On Curating FLARE15

Curating a festival of new work like FLARE15 comes with a lot of challenges, but one of the biggest is communicating what kind of theatre will be on offer. We talk about work that is by ‘emerging’ or ‘early career’ international artists, work that is ‘innovative’, ‘radical’, ‘experimental’, ’cutting edge’, but how helpful is this?

Sometimes we’ve talked about theatre that tests accepted ideas of the nature of theatrical experience, that challenges the boundaries of the art-form from an informed and conceptual basis, that questions the process of meaning-making, and its relationship to its cultural context. But perhaps the easiest way to talk about it, is to talk about how we choose it.

So this is about how we’ve curated FLARE15.

But why talk about ‘curating’ at all? Coming out of visual art, curation is apparently ‘the practice of constructing meaning by exerting control through selection, clever arrangement, labeling, interpretation and so on’. Beyond the idea that ‘selecting’ is a big part of what we’ve been doing, it doesn’t really seem to fit the task of pulling together a theatre festival.

And yet we think it is the right word to use. For a start it acknowledges, or re-claims, the theatrical performance piece as a work of ‘art’. The ‘strangeness’ of using the term even points to an expanded notion of what art is, made familiar since the term ‘contemporary art’ was coined. It also suggests the care with which the works have been selected, and the existence of specific aesthetic criteria underpinning the act of selection. And it invokes the co-existence of refined judgments and simple pragmatics that the ‘selection and clever arrangement’ of contemporary art requires.

And so if the work is curated in this sense, what are the criteria that have underpinned the selection?

Pragmatically of course, the work had to fit the context established. It also had to be ‘new’, i.e. not wedded to long established traditions, and by ‘emerging artists’. But with these satisfied, and as good a sense of the work as the inevitable video footage allowed, there was still the more refined selection process, the attempt to assess ‘how interesting’ the work was, and/or ‘how good’ it was too.

Talking about these decisions is trickier, as it’s about articulating judgments that largely felt instinctive, judgments made without really thinking about criteria. Perhaps it’s this reliance on instinct that makes curation an ‘art’, i.e. something that can still be rationalized, but after the event, rather than before.

So, in a retrospective attempt to define more detailed criteria, I’m going to reflect on a few areas of interest evident in the work chosen to be part of FLARE15.

It is revealing that a proportion of the work that has been selected for FLARE15 and previous iterations exists, outside of this country, under the headings of dance or choreography. Even more surprising, to an English sensibility at least, is that some of it is categorised elsewhere as mime, inevitable perhaps when you’re talking about work that is built around an emphasis on the body, specifically the materiality, idiosyncrasies and signifying potential of the body, and the relationship between these.

Body On by Tamar Blom and Kajetan Uranitsch, is one such piece. As if to emphasize the point, the space is fully lit and evidently empty and the two male performers, naked throughout, stand for a significant amount of the opening calmly adopting positions or poses whilst looking back at the audience.

As it progresses the piece invites its audience to experience both the body in itself, and some culturally recognizable images of the body. And to be present with these bodies, to be sat watching two naked men doing these things as spectacle, creates a bodily ‘experience’ for us the audience, as we both watch and experience the bodies ‘signifying’, and the processes they go through to do so.

This emphasis on the body as both experience and spectacle is evident across much of the work on offer at FLARE15, from the overtly political work of Marja Christians and Isabel Schwenk, and the interactive work of Jamal Harewood, to the deadpan comedy of Figs in Wigs and, I would contend, even the apparently narrative reflections of Thomas Martin.

And away from such body-based practices and extended definitions of mime, the work of other practitioners selected has also been presented or developed in dance contexts, bearing relationships to extended definitions of choreography. El Conde de Torrefiel from Barcelona, Tiana Hemlock-Yensen from Australia (via Amsterdam) and Antoine Fraval from Angers employ the vocabulary of choreography in articulating their work, as well as benefiting from a structural logic free from the organizing principle of dramatic narrative.

Clearly this points to extended ideas of what choreography is too. As French choreographer Jerome Bel has said: ‘Choreography is just a frame, a structure, a language where much more than dance is inscribed’. Perhaps its not too surprising that Flare, as it looks for acts of performance that employ ‘a frame, a structure, a language’ distinct from that established in British theatre, finds itself in this expanded territory of dance and choreography.

And as a festival engaging with radical conceptions of theatre and theatricality perhaps it’s no surprise that a significant strand of the work selected seems overtly self-conscious, constructing a theatre that examines what theatre is and what it does in the world, or employing the language of theatre to talk about... language in theatre. So Hof van Eede’s work takes on a classic literary text but gets so bound up in the difficulties of articulating the work, its meaning and its relevance, that it falls in on itself, becoming a conversation about conversation and the impossibility of unmediated communication, particularly in the context of live theatre. Guillem Mont de Palol and Jorge Dutor don’t get past the names, and occasionally the tunes, of popular culture but still end up physically exhausted by their apparent desire to attain something of the meaning or magic apparently embedded within. And Sleepwalk Collective’s brand new piece Actress (so new we haven’t seen it yet) takes on ‘language, and voice, and slips of the tongue’.

And this self-consciousness isn’t just concerned with language. The work of Andy Smith very directly reflects on the theatre situation, and the experience of the audience. Taking theatre as essentially a meeting, Andy creates a highly self-reflective theatre that is deeply concerned with the socio-cultural function of the art-form.

The idea of self-consciousness also extends to the interrogation of audience experience and acts of spectatorship by and in the work itself. Dorian Šilec Petek has constructed a work that encourages the audience to reflect on their act of being an audience, and their expectations and assumptions about meaning, whilst of course being an audience to the work as well. And the experience offered by Sanne van Rijn and Johnny’s Horse, whilst not overtly self-conscious, takes the audience on such a rigorously contained journey that it is difficult not to re-assess expectations and reflect on the experience as it is happening.

And then there’s the work of Mareike Wenzel and the New Collective from Georgia. Whilst at the time of writing we still don’t know whether New Collective will be allowed into the country (as we still try to prove that they are ‘genuine visitors’), the way the piece engages with ideas of home and nationhood, the stories of people in one place wanting to be in another, and what it means to be ‘welcome’ if and when you ever get there, offers an uncomfortable self-consciousness, an acutely current reflection on ‘otherness’ that an international festival like this is supposed to be so happily celebrating.

So then, perhaps, there were some aesthetic criteria. Perhaps we were looking for work involved in a self-conscious examination of theatre and language, work that employed new frames and structures, that took on the significance and materiality of the body and its organization in the performance space, that reassessed theatre experience whilst engaging with the cultural resonances of all these, amongst other things.

But I can also guarantee that we will not have these in mind, and that even if we do we will not want to trust them, or any other criteria, to determine whether a piece should be selected for a future Flare festival. There is something about art’s ability to outrun such rationalisations that is at the heart of why we do this.

The question of Flare’s ‘international’ status is a final concern worth sharing. Part of the point of running an international festival is to bring together work that is geographically diverse, to allow those who witness it access to this sense of diversity, even if there are areas of commonality in evidence too. And it’s not a European festival, so the diversity should really encompass at least some elements of the trans-continental (assuming we are allowed to).

And yet our conception of an international festival of innovative theatre is not talking about theatre practices that are innovative in relation to the cultural and artistic contexts they were developed in, but rather work that audiences in the UK would see as innovative, that retains a sense of cultural resonance for this context, the cultural context of the festival. Despite the political anxieties of western liberalism, this is an act of curation that is attempting to be rigorous in artistic terms, that perhaps is accepting its euro-centricity in its desire to sidestep an intercultural political agenda and maintain an artistic one.

We’d love to hear from anyone who comes to FLARE15, to know if any of these ideas resonate for you across what we hope will be a hugely stimulating 6 days.

Neil Mackenzie
Artistic Director of FLARE15