Dallas — Teatro Dallas’ 18th International Festival began with an appropriate activity: a three-day workshop on sound and physical theater. It is fitting, given this year’s festival dedication to Eugenio Barba (Italian born but with Danish citizenship) and his unique method of creation from the body, which has been elaborated by his company, the Odin Teatret (began in 1964 in Oslo, Norway, and based in Holstebro, Denmark since 1966). In 1979 Eugenio Barba founded, conceived and still directs the International School of Theatre Anthropology (ISTA), which ‘’is a multicultural network of performers and scholars giving life to an itinerant university whose main field of study is Theatre Anthropology… ISTA researches into the technical basis of the performer in a transcultural dimension. The objective of this methodological choice… is the understanding of the fundamental principles which engender the performer's "presence" or "scenic life" (see here). Today, the Odin Teatret’s 33 members come from 11 countries and four continents.
One of the company members since the 1980s, Frans Winther, a Danish composer, musician and director, led The Rhythm of the Performance & the Actor’s Music Workshop, held at the Latino Cultural Center February 5-7 for 3.5 hours each evening. Twenty-one area actors and artists participated in this intense and fruitful experience. Else Marie Laukvik, a Norwegian-born Danish actress with the Odin since the theater’s inception, led an educational, historical tour of the group’s long history through video presentations after each of the workshops.
The festival officially opened to the public on Thursday, Feb. 8 with Los Escultores del Aire (Sculptors of the Air) from Barcelona, which presented The Legend of the Faun & The Journey, a one-man piece performed and created by Mai Rojas, formerly with Cirque du Soleil. The following two evenings, the festival featured its centerpiece, the Odin Teatret’s two-person intimate, chamber performance entitled Memoria, a piece based on several stories from Holocaust survivors, performed by Else Marie Laukvik, with musical accompaniment by Frans Winther. Both performances were in English, and seating was limited to 40 at each performance.
While critics normally do not participate in events such as workshops aimed towards theater practitioners, I did. Why? It is my firm belief that theatre critics greatly benefit by gaining multiple sensitivities from the points of view not only of traditional acting, writing, directing, and design, but of any technique employed to create a performance (and note that I did not use the word ‘’play’’). Also, given my doctoral studies on Latin American theatre, it is impossible to overlook the influence and presence of Eugenio Barba during the latter half of the 20th century to today, 54 years later. And, while the Odin Teatret and Barba’s groundbreaking methods of anthropological, physical theater may not be household names in the United Stated, this only points to the limited scope of our educational system, particularly with regards to world theater. Overcoming my initial hesitation (I am a dancer but not a trained actor), Cora Cardona insisted that I could not miss out on the first-hand experience of such a pivotal part of theater history, one that I had only read in books. Once more, we have Teatro Dallas’ Cardona to thank for bringing international theater to Dallas.
The workshop, attended by independent as well as affiliated area theater practitioners included members of Teatro Dallas, Cara Mía Theatre Company and six acting students from the University of North Texas. Our maestro, Frans Winther, assigned each one of us to bring a four -stanza poem and a few lines from a song. (Disclosure: I cannot carry a tune.) While the workshop was led in English, our lingua franca, we could bring our poems and songs in any language, which turned out to be Spanish and English. Even though the weather was not in our favor with thunderstorms and freezing rain, everyone showed up at the Latino Cultural Center, the event’s hub. The workshops were held in the gallery and not the theater itself.
Each evening began with physical and vocal warm-ups, including our favorite, a Maori greeting of sticking out our tongues to one another. In the first session we found a partner; I was fortunate to have been paired with Cara Mía’s fabulous Frida Espinosa Müller. We were urged to find ‘’irrational’’ physical and aural ways to share our intertwined poetic lines. Irrational meant to pull our bodies out of the trodden and stereotypical, to look for ways to disassociate physical and spoken language from the tyranny of literal connotations. After working out our speech and movements, each small group demonstrated an improvised five-minute piece to the class and to the maestro, who tweaked and fine-tuned our work with various suggestions. There was no text other than the scattered lines of miscellaneous poems uttered by the actors in Spanish and English. As time went by, the utterances mixed with other sounds and with fragments of songs. While improvisation began our creative work, once the movements and sounds were set, we were expected to perform them subsequently with precision and exactly the same.
At the end of the physical work, each evening Else Marie Laukvik presented a video from the Odin’s archive and spoke to us about the various vignettes of performance histories we were about to watch, including work they did in the 1970s in Perú, while under military repression. This proved to be a testimony, a living history of not only the Odin Teatret’s work, but of her own participation since the age of 20. She is currently 74, thus not only sharing her own lifetime but that of director Barba and ensemble members of the company.
The following evening, again against all odds from the weather, we all showed up, eager to continue with the magic. This time we were placed into larger groups of four and given an element: earth, fire, wind, water. Urged to get away from staid realism, we were prompted to find ways to perform but not necessarily represent, each element. My group’s element was earth. After brainstorming, collectively we devised a series of sound and movements to convey earth. As each group demonstrated their element, the maestro again offered suggestions to better utilize the space around us, to become aware of our entrances, exits, our voice projection, and our physical presence performing. No unnecessary movements allowed. Magic developed from the way in which our individual pieces from the first and second days came together through the imagination of our maestro, Frans Winther, who brought lightness and joy to our work, together with discipline.
Discussion followed each evening during which students noticed the nature of the energy that sound brings, our awareness of space, the body’s ability to create, the power of engaging the actor-as-creator, and the vitality of devised work, among others. Our languages, Spanish and English, mixed the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz with that of William Blake and Rubén Darío. Our musicalscapes also crossed time and genres, as did our bodies which ranged from the very young to the mature. Frans deemed that our 15-minute piece was ready for an intimate audience on the third evening, and thus friends and family were invited. The recording of our piece can be found here. Mobilizing 21 bodies, some trained others not, into creative unison falls right on track with the origins of the Odin Teatret, whereby Barba took on actors who had not been admitted into traditional acting academic programs and thus began a life-long discovery of a performance practice based on the presence of the actor-creator.
Unrelated to the Odin Teatret, the Festival officially opened to the public with The Legend of the Faun & The Journey, by the international company based in Barcelona, Los Escultores del Aire, with the exceptional Mai Rojas, a gem of physical theater and storytelling. Rojas, originally from Costa Rica, created a one-man, multi-media performance of visual and imaginative brilliance. Mixing the physical beauty of dance with the eloquent narrative of theatrical story-telling, the Faun comes to life as a force of nature, not only created in myth, but through the sheer will of a painter who wants to create a painting so real, it defies the canvas. Reminiscent of Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Circular Ruins,” whereby a man creates another through his will and imagination, Rojas’ Faun challenges us to consider the half-beast, half-human in all of us.
Visually The Legend of the Faun evokes Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro with great efficacy through the discriminating use of minimal lighting, and Rojas’ own painted body, which gives it a multi-dimensional visual effect. Extremely economical in terms of props, there is only a painter’s tripod on casters, and everything needed is there. He also choreographs movements that defy notions of modern dance, incorporating his strong and agile body into fascinating tableaux. Rojas also emerges as a fantastic mime, particularly with the scene whereby his right hand, covered with a small fedora type black hat and a tiny jacket, becomes a painter.
While both pieces are accompanied by a pre-recorded narrative, visuals, and music, the second piece, The Journey, stands out in memory as one in which the human condition’s pathos and fragility are deeply felt. The premise is simple: a man, his suitcase, a train station, and all of the journeys left undone. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s nostalgic musical composition Speigel im Speigel accentuates those trips never made, those words never said, and the nostalgia of personal loss and regret in the most poignant of ways. Mai Rojas and Los Escultores del Aire left an indelible impression on the audience, many of whom stayed after the performance to greet him.
An appropriate transition onto Memoria, Odin Teatret’s piece was about the Jewish children Moshe and Stella, based on the American pioneer of Jewish studies, Yaffa Eliach (founder of The Center for Holocaust Studies in New York) in her book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (1982) based on 89 tales adapted from thousands of Eliach’s students’ papers (all descendants of the Holocaust survivors) at Brooklyn College from 1974-1981. The stories of Moshe and Stella are from this book.
Memoria was created 27 years ago by Eugenio Barba, unproduced for 20 years and then revived seven years ago. The mainstage of the Latino Cultural Center was transformed into a small space of 40 seats, thereby making this an intimate chamber piece. Else Marie Laukvik and Frans Winther sat in ordinary seats on a minimal stage design of musical instruments, a teddy bear in a dress, a small coffee table with a lamp and tea set atop a rug, and two large backdrops covered with a textured beige cloth, possibly alluding to old-fashioned wallpaper. The color palette was that the monochromatic sepia. Later these would be individually turned around to disclose black and white images of Jewish writers Primo Levi and Jean Améry, to whom this piece is dedicated. Both of them survived Nazi concentration camps, only to later commit suicide.
Memoria is designed in two parts, the first of which follows a straight narrative line, beginning with the story of Moshe, a young boy survivor from the Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in upper Austria in 1944. Else Marie Laukvik sat calmly dressed in an early 20th century long, beige frock and told this and other stories with lucidity and dancing eyes. While as a young woman, Else Marie created many characters with great physical vigor, at age 74, her creativity has not dulled, rather, it seems to have concentrated into the essentials: a still wonderful speaking and singing voice which emotes and changes pitches to accentuate a Yiddish cry here and there while also tilting with the brilliance of youthful wonder in both Moshe’s and Stella’s stories. Stella was from a small village in Ukrainian Galicia, from which she was ripped from her family never to see them again. She survived by hiding in a barn for nine months without seeing the sun, only to return an orphan to a home occupied by others. Moshe left bloodied footprints in the snow as the skin of his feet tore off after being forced to stand roll call for hours at the concentration camp. The music in his heart from his synagogue helped him survive. The melody never dies.
Memoria, is, of course about remembering. However, the neatness of chronological storytelling transforms into the fractured pieces of trauma and traumatic memory in the second part. Accompanied by Frans Winther with an accordion, two violins and his own voice, and she also with a small accordion, they bespoke of what remains, pieces in Hebrew, Yiddish and German, pieces of survivors’ bravery. Memoria is dedicated to two survivors who eventually took their own lives, the Italian anti-Fascist who survived Auschwitz in 1945, writers Primo Levi and Austrian Jean Améry (born Hanns Chaim Mayer). Sometimes the weight of remembering or choosing not to remember is heavier than the will to live.
As I watched Laukvik perform from memory over an hour’s worth of text without missing a single beat, I had the sensation that she danced with her eyes, those very same intensely blue eyes that we had seen days before in recordings of her very physical performances as a young woman. Mine teared with reverence at the witnessing of a craft refined during 50 odd years. Moving little of her body, Laukvik is still capable of saying more with her eyes than most actors with their entire bodies. Indeed. Craft refined to its essence, this may just be another jewel in a crown already studded with accolades for both Laukvik as an individual, for the Odin Teatret ensemble, and for the genius of Eugenio Barba.
»Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is an advisory member of the Latinx Theater Commons. Teresa.Marrero@unt.edu.