Paper presented in Jönköping, at the Swedish Performing Arts Biennial 2013

Theresa Bener[1]

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In 2011, Swedish filmmaker Peggy Eklöf and I approached the Danish performance and stage auteur Kirsten Dehlholm, asking her whether she would allow us to follow the creative process of one of her productions. Dehlholm, founder and artistic director of the Copenhagen-based, international performance laboratory Hotel Pro Forma, responded with enthusiasm and invited us to document their elaboration of a brand new opera installation, named War Sum Up.[2]

The project was initiated by Kirsten Dehlholm and conductor Kaspars Putnins of the Latvian Radio Choir, with whom Hotel Pro Forma had previously collaborated successfully on the internationally acclaimed music theatre production Operation: Orfeo. Devised through a collaborative process typical of Hotel Pro Forma, War Sum Up involved independent artists from different disciplines and countries in an international co-production set up with the Latvian National Opera. The aim of our documentary film, Hotel Pro Forma Sum Up,[3] was to deconstruct and investigate different layers of the production. Through the filming of rehearsal scenes, in-depth interviews and extracts from the premiere, we tried to analyse the rich texture of this piece, exposing the potential of complex expression within the contemporary performing arts.

"War Sum Up". © Gunars Janaitis
“War Sum Up”. © Gunars Janaitis

Using aesthetics and methods similar to those of Robert Wilson and Romeo Castellucci, Kirsten Dehlholm creates strongly visual theatre where all the elements of the stage are employed in thematic exploration.War Sum Up is a reflective piece on the nature of war. Based on Japanese manga drawings and a libretto of selected texts from Nôh plays relating to war, this opera installation, sung in Japanese, brings together music commissioned from different composers, who worked independently of each other. One of the most talented young classical composers of Latvia, Santa Ratniece, wrote part of the score together with Gilbert Nouno from the Ircam in Paris, while a British chamber-pop group, The Irrepressibles/Jamie McDermott, composed the other part. Costumes were conceived by hip Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, while lighting was designed by Jesper Kongshaug, who is acclaimed for his sophisticated light and colour creations in several Hotel Pro Forma productions.

"War Sum Up". © Gunars Janaitis
“War Sum Up”. © Gunars Janaitis

So what made me, a theatre critic, want to produce a 50-minute documentary about a performance that I could have reviewed in a day? The answer might be that in a simple newspaper review or radio broadcast it would have been impossible to do justice to a complex piece of music theatre like War Sum Up. In every scene there is a wealth of information to interpret: the lyrics; the imagery; the subtle musical connotations and confrontations; the political, philosophical and poetic ideas; and the partly abstract aesthetics which induce a multitude of responses. The format of a common review seems inadequate as a mechanism for sharing understanding of such important and artistically bold stage productions.

Katie Mitchell, "Die Gelbe Tapete", Schabühne, Berlin. © Stephen Cummiskey
Katie Mitchell, “Die Gelbe Tapete”, Schabühne, Berlin. © Stephen Cummiskey

One of the contradictions of our time is that while the performing arts need to assert themselves in ever more unique and specific expressions, the performing arts critics are asked to make brief, easy-to-read, internet-friendly reports of what they have seen.

Simon McBurney/Complicite, "The Master and Margarita", Festival d'Avignon. © Christophe Raynaud de Lage
Simon McBurney/Complicite, “The Master and Margarita”, Festival d’Avignon. © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

A number of stage auteurs/directors have taken up the challenge posed by the internet, television and cinema. Their artistic propositions are based upon the specific grammar and language of the stage and are, therefore, difficult to reproduce in other media. Already in the 1990s, director Simon McBurney of Complicite stated: “For theatre to be reclaimed it must state its difference”. He was, at the time, referring to live theatre in relation to television drama. Complicite, with its actor-based, devised projects, has evolved towards intricate stage productions, employing new technology in multidimensionalmise-en-scènes, weaving together simultaneous space and timelines. In A Disappearing Number (2007-10), an exploration of how mathematical thinking is related to cultural patterns, the action moved swiftly from East to West, connecting great events of history and individual stories throughout the 20thcentury. Music, choreographed movements and video projections were in constant transformation, interconnecting different worlds, time levels and rhythms.

Several contemporary auteur-directors, like Krzysztof Warlikowski, Katie Mitchell, Joël Pommerat, Christoph Marthaler or Heiner Goebbels, similarly work towards multilayered, sometimes post-dramatic or meditative compositions, which are far more ambitious than just illustrating a good story. One example can be found with the Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who, over the past four years, has challenged traditional drama structures by combining and adapting between three and five completely different plays or texts in each production. The result is a kind of multi-referential dramaturgy, which opens to elaborate inquiries of specific motifs. It was initiated with (A)pollonia (2009) on the theme of sacrifice, based on selected texts, ranging from ancient Greek drama to contemporary novels.

Krzysztof Warlikowski, "Un Tramway", Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, Paris. © Pascal Victor
Krzysztof Warlikowski, “Un Tramway”, Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Paris. © Pascal Victor

The same strategy has successfully been applied on the complex, ambitious productions of Un Tramway,The End and The African Tales by Shakespeare. In the recent Kabaret Warszawski (2013), Warlikowski and his Nowy Teatr mix plays, novels, film scripts and music, from Isherwood to Coetzee, and Bach to Radiohead, into a spectacular cabaret on politics, sexuality, fear and freedom, linking the Weimar Republic to post-9/11 New York.  Ever since the 1950s and ‘60s, theatre projects have moved towards polyphony and hybrid forms in poetically ambiguous performances. An early milestone in this evolution was, of course, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach (1976). Touring worldwide again since 2011, it still remains groundbreaking as a piece of modern Gesamtkunstwerk.

Robert Wilson/Philip Glass, "Einstein on the Beach", Pomegranate Arts. © Lucie Jansch
Robert Wilson/Philip Glass, “Einstein on the Beach”, Pomegranate Arts. © Lucie Jansch

Meanwhile, theatre and drama criticism in the mass media has changed very little in structure. Reviews in European newspapers are generally published in a standard format, often in one, two or three narrow columns (Germany being a happy exception). This format is well adapted for the precise reporting of a play, it allows for direct discussion and assessment of the main topic or message at stake in the performance. It is, however, not conducive to deeper analysis or questioning.

In the Scandinavian press, reviews have also become considerably shorter than in the past. Over the last 10 to 15 years the text volume of theatre reviews published in Swedish daily newspapers has shrunk by 40 to50 per cent. This is closely related to the fact that broadsheets have changed into tabloids and that the texts have to be compatible and easily readable in the online newspaper editions.

Robert Wilson/Philip Glass, "Einstein on the Beach", Pomegranate Arts. © Leslie Lesley-Spinks
Robert Wilson/Philip Glass, “Einstein on the Beach”, Pomegranate Arts. © Leslie Lesley-Spinks

The consequence of this development is that daily theatre and drama criticism is drawn away from an essayistic style and academic analysis. As a result, the reviews often appear more dynamic and interesting when written in a short, sharp, edgy style, in line with the general news language. This style is extremely well suited to discussing current affairs drama or performances with a clear-cut message. The more poetic, abstract or multilayered forms, exploring different levels of reality, rarely get the media space needed for a serious response.

The Scandinavian media, therefore, gives priority to coverage of new plays and productions that deal with social topics, their political relevance becoming an indicator of artistic merit. A perfect example of this was the new play Manifesto 2083 by Danish playwright Christian Lollike, based on the extremist manifesto of the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Lollike’s play premiered in Copenhagen in the Autumn 2012, and the Svenska Dagbladet offered me plenty of space to write about this very simplistic political text, which was presented in an unexceptional staging. It was obviously seen as exciting “news” that would attract readers to the arts section. I can, however, recall other times when the arts editor rejected my suggestion to review productions in Copenhagen that were artistically bold, pushing the limits of the performing arts. Theatre in the neighbouring Scandinavian capital was not deemed to be part of what a Stockholm-based newspaper should cover – unless there was a “Swedish” connection.

Katie Mitchell, "Die Gelbe Tapete", Schabühne, Berlin. © Stephen Cummiskey
Katie Mitchell, “Die Gelbe Tapete”, Schabühne, Berlin. © Stephen Cummiskey

Writing about innovative form, helping readers to identify and decode performing art works that evoke the normally invisible sign systems of our time, is, unfortunately, often dismissed as “elitist” and obscure. According to this logic, auteurs and directors like the ones mentioned earlier in this paper are considered “difficult”.

This media preference for socially and politically relevant drama has a direct impact on what kind of new work gets produced in Sweden. Since practically all theatre in Scandinavia is funded through public money, the arts councils measure whether companies will get media publicity and thus reach out to their intended audiences. Current affairs oriented productions, which are acknowledged by dynamic reviews, thus earn more production money for their companies when they apply for funding of new projects. In the end, we will have a self-sustaining system, where the complex, difficult works of the performing arts will never get full recognition, professional analysis or financial support. Instead, the art works which get promoted coincide with the spectacular dramaturgy of the news media, which is ruled by commercial strategies in a ruthless cycle of global competition.

Christian Lollike, "Manifest 2083", Cafe Teatret, Copenhagen. © Soren Solkaer
Christian Lollike, “Manifest 2083”, Cafe Teatret, Copenhagen. © Soren Solkaer

It seems to me that we need alternative platforms where critics, audience, creative teams and intellectuals can meet and exchange reflections about the contents and aesthetic articulations of performances in the repertoire. It is not accessible to everyone to make a documentary film exploring the work of particular directors or stage auteurs. However, when presenting our film Hotel Pro Forma Sum Up in arts schools, theatres and public venues, I am met with great curiosity and interest concerning questions of form and style. Regular dialogues about the running repertoire could, I believe, be organised in public forums on the internet, or take place in a series of seminars arranged by academies connected to performing arts institutions and/or arts schools. The advantage of continuing the public discourse around a performance is that it raises awareness about different artistic idioms and the meaning of signs produced through various elements of stage. A wider audience would gain a deeper understanding of stage grammar, accessing the layers of knowledge unveiled by the performance. The role of the theatre critic, as an active pedagogue and interpreter would again become important. In the end this has something to do with the accessibility and democratization of the arts. Do we distribute public funding to the performing arts just to confirm values and opinions that are already well established? Or could it be that we collectively support the arts precisely because artists are trained to explore unknown forms, offering the public new ways of understanding and relating to the present and the future?


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[1] Theresa Bener is a Swedish theatre critic, specializing in contemporary European theatre. Member of the  Swedish Academy Theatre Committee. BA Drama, Theatre and Film studies at Lund University, Sweden. Arts correspondent based in Paris 1985-2000 and in London 2000-2008. Since 1980 Theresa Bener has published hundreds of reviews, columns, essays and reports in Swedish and Scandinavian newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and books, mainly in the national morning paper Svenska Dagbladet and the Swedish National Broadcasting Corporation. Co-founder and co-director of Malmoe based 29 media Theresa Bener is also a documentary film producer and arts editor. She has participated in various expert panels evaluating selected performing arts institutions. Website: www.theresabener.se www.29.nu
[2] War Sum Up produced by the Hotel Pro Forma, the Latvian Radio Choir and the Latvian National Opera, was performed in November 2013 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York. The next performances: 20/3 2014 Lucent Danstheater, Den Haag, Holland, 21/3 2014 Odeon de Spiegel, Zwolle, Holland, 22/3 2014 Theater aan de Parade, Den Bosch, Holland, 25/3 2014 La Comete – Chalons en Champagne, France. Read more: www.hotelproforma.dk
[3] Hotel Pro Forma Sum Up, documentary by Peggy Eklöf and Theresa Bener, DVD subtitled in English, French, German, Swedish, Danish, Latvian. Published by 29 media, Sweden: http://29media.gostorego.com/hotel-pro-forma-sum-up.html. Read more: http://www.29.nu/doc-hotel-pro-forma-sum-up.

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Can Theatre Criticism, Hit by the Crisis of Printed Media, Respond to the Complex Artistic Expressions of Contemporary Theatre? (Sweden)