Review: Best of BE Festival - Julia Schwartzbach/Radioballet/Mokhallad Rasem - Barbican Pit

Performance: 8 - 11 October 2014
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Monday 13 October 2014

Radioballet 'From The Waltz To The Mambo'Photo: Alex Brenner. BE Festival 2014

Performance reviewed: 8 October

It can be said that each of the three choreographer/directors showcased in the Best of BE FESTIVAL (Birmingham’s international theatre festival, bringing together work by emerging UK and European performance practitioners) at the Barbican’s Pit last Thursday night began with a strong discernable idea, allowing their work to develop around it. All three young makers took a simple concept and productively exploited it to variably clever, hilarious or moving effect.

One of the festival’s stated purposes is to champion “innovative ways to engage with audiences.” In a bare-knuckled approach to this challenge, Julia Schwartzbach (Austria) turned in the evening’s most successful crowd pleaser. To start her piece loops and breaks Schwarzbach, all business in a suit and tie, invited us up to take an envelope off a stack she had on a desk centre stage. The ensuing herd of audience members up to the stage was the first choreographic move, followed by a canon of chaotic activity as we enacted the piece ourselves, following a set of algorithmic instructions printed on slips of paper inside the envelopes (i.e. when ‘_____’ happens, do or shout out ‘______’ ).

Schwarzbach held court in the middle of it all, swaying to the music, scribbling out signs used as signals for actions, and being danced with, hugged or primped by random punters following the orders on their cue cards. One chap had to continuously reposition trees about the stage, apparently prompted by shout-outs from the rest of us, and others read out what sounded like pop philosophy or poured drinks for our hostess. The cycle ran its course once and we were told to exchange our envelope with a neighbour in order to start the fracas all over again. This change of personnel served to highlight the variability in Schwarzbach’s exquisite corpse-like choreographic machine as members of the crowd performed their own unique interpretations of the same score.

From The Waltz To The Mambo, a solo by Radioballet (Hungary) – a company that must consist mainly of Milan Ujvari as he choreographed, performed and designed the lights for the piece – was more irreverent response than ecstatic interpretation. Ujvari took to the stage with a notebook containing excerpts from a staid and dated dance manual from the 60s. He seems shy, coyly didactic like a student stood up in class as he reads out the text, and then mixes it up with a limber array of popping jumps, splits and arching backward dives around the space. Sweetly smiling Ujvari is cute as a button, and the piece reveals him as a fluid mover with tight elastic control over his compact frame. But it’s hard to understand his readings amidst some of his exertions, and the thematics of the piece seem reduced to an ironic contrast between the prim, mannered language of the manual and his acrobatic pseudo-seductive posturing.

Mokhallad Rasem (Belgium) eschews humour and irony for a visual and verbal meditation on waiting, also the appropriate title of his piece. Projected surtitles translate and clarify the responses of interviewees to questions about waiting; passersby on the street, they philosophise with at times great profundity on what this liminal state of being means to them, providing examples and definitions both pithy and poignant. “A waste of time” say several of the respondents, “It means you expect something to happen” or “you have a goal” say others; or more existentially: “something we do most of the time” or more spiritually: “you wait upon the lord.” Large jaggedly torn sheets of cloth or paper are held aloft by three performers (all clad in versions of Muslim religious dress) to reveal fragments of video projections of the speakers being interviewed. These fractured puzzle pieces of the talking heads eventually start to refer with some consistency to conflicts in the Middle East, but always elliptically. Waiting Rasem seems to be saying, is a never ending state, much like the conflicts between or inside of nation states themselves, always present, always in the aftermath of violence and before a hoped-for future.

Best of BE FESTIVAL continues touring until 8 November

Photo: Radioballet From The Waltz To The Mambo by Alex Brenner.

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College. Find him on Twitter @jeffreyGordonB

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