by Carol Rocamora
If you see smoke rising on East 4th Street, it’s coming from inside La MaMa. There, flames of passion and protest are being generated by one of the bravest theatre companies on earth.
Belarus Free Theatre – the only theatre in Europe banned by its government on political grounds – is back on our shores, this time with an astonishing new theatre work called Burning Doors. Founded in 2005 by Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin and immediately silenced, this courageous company has managed to survive for over a decade, performing both underground and abroad. To date, BFT has produced over a dozen devised theatre works, depicting life under the harsh Belarus regime, focusing on violation of human rights, repression, and the struggle of the artist.
This time, with Burning Doors, the company draws from the personal experiences of three dissidents in neighboring Russia – namely, Petr Pavlensky, Oleg Sentsov, and Maria Alyokhina, arrested and imprisoned by Vladimir Putin’s government. A member of the famed feminist punk-rock group called Pussy Riot, Alyokhina herself joins the BFT company to tell her story.
The enormous impact of the piece lies not only in the stories, but also how they are told. The bare stage features three prison doors (one for each of the stories), metal scaffolding, and a series of ropes hanging from the ceiling. An ensemble of eight dressed in black performs a swift series of scenes, depicting the dissidents’ unjust arrests, imprisonments, and inhumane treatment. Under Kaliada and Khalezin’s co-direction, this dazzling company not only acts (in Russian, with English subtitles), but also dances and performs astonishing acrobatic feats to dramatize the stories.
Typical of BFT’s unique style, Burning Doors unfolds like a collage of impressions – dramatic and visual – rather than a linear narrative (accompanied by Russian and Belarusian folk songs). The result is a series of vivid, arresting images that will haunt you – like the actress hanging from a rope, representing a prisoner being subjected to a humiliating body search. Or a dissident (Alyokhina herself), being drowned over and over in a bathtub. Or a tangle of human bodies, wrapped around each other like pretzels as they’re being interrogated.
Or a duo of apparatchik casually discussing the treatment of protestors while sitting on facing toilets. Or a terrifying trio racing downstage and lunging straight into the audience, over and over – held back only by bungee cords. Or an actress impersonating a circus performer hanging from a hoop, taunting a naked man suspended from the ceiling.
All these images are shocking, metaphoric depictions of cruelty, inhumanity, and injustice. They culminate in a violent wrestling match between two actors that seemed to represent the state vs the artist. Choreographed by Bridget Fiske and Marya Sazonava, the physical struggle soon involves the entire company, until you can no longer tell the aggressors from the victims. As described by one actor, it’s “the totalitarianism of fear” and its devastating consequences.
For the spoken dialogue, Khalezin has masterfully drawn Dostoevsky’s novels (The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov) and the writings of French philosopher Michel Foucault – as well as from the dissidents’ testimonies.
Some of the most eloquent moments come from Alyokhina during a surprising, impromptu Q&A session with the audience mid-way through the performance. “If you believe in what you are doing and you’re not afraid, you will always have power,” she tells us. Her words are echoed later, as one actor quotes from Mikhail Bulgakov: “The worst sin on earth is cowardice.” Followed by: “Learn to overcome your fear.”
BFT’s dedicated company members – Pavel Haradnitski, Kiryl Masheka, Siarhei Kvachonak, Marya Sazonava, Stanislava Shablinskaya, Andrei Urazau and Marnya Yurevich – practice what they preach. So do BFT’s admirable founders – Kaliada and Khalezin – now in permanent exile from their homeland. Given artistic asylum by London’s Young Vic, they develop their new pieces and direct their company members in Minsk via Skype. Such displays of artistic heroism and perseverance are humbling for those of us who take our artistic freedoms for granted.
At the same time, BFT is – and will continue to be – an abiding inspiration for all who cherish those freedoms.
Photos: Alex Brenner
Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors, at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, October 12-23.