Historical events and processes form a backdrop for the stage arts. Audience members and critics perceive the same performance they watch at the same moment but in different ways. Just as shadows transform and expand, depending on the sources of light and the surfaces where they are projected, the shadow theatre of criticism sometimes seems to miss points that, when looking back with a historical eye, are strikingly obvious and urgently in need of change.
Nigeria, and other countries that gained their independence in the 1960s, had to build modern nations in an instant. The tradition of European critics was much shaped a century ago, in times when the nations in Europe were modernized and considering democracy, human rights, education for both sexes and the introduction of modernism in its early forms. The long, slow and millimetre-by-millimetre process in Europe had to be, in Africa, an “express make-over” to modern standards of democracy, following, in many respects, the pattern of their former colonial countries. Contemporary criticism in Nigeria, as in other nations on the continent, has had to establish itself quickly, and is today facing the same difficulties and challenges as in any other part of the world.
Two Examples: Feminism and Post Colonialism—a Modern Actress and a Political Choreographer
Elise Hwasser’s Nora
In Europe, the plays of Henrik Ibsen, in his time, were highly political and deliberately took on controversial issues, such as women’s rights and the transparency of decisions made by those in politics and business and, important at that time, the Christian church and its set of moral codes. Today, A Doll’s House might be described as a “hype”; a sensational play creating a topic of discussion that split cultivated theatre-goers deeply. The more liberal audience members were in favor of a woman’s liberation portrayed, the more conservative members felt the attack against traditional values. The theatre critics were of both minds, but often focused on the impressive work of the actresses in the great roles, such as Nora, Hedda and Mrs. Alving.
Audiences have often proved to be more open-minded and curious than the critics, and maybe they still are. Ibsen’s plays are still controversial today, or at least intriguing when stretched to embrace interpretations that include global environmental issues, as I recently saw in China’s Wuzhen Theatre Festival 2016.
We, the critics in the 2000s, how do we read and understand the messages of our contemporary artists? How do we filter the historical ones, whose opinions and attitudes we can only guess or very preliminary sketch in. Today, political and social issues are much in evidence on stages, as a message and a form, from musicals in the Trump era in the U.S. to the art field, as in the great exhibitions in Venice or Kassel.
Most likely, the critics shared some of the audiences’ reception of Ibsen’s plays in the 1870s and the following decades. The period loved the star actresses with glimmering names as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, and, in Scandinavia, the theatrical life had a European structure, even if the language and some folklore traditions might have given it its own twist. The leading actress of the National Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden, Elise Hvasser, was a modern woman and a carrier of Ibsen’s ideas in real life. She was apparently seen as a kind of poster for modernity in women’s issues, and the fact that she, by her skills in acting, had climbed the mountain of hierarchy within the theatre, was seen as a sign of success not only for her, but for all women.
Elise Hwasser reformed the tradition of acting to a more matter-of-fact and intimate realism, claim historians. She was clearly and openly declared the favorite actress of Henrik Ibsen, who closely followed the productions of his plays. Elise Hwasser did not hesitate to call Ibsen “the greatest thinker of or time”; the admiration was mutual. The Swedish researcher Ingegerd Nordin Hennel states that “obviously Ibsen believed in her capacity, and his playwriting let a new creativity flourish in Elise Hwasser.” As a star actress, she was well paid at the national theatre, a top salary even more generous than her husband’s—literary agent and dramaturge at the same theatre. In negotiations, she argued for supplementary salary for the demanding tarantella dance sequences as Nora in A Doll’s House—she was 42 and it was a challenge. (The critics also made ironic remarks about her age, since Nora is supposed to be a young woman, mother to young children.)
The critics of the time, almost all men, expressed their aesthetic programs in their reviews and, while praising the skill of Elise Hwasser, a respected actress since the 1850s, they hesitated before Ibsen’s radicalism. Ghosts was classified as “spooky and propagandistic,” but praised by the audience because of its frankness and attack on hypocrisy. A Doll’s House, staged in Stockholm only months after the premiere in Copenhagen in 1879, was embraced by the audience for the message of the play, and Elise Hwasser was appreciated for her portrayal symbolizing equality between the sexes. The critics were impressed by the actress, but not by the writer. The most influential, Carl David af Wirsén, praised Elise Hwasser for her convincing portrayal of Nora on stage, “as if awakening from her former life,” though he felt disgust towards the play as such and Ibsen’s raw realism.
So, while critics hesitated before Ibsen’s severe analysis of men and women in the late ninettenth century, the audiences welcomed theatre discussing and protesting against conservatism, sexism and hypocrisy, and saw the actress as a living argument in a vivid discussion.
Soweto and White Dancers
A more recent example, although historical, is a dance opus by Mats Ek, today in his seventies and one of the most praised international choreographs. One year after the riots and shooting in the ghetto Soweto in South Africa, the Swedish Mats Ek created a dance piece with the same title: Soweto, in 1978. The international opinion and activism against apartheid was strong in Sweden as elsewhere in the Western world, with protest marches and demonstrations as strong as against the U.S. war in Indochina.
After having successfully worked as a stage director in dramatic theatre, Mats Ek turned to dance after some hesitation. His mother, Birgit Cullberg, had founded the first modern national dance company in Sweden, in 1967, and the Cullberg Ballet was very soon not only touring within Sweden, but also internationally. Mats Ek started as a dancer in the company but discovered choreography as a new field where epics, drama and movement could meet. His third piece for the Cullberg Ballet, Soweto, was an immediate success and the performances were embraced by audiences as part of the many activities against apartheid.
The work Soweto was composed in three layers: Birgit Cullberg, herself sixty-eight years old, danced the role of “Mother Africa,” in a long red dress, her grey hair hanging over her shoulders. The character depicts the soul and the spirit of the African continent, its persistence, its wounds and its pride. Mother Africa moved in the more distant parts of the stage, while the centre was dominated by the company’s dancers, as the people of Africa. Onstage, closest to the audience, a mechanical puppet dressed in white moved along the ramp, depicting the colonizing white masters, strong but fragile as porcelain.
Ek did not in any way try to make the dancers or the dance look African or Africanized. The conflict and the political tensions were interpreted on a human and ethical level, and in disgust against the white brutality in Africa. The strength and resistance that the group of dancers expressed were lively and beautiful.
In our time, almost forty years later, the aesthetic decision to let white Europeans in a dance company show the hardships of an African population, without any dancer with African, or even African American, background or roots might seem strange. This was all before post-colonial theories spread and were more generally accepted (Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978), and definitely before notions such as cultural appropriation. At the time, it was seen as a contribution to the political struggle against apartheid, which had many arenas. Not the least within sports, where South Africa was boycotted, and in trade, where many Europeans would not even think of buying oranges from South Africa.
Normally, the Cullberg Ballet productions received enthusiastic reviews, and, in the 1970s, modern dance reached out to other audiences, beyond the circles of classical ballet. However, the critics trained in and used to classical ballet tended to remain reluctant regarding contemporary dance, the second or even third generation of modernism. The no longer existing Swedish dance journal Dans (edited by the Swedish dance museum—not to be confused with the present and independent Dans-tidningen, created in the early 1990s) invited a renowned international critic, Walter Terry, to review and discuss the rising ”star” in choreography, Mats Ek. Terry was represented by the journal as “the doyen among American dance critics,” and he wrote about three pieces by Ek, one of them Soweto. He noted in the introduction to the article that Ek’s works are often “angry and normally arrogant attempts to create choreography,” and that Ek himself as a dancer is powerful but “more brutal than virtuoso, a fighting athlete . . . and his choreographies are just the same.”
Terry’s thoughts about Ek are obviously low, but he refers to historical names, such as Kurt Joos, when discussing that dance has very well expressed “a social protest or comment.” He stresses that Ek’s views on militarism, imperialism and racial oppression “are truly honorable,” but finds that he “tries to choreograph his personal anger” in a raw way and with numerous props, “barely more than supporting his ideas. Who cares what Mats Ek thinks about social injustices or at large a choreographer’s political position?” Terry claims that the dance itself should convince the viewers to find a position of their own.
Would it ever be possible for an artist to create without expressing him or herself? The ballet critics found Ek raw, violent and “political,” while the audiences embraced him for using the art of dance to take a meaningful position in one of the most important questions of the time.
It might look as if Ibsen, Ek and their loving audiences sensed new times coming and saw the huge shadows from necessary changes—some violent, some slow and discrete—dance on stage, while the critics seem to grasp the aspects of technical and professional skills, and turn their eyes away from the needs for changes, felt by many, in the conditions of human rights. One can only hope that critics of our time are wiser and have a better sense of proportions.
*Margareta Sörenson, president of IATC, is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, and a writer and researcher in dance history. She has written for the daily national paper Expressen since the early 1980s, and for the Swedish dance journal, Danstidningen, in addition to writing a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interests in dance and puppetry have often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.