BRUSSELS — When the largest performing arts festival in Brussels started last weekend, there were few traditional stages to be seen. Instead, spectators gathered in colonial-era monuments, a disused railway museum, and even the debating chamber of the Belgian Senate.
There are practical reasons for the flurry of site-specific shows in the month-long event called Kunstenfestivaldesarts, said Daniel Blanca Gubbay, one of the directors, during a break between performances. After two years of pandemic upheaval, many playhouses in Brussels were booked with rescheduled shows this year.
The restrictions have led to a creative lineup, highlighting areas of the city that even frequent visitors don’t necessarily know. To see “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance”, a family-friendly puppet show created by Daniela Ortiz, spectators had to walk into a side street of the large Cinquantenaire Park – and stop in front of the “Monument to the Belgian Pioneers in Congo.”
Unveiled in 1921, this sculpted tribute to the colonization of the Congo is very uncomfortable to look at today. It contains racist images and inscriptions depicting Belgians as the saviors of the local black population. Since Belgium recently took public account of its brutal history and removed the accompanying footage, “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” could hardly be more current.
Ortiz is from Peru and will stay there. Here she tries to evoke the state of Congo using animal puppets manipulated by two performers from behind a curtain. In the story, the central character, an okapi, is captured by cheerful white dolls representing the settlers.
From a Belgian zoo, the okapi (a close cousin of the giraffe, native to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) then longs for the independence of its native Congo, and conspires with other animals to overthrow the colonial regime. (They succeed, after strangling a human doll and singing a song.) “The Weeping Woods and the Okapi Resistance” is full of good intentions and works on paper as a counterpoint to the monumental backdrop in Brussels. Unfortunately, it was far too short and schematic to make compelling theater: Initially billed as an hour long, the performance eventually lasted 25 minutes.
There was more to be gained from Satoko Ichihara’s unclassifiable ‘Madama Chrysanthemum’, another work premiered in a progressive setting, the Museums of the Far East. This complex in the north of Brussels, which includes a Chinese pavilion and a Japanese tower, is an Orientalist fantasy commissioned by Leopold II, the king who also oversaw Belgium’s violent rule in the Congo.
All the buildings have been closed for nearly a decade for security reasons, so “Madama Chrysanthemum” was a rare opportunity to look around. Ichihara, a Japanese writer and director, also provided a playful introduction. Aurélien Estager, one of the two actors in “Madama Chrysanthemum,” welcomed the audience outside the Chinese pavilion and continued with a shining tour of the surrounding sights.
The tour ended in the Museum of Japanese Art, one of the closed buildings. There, on a small, empty stage, Estager and Kyoko Takenaka began an unusual performance inspired by the life of Masako, the current Empress of Japan (who is also a Harvard-educated former diplomat). In a mix of Japanese and French, the text highlights the pressure Masako faced from the Imperial Court, as well as public opinion, to produce a male heir.
The critical light in which the show presents the Japanese royal family made it impracticable in Japan, Icihara said. The surreal twists probably wouldn’t help. Throughout the time, Estager takes on the role of a dog named Emperor, and Takenaka plays the owner, who dreams of being impregnated by an Emperor (which is intentionally unclear), even as she tells Masako’s story.
While “Madama Chrysanthemum” hijacks its oriental decor to tell a very contemporary Japanese story, “Se questo è Levi”, a one-man show, channels the ceremony of the upper house of the Belgian parliament. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts that the organizers were allowed to stage an entire show in the Senate debating chamber, with spectators watching from the lion-adorned seats of Belgian senators.
“Se questo è Levi”, made by the Italian company Fanny & Alexander, takes excerpts from interviews given by Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote about his experience in the camp in “If This Is a Man”. The audience plays the role of interviewer: a list of questions is provided and can be asked in any order. Once Andrea Argentieri, who plays Levi, is done with one answer, anyone can dial in, using the microphone on each senator’s table.
It may be artificial, but it’s still strangely moving to address Levi, who died in 1987, so personally. When I asked him, “Do you think you can erase a man’s humanity?” Argentieri, who mimics Levi’s demeanor down to the way he rested his glasses on his forehead, looked at me for a few seconds with unspoken pain before answering. .
Would it also work in other contexts? It’s debatable, but in the Belgian Senate, Levi’s eloquent thoughts on the Holocaust and his legacy had the weight of an official hearing, for posterity. Perhaps they should be heard there more often.
“Se questo è Levi”, like almost all other productions at Kunstenfestivaldesarts, was translated into three languages: French and Dutch, the main languages spoken in Belgium, and English. (The Senate is equipped with headsets for simultaneous interpretation, and subtitles are used elsewhere.) That may sound normal for the course in Brussels, the multilingual home of the European Union’s main institutions, but the city’s theater scene is not quite used. towards it.
Since the arts are separately funded for the Belgian language communities (with the exception of some federal institutions), there is little intersection between French- and Dutch-language theaters in Brussels, and many offer no subtitling. With partner theaters from both sides, Kunstenfestivaldesarts has tried to bridge that gap.
During the first weekend, ‘Tumulus’ by François Chaignaud and Geoffroy Jourdain, a polyphonic work that mixes dance and music, was performed at the Dutch-language stage house Kaaitheater, while the French-language performance space Les Brigittines hosted a new version of Okwui Okpokwasili’s powerful piece of dance theater” Bronx Gothic”, now performed by Wanjiru Kamuyu.
The range of languages can be somewhat dizzying, as was the case with “Hacer Noche”, a two-hour Spanish show performed in the former railway museum above North Station. The play is a calm and sensitive conversation between the director, Bárbara Bañuelos, and Carles Albert Gasulla, a well-read man who works as a parking attendant. But there’s a lot of translated text to take in as you hear Spanish, and at times I wish the subtitles had slowed down to land their points about class, sanity, and precarious work.
Still, that’s a minor complaint. In its current form, Kunstenfestivaldesarts shows Brussels at its best: a city of converging cultures, as open to addressing its past as it is to receiving others.
Various venues in Brussels, until 28 May.