Opportunities for interaction between Chinese theatre and the world theatre

2019-1-8 21:51:12

Gordana Vnuk

Opportunities for interaction between Chinese theatre and the world theatre within post-mainstream developments

I come from Croatia, “Hrvatska” in our language, a small country at the crossroads of Central Europe, Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean which announced independence from the rest of former Yugoslavia in 1991. A four year war followed which resulted in Yugoslavia breaking up into several states out of which two, including Croatia, are today members of the European Union. The country's population is less than 4,5 million; its inhabitants can fit into a few housing blocks of Shanghai, Bombay, Sao Paolo, ... Its capital city is Zagreb with a  population of not even a million. Similarly, other European capitals, though most of them bigger than Zagreb, can be called small cities in comparison to Asian megapolis. 

It may not be a known fact to all of you here, but Yugoslavia did not belong to the Eastern block countries under the influence of USSR. It did not stand behind the Iron Curtain but developed its own path of the so called Third Way on the economic plan (some parallels can be drawn with our host country today), and politically it stood between the East and The West. Under the leadership of president Tito who was the head of the Communist Party since the liberation from the Germans in the 2nd World War until his death in the eighties,Yugoslavia was among the founders of the non-aligned movement which was the platform for the countries mainly from the Third World which did not want to align with either the Western or the Eastern block.

Unlike our counterparts in Eastern Europe, we had passports and could travel all over the world, private initiative and enterpreneurship was allowed and private property to some extent as well. 

After the death of Tito and Titoism almost 40 years ago, ex-Yugoslavia was passing through a tumultuous period of political disorientation. The arts, and theatre as its most vital branch, tried to stop this disorientation by either taking part in the national homogenization or in the transnational symbolization. Both paths looked anachronistic from the European point of view, but, if only somebody was willing to deal with it, also authentic.

These were the times when I started Eurokaz in 1987, an international festival of new theatre.  Croatia was still under communist rule and Eurokaz was the only platform in then so called Eastern Europe which on an equal level and in time with its Western counterparts, provided support for the new generation of artists which in now distant eighties were radically changing European theatre landscape. Eurokaz hosted early works of the companies which were to become later stars of new theatre mainstream like Rosas, La fura dels baus, Romeo Castellucci, Need Company, Jan Fabre, Royal de luxe, Forced Entertainment, William Kentridge and many others. 

However, this new theatre eventually created its own mainstream which rebelled against logo-centric statements in favour of media syncretism that opened the theatre towards technology and science, other media, visual arts, dance and movement. Its phenomenological aspect was limited mainly to Western Europe and USA which provided the examples for the theory of post-dramatic theatre that became very successful in festival circuits and in the theatre market. As the same aesthetics and artists were in this way circulating around, it soon caused an overall uniformity of the European theatre landscape. Europe has been dancing on the same note, performances resemble each other independently whether they were made in Slovenia or in Portugal. 

In this context Eurokaz developed and articulated back in the early nintees the concept of post-mainstream which abandoned Europe as the unquestionable arbiter of contemporary theatre and opened up towards other cultures where it found impressive traces of Novum. 

Postmainstream shifts the focus of interest from the Western centres of economic and cultural power (Bruxelles, Amsterdam, Frankfurt) to the European periphery and in the wider context to non-European cultures. We started to invite the artists from Latin America, Asia and Africa who proved the vitality and strength of the aesthetical concepts created outside European and American models. To this group could also be added a new generation of theatre directors from ex-Yugoslavia who were developing a very unique theatre language which mixed different styles and traditions, directing and acting methods in one performance feeding on the immensely rich cultural memory of the Balkan region.

In this way we came to the notion of  vertical multiculturalism (today a popular term interculturalism is in a wider use) which Eurokaz articulated during its symposiums on post-mainstream in 1994 and 1995. A distinction between vertical and horizontal multiculturalism should have helped in clarification of the multicultural fog that had been hovering over Western Europe since the time of Peter Brook. Horizontal multiculturalism, means cultural and social activity focused on minorities or the decorative use of traditional forms of mostly non-European cultures (Brook, Barba, Mnouchkine), a musaka that, with a little Indian make-up, magnificent Japanese costumes, or the screams of a few black actors, tries to convince us that it is engaged with the rest of the world, while in fact its manner of piling up sensations is intrinsically Western. In opposition to this, to name it clearly, colonial approach, artists of vertical multiculturalism, working at the intersections of different cultures and penetrating thorugh the simultaneity of different cultural identities by using a kind of schizo-analytical approach, build a unique, innovative artistic form. That kind of actor manages to keep together a multitude of different archaic combinations and procedures within his mental habitus. At the same time his physis emanates the gesture of modern theatre responsible for giving vertiginous dimensions to the inner ritual element and the ritual sense of time. 

Their productions dealt with the reinterpretation of tradition, atypical dramaturgical procedures of sequencing (for example, combining theatre of the image with ritual theatre or high technology with traditional forms) which was impossible within the concept of postmodern theatre. The relation to the body is not neurotic and narcissistically auto-referential as it is in European theatre and dance, but touches on the collective emotional experience. 

Going back to Eurokaz’s concept of post-mainstream, back in the nineties audience highlights were Asian traditional forms: Japanese Nô theatre and Kodo, Indian Kathakali which had never been seen in Croatia before and which astounded with their classical modernity. If we had relationships with China then, I am sure the Chinese opera would have had its place in such a programme. 

History of contemporary art has too often looked at the traditional arts of non-European cultures as ethnological phenomena neglecting the fact that its forms can contain ideas we usually connect to modern art. Apart from many examples from visual arts, in theatre they inspired European and American theatre directors (Brecht, Wilson, Barba, Grotowski). 

What is this exciting Otherness of Asian traditional theatre forms which appealed to western artists and theoreticians: it is certainly theatricality that abolishes the typically European concept of individuality and European notion of experimentation which receded into an intimate and perfectly controlled sphere where today very popular artistic procedures like self-referentiality, audience participation, interactivity, banality of all kinds became too predictable and boring. On the other hand, in Asian traditions we see spectacular visuality (elaborate costumes and masks), effacement of subjectivity in the codes, noble artificiality (in the sense of Craig and Artaud), mythical aspect, theatre stage as the world of a higher order and dramatis personae who are larger than life (something Europe experienced in Greek tragedy long time ago).

Talking about traditional art forms we usually talk about their preservation, however, they can also be viewed as a source of inspiration for modern theatre makers who create new languages in confrontation with the tradition which is still alive and powerful in many Asian countries. I know too little about Chinese opera but it would be very interesting to observe if such thinking can apply to the situation in China, and to see if Chinese contemporary theatre can develop its own innovative and original strategies without necessarily looking for the inspiration in the “West”.  


We should not forget such crucial topics when we talk about the processes of interaction between China and the world theatre. China should be fully conscious of the value and originality of its traditional forms, however, it should be equally ready to deploy awareness and curiosity for the evolution of contemporary performing arts in other countries so that an exchange can take place on equal grounds. To create opportunities for reflection and dialogue should be a crucial task in the future for all of us and World Theatre Town Alliance could be a good place for that.

For me, a festival programme has always had to have a deeper meaning, to be a strong manifesto, a discussion about the world, theatre and the arts in general, more specifically, a forum which analyses important theatre phenomena, a reunion of artists and thinkers and the same time. This is not an easy task, a small ambition. One has to invest a lot of time, energy and eros in long research processes, long and lonely travels also to those parts of the world where one normally does not expect to find an “exciting” piece of theatre which could sell well on the theatre market. One should aim at an authentic programme concept trying to secure a place for the Other and for the Difference in the vast sea of market rules.