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HELENA WALDMANN

RETURN TO SENDER - LETTERS FROM TENTLAND

Und dann
"Return to Sender" mit 6 iranischen Immigrantinnen, die in Deutschland leben.
Auf der Bûhne hat jede Tänzerin in einem kleinen Zelt Zuflucht gefunden. Die Zelte ähneln den langen Kleidern, welche die Frauen von Kopf bis Fuss bedecken. Das Gesicht kann man durch in feines Gitter nur erahnen.
In diesem Tentland mit seiner schönen optischen Wirkung geht es um den Zwiespalt. Sie stehen Kopf, verlieren den Boden unter den Füssen in ihrem Doppelleben und dem Publikum schnürt es fast den Atem ab. Die klare Schönheit der Zelte, die wie eine zweite Haut unendlich manipulierbar sind, unterstreicht das Motiv des Eingesperrtseins und der Zerrissenheit, die ein Leben im Exil beinhaltet.
Rosita Boisseau, " Le Monde " June 27, 2006

A MONTPELLIER DANSE, HELENA WALDMANN PROVOQUE UN SéISME.
Pouvais-je m’attendre à cela ? Je pressentais que la chorégraphie d’Héléna Waldmann (« Letters from Tentland Return to sender ») dansée par six femmes sous une tente (métaphore du tchador) pouvait me surprendre. Je ne pensais pas que la danse pouvait être à ce point un acte politique, une démarche quasi psychanalytique.
« Letters from Tentland » était à l’origine jouée par des Iraniennes, mais le gouvernement ayant eu vent des critiques véhiculées par le spectacle, a ordonné le retour des danseuses. Pour ne pas abdiquer face à ce pouvoir totalitaire, Hélèna Waldman a continué avec six femmes iraniennes exilées en Europe. « Letters from Tentland Return to sender » est donc proposée ce soir à Montpellier avec le même dispositif (six tentes) accompagné d’un écran où sont projetées les lettres envoyées à celles restées en Iran.
Cette œuvre est majestueuse à plus d’un titre. Alors que l’on ne voit jamais leur corps, celui-ci est omniprésent. On ne voit que lui, on ne pense qu’à lui. Les tentes font corps et c’est bouleversant. Elles se débattent, crient, abdiquent en s’effondrant. Les tentes se plient, se déplient comme la douleur, comme un secret trop lourd à porter. Les lettres projetées sur l’écran informent sur le contexte en Iran, mais nous interpellent aussi. À quoi joue l’Europe ? Pourquoi la bureaucratie fait-elle vivre aux femmes iraniennes en exil un enfer quotidien ? Je me cramponne à mon fauteuil quand la folie s’immisce dans ce collectif sur fond de rock. Je m’émeus de leur solidarité quand une crie : « j’ai besoin d’être soutenu ». Je repense aux féministes des années 70. Le combat pour la dignité des femmes est actuel, universel.

J’ai peur pour elles alors qu’une tente s’effondre pour se transformer en linceul. Elles tourbillonnent comme un vent de folie, comme un enfermement en mouvement. Des photos de famille sont projetées à l’image du tchador qui se transmet de génération en génération. C’est alors que les quatre femmes de Michel Kélémenis dans les «Aphorismes géométriques » traversent ma pensée. Ce sont les mêmes femmes. De France et d’Iran, elles dansent les mêmes mouvements, ceux de la complexité des sentiments dans un monde pensé par les hommes. Je suis ému, impuissant comme un occidental et pourtant, ces femmes en exil sont à Montpellier Danse. C’est sûr, cela va s’ouvrir, c’est inéluctable. La danse est là pour pousser les frontières.
Au dernier moment, elles sortent de leur tente. Le public, debout, ovationne…
Cela ne dure pas. Elles demandent le silence. Le public n’aura plus l’occasion d’applaudir; elles souhaitent autre chose. Elles demandent aux spectateurs masculins de rejoindre la scène pour aller derrière le rideau. J’ai peur de ce clivage homme – femme. Mais j’assume. Mes doutes pèsent peu face à l’enjeu de cette création. Je suis derrière l’écran, assis sur un coussin, en rond avec d’autres hommes. On nous porte un thé. Une des danseuses souhaite échanger avec nous sur la situation en Iran. Elle parle anglais. C’est presque un monologue tant le désir de parler est fort. Elle continue de sortir de sa tente. Elle fait ce que les femmes en Iran ne peuvent pas faire : parler aux hommes, les positionner autrement. Nous devenons des hommes « transférentiels ». C’est ainsi que le spectacle trouve un prolongement naturel : ces femmes en exil changent la place des hommes occidentaux. Ovationner ne suffit plus. Elles nous aident à penser autrement notre statut de spectateur. C’est violent, intrusif, à l’image de ce que les hommes font vivre aux femmes en Iran. Et puis, alors que nous sommes derrière le rideau, je perçois le bruit des femmes qui attendent dans la salle. Elles derrière, nous assis…
Je suis parti, presque comme un voleur, pour assister à l'autre bout de la ville au solo de la chorégraphe marocaine Bouchra Ouizguen.
Je suis parti avec mon sac à dos, sans tente pour mieux compter dans le ciel de Montpellier les six étoiles filantes d’Iran.
Pascal Bely www.festivalier.net, June 26, 2006

LETTERS FROM IRAN
Letters from Iran

The most impressive piece of the first week of the festival was "Letters fromTentland" by the german director choreographer Helena Waldmann, with dancers of Iranian origin. The piece was created originally in 2004 during a workshop Waldmann gave in Iran, in which the participants wrote to friends and relatives around the world about life in Iran. The letters never reached their destination and were sent back to senders. From the workshop emerged a movement piece which succeeded also in Iran, until banned by the authorities
Waldmann returned to Germany to produce a new version, with six german participants of Iranian origin. This version is presented at the festival.
During the piece the dancers live, sing and converse in light tents, that one could fold and carry from place to place. Their sensations are amplified by the tents - jumping, rolling, squeezing and expanding, swallowing one another. On the tents landscapes of big western cities are projected, as well as photographs of relatives in Iran.
The tent resembles the traditional robe, the Chador, which covers women's bodies, and when they peep out of the tent's windows it seems as if they look through a crack in a veil. From time to time a white screen descends in front of the stage, on it the letters are printed with an old writing machine - a documentation of immigrant's difficulties, those who left their homeland in search of freedom, and now their wings are cut off, in a new land.
Ruth Eshel, Ha'aretz July 9, 2006

SEHNSüCHTE IN ERWARTUNG DES NäCHSTEN TAGES
Die in ihren Zelten verstrickten Tänzerinnen versuchen, ihren Lebensbereich abzustecken. Aber sie finden sehr schnell heraus, dass sie nur den intimen Raum, in den man sie eingesperrt hat, kontrollieren können. Hinter dem Schleier bewohnen sie den abgesicherten Raum. Sie stossen sich heftig und mit Leidenschaft an ihm, um zu existieren.
Der Körper verschwindet, aber man fühlt, wie er im Innern vibriert. Man sieht flüchtig einige Gesichter, die sich abheben, ohne dass man ihren Gesichtsausdruck wirklich einfangen kann. Es bleiben nur die Bewegungen und die Schreie. Auch einige Momente der Solidarität, wenn ein körperlicher Kontakt zwischen den Stoffen und durch sie hindurch entsteht. Man hört den stillen Kampf der Seele, die aufbegehrt, um sich zu behaupten. Und dieser Kampf produziert ganz sicher mehr als eine vielsagende Gewalt. Zwischen den getanzten Teilen übersetzt ein Briefwechsel die Schmerzen des Exildaseins. Das erträumte Europa stellt sich als neues Gefängnis heraus.
Die Aussage dieses Stückes, sehr von der kulturellen Zugehörigkeit gezeichnet, begnügt sich dennoch nicht damit, von den Lebensbedingungen der Frauen im Iran zu sprechen. Es wird unterstrichen, dass die in diesem Stück ohne Umschweife geforderte innere Freiheit weit davon entfernt ist, in den demokratischen Ländern gesichert zu sein. Der Zuschauer, dazu verdammt, die menschliche Natur, die von den vorherrschenden Werten der Gesellschaft versteckt wird, zu erraten, entdeckt langsam, dass er in Zelten lebt. Das ist schon ein Erfolg.
Jean-Marie Dinh L'HERAULT July 2006

MONTPELLIER DANSE öFFNET SICH ANDEREN KULTUREN
Nach 'Letters from Tentland' kreierte Helena Waldmann ein neues Stück 'Return to Sender'. Dieselben Zelte, dieselben berührenden Bilder der unter ihrem Schleier eingeschlossenen Frau. Auf dem Umweg über schriftliche Vertraulichkeiten wird
das Thema dieser Kreation noch universeller und streicht das Schicksal aller Entwurzelten heraus, die in ihrem Herzen ihre auf ewig verlorene Kultur tragen.
Es ist zu hoffen, dass diese Botschaft nicht nur in Montpellier verkündet werden wird.
Sophie Lesort, La Croix July 3, 2006

HELENA WALDMANN «RETURN TO SENDER - LETTERS FROM TENTLAND» FROM MONTPELLIER
Some imagine the land of tents to be wherever censorship has thwarted plans. But Tentland is everywhere. Those conical tents that in Iran ‘protect’ the ‘weak sex’ from the male gaze were cut by Helena Waldmann into postcards from all over the world. It is a question of perspective. In Iran, too, people lead normal lives, just not in public, says the director of the project. ’Return to sender -- Letters from Tentland’ is her answer to the Iranian government’s ’wish’ for the performances with the six tent dwellers from Tehran to stop. Further shows would have put the female performers at risk. Now, six exiled Iranian women in tents speak of their alienation in Europe. For their ’sisters’ in Tehran they are a ’picture of freedom’. But appearances are deceptive. They may tilt, twist and fold their polyamide cages just as in the first version. They may stand on their heads, sing, jump, scream and admonish as in ’Letters from Tentland’. But this title, crossed out by ’Return to sender’, seems as if stopped by a barrier. The letters by the Tehran women are no longer delivered. Female dancers veiled by tents, this means inner exile for dance. ’I think in Iran it didn’t even cross the censors’ minds that tents can dance’, is Waldmann’s reply to the question of which art form the piece was allocated to in Tehran. Tents can do even more. Their tragic ballet bears the core of fine art, even humour. A window opens on an animated film, on object theatre with slapstick elements. But the subject matter is serious. One of the tent bodies is transformed into a tortured dragon, repeatedly smashing its head against the floor, crushed by Western bureaucracy and psychological pressure. Their tears remain invisible. Others fold themselves (their tent) like a piece of paper. Stamped and branded. Tossed here and there. Turned inside out. What you see on the outside are confident, Western-looking women. Thus the piece becomes a universal metaphor for the problem of uprootedness. Their breathing difficulties start in the mind. They are not alien to their own bodies, but to their environment. There is the fear of saying or doing something in the West which might make their families in Iran a target of the regime. In the Montpellier Danse co-production, it is no longer suppressed people who rattle at the prison walls, but alien elements. As it is not about a problem in relation to Islamic culture anymore now, they are no longer inviting women for back-stage discussions, but male audience members. Not in order to speak about personal history, but about the unrecognized complexities of socio-political reality in their country of origin. ’In Europe, we continually have to reinvent ourselves, how we can move, dance or sing.’
Thomas Hahn, ballettanz Aug 2006

DEFENDING FREEDOM
Political dance theatre is not dead. It is not even threatened by extinction – even if the orgies of self-reference that dominated the stage during the 90ies and continue to have an effect today have fed this fear. Interventionist dance of German origin, the critical, abstracting social analysis by successors of Kurt Jooss, Hans Kresnik, Gerhard Bohner and Pina Bausch has recently gained a new lease of life in manifold forms: sarcasm in Jochen Roller, challenge in Constanza Macras, humour in Marguerite Donlon, sensitivity in Christian Spuck, roughness in Sasha Waltz – the greatest controversy, however, in Helena Waldmann. The most recent pieces by the Berlin choreographer let us hope that dance will continue to be able to interfere in the way of the world, without descending into agitprop, and that abstraction does not necessarily equal escapism. Under the title ’Letters from Tentland’ Waldmann researched the concept of freedom together with a group of Iranian women, and created the ingenious metaphor of dancing tents to illustrate both the infinite possibilities and the limited space of our freedom. The fact that the work could be made in Iran, where theatre dance has been a taboo for more than 20 years, yet again proved the power of aesthetic means to transcend borders. The ensemble produced 43 brilliant performances in 17 countries, until the Iranian government intervened eventually, suggesting to the dancers that it would really be in their own interest to forego dancing. As a result, Helena Waldmann cast six exiled Iranian women for a reprise. ’Return to sender’ is the title of this further attempt to break up boundaries, which has its German premiere in September: an intervention against the limitations of our current migration debates and the apocalyptic rhetoric of the prophets proclaiming the clash of cultures. ’My tents are like envelopes, and the people contained within are messages worth the effort of reading’, Waldmann says. What did we know about Iranian women? And what did our oft-praised freedom really consist of, if not the chance to discover the worlds outside of our familiar world? ’Hopefully not the terror of consumer society, or walking around in mini skirts.’ Helena Waldmann’s method is the enlightenment of enlightenment, i.e. a radical questioning, also of ourselves. The tough refugee piece ’Crash’ which she staged together with Marguerite Donlon in spring 2006 is about all those tragic figures who keep storming the fortified external borders of Europe in vain. Waldmann’s theatre shatters our composure and bears the moral contradictions of the present. It does not make for comfort about the shortcomings of our species, but it criticises us with spectacular images and in an intellectually advanced style.
Evelyn Finger, Jahrbuch ballettanz 2006

BAGGAGE OF FEAR
The tents are still the same, made in Iran. But the inhabitants are others now, with other stories.
After the change of government, the performers of “Letters from Tentland“ had difficulties in leaving the country. But Helena Waldmann knows how to confront difficulties constructively. She decided to restage her piece, implementing a radical change of perspective.

“Return to sender – Letters from Tentland“, which premiered in Germany at the Kunstfest Weimar, is formulated like a reply in the form of a letter. The director begins the first of her five letters with “Dear Banafshe, Mahshad, Pantea, Sara, Sima, Zoreh!“. She knows these letters will not reach Tehran, but she does not want the correspondence to be interrupted. And the real addressees are the spectators, of course.

Six exiled Iranian women, all resident in Berlin, are now living in the tents. And first of all, this is a provocation. For most of the young performers (some came to Germany as children with their parents, one has the status of a political refugee) have never worn a chador, and their German is as good as their Farsi. They have experienced – or so it seems – the blessings of Western freedom and are in a position to invite solely the male audience members to a backstage talk after each performance (with the Iranian women it used to be ladies only). Waldmann shoves these confident, attractive women into a tight enclosure which they are not allowed to leave until the end. It does work: In “Letters from Tentland“ the tent was above all a metaphor for the chador; the hidden world behind the veil was beckoning. Here, it symbolizes the nomadic existence, the lack of an inner home. And it touches upon the invisibility of many foreign women. The foreign skin which turns them into ’the other’ for many. And the tent is also a reference to the baggage of memories dragged around by migrants.

“Return to sender“ is no piece about Iran, it is first and foremost a piece about exile – and about fear. “I am surprised that there is so much fear here in Europe, too“, writes Helena Waldmann in the second letter. The director’s view – put across in a political and polemical tone in the letters – is layered over the performance of the women, who repeatedly overwrite individual scenes from the Tehran “Letters“. You constantly have to read between the lines.
The amazing final image reveals a disclosure. A utopia, maybe, but a painful shedding of skin in any case. In a wild dance the women throw off their fabric sheathing. And one begins to grasp how difficult it is to liberate oneself form these tents, this protective layer, this hiding place.

further performances on 14 and 15 October at Radialsystem, Berlin
Sandra Luzina, Der Tagesspiegel August 12, 2006

TEETERING TENTS
Long lines taken from letters run across a giant wall of a tent as if on a screen, with projected images of the world’s streets and squares. Individual tents are dwarfed by the backdrop of skyscrapers and landscapes. One of these dome tents sits on the empty stage. Inside, noises are stirring, the zip opens, but no-one steps out – instead, as if in labour, another tent slips out of the narrow gap, slides along the floor for a bit, rears up and then falls down.
Again, the ’mother tent’ gives birth to a new one, this time the tent can be erected and it stands up, beginning a slow dance. Tents dance like clumsy, semi-unfolded butterflies, they fall to one side, stand on their heads, sway to and fro in a line.
… The deeply unsettling, harrowing images of this piece will be inscribed in the history of theatre.
… The dance is both tormenting and beautiful, it becomes more and more agile and nimble, until at the end every dancer manages to slip from the sheath in an exciting, liberating struggle and metamorphosis, to the relief of the spectators. With a bang, the tents drop to the floor, and radiant and charming young women invite the men, then the women in the audience to tea and a chat backstage.
In a quiet, relaxed atmosphere Helena Waldmann and her dancers speak of the adventure of this choreography, and about the prejudices we inflict on ourselves and others.
Gisela Schmoeckel, Bergische Morgenpost, 30 October 2006

“JUST COME OUT, WILL YOU!”
“We would now like to invite the men to join us behind the curtain. Ladies, please don’t feel discriminated against, but we believe the men are much more in need of it.” After the performance of ’Letters from Tentland – Return to sender’, the gentlemen quite hesitantly accept the invitation, and as the Teo Otto Theatre in Remscheid has not sold many seats, the women are allowed to join them after all. It would have been a real shame if they had missed this second part of the piece.
For a full hour the audience, performers and choreographer Helena Waldmann sit together on cushions and talk. About what just happened and all the questions arising from it: the gestation of the piece, the situation of exile, the stories of the Iranian performers’ lives, the experiences and feelings of being an outsider, of homeland, freedom or what is wrongly perceived as freedom.
It is an animated conversation, inquisitive and open. The atmosphere is relaxed – maybe because someone is serious about wanting to create more than just pretty, interesting and moving images. Helena Waldmann does not only create an artistically ambitious form for socially relevant themes. By enabling contact through conversations, her art really does interact with our societal reality. By bringing people onto the stage into the tent, the gap between theatre and life closes literally and figuratively speaking.
The effect would surely wane if the whole thing was just well meant and not well made. But the piece itself is impressive and immensely multi-faceted. Drama, speech, writing, movement, colour, light, music, sound and video projection work perfectly together – this is both performing and visual art.
In ‘Return to Sender’ six exiled Iranian women answer their colleagues at home, with whom Helena Waldmann produced the previous piece, ‘Letters from Tentland’. They now ‘inhabit’ the tents left behind from that piece. They dance with and in these tents, folding flat, spreading out and fluttering as if attempting to fly into freedom with their tents, they run against the walls inside.
In the first piece, the tent with its small window symbolised the chador veiling body and face of Iranian women. Now it stands for the situation of exile, the (involuntary) travels, a fragile, temporary ’home’, protection and prison at the same time. One would like to shout ‘Just come out, will you!’. When they finally open the zips at the end of the piece, dropping the restricting and protecting covers, it is like a liberation – for both sides.
Anne-Kathrin Reif, rga, 30 October 2006

LOOKING FOR FREEDOM AWAY FROM HOME
… Helena Waldmann’s dance piece ‘Return to Sender’ impressed a small but highly interested audience at the Pfalzbautheater, which also co-produced it. It is the sequel or inversion of Waldmann’s production ‘Letters from Tentland’, produced in Iran in 2005, where six women hidden in tents tell of their lives. The new piece, too, offers politically explosive dance theatre of the highest aesthetic quality and intercultural skill.
... In ‘Return to Sender’ the tents are dwellings where the inhabitants lock themselves in. They are the piece of home which envelops them as foreigners. They carry it around like a burden, they retreat into it as if into shell. They whirl it around in wild jumps and turns. And they remain inside, motionless, as if in a hermitage that does not let anyone in our out. Sometimes a window is yanked open, a hand protrudes from it, another hand is searching. At the end, the women peel off the tent, stamping and shaking, in order to hatch from the cocoon as free individuals.
… The projection of the letters’ contents structures the piece into sections. The messages guide the spectator in decoding the dance sequence that follows. Helena Waldmann has found touching images for withdrawing and opening up, rearing up and retreating, immersing into oneself and re-emerging, for screams and silence, for action and contemplation. The colourful tents shift slowly, then they run around quickly, bend and change shape by folding in different places, stand on the head, line up and stand still, rounded or squashed. Video images run above their heads, letters with postage, an Iranian urban landscape dotted with portraits of abandoned relatives. It is moving, simple and beautiful.
Heike Marx, Die Rheinpfalz, 27 February 2007

FREEDOM IN A TENT
… At the end the spectators sit in a large circles on stage at the Pfalzbautheater, chatting to the six performers about Helena Waldmann’s piece ‘Return to Sender’ over a cup of tea. They talk about life in exile, integration and inhuman regulations by the authorities. The conversations have a difficult start, but the performers, who shortly before had hammered against the walls of single tents, open the rounds with disarming casualness and break the ice by briefly sketching their lives.
Monika Lanzendörfer, Mannheimer Morgen, 28 February 2007

TENTS DANCE AND RAGE, COLLAPSE AND STAND STILL
… The tents are still the same, but they are now inhabited by exiled Iranian women who have left their home for differing reasons, and who are all professional artists. For these women, the temporary tents represent their homeless lives caught up between countries and cultures.
In the hour-long piece, in which the tents are more or less born from a mother tent in a laborious act at the beginning, Helena Waldmann expertly uses a whole range of artistic devices (as in the previous piece): alongside impressive physical theatre (the tents can dance, rage, collapse and stand still), this time she uses more speech – the exiles largely speak German very well – as well as video, photo montage, projected text and music.
Of course there are numerous similarities with the Tentland project, but the view of the tent metaphor is new, differentiated and original indeed.
Isabelle v. Neumann-Cosel, Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung, 14 March 2007

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