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Sixtenth International Istanbul Theatre Festival. (Istanbul-Turkey. 4 April–15 May 2008) 29 mars 2009

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Istanbul, Turkey / Turquie.
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Theatre Journal (USA), Volume 61, Number 1, March 2009

Serap Erincin *

Turkey, surrounded for the most part by the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas, is a country in the middle of everything. To the east and south are Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; to the west are Greece and Bulgaria. The waters of the Bosphorus Strait divide Istanbul, literally, between Europe and Asia. When the United States wanted to send military hospital ships to Georgia by passing through Turkish waters during the conflict in the summer of 2008, Russia, which bordered Turkey as the USSR, voiced discomfort. NATO has large military bases in Turkey, and Turkey has been an ally not only of the United States, but also Israel.

Conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the ex-Soviet territory surround Turkey. There are also many internal conflicts, almost always involving human rights violations. Unfortunately, it is true that international standards for human rights, especially women’s rights, are often violated in Turkey. In practice, gender inequality remains in many arenas, ranging from the workplace to access to education. Despite recent improvements to the penal code regarding murder and rape, domestic violence challenges the lives and rights of large numbers of women, most of the changes granting independence and protection to women existing only on paper. Thus it made sense that “Human Rights” was the theme of the Sixteenth International Istanbul Theatre Festival, which provided a civil platform for women to perform these issues. The festival featured eight international and twenty-five local productions. Women created fourteen of the local productions, most of which were original.

The arts in general and this festival in particular constitute an important peaceful venue for women of Turkey to make their voices heard, especially considering that a significant part of local human rights issues revolve around women’s rights. In Turkey, as in many patriarchal societies, men largely direct women’s lives, even though women gained suffrage in 1930. On International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the leader of the AKP (the ruling Justice and Development Party), called on Turkey’s women to have at least three children— whether or not they could afford it, and whether or not they have had an adequate education. This is in contrast to the discourse of Mustafa Kemal, Turkey’s founder, who implemented changes that would allow women to have equal presence in politics, the arts, and other professional venues.

Such a presence is embodied in the work of Talin Büyükkürkciyan, a young Turkish choreographer of Armenian descent, a woman and a minority who performs her identity through art. In Inside Out, Marika’s Tale, she had dancers moving in a confined space. They reconfigured the rectangular space into a circular one, instantiating the desire for transformation, for expansion, and for change. Here, I will discuss three works created by four other women artists in which similar agendas were mobilized. These works have broken traditional practices by using everyday speech or movements in uncommon settings, demonstrating the desire to rebel against the rigidity of current authoritarian ideologies.

Dance and theatre have an equal presence in this festival. Aydın Teker, a choreographer who has profoundly influenced the growth of dance performance in Turkey during the past decade, consistently creates innovative work involving new artists. In harS, she worked with Ayşe Orhon, a performer of the younger generation. Orhon was the only human performer in harS, but this was certainly not a solo; she shared the performance space with a harp as tall as herself. HarS asked philosophical questions as it opened spaces for imagination. At one moment, Orhon suspended herself, inverted, on the harp, facing away from the spectators. Her body was covered in black clothing, contrasting with the paleness of her bare arms, while becoming one with the harp. Her arms, much lower than their normal position in an upright human body, moved slowly, dancing to the internal rhythm of this brand new figure of life. Later, the spectators heard the sound of this body as Orhon held one edge of the instrument, and pushing it, drew circles in the space. The sound was quite different from that of a harp; it was the sound created through friction, the movements of a human body against an object.

The work was a meditation on movement and mobility: Orhon was not moving the harp, but moving with it. The mass of the harp, added to the mass of her body, altered her movements. Orhon internalized the rhythm of this instrument, perhaps a result of the fact that she has played it for many years. This harp was a masculine and beautiful figure; often its curves and edges were echoed in the body of Orhon. Scenes with little or no movement turned into an abstract painting of lovers as, doubled in Orhon’s body, the harp appeared to be human. Many moments of the work also transformed the image of Woman into an empowered one. However, the magic of the piece was dispelled when Orhon started improvising, playing the strings; the actual sound of the instrument undermined the overall effect of the piece. Yet harS was a gloomy and beautiful piece, a dance about an impossible dialogue— or perhaps attempts at that dialogue. There was, however, little risk-taking within the performance; most of the time, the experience of watching this performance was closer to that of an interaction with an inanimate work of art such as a sculpture or painting, bringing the work closer to an installation rather than a live performance.

In Şahika Tekand’s latest production, Fear of Darkness, several monologues are intertwined into one. The performers, two men and three women, all dressed in black suits and seated in a line, faced the audience. They spoke quickly. The only other elements were glyphs projected onto the back wall and several short audio-tones. The glyph–tone combinations determined the positions the performers had quickly to assume if spotlighted, such as crossed or uncrossed legs. If they assumed the position that matched the current glyph–tone, the spotlight remained on them and they continued speaking; otherwise the spotlight shifted elsewhere, leaving that performer in darkness while another one spoke.

Stylistically, Tekand’s performers seemed to be using conventional techniques of realism at first, but this was deceptive, as they took high risks as performers, reacting to rapidly changing glyph–tone combinations. It seemed that the performers were learning extemporaneously which positions corresponded to which glyph–tones. They had to speak as soon as the spotlight hit them, making the audience wonder whether they would be able to keep up the tempo of this exercise. This is something that Tekand does well, capturing the spectators’ attention from the very first and leaving them breathless. Another is to embody philosophical debates in everyday speech. The conversational words of her characters triggered a thinking process within the spectators. The play was mostly a meditation on the crisis of an individual operating within the established system, and how even more trapped that individual becomes as part of that system. The international audience is used to grand, transfixing productions from Şahika Tekand; in the last decade, her legendary Oedipus Trilogy toured extensively. Fear of Darkness recalled the days when Tekand staged small productions on the tiny stage in her influential theatre school in Turkey.

Nihal Koldaş is a founder of the Bilsak Theatre, one of the few contemporary companies that has lasted for more than thirty years with the same name. It has influenced and been home to several generations of performers. Like Tekand’s characters, the characters in Koldaş’s play, Time’s Running Out 1—”Sinful Is the Time,” also used everyday speech in an extraordinary setting. These were images of people we recognize—stereotypes, in contrast to the highly stylized performance techniques traditionally employed by Bilsak. Tekand and Koldaş both departed from their usual stylistic habits. Their aesthetic choices are consistent with the subtle rebelliousness of their writings—rebelliousness against authority, against a country resisting change. Not coincidentally, these women represent that very small group, the minority that does not feel close to either side of a present-day polarized Turkey. One looks forward to more visibility of art created by other oppressed groups such as the gay community and ethnic minorities.

Most performances of the festival barely touched on the theme of human rights. A few, such as William Forsythe’s Human Writes, which was certainly the highlight of this year’s festival, addressed it directly. Forsythe created the project with Columbia University law professor Kendall Thomas in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the performance, the Forsythe Company invited the audience to join the dancers while they drew and wrote sentences from the declaration on large white tables. The Istanbul Theatre Festival not only provides opportunities to see works of internationally celebrated artists such as Forsythe and local performances that allow a better understanding of the sociopolitical atmosphere in Turkey, but it also sponsors workshops for professional performance artists and students that are directed by renowned artists. This year, George Sanchez directed one of the workshops by which Turkish artists had a chance to learn about the theatre of Augusto Boal. Past workshops have featured artists such as Peter Brook and Pina Bausch’s company.

Istanbul has long been a popular tourist destination owing to its historical heritage and natural beauty. Perhaps people who go to cities like Avignon and Edinburgh during their festival months will visit Istanbul in May 2010 for the Seventeenth International Istanbul Theatre Festival. This will further publicize the issues presented to and performed for an international audience, thereby helping to create the conditions for social change.

* New York University

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