teaterkritik - kulturproduktion

Metropolis Copenhagen 2009 - international performance festival

On a mild but windy summer’s eve a group of people assembled outside a warehouse building at the Refshaleøen. Although located not very far from the city centre of Copenhagen this area has a slightly rough atmosphere, marked by past and present industrial activities. Guided by the Metropolis organisers we walked quietly further out, towards the sea. I remember looking at some of the overgrown, abandoned plots we passed, wondering if they might be the ”Wasteland” that would correspond to the title of that night’s performance.

We ended up being seated in front of a huge, rectangular open space, surrounded by the sea of Øresund and some wind turbines in the background with blades gracefully swishing through the air. This was the perfect wasteland for Lotte van den Berg’s minimalist performance. Isolated individuals emerged out of nowhere on this terrain vague, moving across in long, straight or diagonal lines, thereby taking possession of the space. Life, death, meetings, sex and (violent) separations occurred silently with no particular emotion. A stranger, a woman from the city, arrived at this territory, her neat clothes indicating culture and civilisation. She was immediately under threat, her otherness somehow revealing an unspoken sense of community among the original inhabitants of the wasteland.
Night fell while the anonymous players acted out a desolate fight for survival and relationship. The Copenhagen-Oslo ferryboat passed by, like a surreal vessel from another world. Nobody out there would care about the people in the wasteland. Just like inhabitants in undefined suburban territories, the players were left to communicate and organise themselves through arbitrary codes of power and violence.
One of the issues at stake in the Metropolis project is the question of public space. How do we meet and interact socially in urban areas that are not yet occupied and ruled by commercial entreprise or public institutions? Why are citizens (especially the elderly and weak) getting increasingly reluctant to spend time in parks, squares and streets? We all tend to move swiftly through these open spaces as if they were “wastelands”, where we have no distinct sense of belonging and may feel uneasy or vulnerable. This applies not only to new urban development zones on the outskirts of Copenhagen but also to neglected parts of the city centre.
Art and culture create democratic platforms where people can meet, negotiate and investigate their differences, without feeling threatened or excluded byeach other. When South African choreographer Jay Pather prepared a dance pilgrimage through the socially unsettled district of Nørrebro his aim was to create poetic gestures out of the diverse histories and cultural systems that converge in this part of Copenhagen. Pather and his collaborators had in 2008 been visiting the neighbourhood, collecting stories from the residents. In the public eye Nørrebro had unfortunately come to be associated with violent gang conflicts, a consequence of failure in integration, which had favoured an environment of distrust, crime and hostility.
In Jay Pather’s “Blind Spot” the audience gathered far out at Nørrebro and got acquainted with a group of exiles arriving in Denmark. The group consisted of twelve dancers of South African and European origin, of mixed colours from black to white. After the first scene we were invited to follow an African pathfinder on a pilgrimage walk through the district. All of a sudden every street corner, walkway, balcony, shop window, and even the cemetery turned out to be a potential stage. Dancers popped up in all those places and performed scenes based on real stories from everyday life of the locals. They were dancing and playing with us, sometimes in an elaborate choreography, sometimes with an almost imperceptible difference to the body language of passers-by, the ordinary inhabitants of Nørrebro. Hence it seemed as if everybody was part of the performance: the Indian mother with her children, the Arab youngsters, or indeed the tipsy Danish gentleman with an umbrella who joined in the scene outside the St Stefan’s church. The inhabitants and the sometimes tired, derelict buildings of Nørrebro were invested with a poetic dimension, which made it possible for us visitors to approach their reality in a playful way.
The curious crowd following our pathfinder grew considerably as we got closer to the city centre. During this pilgrimage we established links of solidarity with the performing “exiles”. Leaving the ethnically diverse Nørrebro made us all acutely aware of their exclusion in the wealthier and bourgeois parts of the city. A queen like figure standing on a balcony, wearing a very long gown of red and white, like the colours of the Danish flag, marked the entrance into the heart of Copenhagen. At that point the foreign dancers became outsiders in a rich world they could not easily access and found themselves in a social hierarchy where they were insecure, homeless and exotic.
The site specific installations and performances of the Metropolis festival infuse Copenhagen’s urban spaces with drama and poetry; as a result it attracts mixed crowds, meeting on equal terms in the streets. In the contemporary Scandinavian society the middle class has largely barricaded itself at home, enjoying global music, cinema, visual arts etcetera through refined technological equipment. Getting people to leave their comfortable, private haven and take part in public events is an ever more demanding task, so artists have to invent unique setups that cannot be reproduced at home.The performance/installation “La Marea” by Mario Pensotti recognised the fact that most of the fundamentally important scenes of city life actually take place behind closed doors, in people’s homes or in family situations.
Thus Pensotti decided to highlight those private areas. He created a fictive micro society in Blågårdsgade, where he had a number of empty shops and apartments transformed into theatrical spaces. They were furnished into different settings, mainly as private homes. Spotlights were lit and the audience standing outside the windows could watch actors in domestic scenes, while their dialogues and thoughts were projected as surtitles on the façade wall above the window. Pensotti invited us all to become voyeurs, but at a deeper level he inspired the spectators to imagine what may take place behind all those closed doors and windows in a street. The papers will report on tragic events of murder and crime, while the real, continuous life in the neighbourhood is all about these rather banal moments of joy, love, anger or frustration. Guided by reports of extreme conflicts we seem all too eager to brand a local district as dangerous, instead of considering its ordinary, everyday scenes of constructive and respectful cohabitation. Mario Pensotti’s “La Marea” managed to create something extra-ordinary and poetic out of that invisible, non-eventful reality. The Blågårdsgade was packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the scenes, and probably none of them will ever pass the street again without remembering or trying to imagine what is now going on behind those walls.
The Metropolis productions tend to work at a deeper level with memory, appealing to our awareness of being part of a larger community. Erik Pold’s “The Reality Game” was performed as a live news investigation in the central square Kultorvet. An actor/reporter stopped people and asked them various questions, such as: “Would you define yourself as a completely free, tolerant citizen? Could a revolution and war ever be justified in Denmark?” There were references to the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose reflections on man’s freedom were applied on today’s Denmark. In an amusing setup the audience was sitting indoors, watching the fictive reporter at work in the square through a large shop window. The city was yet again a vibrant, dynamic stage with citizens appearing as potential performers.
The Metropolis festival has a clear emphasis on outdoor performances, which can be festive and spectacular. Some of the events in 2009 were large scale visual feasts, e g the “Waterfools” show with French group Ilotopie, or the “Submarine Ballet” of Live Art Installations in the harbour. The acrobats from Compagnie 9.81 dancing vertiginously at the façade of housing estate VM bjerget in Ørestad introduced an exciting perspective on the relationship between individuals and architecture while offering first class entertainment open to anyone.
But one of the main rewards of the festival is that it establishes enduring inner connections between the city and its dwellers, making us all aware of our unique passage through an intricate weave of stories, myths, dreams and pursuits. This was particularly well conveyed in the production “City Puzzle” by Enrique Vargas with the Teatro de los Sentidos. Here each spectator was blindfolded and delicately guided in a dark labyrinth of sounds, voices, smells and sensations that evoked inner images and scenarios of urban scenes and stories. The past and present intertwined, while my specific experience merged into a greater history of miscellaneous episodes. In the final scene of “City Puzzle” each spectator tied a tiny “thread of life” to a palace entirely made up of such little strings. Giving up my own thread I became part of a much bigger creation, which was reinforced by each piece of string. This gave a clear image of how we can grow as citizens in a metropolitan community by sharing our personal stories and treasures with each other. I believe this is what Metropolis is all about.

Essay published in KIT's book Changing Metropolis II, 2012