Saturday 6th July – BE FESTIVAL (final night)
“Everything you are about to see has already happened, for real.”
I’m getting used to enigmas. It’s been a week of challenges, as we enter the Studio Theatre for Marco D’Agostin and Teresa Silva’s Avalanche I barely notice the two dancers slowly circumnavigating an expansive white fabric stretched across the floor. As we take our seats, the house lights still full, I start to watch them more closely – moving around the covered stage and each other with intimacy, yet never touching.
The house lights fade, the traditional theatre divide brings back the balance of performer and audience that has so often been tipped this week. The two protagonists continue to deftly weave in and out of each other, dressed in blue boiler suits with coloured patches on their breast pockets. Something about this makes me feel like I’m in a bubble; the padded floor, the detached stares to imaginary walls ceiling. The confusion. The control. But I feel safe, kind of. For now.
Eventually making their way to the front of the stage, standing together, Marco and Teresa begin to explain, “between us, we speak five languages…” They tell us this in each of those languages – repeated, overlapped and accentuated, then omitting pockets of speech to create a staccato and symbiotic word play that intensifies throughout the performance. But there’s an embrace and humour here too – a kind deprecation; we are not being fooled or made fun of, and it’s not clever for the sake of being clever. It’s just clever.
I can’t fully understand or explain what begins to happen next, but the two dancers accumulate speed as they continue to duck in and out of each other’s bodies and dialects with an almost mechanical delivery of dance, speech and song. The best metaphor I can think of is that of a radio, being tuned in and out of several stations from across the world (it felt like more than five nationalities to me). There’s commentary and mimicked conversation – a narrative that keep getting picked up and put down. It’s disjointed and schizophrenic, yet so precise that I’m pulled deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. Metaphor No2.
The commitment is beguiling. And by the time Teresa is collapsed on the floor and Marco is dancing his final dance, I’m crouched forward in my seat feeling like I’m on the edge of purgatory looking in. Avalanche’s final scene has the couple sitting round a fire recanting what they saw, as if returning from an acute acid trip – one they thought they would be able to share, but can only communicate to each other retrospectively and once the shattered glass has been safely swept away. Much like their audience. Avalanche, the last evening’s programme at BE FESTIVAL 2019 opens with an adventurous and impressive piece of theatre.
We remain in our seats for Yellow Place – a short dance performance from the Madrid based Kor’sair which begins with a single protagonist, dressed the titular colour, dancing in a spot lit rainstorm. Alone. Their soon to be short lived lover walks out on the back of the stage behind them, pushing a shopping trolley – an oddly comedic prop that will eventually become an impressive part of the routine. And impressive is the word, from the couple’s initial meeting, where the arms of one snake themselves through the jacket of the other, they dance out their stormy relationship to its ultimately destructive outcome – manifesting in passion, jealousy, addiction and regret.
Fighting and fucking, sparring and passion, all with such unity that there are points where you literally can’t see where one body ends and the other begins. Yellow Place (the metaphorical point of passion and solace) is simply superb. And although I got to shake one of the dancer’s hands at the end of the evening, I’m still not 100% sure either of them are actually human.
BE Next take to the stage now, as the 21 strong company of 14-19 years olds perform a self-crafted piece about both the end of the world and their own impending death – asking, in 21 years where will both the planet and its population be? Obliterated by a meteor is one option, or ravaged into an ecological extinction caused by us, the adults and audience.
But whilst this all sounds overtly ominous and accusatory (indeed, BE Next don’t shy away from the either more serious sides of their story or pointing the finger) this young ensemble deliver a thoroughly engaging performance.
From the ‘MOO OFF’ that introduces the show, which is precisely what it says it is, to the continuous line up of bucket list ambitions (“buy a car, crash a car, fix a car,” being possibly my personal favourite) BE Next take us though their hopes and fears for the future – including a macabre tour of the Earth’s extinct animals, right through to a popcorn fed front row seat for the planet’s final moment. Or not, if Superman has anything to do with it. A fantastic example of group dynamics; well-staged, excellently delivered, thoughtful and funny, this company’s short production shows great promise from its myriad of members.
And as we break for the Interval Dinner, which has become as much a part of an evening at BE FESTIVAL as the performances, I get to discuss this with some now even familiar faces. It’s a useful chance to off-load, and as I tell my table mates for this evening: “I never thought I particularly liked dance, or understood it.”
But I have fallen in love with some of the performances at this year’s BE FESTIVAL – both Avalanche and Yellow Place mean more to me than a one-night stand, and I am genuinely heartbroken I won’t get to see THE END again. Or until next year, if the opinion polls are anything to go by.
Then in a curious twist of confirmation and fate, as we take our seats back in the Studio Theatre I end up sitting next to Paula Rolosen from Haptic Hide – who’s show, Punk?, was not fully embraced by our Wednesday night reviewer. “But…why?” being Emma’s repeated response. But here is a sheer joy of this festival, the immediacy and communication – between the audience itself, but also between the audience and the performers who are their focal point. I was able to briefly discuss this with Rosolen but was robbed by house lights and train schedules – intruders that stole my chance to continue a thoroughly enjoyable conversation and an exchange I don’t often get to have with our audience (readers). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… it’s all about an open debate.
Tom Cassini is top and tailing BE FESTIVAL 2019 – opening with his new show, I Promise You That Tonight…, and closing with an extended version of last year’s festival first prize winner, Someone Loves You Drive With Care.
I wasn’t sold on I Promise You That Tonight…, feeling it relied too heavily on clunky work play and a central mystery that was too easy to decipher. As in, I picked some of it up. Plus, if you’ve got blow torches on stage you should use them. But I’m a shock treatment traditionalist.
Someone Loves You Drive With Care, however, has a lot more going on. As soon as the lights come up, Cassini is seated centre stage at a desk – glaring out across the audience with a quiet menace towards us all, a portent of the performance to follow. Before I can shuffle into an appropriate childlike pose of apprehension, he drives a 6inch nail into his nasal cavity. It’s an effective opener and one that is quite clearly happening. No need for a more tactile investigation here.
Cassini’s shtick, across both shows, has been to challenge what we believe – as he tells us (I think in both shows) “some of these things are real, some are not,” then leaves us to argue over the difference. This is not a new premise, but Cassini’s stage presence is wonderfully unique – quizzing the world and his place within it, with double entendre and word play that is more effective when used to effect. But what has perhaps the most impact is his honesty, or what I believe is his honesty. Regardless of how many barbaric hooks he can put through his face (literally, nose to throat), needles he can swallow (or not), pulses he can stop and tables he can levitate, it’s the story of his brother deciding not to cry again that leaves the biggest impression on me. Well, that and the fact that his fingers weren’t severed in a spring-loaded rat trap.
Penn & Teller have some big shoes to fill, but as I was reliably informed over dinner (and by Cassini himself during the show) the man is only 24; if he can survive the years and overloaded rhetoric that stand in his way, then this a performer with a fascinating portfolio to offer the world.
Indeed, as Cassini would tell you himself: “I was born much younger than I am now”.
Friday 5th July – BE FESTIVAL (penultimate night)
It’s the penultimate evening of BE FESTIVAL and we are rushed into the Studio Theatre at REP, like the last two people on a long haul flight. Mercifully no one knows it’s us who have been holding up the show, as the room is pitch black.
But it’s not a room anymore, it’s a cave – a 34,200 acre karst complex buried beneath the Cantabrian Mountains of Castile and Leon in Northern Spain, to be precise. Light Years Away is created and narrated by Edurne Rubio Barredo, telling the story of her father and uncle’s time spent mapping the Cuevas de Ojo Guareña during Francisco Franco’s regime in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It’s a reunion too, as the speleologist’s have returned to Ojo Guareña after decades away from the subterranean labyrinthine.
My friends feels claustrophobic, and as the gradual soft lights on the large projection screen start to take shape there is some comfort – but the sensation is still a little unnerving. I start to freak out a little when there is a 50metre crawlspace to navigate; lying flat on your belly with the roof of rock pressing down on your head, I can’t think of many places I’d be more frightened to be.
The next hour takes us through the isolation, beauty, deprivation, and finally freedom from both the caves and the rule of Franco law – as the protagonists joke, “we didn’t know any other way of life… we thought we were confined by the wall s of catholic school.”
Led by English subtitles relaying the Spanish team’s thoughts and conversations, projected on the vast screen that is our only real viewpoint in the darkness of the theatre/cave, Barredo uses spotlights and smoke (alongside the occasional magnesium flash) to walk us through her father’s discoveries. We learn about the curious reappearance of a masked man painted on the walls of different caves, thousands of years apart, and the gruesome pile of animal bones (and some human) that lay beneath a macabre hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere.
I would never go underground, my sense of self-preservation keeping me firmly on the sun-baked side of terra firma. Potholing, to me, is from the realm of nightmares. But Light Years Away is a wonderfully subtle yet effective first step below – twisting into a tongue in cheek, and perhaps a little too short, analysis of the human endeavour amidst the longest running dictatorship that modern Europe has ever known. There’s a good touch at the end too, but I won’t ruin that for next time.
Another meal on the REP‘s main stage, dinner and a show (I could get used to this), before we head back in to the Studio Theatre – dutifully filing to our seats as Anna Biczók sits at a table, frowning at us from behind a desk and through schoolmarm glasses.
Precedents To A Potential Future is a ‘solo lecture-performance’ from the Budapest based dance artist and choreographer, which ‘mixes memories, imagination, and changes in perspective to explore how these sensations create a phenomena.’ Now I’ll be honest, I struggle with dance – often finding the more physical led narratives a little hard to grip onto. I’m a writer; words, spoken or otherwise, are my hand holds.
No worries here though, as Biczók takes the role of narrator – guiding us through a story of experience, first from her eyes, then from the eyes of the audience watching her watching us, then through the eyes of her mother watching her as we watch them both. It sounds more confused that it is, and thats on me and my lexicon. But Biczók has a commanding charge of the space around her – with robotic, almost violent at times, movement and expression. It makes me, and I suspect a few others in the audience, want to get up on stage and see it all from her side. But I guess that’s the point.
A short thank you from the festival directors, and then it’s the final theatre piece of tonight’s programme – another dance production, called THE END.
Written and performed by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas, THE END was pitched in the BE FESTIVAL programme notes as a 35minute performance where the couple ‘dance the end of their relationship, imagining what a future without each other might look like’. Honestly, again, I thought it sounded a little twee. But as the couple introduce us to their lives and show with dystopian plot points for the end of the universe – 100 years until this, 1,000,000 years until that. How long until the seas finally dry up and the Earth is engulfed up by the hungry mouth of a dying sun – a subtle humour washes over the audience.
Moving into the more physical side of the production, Bert and Nasi start to drunk dance with each other around the stage – showing the shift from intimacy to repulsion, from unity to aggressive separation. It’s simple, it’s charming, and it recreates a scene that is all too familiar.
Further routines explore the meaning of being a couple, using their bodies to physically clash or work together as they literally roll around the stage. There is a joyfully creative approach to documenting a physical fall out between the pair, as each dancer launches into the open palms of the other to slap themselves in the face – until Bert and Nasi finally dance in circles around the stage, as the inevitable unfolds via messages on the screen behind them.
Honest, vulnerable, poignant and endearing, THE END brings us in and out of this couple’s relationship – mirroring the gestation, birth, life, celebration and death of both the human endeavour and the universe that cradles it all. It leaves a small space inside me feeling more complete than before. Beautiful. Truly moving, THE END gets a well-deserved standing ovation.
Then it’s back out into the Festival Hub for some beer, cake, and Sam Redmore’s Tropical Sounclash. With the dancefloor filling up quickly, you get the sense this is going to go on a little later than the last bus home. I start to weigh up my options… I can be late. Again. I certainly have been for most of this week. And in just over 24 hours I will no longer have the option.
Thursday 4th July – BE FESTIVAL 2019 (third night)
The popular children’s TV show Horrible Histories once ran a sketch about Ancient Greek theatre. It was summed up thus: ‘Two men stand on stage and talk to each other… with no action, no costumes, and no interval.’ I’m sorry to say it was this sketch that sprung to mind almost immediately after watching the first performance in BE FESTIVAL’s Thursday night schedule.
Previsao Do Tempo (Weather Forecast), described in the festival programme as ‘an amusing theatrical essay’, was put together by 2016 Best of BE tour winner Romain Teule and his collaborator, Daniel Pizamiglio. The programme also claims it is about ‘the passage of time and equally about letting the unknown enter into our lives,’ yet I don’t recall any profound pronouncements on either of these subjects, although that may be because I was fighting the urge to fall asleep once it became clear that very little was going to actually happen. There was the occasional amusing moment, such as a meandering on Schrodinger’s Cat (“It’s a zombie cat”), but it wasn’t enough to pique my interest.
A welcome shot of adrenaline, however, was injected onto the stage with Silence by the Catalan company, Ca Marche. A piece that the programme presents as ‘a cast of children’ who ‘create a suspended moment on stage, where the parents are not ‘there’’ – but what I imagine happened is that someone from the company went ‘let’s stick four small children on stage, give them a load of fake snow, a giant inflatable thingy that vaguely resembles the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, and see what happens.’
Rather like last night’s pogo sticks in Punk?, the purpose of said ‘giant inflatable thingy’ was a little lost on this philistine – however, Silence was thoroughly enjoyable to watch. The opening is unexpectedly dark (both figuratively and literally), showing a Lord-of-the-Flies-esque scene where two apparently abandoned siblings appear to harpoon and gut a walrus. This quickly evaporates into beautiful chaos once the kids shed their costumes and get to mess around in the snow.
Speaking as the sister to an eight-year-old boy, watching kids go nuts with no restraints is the best part of being around them in the first place. And in a setting like the one presented with Silence, they were soon going to start attacking each other with the aforementioned fake snow. The audience rarely stopped laughing.
Again, whoever writes the programme went a little overboard. Promises of Uncertainty was described as ‘a nail-biting blend of dance, theatre and circus,’ and whilst while Oosterhoff’s talent for balancing on a see-saw and hanging from high places is admittedly impressive, there was nothing particularly ‘nail-biting’ about watching him sit at a desk fiddling with various bits and bobs or having small sandbags dropped in close proximity to him. It was, at first, mildly funny to watch him ‘dancing’ about the stage like a spider with ADHD, but after the second or third time the novelty began to wear off.
Once the final curtain had closed, it was time to sit back on those comfy sofas in the Festival Hub, relax, and enjoy a lively set from folk fusion band Gathering Tides. They were brilliant – an eclectic mix of guitars, fiddle, drums and a bit of accordion, switching between jaunty yet smooth numbers to the kind of fast, joyful pieces that make you want to clap along and stamp your feet. Quite a few people ended up dancing as if at a ceilidh.
I certainly hope to see Gathering Tides perform again sometime – violinist Seth Bye was particularly impressive. The band were a delight to watch and made for an ideal end to BE FESTIVAL’s Thursday night programme.
Wednesday 3rd July – BE FESTIVAL 2019 (second night)
Iraqi performance artist Mokhallad Rasem kicked off the night (well, pushed it off very slowly in an artistic sort of way) with Soul Seekers, a combined performance and film piece capturing the experiences of refugees at asylum centres in Belgium and France. The film was beautifully made, combining poignant interviews with art pieces and the occasional bit of humour.
However, I confess, I failed to see the point of the ‘performance’ aspect, which mainly involved Rasem wondering around the stage with a sheet draped over his head – and dragged on longer than it perhaps should have, before the film started. Twelve hours later, I still don’t understand how this linked to the documentary piece. Especially since the latter would have stood up perfectly well without the former.
Belgian double-act Maxime Dautremont and Foucald Falguerolles were next with One Shot, an impressive combination of axe-throwing and ‘Chinese pole’ acrobatics that demonstrated both incredible dexterity and phenomenal upper body strength.
What really made One Shot so fun to watch, though, was how the pair carried it off – incorporating comedic indignation at each other’s antics, with a nonchalant cockiness reminiscent of the Weasley twins from Harry Potter. Not only did they deliver (in the wrong hands) some pretty dangerous feats without a quiver, but when things occasionally went wrong (at one point, the axe one of them was balancing on his head fell off halfway up the Chinese pole, caught just in time) they brushed it off so cheerfully that I’m honestly not sure whether these slip-ups were accidents, or just part of the comedy.
The interval was mainly occupied with a communal dinner on the main stage. It was lovely to sit down, talk and share a meal with several complete strangers, although the vegetarian main option wasn’t really to my liking (mainly an issue of personal taste) and perhaps a buffet-style set-up, giving everyone a range of options, would have been better.
The last performance of the evening was the curiously titled Punk? by German choreographer Paula Rosolen and dance group Haptic Hide. Punk?, the festival guide tells us, is ‘not just music, but a way of life. A rebellion against the status quo.’ Apparently, Rosolen looked at this concept and ended up going ‘right, we’ll start with you shuffling around in a flimsy white dress and then smashing a chair; then you guys can all jump around a bit on pogo sticks in skin-tight trousers and onesies that don’t leave nearly enough to the imagination. We’ll follow that up with some very angry interpretative dance and quite a bit of shouting, then you from the beginning can ditch the dress for some black speedos, moon the audience and smear fake blood over yourself. Sound good?’
Ok, I’m paraphrasing quite heavily – but like Soul Seekers, much of this piece had me repeating “But… why?” to myself, yielding few satisfactory answers. Still, the aforementioned ‘angry interpretative dance’ was quite beautiful at times – and if Rosolen wanted the word ‘punk’ to conjure up images other than loud music and swearing, she definitely succeeded.
After that, it was time to file back into the cavernous warehouse-like Festival Hub, housing the bar and a cluster of comfy sofas and chairs, where we could sit back and listen to Brummie electro-pop trio Lycio. Although I wasn’t massively engrossed by their music it was still lovely to listen to, and lead singer Genie Mendez is a delightfully expressive performer. All in all, I went home from my first night at BE FESTIVAL sleepy but satisfied after a highly enjoyable night.
Tuesday 2nd July – BE FESTIVAL 2019 opening night
Words by Ed King / Photography of BE FESTIVAL 2018 by Alex Brenner
Due the nuances of driving in a straight line on rigid tracks, I’m running late. The doors to BE FESTIVAL’s first night open at 7pm. It’s 6:15pm. And Birmingham’s boarders are still a distant dream… there’s probably a clever metaphor here but I’m too concerned about missing the box office to think of one. If lateness were really a badge of cool, I may be James Dean. But I’d still be that guy the ushers bring in by torch light.
By some absurd turn of events (namely a train driver who is panicking more than I am) I arrive at BE FESTIVAL on time, even early – as I pick my way past the army of super friendly stewards and REP security to the back of the theatre. Or the loading bay, as I previously knew it. But BE’s ‘festival hub’ is just that, a vibrant pocket of creatives and their creations that feels like a corner of Glastonbury that found a place to shelter from the rain. Minus, thankfully, the rain.
A welcoming sea of accents and dialects filter across the room, like the best parts of an international city, as I wade through and let my internal alco-choc-aholic find the compassionately price bar and gigantic wedges of cake. This is going to work. With just enough time to order the former (and save the latter for later) we are ushered into the Studio Theatre space for the first performance of the night. And at least three quarters full, this is a confident turn out for a Tuesday evenng in Birmingham.
After an impassioned introduction from the event’s co-directors, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun – once again reiterating the curry-house-napkin-scrawled-birth of BE FESTIVAL which my happy heart loves a little too much, the stage is set. Literally. But it’s the crowd’s immediate endorsement and support for the event itself that really introduces the evening – replete with unabashed claps, hugs, and what feels like almost tears of joy. Or perhaps relief. Afterall, this is BE FESTIVAL’s 10th anniversary – bringing theatre and productions from all over Europe to our little north west pocket of the continent. And that, especially in Birmingham, is no mean feat. So, it’s my party and I’ll…
With an ominous red LED digital clock hanging centre stage, the hour long countdown begins… and with it our first show of the evening – Dies Irae: 5 Episodes Around the End of the Species by the Florence based, award winning, Sotterraneo theatre company. And as the old theatre adage goes, it’s always good to open with a song (especially if told to by an member of the audience) and we are treated to 60seconds of ‘Hallelujah’ (and a mini sing-a-long) which becomes a constant thread to the show.
Next, a series of sheets set the literal backdrop for the following ‘episodes’ – the first of which is as impressive as it is gruesome , where the four protagonists mehtodically act out a slaughter using vocal sound effects and spray blood against a white backdrop.
It’s hard to adequately describe, but imagine a crime scene being replicated in front of a studio audience and you’re close to what we ‘witness’ on stage. Initial nervous laughter soon turns to hushed horror as limbs are severed, blood coughed up, and one bullet shot to the head being so low to the ground it’s either a child or someone on their knees. And when the segue solo actor recounts the “events I have witnessed, as best I can recall,” before a black sheet covers the carnage leaving nothing but our memories of the event, you begin to see the point. History is often dictated to us, in both senses of the word.
The rest of the ‘episodes’ jump from sardonic humour to quick analysis of the human endeavour – including the dead pan ‘what if…’ radio show, a series of documentative snapshots, and a reverse wonders of the world auction where I nearly bought the Taj Mahal for £20. Dies Irae: 5 Episodes Around the End of the Species is an exhilarating and engaging piece of reflective theatre, you can see why BE FESTIVAL have spent a decade petitioning the Sotterraneo theatre company to bring this show to Birmingham. I would love to see more from this company, and it would be one to watch out for if they ever came back to the UK’s seond city. But curtains down, lights up, encore delivered; it’s the inteval… so, time for dinner.
Sitting on the REP’s main stage, people discuss and dissect – I talk to two women, one of which moved to Birmingham last November, who have been on the hunt “for cultural things to do in Birmingham” and ended up at BE FESTIVAL. Not a bad outcome.
I run through the list, shamelessly plug Birmingham Review, and try not to get gravy on my shirt. The food is excellent too, a huge and tender slice of beef (vegetarian options are available) served with sautéed potatoes and shallots. I honestly wasn’t expecting the Interval Dinner to be this good, so another win for the evening. Enjoyed against the curious backdrop of the REP’s empty main theatre, and to use the parlance of our environment, this is just fabulous darling.
After some considered meandering back in the ‘festival hub’ – returning to the reasonably priced bar, lounging on the battered Chesterfields, and limpet mining myself to the cast of Punk? – we are cordially, but quickly, ushered back into the Studio Theatre for the last show of the evening, Tom Cassani’s I Promise You That Tonight…
And, alas… this is where the evening’s silver lining reveals its cloud. ‘Performer and liar’ Tom Cassini won the first prize at last year’s BE FESTIVAL and the rhetoric around his returning show has been at the back of my mind all evening, but I am all too quickly too quickly underwhelmed. I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’ll surmise and we can all move on: 1) reign it in, 2) wordplay, in and of itself, is not always clever (skip back a few words and you’ll see what I mean), 3) if your pony performs one trick then don’t leave it lying on the stage as your audience walk past.
But that’s me. And whilst I fidget in my seat, regretting not having ordered more wine in the interval, I hear enough gasps to tell me this hit home with a healthy heart of the audience. From the brief encounter I share with Cassini, when he comes over to basically tell me to stop touching his stuff, the man behind the purported mystery seems like a lovely fella too – one I imagine has a lot more to say. If you’re ever back in Birmingham, Tom, I’ll ply you with beer in exchange for an interview.
Beholden to the same locomotive beast of burden that bought me here, I have to up sticks to the train station before the evening turns from theatre to music – with Kiriki Club’s ‘exotic sounds from across the world’ set to take over the festival hub and close off the night.
Gutted I can’t stay and hang out/around for a bit longer, I hug my goodbyes to people I only met an hour or so before and high tail it back into Birmingham – leaving this new-found Narnia to exist without me. Until later in the week, that is. And as I trudge happily but a little frantically back to Snow Hill, one question circles my Malbec addled mind.
In ten years, why have I never been to BE FESTIVAL before…?
BE FESTIVAL runs daily at the Birmingham REP until Saturday 6th July. For direct festival information, including a full line up and links to online ticket sales, visit www.befestival.org/festival
For more on the wider BE FESTIVAL activity, outside of the 2019 programme, visit www.befestival.org
For more from the Birmingham REP, including further event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk