interesting and followed performers will be on stage at European festivals and presenting theaters — the highly curated theaters that bring in international guest artists for short visits.

The festivals and theaters host artists considered to be in the vanguard of dance, theater and multimedia performances, ranging from choreographer Pina Bausch to director Christoph Marthaler to the theater ensembles Big Art Group and Mabou Mines. They provide audiences with an opportunity to catch up with established names in international theater as well as to encounter some important up-and-comers — the events try to draw artists that will create a buzz by virtue of their innovative, provocative work.

Here are some of the highlights of the coming season at Europe’s top festivals and presenting theaters. All take place at various venues in the cities, from traditional theaters to surprising spaces — as in Berlin, in a former men’s sanitarium. Tickets vary widely in price, and because performances usually have short runs, sometimes appearing as briefly as a day or two, tickets can sell out quickly. The best thing to do is to keep a close eye on the Web sites of festivals and theaters and to be ready to move when tickets go on sale.

Festival d’Automne

Paris, Sept. 14-Dec. 19

British and American artists dominate this dance, music, theater and film festival this year. British playwright Martin Crimp will have three plays staged in French translation. His works deal with the corrosive effects of materialism and the poverty of contemporary values, but the way he plays with the narrative form, along with his scathing sense of humor, raises his work above the tendentious critique of many socially oriented playwrights.

Mr. Crimp also wrote the libretto for an opera inspired by the story of the Pied Piper, “Into the Little Hill,” composed by George Benjamin, one of Britain’s foremost, most-versatile composers. Its world premiere will be performed in English by the Opera National and directed by Daniel Jeanneteau (Nov. 22-24).

Robert Wilson will be re-mounting and modifying his historic 1987 production of the late Heiner Müller’s “Quartett” at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe from Sept. 28-Dec. 2. “Quartett” was Müller’s adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” reduced to a 12-page dialogue for two, Merteuil and Valmont. Müller and Mr. Wilson are masters of imagery — verbal and visual — and they gird their arty stylizations with irony and playfulness. According to Joséphine Markovits, the artistic director in charge of the music program, this new incarnation of Mr. Wilson’s confrontation with Müller’s dense text is generating perhaps the most anticipation of any of the festival’s events.

The Wooster Group, one of New York’s most respected ensembles, will return to the festival with an adaptation of “Hamlet,” which will play at the Centre Pompidou from Nov. 4-10; this production will also tour to Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer. In 2004, the group developed a new kind of work with “Poor Theater,” in which the ensemble mimicked performances by Polish director Tadeusz Kantor and American expatriate choreographer William Forsythe — a simultaneous homage and parody. Now, the group will similarly use video samples of Richard Burton’s 1964 stage production of “Hamlet,” as well as other recordings of the play, reenacting scenes from the videos with the irony for which the ensemble is renowned. Their work is a must for understanding the development of experimental theater since 1980.

Two younger American artists who have generated international interest in the past few years will also be performing works in English. Playwright-director Richard Maxwell, known for the deadpan delivery he evokes from his actors, is bringing two works, “Showcase” and “Good Samaritans,” both of which will play in mid-October. Mr. Maxwell has created an utterly idiosyncratic style of acting, one that borders on a vocal monotone but still manages to convey a huge range of color and emotion. He has declared himself an enemy of style and affect, but in his relentless attempts at avoiding them, he ends up making performances in which even a laugh seems to have quotation marks around it.

Caden Manson’s Big Art Group will be performing its “Dead Set #2” from Oct. 17-21 — the work will premiere Sept. 26 at Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer. The director of the Hebbel, Matthias Lilienthal, calls Big Art Group “the most important theater group from New York” right now. Mr. Manson saturates his stage with a wild array of recorded and live video images controlled by and interacting with the actors on stage, creating a caricature of and commentary on the infiltration of media into our daily lives.

In mid- and late November, there will be two Anglophone film series: an examination of mainstream American films called “Double Look,” and a retrospective of the African-American independent film director Charles Burnett. The festival will also host top-notch choreographers, foremost among them being Mr. Forsythe, who will be bringing two modern dance works. His “Three Atmospheric Studies” is his most political piece to date, grappling with the Iraq War. In collaboration with German visual artist Peter Welz, Mr. Forsythe is also presenting “Retranslation of Francis Bacon’s Unfinished Portrait in the Louvre Museum,” inspired by Bacon’s last self-portrait.


Rome, Sept. 29-Dec. 9

“When I came here 20 years ago,” says Monique Veaute, founder and general director of the Romaeuropa Festival, “contemporary art, theater, dance was not present in this city.” Now, she says, Romaeuropa has created a “strong identity as a bridge between the past and the contemporary.”

Most notable is its emphasis on music, particularly electronic music, complemented by an interest in technologically oriented installations and an edgy, youthfully provocative selection of theatrical and dance productions.

For the fourth year, the festival will present a series of electronic-music concerts called “Sensoralia,” with DJs and VJs including Modeselektor, Apparat and S.U.M.O. (Swedish Underfed Music Operators), making Romaeuropa sound like a party that will be difficult to beat. It isn’t surprising that, according to Ms. Veaute, the average age of festival-goers is between 20 and 25.

Equally edgy is a series called “Nightshade,” in which seven well-established, prize-winning choreographers create dances for seven professional strippers. Ms. Veaute says she thought the project was an “interesting reflection about what the body is [and] what you can do with the body. You can sell it, show it, make art with it.” The work aims to reconsider striptease as a serious form of dance through the eyes of both sexes — four of the seven choreographers are women.

One of the “Nightshades” choreographers, Alain Platel, will also be bringing his dance collective, Les Ballets C. de la B., to perform “vsprs,” his latest dance theater project, inspired by Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. The musical score begins with Monteverdi’s opera, which gradually develops strains of anachronistic styles, ranging from Baroque to jazz. Inspired by the books of Oliver Sacks as well as the films of Belgian neurologist Arthur van Gehuchten, “vsprs” examines mental illness and warped perception, respectfully searching for their connection to religious ecstasy and childlike innocence. Enthusiastically received, the work has been invited to many festivals and presenting theaters.

Irish-born actress Fiona Shaw will perform texts by Yeats, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and other authors. Ms. Shaw is one of the U.K.’s top actresses, churning out performances powerful enough to have propelled her across the Atlantic to Broadway. Her 1996 performance in New York of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was a passionate, virtuosic display of acting talent on a spare stage; the same team that helped her on that project, her long-time collaborator and director, Deborah Warner, as well as set and lighting designer Jean Kalman, will also work with her on the current production, called simply “Readings.”

Other performances will explore the confrontation between Eastern and Western performance, particularly dance. Akram Khan, a London choreographer of Bangladeshi descent who has been strongly influenced by the Indian traditional dance, Kathak, has choreographed “Sacred Monsters” for Sylvie Guillem, the principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet of London.

An even more overt cultural clash will involve Jérôme Bel, an avant-garde choreographer living in Paris and Berlin, and Thai dancer and choreographer Pichet Klunchun. The performance, “Shoes,” will take the form of a “conference-show” — Bel and Klunchun will switch between discussing the theoretical differences in the way they approach movement and demonstrating how those differences show up in practice.

Festival de Otoño

Madrid, Oct. 11-Nov. 9

“When someone asks me what the theme of the festival is,” says Ariel Goldenberg, director of the Festival de Otoño, “I always answer: It’s the theme of what is possible to do in Madrid.” The city, he says, has a serious dearth of large stages, and he is often confronted with the reality that he can’t accommodate the performers he wants to invite.

That said, when Mr. Goldenberg characterizes this year’s festival as a “constellation of stars,” he has a point — thanks in part to the fact that stars such as Laurie Anderson and Robert Lepage are performing solo acts. Ms. Anderson will open the festival on Oct. 11 with “The End of the Moon,” her latest collection of wry stories accompanied by music for violin and electronics. Although her work was long known for its use of multimedia technology, her recent performances have shied away from high technology as a result of her ambivalence about society’s infatuation with scientific innovation.

Robert Lepage has no such reluctance about using technology onstage — he often comes across as a stage director who wants to do film work (and he often does). Some of his large-scale works, such as the seven-hour epic “Seven Streams of the River Ota,” can be pretentious, but his solo work tends to balance his craving for dazzling images with an emotional intimacy, vulnerability and focus that creates compelling theater. In “The Andersen Project,” Mr. Lepage plays an author from Quebec invited to write a libretto for the Paris Opéra based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. Struggling to fulfill his commission, the character grapples with personal and aesthetic dilemmas. Mr. Lepage will also be performing “The Andersen Project” at Romaeuropa and at Berlin’s Spielzeiteuropa.

One of the most worthwhile productions at the festival will probably be theater ensemble Mabou Mines’s production of Ibsen’s “Dollhouse,” directed by Lee Breuer. When the production premiered in Brooklyn in 2003, it stirred up a hullabaloo because Mr. Breuer cast midgets in all of the male roles. It sounds gimmicky, but in Brooklyn the cast did a remarkable job of moving beyond the obvious implications of physically shrunken, emotionally shrinking men confronting women who prove beyond their control.

Oskaras Korsunovas, a Lithuanian director, will bring “Romeo and Juliet,” in Lithuanian, with Spanish subtitles. If you don’t know either language but know the play, it may still be worth seeing the production just to enjoy the creative movements and striking images which Mr. Korsunovas is known for. Pina Bausch, Christoph Marthaler and Peter Brook are among the other artists rounding out the schedule.


Berlin, Oct. 26-Feb. 27

Spielzeiteuropa — in English “European theatrical season” — focuses on European theater, although directors such as the Canadian Mr. Lepage show up from time to time. This year’s season so far includes Mr. Lepage’s “Andersen Project,” Pina Bausch’s “Rough Cut,” and a production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” directed by Stéphane Braunschweig. If you could only see one production, though, it should probably be Christoph Marthaler’s “Schutz vor der Zukunft” (Protection from the Future). The performance, in German, will take place in a former men’s sanitarium in Berlin, the Beelitz-Heilstätten, and themes include Nazi euthanasia and the Stalinist purges.

Mr. Marthaler may well be the most-talked-about director in Europe to be almost completely ignored in the English-language media. The Swiss director’s background is a musical one, and his dramatic productions integrate music, mostly folk songs, into the dialogue. He also has a knack for milking humor — sometimes gallows humor, sometimes slapstick, sometimes a mix of both — out of the peculiar-looking actors he works with. His productions tour the circuit of European festivals and presenting theaters constantly, and this year is no exception. He also will be bringing two productions to the Festival de Otoño, the multilingual “Winch Only” and the German-language “Die Fruchtfliege” (The Fruit Fly).

Presenting theaters

Presenting theaters usually bring in many works in a season for very short runs — often just three or four evenings. But a number of artists are touring to more than one theater. In addition to the ones mentioned in the festivals above, a few productions and ensembles are particularly noteworthy.

Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio is Italy’s theatrical answer to alternative rock’s The White Stripes — a creative ensemble anchored around a brother-sister team, the Castelluccis, whose work has been invited to festivals and theaters all over the world and has often provoked widely disparate reactions from its audiences. One of this year’s productions is “Hey Girl!”, directed by Romeo Castellucci, which will tour to Strasbourg’s Le Maillon-Théâtre, Antwerp’s De Singel, Budapest’s Trafó House of Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana’s Cankarjev Dom, Rotterdam’s Schouwburg, as well as Paris’s Festival d’Automne. Another work, “The Cryonic Chants,” will appear at Frankfurt’s Künstlerhaus Mousonturm.

The ensemble is versatile and unpredictable; some of its work can be deeply or even gratuitously disturbing, but, under the leadership of Mr. Castellucci’s wife, Chiara Guidi, the ensemble has also produced highly regarded children’s theater. “Hey Girl!” and “The Cryonic Chants” will show off that versatility, as the former explores how physical gestures create drama, while the latter is a vocal concert for electronic music accompanied by video.

One of Hungary’s best young directors is Arpád Schilling, whose production of “Hamlet” will tour to Paris’s MC93 Bobigny theater. Eastern European directors seem to have a knack for organizing brilliant images in a way that seems effortless and natural, and Mr. Schilling is no exception. He often places tremendous physical demands on his actors, who strain themselves with the disciplined devotion that religious acolytes might show a Guru. Mr. Schilling is also refreshingly pragmatic and flexible; he adjusts his style to a wide variety of texts, some classical, some contemporary, some created by his ensemble.

Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, an avant-garde ensemble from Belgium, will take various productions to Brussels’s Kaaitheater and Frankfurt’s Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, among others. Mr. Lauwers’s Needcompany is celebrating its 20th year of genre-breaking performances in which actors explore the line between acting and nonacting. They are yet another company that demonstrates the playfulness of so much contemporary experimental theater, and are greatly influenced by the Wooster Group. Needcompany’s “King Lear,” which toured to New York in 2001, was performed in English, French and Dutch, but the ensemble coyly manipulated the non-English sections translated on an LED above the actors’ heads. At one point, Regan looked at the screen to remember her husband’s name; later, in the chaotic Act V, the LED translation deliberately failed to keep pace with the dialogue, rendering the audience as disoriented as the play’s characters.

Finally, a version of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes,” adapted by American (and 1996 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”) John Jesurun to apply to the stigma of AIDS, will appear at the Kaaitheater. As New York theater critic Michael Feingold puts it, Mr. Jesurun is famous for “fracturing space, time and common sanity.” Many critics focus on Mr. Jesurun’s deft use of video, but “Philoctetes” deserves special mention for the quality of the text, which manages to jump back and forth quickly between poetry and clever silliness.

Presenting theaters:

De Singel

Hebbel am Ufer


Trafó House of Contemporary Arts

Künstlerhaus Mousonturm

Cankarjev Dom
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Grand Théâtre

MC93 Bobigny

Théâtre de la Ville

Rotterdamse Schouwburg

Le Maillon

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