The Best of BE FESTIVAL
Philippe Saire, Oliver Zahn and Sotterraneo
New Wolsey Theatre
On 28 April 2017
Review by Mary Mazzilli
The Best of BE was at the New Wolsey theatre in Ipswich only for one night on its UK tour, with next stops being Leeds, Gateshead, Coventry, Bristol and Harrogate.
BE stands for the Birmingham European Festival, which since 2013 has given European and British companies the opportunity to showcase their innovative work every June at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
It prides itself on showing a daring and innovative programme of boundary-pushing theatre, which through dance, comedy, circus, music, visual and performing arts celebrates creativity, discovery and exchange between diverse cultures. Connected and supported by other festivals in Europe, the winners of this festival are offered a development programme and both a UK and Spanish tour.
The three pieces currently on tour are indeed creative and to some extent diverse in their approaches.
Swiss choreographer Philippe Saire’s Vacuum is a dance piece that plays with light and shadows. Two dancers, Saire himself included, show their naked bodies, mostly their backs, their shoulders and their bare limbs, through a gap between two parallel, flourescent long bulbs placed at top and bottom.
In a routine of slow and precise movements of portions of bodies in and out of the hole, at the start it is pure exposition of shadows and mass, the chiaroscuro modelling and confusing what we see and what we do not see. As it progresses, the more dynamic movements, the more we see of the performers, who come out with their heads and busts.
The composition is highly lyrical with sculptural images a la Michelangelo and subtlety of precise movements that make this a highly technical study of light and shadows. Hypnotic, although a bit too long in part, this is the most sophisticated of the three pieces.
The second piece, last year prizewinner German Oliver Zahn's show, Situation with Outstretched Arm re-contextualises the Hitler salute in what is presented as an essay performance. The performer keeps the salute posture throughout the 30 minutes while the voice-over enlists the history of the salute in attempt to contextualise it outside the Nazi regime.
While seemingly controversial in its attempt to challenge the history of a salute that is still banned in Germany, the piece is rather monotonous in its execution. The audience are forced to endure and empathise with the performer competing with herself in her effort to keep the salute throughout the long expositions. But is this really enough to push boundaries? To make us think and reflect on history?
Much lighter in tone is the exuberant Italian company Sotterraneo’s Overload, winner of the 2012 prize. With echoes of Forced Entertainment, theirs is a devised composition around the theme of how long we can keep our focus, our concentration.
The starting point is the speech by an American professor to students. This allegedly said that nowadays the ammount of time we can keep our concentration for is less of that of a fish, which is less than eight seconds. The fish is a present signifier that keeps the different sketches together, among the intermittent moments of audience participation.
Enjoyable and spirited in execution, it is not brilliant nor ground-breaking theatre. Not even extreme enough to make a poignant commentary of our disengaged society. The fish and the fish mask are not unusual images to be seen on stage either.
Overall, on one hand it is commendable that we see theatre from the continent toured in regional theatres across the UK. On the other, I need to pose this question to the organisers: why do you show only theatre from the continen that is purely performance-based such as dance, devised work and live-art composition?
Diverse in approach, all the three pieces are a bit too the same, all celebrating an imagine of European theatre that is alternative insofar as it does not cross the boundaries beyond particular types of performance-based theatre.