BRUSSELS – Since the biggest performing arts festival in Brussels kicked off last weekend, there were a few traditional scenes in sight. Instead, audiences gathered at colonial-era monuments, a disused railway museum, and even the debate room of the Belgian Senate.
One of their directors, Daniel Blanca Gubbay, said during a break between performances that the flurry of site-specific performances at the month-long event called Kunstenfestivaldesarts had practical reasons. After two years of pandemic upheaval, many playhouses in Brussels have been booked with shows rescheduled this year.
The restrictions led to a creative line-up highlighting areas of the city that even frequent visitors might not necessarily know about. To see “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance,” a family-friendly puppet show created by Daniela Ortiz, the audience had to enter a side street of the grand Cinquantenaire park and stand in front of the “Memorial Monument.” Belgian Pioneers in the Congo.”
Inaugurated in 1921, this sculpted tribute to the colonization of the Congo is extremely disturbing to look at today. It contains racist images and articles that portray Belgians as saviors of the local Black population. Since the recent start of Belgium publicly reckon brutal history and remove statues in connection with this, “Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” could not have been more timely.
Ortiz is from Peru and is staying there. Here, he tries to remind Congo’s plight during the colonial period through animal puppets manipulated by two actors from behind a screen. In the story, the main character, an okapi, is captured by cheerful white puppets representing the colonists.
From a Belgian zoo, the okapi (a close cousin of the giraffe, native to the current Democratic Republic of the Congo) later misses the independence of his native Congo and teams up with other animals to overthrow the colonial regime. (They succeed after they drown a human puppet and sing a song.) “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” is full of good intentions and works on paper as a counterpoint to its monumental ground in Brussels. Unfortunately, it was too short and schematic for impressive theatre: Originally described as an hour, the performance lasted 25 minutes.
There was more to be taken from the Museums of the Far East than Satoko Ichihara’s unclassifiable “Madama Chrysanthemum”, another work that premiered in a visionary setting. This complex, which includes a Chinese Pavilion and a Japanese Tower in the north of Brussels, was built by the king, who also ruled Belgium’s violent rule in Congo. It is an Orientalist fantasy commissioned by Leopold.
All buildings had been closed for about ten years for security reasons, so “Madama Chrysanthemum” was a rare opportunity to look around. Japanese writer and director Ichihara also made an entertaining entrance. The annoying Aurélien Estager, one of the two actors in “Madama Chrysanthemum,” greeted the audience outside the Chinese Pavilion and continued with a mock tour of the surrounding landmarks.
The tour ended in one of the closed buildings, the Museum of Japanese Art. There, on a small, empty stage, Estager and Kyoko Takenaka give an extraordinary performance inspired by the life of Masako, the current empress of Japan (who is also a Harvard-educated former diplomat). A mix of Japanese and French, the text highlights the pressure Masako faced from the Imperial court and the public to produce a male heir.
Icihara said the critical light in which the show presented Japan’s royal family had become unrealizable in Japan. Its surreal twists probably won’t help. Throughout, Estager takes on the role of a dog named Emperor, and Takenaka plays the owner, who dreams of being impregnated by an emperor (which is deliberately unclear) even as he tells the story of Masako.
“Madama Chrysanthemum” misses out on Orientalist decor to tell a very contemporary Japanese story, while “Se questo è Levi,” a one-man show, channels the solemnity of the upper house of the Belgian Parliament. It is a testament to the creativity of Kunstenfestivaldesarts that the organizers received permission to stage an entire show in the Senate’s debate room, where the audience watched from the Belgian senators’ lion-adorned seats.
Created by the Italian company Fanny & Alexander, “Se questo è Levi” quotes Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s interviews about her experience in the camp in If This Is a Man. The audience plays the role of the interviewer: a list of questions is provided and they can be asked in any order. As soon as Andrea Argentieri, who plays Levi, finishes a single answer, anyone can intervene using the microphone on each senator’s desk.
It may be artificial, but it’s still oddly impressive to personally address Levi, who died in 1987. “Do you think you can erase a person’s humanity?” When I asked, Argentieri, mimicking Levi’s demeanor as he rested his glasses on his forehead, first looked at me for a few seconds with expressionless pain. he answers.
Does it work in other contexts? This is debatable, but in the Belgian Senate, Levi’s influential reflections on the Holocaust and its legacy bore the weight of a formal trial for generations to come. Perhaps they should be heard more often there.
Like almost all other productions at Kunstenfestivaldesarts, “Se questo è Levi” has been translated into three languages: French and Dutch, and English, the main languages spoken in Belgium. (The Senate is equipped with headphones for simultaneous interpretation, and subtitles are used in other venues.) This might equate to the course in Brussels, the multilingual home of the European Union’s main institutions, but the city’s theater scene is hardly used. him.
Because the arts are funded separately for Belgium’s language communities (with the exception of a few federal agencies), there is little crossover between French and Dutch theaters in Brussels, and most do not provide subtitles. Kunstenfestivaldesarts sought to fill this gap with joint theaters on both sides.
During the first weekend, “Tumulus,” a polyphonic work blending dance and music by François Chaignaud and Geoffroy Jourdain, was staged at the Dutch-speaking Kaaitheater theatre, while the French-speaking performance space Les Brigittines hosted a new version of Okwui Okpokwasili. Powerful dance theater “Bronx Gothic” now performed by Wanjiru Kamuyu.
The diversity of languages can be a little dizzying, as in “Hacer Noche,” a two-hour Spanish show performed in the old railroad museum above North Station. The film is a quiet and sensitive conversation between director Bárbara Bañuelos and the well-read Carles Albert Gasulla, who works as a park ranger. But there’s a lot of translated text to absorb when listening to Spanish, and I sometimes wished the subtitles were slowed down to allow for their point about the classroom, mental health, and precarious workspace.
That’s a minor gripe though. Kunstenfestivaldesarts shows Brussels at its best in its current state: the city of converging cultures is open to welcoming others as well as appealing to its past.
Various venues in Brussels until 28 May.