Margareta Sörenson [1]

The Performing Arts

Performing arts change, so does criticism and so do our perspectives of the world. In the last few decades, there have been several cross-cultural initiatives, and crossover theatre forms have become standard. The influence of dance and dance theatre in the largely dramatic theatre of the Western World has been profound. In the East, the classical performing arts have always combined different art forms.

Theatre as the spoken word might be a historical parenthesis. Until the late nineteenth century, even in the West, it was “normal,” if this word can be used, to mix various art forms on stage to create an artifact of theatre. In the house called “a theatre,” dance, opera and drama were performed, often in small and mixed portions. An evening in the theatre could mean some dance, some excerpts from a play, more dance, an act from an opera, etc. Entering ballet school was a normal first class in an actor’s training in Europe of the nineteenth century. Young students, having started as ballet children, were later sorted out as singers or actors—or dancers depending on their ability.

When drama began to take on social issues as Ibsen’s plays did, a new era in theatre had arrived. Ibsen himself refused to have music played between the acts of A Doll’s House. His position was new and challenging. The importance of the message should not be disturbed by anything else, not even music. Now the entities were separate, but for how long?

In the last forty years or so, there have been significant attempts to return to the blending of art forms on stage. Ariane Mnouchkine, Tadeusz Kantor, Peter Brook, Robert Wilson—they all used advanced forms of staging in which the imagery on stage is crucial. There are also endless examples of site specific experiences, of old factories being turned into theatres or workshops or venues. The new computer world helped: shadow plays got programmed in advance. Great importance was given to lighting. Programming and new facilities made lighting a co-partner in dance and performance.

But the free and courageous theatre groups made of young people are today more and more rare due to financial changes and difficulties in raising funds. A young choreographer, Jefta van Dinther, tells me that the only place where you might, today, experiment without thinking of an immediate tour, ticket selling, audiences etc., is in the academic world. This opens a new risk: the forgotten audience and the inner-circle’s self-sufficiency.

Media, globalization and outlook

At the same time, notions of “culture” and “arts” are in transition, moving in relation to mass culture and popular culture. Print and other media feel obliged to cover popular culture, otherwise threatened by the social media and the Internet. The profession of the critic is in deep change since its first scene historically was the printed page.

In Sweden, just as elsewhere, a newspaper today is an enterprise that produces many things, among them a paper, printed periodically. The transition to online-papers is already prepared and is on its way. How do we, the critics, deal with this transition? So far, we continue to write—in the papers, in blogs, portals and in other forms. A large number of young critics struggle to get inside the established media world, and while waiting, they establish their own circles. The cultivated elderly gentleman who once was The Critic has passed away. A number of middle-aged and younger women are taking his place. During this process, criticism in general, and not just theatre criticism, has lost a great deal of its prestige.

This has already changed even the way critics write. The need for shorter articles is immediate and critics, who have to earn their living, have rapidly adopted the new terms of working. Personally, I am convinced that these developments have also changed the way of writing criticism. The style of writing is in transition, and for larger and deeper studies, academia offers the almost only alternative.

This runs in parallel with the tendency one is observing in the performing arts: academization. Is it a logical and natural step? Or is it a sad proof of segregation which seems to speed up the separation of classes and regions?

Post colonialism and gender

Yet, these changes are only reflecting much deeper developing structures and changes in the world, where globalization has torn down many walls. Colonialism is history, but many patterns remain and we still have to fight racism, which is once again on the rise in Europe.

Sweden had for decades a close relation to India, in the 1950s and 1960s. It was an engagement from the Swedish side towards newborn, independent nations, former colonies, and the cultural exchange was appreciated. However, when you look at the photos of how Indian dance and culture were introduced and presented in Sweden at the time, you realize how many phases the post-colonial thinking had.

Lilavati was an Indian dancer, and a member of the Indian dance master Ram Gopal’s touring company. Lilavati married a Swedish man who was a manager in dance, and together they did the great work of communicating Indian dance and culture in Sweden. They introduced another culture and they opened up doors.

Photograph of the Indian dancer Lilavati
Photograph of the Indian dancer Lilavati

Fifty years later, the inter-culturalism and the cultural-diversity-notions are criticized as Euro-American-flavored. Indian critic and cultural commentator Rustom Bharucha has exposed this in a critical discussion countering Richard Schechner. Bharucha argues that Schechner draws a map where he places “the culture of the other” as one of the postmodern models. Bharucha also argues against Patrice Pavis and his view of “other cultures” as ”material” for users or receivers for their own purpose.

Globalization and the rapid changes in the media world seem to have changed our own perspectives of the Arts, and have given younger generations the ability to appreciate unique cultures. For instance, Japanese manga is loved by Westerners and has deeply influenced the Arts. Sushi restaurants are now found throughout the world and make the fast food of Japan a daily meal in Stockholm or Paris. Fifty years ago, Indian dance was presented as a foreign and fascinating jewelry box. Today, Bollywood movies are well known internationally and if interested in Indian dance, a Swedish person is more likely to take classes in Indian dance than merely watch it.

In this way, we have slowly moved from a position of look-admire-and-learn to a new attitude of consume-and-use your own way. Individualism now plays a key role in what we see and how we interpret it. The individual signature in the arts seems to be more important than how nations or traditions collectively wish to present themselves.

At the same time, the populations of Europe are increasingly becoming more marked by diversity in ethnicity. Migrations due to the free labor market system in the European Union, as well as refugees from war zones, are permanently changing the composition of populations. Sweden, small and without a proper colonial history, has close to a twenty-percent level of immigrants, depending on crafts immigration since the 1960s. There have been waves of political refugees in Sweden. In terms of globalization, Indian engineers are much in demand in Sweden.

Playwriting in Sweden transiting race and ethnicity

Photo of the Swedish-Tunisian playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Photo of the Swedish-Tunisian playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri

One of the most, if not the most, prominent younger playwrights in Sweden today is Jonas Hassen Khemiri, with one Swedish and one Tunisian parent, born and brought up in Sweden. His play I Call My Brothers, which is about a terrorist attack in central Stockholm, has most elegantly and even entertainingly shaken the theatre audience with its clear eye for the complexities of guilt and blame among second generation immigrants. This play, as well as his other plays, has been staged by Iran-born Farnaz Arbabi, who has lived in Sweden since she was a child. Her understanding of the transition, problems between those arriving and those who are native, between classes, genders and ethnic groups, has created remarkable theatre, such as her staging in two different theatres of Khemiri’s play, I Call My Brothers. Thus, Swedish theatre has enlarged and deepened its colors and shades, thanks to a more varied population, particularly in the larger cities.

Photo of the play I Call My Brothers by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Photo of the play I Call My Brothers by Jonas Hassen Khemiri

So globalization, migration, feminism, post-colonialism and digitalization of the media, have created a patchwork of transitions for the arts. For the individual critic it is not easy to navigate in these oceans—always the same, and always new.

Margareta Sorenson's  photo

[1] Margareta Sörenson, President of IATC, is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, a writer and researcher in dance history. She writes for the daily national paper Expressen, and has written a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interest in dance and puppetry has often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.

Copyright © 2015 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Three Times Transition