NATALIA KALIADA, founding co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre, and MIA YOO, Artistic Director or of La MaMa, talk with SV’s Bob Shuman about their creative partnership, the U.S. premiere of ‘Burning Doors’, and how two companies set the world on fire.
The underground Belarus Free Theatre is in New York, at La MaMa, with Burning Doors, a production that examines how art persists under oppression. The troupe is everything Ellen Stewart wanted for her stage: illustrative and imaginative, their sacred theatre powerful, transformative, and moving. Those who have read about the company know that they perform in apartments, cafes, at weddings and birthdays, and in the forests in their native country, stealthily hiding from established power, the situation so dangerous that founding members were forced to find refuge in England. They are beacons of resistance, bravery, morality in a world of human rights abuses, censorship, and brutality. Stewart found ways to bring them to the United States at the Under the Radar Festival, in January 2011, in a triumphant run—but it is here also where she died, leaving an unrecoverable emotional hole in her organization, as well as in the world’s theatre. Six years later, Artistic Director, Mia Yoo, continues on at La MaMa, producing 60-70 plays a season; for two years prior to Stewart’s death, she was communicating with the founder daily on programming, as well as running the East Village-based company’s day-to-day operations. On the evening of Stewart’s passing, Yoo, gracious, smart, a stabilizer at the center of the madness of art, ensured that La MaMa’s signature cowbell rang, as it has since. Belarus Free Theatre took to the stage–an indelible image from Being Harold Pinter, one of its plays performed at the time, is of a young girl inside a plastic, transparent globe, trying to be recognized by punching her way out. Two companies, from opposite ends of the earth–both reckoning with their own tragedies–entwined.
Today, just after humidity has broken in a warm October, Yoo recalls the first time she saw Belarus Free Theatre, at a Theatre without Borders conference, in 2009. She didn’t know the company and was watching their play Discover Love, a true story of the Belarus opposition movement, finding herself moved not only by strength, but by vulnerability. She found the work of the group intellectual and emotional—also of the body, about the body. Unlike most theatre lovers, however, Yoo cannot simply praise: she has to find production funding. Around her, financial backing is drying up, particularly with the president’s destruction of the NEA, one of her theatre’s main national funding sources.
A group of singers for Simchat Torah is dispersing on the street below La Mama’s Fourth Street, third floor office. Natalia Kaliada, the founding co-artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre–and the co-author of Discover Love—is here to discuss Burning Doors, which, with Nicolai Khalezin, she co-directed and supplied Dramaturgy for. She explains that the three dissidents her play highlights “put their voices on the front line, using their art to challenge the system”: Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot (she acts in Burning Doors and gives testimony regarding her nearly two-year imprisonment in the Russian system); Petr Pavlensky (a radical actionist who sewed his lips shut after the Pussy Riot conviction, wrapped himself in barbed wire, and, as “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society,” nailed his scrotum to Red Square); and Oleg Sentsov (a Ukrainian filmmaker, fallaciously accused of terrorism, who has served three years of a twenty-year prison sentence). Kaliada herself may be accused of being a dissident, for her involvement in spearheading her theatre group. When asked about Belarus Free Theatre, however, the Minister of Culture in Belarus responded by saying: “those people do not exist.”
Intense, visceral, and true to Yoo’s observation, Burning Doors is about the body. Naked, sweating, heaving, exhausted: bodies as power, bodies as strength, bodies isometric, bodies scatological, kicked, slammed, propelled, hit, choked, hanging, twisted, smashed, violated, betrayed, tortured. The result is extreme-action dance, physical theatre, circus, combat training; a documentary of perception; an artistic expression of desperation and systematic violence, living unnoticed, unheard, under unknown totalitarianism (Burning Doors is performed in Russian and Belarusian with English surtitles). Kaliada and Khalezin are making a powerful statement on the horror of the failed state, a failed economy, the failure of justice, and the failure of democracy and freedom. The theatrical techniques used to produce such effects include use of the absurd, mime, dense sketch material, nonlinearity, existentialism, the appeals of the silenced, the folksongs of the deep past, cultural masterpieces by Dostoevsky, and philosophy by Foucault. Kaliada calls her system: Total Immersion. “We don’t talk about classics,” she clarifies. “We are not interested in them because today’s life is more challenging and interesting.” Kaliada was not allowed to become an actress, her first calling at age sixteen, she explains, because her father was a former vice-Chancellor of the Academy of Arts in Belarus, and her name would stop her from advancing. Her brother recommended that she become a diplomat, instead, because they also “pretend all the time.” She was hired by the American government, moving nuclear weapons from Belarus, but believes that had they not been transferred, Belarus would be more widely known today. (Countries with nuclear weapons, as Kim Jong-un proves, have a way of getting noticed.) “We do what we do because we believe in it. We have enemies. We also have families, mothers and fathers.”
Kaliada wonders what her children would think about her if she did not resist. Pausing for a moment, thin, her hair cut short, she says that, coming from Eastern Europe, she does not seem very polite, compared to those in the West. “In a dictatorship, knowing that your friend has been killed, when death surrounds you, you become direct. Belarus Free Theatre travels around the world. We work in illegal refugee camps in Africa and you understand that if people have a chance to access some arts and some money it would really help the world find solutions, peaceful solutions, nonviolent-resistance solutions. My fear is that companies, like ours, may disappear. We really tackle society. You go to see other shows and there are so many jokes. Human beings do not matter anymore! No one is connecting. Humanity and the morality in politics are completely lost. All the talk that the fourth wall was destroyed in theatre—that’s not true: It’s much stronger.”
When played, the recording of the discussion with Yoo and Kaliada reveals the insistent sound of the city’s voice: sirens, jackhammers, horns, traffic, ringing and buzzing devices, which were not apparent during the focused interview. These artistic partners—Yoo considers Belarus Free Theatre a resident company–one from a presenting organization, the other from a theatre company that’s creating vivid, critical theatre, work together, with missions that are aligned. They are attempting to sustain and support what Yoo believes is “one of the most important theatre companies in the world today.” She is not alone in her estimation.
“I hate to say that art has to come out of suffering,” Yoo comments, “but there is something to that, when you must push up against and challenge. There is a rigor and a boldness that comes out in the work that might not surface otherwise. A different kind of theatre emerges. There’s urgency.”
A theatre of urgency.
Burning Doors continues at La MaMa until October 22.
© 2017 by Bob Shuman, Mia Yoo, and Natalia Kaliada. All rights reserved.
Photos: Mia Yoo (The New York Times); Burning Doors–men (Evening Standard); Pavlensky (widewalls.ch); Sentsov (the Voice Project).
Visit La MaMa: http://lamama.org/
Visit Belarus Free Theatre: https://www.belarusfreetheatre.com/
Read the Stage Voices review of the work of Belarus Free Theatre from 2011: http://stagevoices.com/2011/04/19/belarus-free-theatre-in-repertory-review/
BELARUS FREE THEATRE
Returns to La MaMa with
NY premiere of
October 12-22, 2017
Cast includes Maria Alyokhina from PUSSY RIOT
Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) – the internationally acclaimed troupe known for its stage works that confront some of the most urgent issues of the day – returns to La MaMa (66 E. 4 St. in NYC) with the NY premiere of BURNING DOORS: previews are set to begin October 12 prior to a press opening Oct. 16. La MaMa presents BURNING DOORS in association with Belarus Free Theatre, the only theatre in Europe banned by its government on political grounds.
Devised and performed by Belarus Free Theatre, BURNING DOORS is directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. DOORS is written by Mr. Khalezin, with dramatury by Mr. Khalezin and Ms. Kaliada, choreography by Bridget Fiske and Maryia Sazonava and original testimony is by Maria Alyokhina.
The cast of BURNING DOORS includes guest performer and collaborator Maria Alyokhina of PUSSY RIOT, the Russian feminist punk-rock group, along with performers and co-creators Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Maryia Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau and Marnya Yurevich.
As governments clamp down and walls go up, BURNING DOORS examines how art persists under oppression, and how artists living under dictatorship illuminate complacency in democratic societies, reminding us of the true cost of freedom and the danger of passivity. BURNING DOORS draws from the personal experiences of three dissidents who were arrested and imprisoned by the government of Vladmir Putin of Russia – Ms. Alyokhina, Petr Pavlensky and Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian national who has been imprisoned in Russia on terrorism charges after Russia invaded Crimea.
In the case of Mr. Sentsov, who has served three years of his 20-year sentence, his experiences are depicted as told to the creators of BURNING DOORS by members of his family, who have been allowed rare visits and received one smuggled correspondence from him during his time in prison.
BURNING DOORS debuted last year in London, where critics called it:
“A scorching piece of theatre: uncompromising, urgent and angry. 4 stars.”
“A spiky, furious mosaic. 4 stars.” The Sunday Times
Belarus Free Theatre is the leading refugee-led theatre company in the UK. BURNING DOORS draws on the company’s own experience of political oppression and continues their campaign to stand up to artistic freedom and human rights across the globe.
Belarus Free Theatre has previously performed at La MaMa: TRASH CUISINE, BEING HAROLD PINTER, DISCOVER LOVE and ZONE OF SILENCE.
BURNING DOORS is dedicated to Pavel Sheremet, Oleg Sentsov and all the Kremlin hostages. The production features the following contributions:
–“Fear” and “Russian Contemporary Artist in a Russian Jail.” By Petr Pavlensky
–“Final Statement” by Oleg Sentsov
–Extract from “How to Start a Revolution” by Maria Alyokhina
–“Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault
–“The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
–“Lonely” by Boombox
–Russian and Belarusian folk songs
BURNING DOORS was created in partnership with ArtReach as part of Journeys Festival International; Co-commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne; Developed at Falmouth University’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA), and funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
La MaMa is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre. The organization has a worldwide reputation for producing daring performance works that defy form and transcend barriers of ethnic and cultural identity. Founded in 1961 by award-winning theatre pioneer Ellen Stewart, La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions by 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. A recipient of more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Bessie, and Villager Awards, La MaMa has helped launch the careers of countless artists, many of whom have made important contributions to American and international arts milieus.
La MaMa’s 56th season highlights artists of different generations, gender identities, and cultural backgrounds, who question social mores and confront stereotypes, corruption, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia in their work. Our stages embrace diversity in every form and present artists that persevere with bold self-expression despite social, economic, and political struggle and the 56th season reflects the urgency of reaffirming human interconnectedness.
Scheduled October 12 to 22, BURNING DOORS will perform weeknights at 8 pm (no performance October 17), Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm. Tickets are $30 ($25 for students/seniors) and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.lamama.org