FEIERABEND! - DAS GEGENGIFT - HELENA WALDMANN & FRIENDS
It’s all going to be different this time. Theatre should return to be what it used to be. Enough “performing” – a feast must be celebrated. Such announcements, including the thinly veiled invitation to join in the dancing, had sceptics like me break into a sweat. Then the plastic mask of a mouse addressed me, asking if I had courage. Saying “Yes” is like a verbal agreement – upon which the visual one follows. In the foyer, against the backdrop of chit-chat and a first drink, guests pick out a plastic mask and are allowed to play with their identity. But they don’t have to. Underneath the animal snout the day’s irritations evaporate. These false faces turn us into a community, but divide us into fellow monkeys, mice, lions, horses, wolves and bears. Complete strangers smile at each other. Helena Waldmann, the she-bellwether amongst the hosts, makes a brief programmatic speech. Then we are allowed into the theatre space. To join in.
These entry procedures are cleverly devised. The team of performers has repeatedly tried out everything on living subjects, changing it again and again with the help of dramaturgs Rosi Ulrich and Célestine Hennermann. The sequence of events, the music and the interspersed “acts” are meticulously planned, and emotional dynamics are steered just as in a celebration – as in theatre. This is transparent and no attempts are made to conceal it. But there is no ironical or didactic detachment. This is a proof of courage. The difficulty lies in truly taking the guest along with the flow. The seven fine performers introduce themselves, friendly and unostentatious. They lead their pack into the theatre space. While Raman Zaya has the wolves prepare hummus, he talks of the way Iranians celebrate their festivities. Yui Kawaguchi demonstrates how something special can be made from something ordinary by means of origami. Another group is taught a song. In this way, the guests contribute to the feast with food, song and decorations. The extent to which they make their contribution is the benchmark for the success of the feast.
Like being in a crowd? You clap a rhythm together, jump around to Balkan beats and Oriental pop. You sing the German chanson «Für mich soll's rote Rosen regnen» at the top of your voice, as well as a French and a Serbian song. You try out how to spin like a Sufi. Are you embarrassed by the flailing limbs or the ecstatic show of one or two individuals amongst the guests? Fits of laughter? “Feierabend!” can live with this.
After all, it triggers emotions, not only through the nomadic style of music: a piñata hung up high is laboriously beaten with sticks. A shower of paper strips and glitter descends. A virtuosic dance with a knife, a loud fight with sticks, and the universe of sounds created by Reza Mortazavi on his drums cause astonishment. Raman Zaya shakes his torso and pelvis in dizzying fashion. There is also sex, violence and pain – faked, but moving. The sacrifice, which is part of every traditional feast, be it in the form of slaughter, money or devotion, is not made easily by anyone.
“Feierabend!” is a gift. We receive, and take part with all senses. It is a symbol of transformation which is rarely provoked by art on stage. Each performance influences the spectators, and each critic responds subjectively. This has the feast perceptibly teeter on a knife’s edge. Good luck!
Melanie Suchy, ballet-tanz 05/08
FEAST WITHOUT OCCASION
Helena Waldmann puts on a feast with her interactive piece feierabend! in Hamburg
‘People simply no longer know how to party’, a colleague about to retire told me recently. He said he noticed that people no longer bring along a guitar to a party, for instance, or know how to come up with a rhyme, adapt a song or make a speech – in other words, contribute to the dramaturgy of an evening by letting go. Instead, he continued, guests stand awkwardly around bistro tables in their suits.
That is the starting point of Helena Waldmann’s intervention: her new production, entitled feierabend! - das gegengift, turns spectators into nighttime revellers. At the beginning, a barrier is he first hurdle that must be overcome: a masked performer asks each arriving guest if they have courage, before opening the barrier with encouraging words and a bang from the distance. The sound effect is evocative: it symbolises a decision. A friendly man shows the way to the cloakroom, speaking German with a French accent in a charming, melodic fashion. Now spectators must choose a group to join: there are wolves, bears, monkeys, mice and lions. Inside, a table is set up on stage, and someone in a sheep’s mask is wandering around as more and more masked people trickle in.
All groups contribute something of their own to this performance: the bears sing, the monkeys take pictures, and the wolves rustle up a delicious meal for everybody, which is served after some dancing on the table and a frenzied knife dance. The atmosphere is calm and relaxing; there are highlights which are hardly noticed at times. And there is a wonderfully languorous section that is rather dull but perfect for chilling out. Those who wish to can try out spinning like Sufis at the end, and Mohammad Reza Mortazavi turns out to be the feast’s secret driving force: only few audience members are able to keep still when he plays live drums, not even those who are seated.
Naturally, each of these feasts is different because of the audience participation. After the Hamburg premiere, what lingered was painful melancholy. Helena Waldmann may have a subtle feeling for timing: the transitions from one phase of the feast to the next are steered with a high level of precision and detail. But yet, the core of the feast is missing: the intention – the changes in the life of a human being, of a group, of an environment. It is as if the bare bones of the feast are there for all to see, but the flesh is missing.
Dear Gabriele Wittmann
The core of the feast is not missing: it is the feast itself.
You actually mention this at the beginning: in a society that has forgotten how to celebrate, the intention of 'feierabend! - das gegengift’ is to recognise the need for feasting – the feast meaning community and resistance against having to function, against control, fear, security paranoia and an exaggerated sense of duty – and to celebrate this, whether one is vegetarian or eats flesh.
Tanz-journal 02/08, Gabriele Wittmann and a comment by Helena Waldmann
IN THE THICK OF IT
Helena Waldmann & Friends: „feierabend! - das gegengift“
She actually planned to stage a piece on work and unemployment, we heard, and then ended up with “Feierabend” (denoting quitting time or post-work activities in German). Helena Waldmann is noted for her clever productions which tread a fine line between dance and theatre; her “Letters from Tentland”, created jointly with Iranian women, were staged and read internationally. What she is taking on tour now is completely different – the other, so to speak. Waldmann and her select group of performers literally celebrate what is not the ordinary, the everyday: a feast. If you go, you’ll be involved, in the thick of it, and won’t be fobbed off like in other theatre performances.
Yes, I was sceptical, despite the elaborate research and thinking presented in the run-up to the event by Waldmann’s dramaturges and dance writer Arnd Wesemann at Frankfurt’s Mousonturm. Trendy audience interaction in the theatre often comes across as silly and forced. “feierabend!” takes a great risk. But neither does the team fall into these traps, nor does it present sickly-sweet clichés of the exotic with its multi-cultural members. The dramaturgy of the simple performance space gives a frame, an inner structure and freedom. The time frame from the guests’ arrival to the end, dotted with stations, transitions and the alternation between watching and doing, listening and joining in, dancing and letting dance, tension and release gently takes you along – always as a suggestion, never as coercion. The element of the offering, also understood as sacrifice in the original, i.e. religious and ceremonial sense of the feast, can be recognized throughout: in a chat about how Iranians celebrate, as musical or dance performance, or during the scene of the “Last Supper”. If you are able to abandon yourself to the mood and the togetherness, then you will feel grateful under the starry sky at the end.
Melanie Suchy, K.West, 03_08
UNINHIBITED, MASKED CELEBRATION
In “Feierabend! – Das Gegengift” spectators turn into actors and vice versa.
Helena Waldmann’s production is an animals’ masked ball enabling the crossing of boundaries.
Düsseldorf. “Are you brave?” Most people would answer this with a “yes, of course”. But on Thursday night, visitors of the Tanzhaus hesitate when asked by the masked bouncer. It is intimidating not to be able to see someone’s face.
In “Feierabend! – Das Gegengift” spectators turn into actors and vice versa, and what is staged turns into a surprise.
Right at the start, the guests don animal masks: here anonymity equals security, and for the time being, it remains unclear if someone is a spectator or performer. The mice, horses, wolves and bears flock together behind their alpha animal and create something new together: food, a piece of music, a dance. The stage is transformed into a space for activities.
All around, guests dance ecstatically on stage.
Then man becomes gregarious animal – the performers begin a ritual dance on stage, and gradually the atmosphere in the audience catches on. Someone begins to clap, someone else taps their feet. The drum of the sacrificial lamb goes faster, the music gets into your blood and many guests loose their inhibitions.
The animals dance with and against one another. Lightning flashes on stage. A wolf throws himself on the floor, legs twitching. Lions spin with arms held high, as if in trance. Mice crawl on the floor: ecstatic dancers everywhere.
In the midst of these transgressions a monkey appears and is beaten and undressed. The guests are silent and disturbed, insecurity spreads. Meanwhile, the seven performers amongst the guests nonchalantly begin their “Last Supper” and invite everybody. During the meal, the performers talk to the guests, and the mood becomes more relaxed again.
Now the boundary between stage and auditorium is completely abandoned, the guests take off their masks and the performers are in their midst. “You don’t know what to make of it”, mumbles a guest. That’s how it should be, says choreographer Helena Waldmann, who has unselfconsciously joined the feast.
“Feasts are made up of an emotional rollercoaster. They are divided into phases that are the same all over the world. The guests are meant to experience this firsthand.” The piece is supposed to provoke and polarize.
The upshot? If you don’t love it, you will hate it. At the end, a fire burns behind the Tanzhaus which is meant to be cathartic – and here the guests say somewhat more loudly: “Yes, I’m brave. I have the courage for something new.”
Wesdeutsche Zeitung , Frauke Konzak, 8.3.2008
A MASKED FEAST AT TANZHAUS
The theatre is supposed to turn back into a feast. You hand in the spectator’s role at the cloakroom, receive a mask and can play with shifting identities. Unknown people turn into fellow lions, mice and wolves. The groups prepare feast offerings, lead by the hosts, seven artists from all over the world. When preparing hummus, Raman Zaya speaks of Iranian celebrations; Yui Kawaguchi demonstrates the creation of something special out of ordinary paper through Origami. "Feierabend! - das gegengift?“ is friendly. The piece by well-known theatre and dance director Helena Waldmann, co-produced with FFT, takes a chance at contact, and succeeds. Especially with the original characteristic of the feast: to revert the existing order. From the stage you look up to the auditorium. There, Mohammad Reza Mortazavi creates a sound universe with his drum. When celebrating a feast, guests are offered and take something, as in the theatre. Here they take part with all senses. Just as you taste food, you should experience dance yourself, says Zaya. Serbian gipsy music and Oriental beats grip everybody. The clever dramaturgy has also built in a ritual moment of sacrifice and fighting, before guests are lead outside through a back door.
Melanie Suchy, Rheinische Post, 8.3.2008
DANCES MUST BE DANCED
You‘ve got to party when you can. Helena Waldmann & friends present their fabulous work “Feierabend - das Gegengift!“ at the Sophiensaele.
"It signifies nothing!", proclaims a dancer before beginning to dance in front of a naked wall plunged in black light. It is simply a body that is alive.
Helena Waldmann is known for analyzing political issues through physical means. Her 2005 piece “Letters from Tentland“, staged in Tehran, created a stir. Her female performers went on stage in colourful tents with a viewing window and spoke of freedom. Parallels with the veil were hard to overlook, as was the infringement of the ban on dancing in Iranian theatre. Still, she pushed through some performances on location.
Her new piece “Feierabend - das Gegengift!“ also deals with the absence of freedom, this time in Berlin. There is a lack of feasts, she points out, and the feast as exception to the rule is vitally important. The feast contains a rebellious power, as it rejects the duty to achieve, to function and to answer existential questions, she continues. The theatre must not forget that it stems from the feast, we are told at the beginning. At that point, we are already wearing animal masks.
The director herself seems to narrate this introductory information - but a pre-recorded male voice is speaking. Undoing and reassembling the various sign systems of theatre – movement, voice, lighting, sound, etc. – is one of Waldmann‘s preferred devices: the male voice in a female body.
The introductory speech would sound flat if it was not corroborated by action: it is not theatre that unfolds in the spaces of the Sophiensaele. Helena Waldmann and her seven dancers have issued an invitation to a feast. We are introduced to each other in small groups and are given schnapps by our hosts.
Then a musician dressed as a sheep enters with a Daf, Iranian drums. The sheep dictates the rhythm of the feast. The dancers sing “La vie en rose", the sheep is drumming. Noone has to join in the dancing and singing, but eventually the rhythm just infects each body.
Without an up-for-it crowd, though, nothing would work here - and we have all experienced embarrassing moments in the theatre when we are suddenly talked into getting involved, but still end up feeling ridiculous. It is different here. Waldmann‘s sense of pace, her consistency, her stamina and her simplicity actually allow the performers to “move“ the audience. With ornately decorated sticks we beat on the glittering piñata dangling from the ceiling, and a shower of confetti, balloons and small pieces of paper comes down. The text of “La vie en rose“ is written on them. A few of the dancing spectators are lead into the auditorium by the performers. They are not supposed to sit down, but to stand on the chairs so their movements are more visible. That is theatre: showing your own body and admiringly observing other people‘s bodies and their virtuosity and vitality.
Other dancers crowd around a long table amongst the seats. A team member, who has just been attacked by an intoxicated-looking man, approaches with sticks as crutches. She walks slowly, distorted. On one side, her long hair, her thin, hunched form, the sticks and her nakedness, and on the other the carefree dancers by a richly set banquet – an unambiguous image: while some celebrate, others suffer.
With this image, however, Helena Waldmann liberates the theatre from its duties as moral educational institution or platform for intellectual discourse, returning it to the bodies, to liveliness and the feast.
Cornelia Gellrich, taz
DANCING WITH WOLVES
Quite sweaty, this night. “Feierabend! - das gegengift” slots in somewhere between theatre, party and a meal with unknown friends. There is a lot to see, many an opportunity for joining in the dancing, and a delicious meal including water and wine in between.
Helena Waldmann, choreographer and director, pays tribute to a new format: for the duration of three hours, which don’t feel long, every spectator can become a dancer, cook, party guest or singer – or remain a spectator.
But musician Mohammad makes it nigh on impossible not to groove along at least a little, as the rhythms by the Persian percussionist are really contagious. To ease the experience of becoming a dancing and spinning Sufi, amongst other things, masks are distributed at the entrance. In the guise of wolf, bear or monkey, guests can begin by swinging their hips in relative discretion. The food is prepared jointly and eaten while a lot of chit-chat is going on, before the professionals from Helena Waldmann & friends dance on the few tables.
This is a ‘Feierabend’ (German for ‘quitting time’ or post-work activities) that motivates people to join in by means of a clear structure and without in-your-face animation – in other words, it is a pure and effective antidote to usual theatre: sitting down, watching, applauding and having understood. A fantastic theatre-feast not to miss.
Dagmar Fischer, Hamburger Morgenpost, 15.2.2008
MAKING A MONKEY OF ONESELF WITH A PACK OF WOLVES
The director is the bellwether. Donning a sheep mask, Helena Waldmann invites the rather startled theatregoers to celebrate quitting time ("Feierabend!") according to old traditions. For the interactive performance – today’s label for good old theatre where you join in – guests should (but don’t have to) pull a plastic mask over their faces. It is down to each individual if they want to be a monkey, lion, mouse or remain without mask. The biting critic wants to bare his teeth, chooses pointy ears, plays “wolf from the Alps” and howls in the best company with Kampnagel artistic director Amelie Deufhard, the “Swabian she-wolf“.
Waldmann is known for innovatively and critically pushing boundaries by means of theatre. This time the Berlin choreographer displays a surprisingly retro touch with her troupe of animateurs and dancers. Despite the animal costumes, the feast extravaganza turns out to be quite tame and restrained, although it tries to pick up the forgotten, debauched Dionysia, known as the origin of Western theatre.
Crafty seduction is needed to coax the uptight natives of Hamburg out of their shell and get them to dance, and the director and her charming multi-cultural hosts succeed in it. Via group formation according to masks – monkeys take pictures, lions sing, vegetarian wolves mash chickpeas into hummus for supper – guests meet each other, get talking and into a party mood. They are also entertained with acts and games. The percussion rhythms of “white sheep” Mohammad Reza Mortazavi bring even the last fatigued guests to nod their heads and shake a leg.
Through celebrating, Waldmann wants to renew wild rebellion and rituals. Of course, this can only succeed within limits and with references – a choreographed orgy or the knife dance of the second part, before some are spinning around in a meditative Sufi dance, smiling blissfully and saying “Ohhhhm”. At the end, everyone gathers around the open fire outside, in order to entrust their secret desires to the embers. The performance is an antidote for boredom only to those who are willing to join in. Otherwise, better leave it.
Klaus Witzeling, Hamburger Abendblatt 15.2.2008
Like clockwork: Helena Waldmann presents "Feierabend! - Das Gegengift"
Presumably the following sentence in the programme was read by many: “Theatre used to be a feast, before the devil sold our souls to labour.“ As pleasure-seeking theatregoer willing to accept surprises, one just has to swallow his type of breezy statement. After all, one is well-versed in theory, familiar with crossing discursive minefields and meta-meta levels. At the Frankfurt Mousonturm, these techniques of watching, joining in and reflecting do come in handy.
Helena Waldmann has mounted a new production: she presented the feast called "Feierabend! - Das Gegengift" to her guests as a preview in Frankfurt before moving on to Hamburg, Berlin and Frankfurt again. This is rather a large number of runs for a feast, and a well-attended first one at that – Waldmann is no stranger to Frankfurt, and her “Letters to Tentland” has been an international success.
The Foundation of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau was a joint producer. Isn’t a religious service also a feast, and religion solid nutrition whenever everyday food is not enough? That is why leader of the Church Peter Steinacker did not only give an introduction to Waldmann’s feast, but also joined the celebration: as a bear.
Because the requested and urgently needed participation of guests in the feast begins with a distribution of masks – monkey, wolf, bear or lion. You get a drink and chit-chat in the foyer, until a sheep gesticulates to a text narrated from the off, roughly explaining the following: the feast is an antidote to a world defined by work, and the theatre used to be the original location of the feast. Whoever wants to celebrate just has to go for it.
Waldmann is attempting no less than a return of the theatre to its origins, by putting on a feast. Meaning that everybody has to abide by the agreement to engage with it: no feast without rules. While the monkeys are played a CD that alphabetically enlists all known phobias, the wolves are allowed to make hummus for everyone. The bears are handed small pieces of paper by a French bear called Claude and, in the middle of the auditorium, have to sing “La vie en rose” in a salsa rhythm of sorts, accompanied by percussion music. As all are hell-bent on celebrating, soon a large part of the audience democratically dance and sing along to world music, there is confetti from a piñata, pop music, sounds from the Balkan and Orient, and even German pop culture is represented, albeit with a small group singing chansonette Hildegard Knef’s "Für mich soll's rote Rosen regnen", of all things (“It shall rain red roses should for me”), while hurling roses around.
It is like a real party: some are only observing, some have a really good time, and some throw themselves headfirst into the fun melée with such seriousness that it is embarrassing to watch at times. Joining in or being a participating observer protects from this type of unease, but is less fun – that, too, is an agreement of the feast. On this night, it isn’t a case of roses raining down, but footnotes: Foucault, Elias, Assmann, Le Roy Ladurie, Lévi-Strauss, for example. All these nice academic works which for a long time now have addressed the idea of the feast, the everyday and the exception, memory and ritual, order and excess, community, as well as that which theatre and the feast have in common – the Dionysia, the religious celebrations of Greek antiquity, are at the origin of theatre: this is where the first tragedies and comedies were performed around 500 BC.
Since then, a lot has happened, not just the thing with the devil and labour. The feast was and still is assiduously researched. Arnd Wesemann, say, publisher of”Ballettanz“ magazine and a friend of Waldmann’s, has published the book “Immer Feste Tanzen” in the context of her new production. Waldmann’s work on the feast includes all of it, as if the script for “Feierabend” was written by theory itself: the whole evening turns out to be a resounding “Q.E.D.”.
That is why there is a sudden scuffle between two female dancers, and the hunt of a dancer in a monkey suit suddenly turns into abuse and rape, which results in a last supper that seems to appear all by itself, until an animal is symbolically killed at the end. It’s all there, the whole gamut is ticked off: the feast as excess, as abandonment of order, or, conversely, as its confirmation, in the feast as a religious act. The hosts pull the strings, and the guests happily share pitta bread, hummus and wine. And the masks hide any possible grimacing arising from this literal translation from theory into practice.
When outstanding percussionist Mohammad Reza Mortazavi brings people to spin around like pious Sufis, all blissful smiles and closed eyes – which is also what the “hosts“ or performers Charlotte Braithwaite, Claude Chassevent, Yui Kawaguchi, Susanne Ohmann, Sanja Ristic, Raman Zaya and Waldmann herself are doing, as they know that this is the sequence of events in their “feast“ – a no longer diminutive group of people is watching the West Europeans as they abandon themselves to world music, in their socks.
But just about this side of embarrassment and do-gooder kitsch there is a caesura, which the participants execute willingly. After all, this “feast” is staged, guests have bought tickets for it and are prepared to get involved in it, according to the forms of today’s theatre: an excess is not to be expected. Or is it? Maybe someone will take this “feast” literally, which translated the analysis of feast and theatre into the theatre. At least it is surprising how well this works, which is down to the uncontested precision of the director. At the end, there is more than an open fire on a cold night. One can also get warmed by the cultural achievements of some 2500 years of theatre, feasts and research. The question remains if anyone is liberated by it in these times of the “dictatorship of achievement“.
Eva-Maria Magel Text: F.A.Z., 11.02.2008, Nr. 35 / Seite 44
WOLF AMONGST WOLVES
Ultimately, "Feierabend! - das Gegengift" is a self-reflective feast, but a feast it is. One should have known. It’s on the invite. Those who feel at ease at parties will feel at ease. Those who watch will feel like people who observe the world. Or, even worse, like people who are meant to write reviews on life.
You could also say that the new theatre project by Helena Waldmann & friends, the choreographer and seven dancers, actors and musicians from all over the world, re-enacts a situation that is supposed to arise regularly anyway. A feast. Somehow the fact that guests pay an entrance fee for it no longer matters, when the lady with the animal head asks as gentle Cerberus if they have courage. Courage? In the foyer, animal masks are distributed. For example, a wolf...
And hey presto, a dancer behind a wolf’s mask arrives, selecting her pack. And a group photo is taken. And the wolves gather around a table, preparing a meal which consists of chickpeas that need to be shelled, amongst other things. This is an activity that lends itself to the creation of ambitions that are decidedly un-celebratory. The dancer speaks of feasts in Iran. Then the dancing begins. The hosts lead. There is an unbelievable moment where the current she-wolf joins the wolves in dancing.
What can I say? Sometimes the dancers are amongst themselves, dancing the story to a ritual only known to them. The transition to a disco is made so nonchalantly that it is hardly noticeable. What becomes clear is: if there was no ritual, there would be no disco. Then the meal begins. Those who want to can have a real experience. Those who don’t can just take off. That’s what a feast is like – nobody is forced.
One of the coproducers of “Feierabend!”, which premieres in Hamburg next week, but was tested beforehand in the preview, is the Foundation of the Protestant Church. Since December it has been offering projects on art and religion jointly with the Mousonturm. In his introduction to “Feierabend!”, Church leader Peter Steinacker remarked that feasts stretch the passing of time and thus can be an antidote (“Gegengift”) to death. Interestingly, for most of the participants, the fact that it is first and foremost about an encounter with a group does not seem to figure.
Besides the longing for it (I was a wolf amongst wolves), the evening gives a chance to praise the opposite and a society that offers us choice. It has never been this good to wait for the train, silent and lonesome, next to other silent and lonesome people.
Judith von Sternburg www.fr-online.de