ARCHA.MAG 03/08 – DANCE THROUGH THE FENCE – INTERVIEW
Read our interview with director Jana Svobodová about Archa Theatre's social-theatrical project Dance through the fence.
The director Jana Svobodová is working on what is now her third performance where professional performers come together with refugees who are looking for a new home in Czech Republic. The first big project, At 11.20 I Will Be Leaving You, took audiences into refugee camps, the second project Strange Neighbour was created in the administrative building Danube House in Prague’s Karlín district. This time, however, Dance Through The Fence, is staying in the theatre, although it is far from being an ordinary performance….
In what ways is the current project different from the ones which have gone before?
I will start with what they have in common. All the projects carry the message that we no longer, and will not in the future, live in a culturally homogenous society.
And it what way is it different? In the previous performances, immigrants have appeared on stage alongside professional actors, musicians and dancers. We tried to create the conditions, in a theatrical context, where everyone had an equal position. We looked for a general life situation which everyone had experienced and on which it was possible to build an emotional consonance between the audience and refugees from Chechnya, Tatarstan, Burma, Angola and other countries.
This time we are telling the authentic stories of Khupi, Gugar, Marina and Kasem. These people are of course not just the subjects of the narration, but also active participants. They are the authors, dramaturges, consultants and often even the directors of their own stories. The positions have been divided differently. The actors are in the role of intermediary of the stories.
How did you choose the right intermediaries?
I chose awfully carefully and spent a long time looking. Even if someone is an outstanding actor, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has a capacity for social sensitivity. In a certain way the phrase “leave your ego at home” is very apt here. The performance is not about them, but about someone else. I looked very carefully for actors, dancers and performers who have experience from work outside the theatre. Petra Lustigová, for example, works in hospitals as a clown doctor. That requires a very similar approach. A person must use his or her talent to accomplish something other than the presentation of “high art” to the audience.
In the end we put together an interesting team, including some people who we had worked with before (Eva Hromníková, Petra Lustigová, Jing Lu). I knew Philip Schenker from previous work in independent theatre here and abroad. The team also includes the dancers Daniel Raček and Honza Březina.
Did a very close relationship have to develop between the performer and the immigrant beforehand?
This sort of project is always a risk. It was not a given that Daniel Raček would be able to empathise with the Kurdish refugee Kasem. First of all I explained everything to him, and then we went to meet Kasem in the refugee camp. At that point, it became clear to me that Daniel was the right person. Not to boast, but I wasn’t wrong in a single case. But the search took me six months.
Another member of our team is Michael Romanyshyn, our band leader. Michael, who was trained in Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet theatre, knows how to create a band from people of various levels of accomplishment on musical instruments. In his band, virtuosos like the jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas play alongside farmers, who had scarcely held a musical instrument beforehand. I don’t know anyone like that in Czech Republic. I wanted all the participants of our performance to play in the band, and Michael created a system in which everyone could find their place in the orchestra. I see this as the basic principle of the whole performance. Each individual contributes what they can and doesn’t just flaunt what he or she is best at.
Did any cultural differences come to light during the rehearsals?
It is cultural differences that we are generally looking at. During rehearsals, however, personal characteristics, experiences, cultural habits were all mixed in together. So I can’t really differentiate. I don’t know if it is a Chinese national characteristic, but rehearsing with Jing Lu can sometimes be very difficult. Either she is embarrassed or she giggles. On the stage, however, she is fantastic. If I had to judge what Kurds are like from what I know of Kasem, I would say extraordinarily careful and sensitive people. Up the moment when, in creative fervour during improvisation, he nearly injured his partner.
The important thing is that we created a safe environment during our work, where each person can openly give their opinion. When, for example, we talk about Islam, it is possible to go wrong. Therefore it’s good to have someone who will say “hang on, it’s not like that at all”
What about being a refugee in itself? Have you personally ever thought about fleeing your country?
That’s a good question. Perhaps it would be easiest to say no. But I openly admit that when I first travelled to the US in 1988, I thought about it. I had been invited there by the Bread and Puppet theatre. I longed to stay and do more work with them, but at the same time I knew that I wasn’t allowed. That knowledge was awfully traumatic for me. I said to myself that, if I hadn’t had a daughter, who the regime was holding hostage here at home, then I would have stayed. Perhaps it is a good thing that I didn’t actually do it in the end, and found my own path. In any case, though, it was a real temptation for me.
I am doing this work because I want to say: Don’t look down your nose at immigrants. Because you never know if, in a few years time, you couldn’t be in the same situation. We can’t be so confident and conceited to think that it couldn’t happen to us and that bad things happen far away to the east and south of us.