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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

“Staying Alive: Human Rights and the Performance of Life Support in Post-Soviet Belarusian Theater”

How do theatrical practices across nation-state borders mediate the cultural practices of citizenship and human rights? How can we observe this in contemporary theatrical practices?

On Thursday February 11, Rita Kompelmakher, a fifth year PhD candidate in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance, presented at the biweekly Holocaust, Genocide, and Mass Violence Studies workshop a chapter in her dissertation, which attempts to address these questions across time and space.


Her work stems from her experience attending a London-based festival entitled “Staging a Revolution.” This festival spanned two weeks, in which the Belarus Free Theatre of Minsk, Belarus staged 10 productions from their repertoire. This company was founded in 2005 in Minsk and is known for tackling taboo social issues, ranging from mental health, women, gender, sexuality and political repression. The company began performing in a nomadic style, including in various homes in Minsk.  The group gained an international reputation and was invited to perform in London, where four of its members applied and received refugee status.  


After attending the performances and reading a number of reviews in the British media, Kompelmakher observed a particular narrative regarding the company.  Because BFT is known internationally as a “human rights” company facing social and political pressures back home, spectators and supporters largely highlighted the existence of the theatre in Belarus rather than commenting on its content, style, or artistic merits.  According to Kompelmakher, that sort of narrative also translated to human rights and theater academia, which has employed similar framing approaches, focused on survival, not artistic merit. 


The company is revered for being a “human rights” company, not because of the political weight surrounding its work but rather its ability to survive. Kompelmakher alluded to this trend in human rights memorialization, citing the Berlin Holocaust Memorial whose structure signifies an image of “presence through absence.”  In the case of “Staging a Revolution,” the BFT production catered to the survivors of death rather than to the dead, and in this sense, she argued that history was not produced, because death was avoided.  Performance in human rights representation functions as a sort of life support, a means of survival. The UK therefore has provided life support the the BFT, and the festival was one mechanism of this life support, which had the unintended consequence of rendering the company “survivors” with no chance of escaping such a power dynamic.  As a result, Kompelmakher concluded, politics ages companies, whereas human rights discourse freezes the aging effect. 


-written by Marie-Christine Ghreichi