New talent comes from the East

Europe has lost six great names in the performing arts, but their succession is assured by a new generation of directors, most of whom hail from Central and Eastern Europe.

Published on 27 May 2011 at 16:07
Anna Karenina, directed by Lithuanian Eimuntas Nekrošius en 2008.

Pina Bausch, creator of Germany’s legendary Tanztheater in the Wuppertal, the icon of contemporary dance, died suddenly in 2009. Director Peter Brook, 86-years old, recently left the management of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris which he created. As for Peter Stein, the legendary manager of Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, directing is a hobby for him these days. And stage director and playwright Robert Wilson no longer sets the tone. But nature hates a vacuum and, in response to political and social changes, newcomers are taking the old masters’ place.

Lithuanian gymnastics

The first master to emerge from the new Europe is the Lithuanian Eimuntas Nekrosius. Born in 1952 and trained in Moscow, he has managed to create his own style – an in-depth reading of the text while remaining faithful to the author. In his stagings, the plays of Chekov, Shakespeare or Goethe’s Faust have become contemporary myths. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious New Theatre Reality Prize of the Taormina Arts Committee, a prize for the most interesting creators of the European Theatre.

Several years later, the world discovered another Lithuanian, a 17-year old named Oskaras Korsunovas, also a New Theatre Reality prize-winner. He introduced Russian theatre of the absurd to European theatre audiences. He also raised questions about absurdity in human existence and about the role of fate in life. He introduced the Lithuanian theatre repertoire to a new European dramatic art; to a sense of brutality.

The aim of the theatre created in Vilnius by Oskaras Korsunovas is to “present classical authors in a contemporary performance and the contemporary authors in a classical performance”. This recipe has been successful on the stages of old Europe, including at the Comédie Française in Paris.

German engagement

Since the Berlin Wall fell, a new generation of German directors has emerged. Among them are the managers of two of Berlin’s major theatres, Frank Castorf (1951) at the Volksbühne and Thomas Ostermeier (1968) at the Schaubühne. Both have set the tone for theatre throughout Europe over the last three decades.

They have breathed new life into theatre, breaking down classical plays, criticising consumerism and capitalism, whipping the audience psychologically and even sometimes physically. They berated the dictatorship of the audience, denounced hypocrisy and false modesty. “Frank Castorf’s best shows are wearing, long, complicated, loud, exalted, often illogical. They lack a linear story-line and an understandable conclusion,” the critics note, but joyfully.

Breaking the rules is the motto of Castorf’s theatre. In contrast, Ostermeier prefers to stage contemporary English or German playwrights who describe brutal social relations. These are stories about losers, dropouts, outsiders. In the staging of classical plays, he uses décors typical of the new bourgeoisie and links these to common references culled from TV series, films or songs.

In Poland, artists who dominate the theatre scene and who have also made a name abroad are Krzysztof Warlikowski (1962) or Grzegorz Jarzyna (1968), followed by the younger generation: Jan Klata, Maja Kleczowska or the collaborators Monika Strzepka and Pawel Demirski.

Flemish dance

European theatre was stimulated by a small region of northern Europe and Belgium: Flanders. Artists from Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels created their own theatrical language. Their strength is their training and experience in another artistic field, be it dance, performance art, visual arts or architecture that they transpose to the stage.

To the wave of socially relevant German theatre, they added a little fresh air, a little levity, poetry (but also often some brutality) and a very personal way of telling stories. Jan Lauwers’ Needcompany is a group of performers, dancers, singers, and actors. Jan Fabre uses the same methods – performance, drama, dance – but in a more sombre and more brutal way, not hesitating to use bodies, even bodily fluids. These are universal stories that testify to the state of European civilisation.

There is also Luc Perceval, who is based in Germany and who is currently the manager of Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre and the Swiss Christoph Marthaler, a musician by training whose plays oscillate between a concert and a performance. Very sensitive to the social climate, his style is situated somewhere between the German and Flemish styles.

The Italian Romeo Castelucci, one of the greatest visionaries of the European theatre today, is closer to the visual art of Jan Fabre. Castelucci works with the family troupe Societas Raffaello Sanzio. Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, his triptych “Hell”, “Purgatory” and “Paradise” won great international acclaim: he was the invited artist at the Avignon Theatre Festival in 2008.

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