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Belarus Free Theatre teams up with a member of Pussy Riot for a visceral new show
In Burning Doors, the latest politically charged play from Belarus Free Theatre about state-sponsored brutality, the cast reenacts violence with such acrobatic intensity that spectators might fret about the performers' well-being. Natalia Kaliada certainly hopes so. "If you worry about what happens to them on stage, then you can imagine what happened to them in reality, which is much worse," says Kaliada, co-director of Burning Doors, which runs at La MaMa October 12-23. "That's what we want to share with the audience."
Kaliada and her husband Nicolai Khalezin are the founders of Belarus Free Theatre, a 12-year-old avant-garde company that refused to be censored in their home country, widely viewed as one of the most repressive nations in Europe. Their acts of artistic resistance initially led to the harassment and arrest of the troupe's members, and, ultimately an official ban by the Belarusian government. Since 2011, Kaliada and Khalezin have lived as political refugees in London, but still direct the company from abroad. The ensemble defiantly continues to mount underground performances in Minsk, often in private apartments, the audience in as much danger of being locked up or losing their jobs as the artists.
The attempted suppression of the company in Belarus has resulted in the unintended consequence of making it a cause célèbre, with artists and activists around the world championing the troupe. It has also led to invitations to perform in dozens of countries.
"I was impressed with how incredibly courageous they are, yet so vulnerable on stage," says Mia Yoo, the artistic director of La MaMa, where Belarus Free Theatre made its New York stage debut in 2010. "Their art is a campaign for human rights."
It is also an exercise in inventive stagecraft. Burning Doors, the troupe's sixth show in NYC (and the fifth at La MaMa), is less a straightforward play than a collage of disparate elements, and sometimes discordant juxtapositions -- dance theatre bumps up against recited excerpts from Dostoevsky, comedy against horror. "If you observe life around you, you understand that everything around us clashes," Kaliada explains. "And crashes."
A trailer for Burning Doors by Belarus Free Theatre
The spine (and heart) of the show are the true stories of three artists who have suffered at the hands of an authoritarian regime, including Maria Alyokhina, who is portraying herself. Alyokhina was one of the masked members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk-rock group that held guerilla concerts. After a video of some members performing "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Expel Putin!" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior went viral, the Russian authorities arrested her along with two other bandmates. Alyokhina was sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
That inciting video is shown in Burning Doors, and there is also a comic scene between two aides to Russian President Putin who -- after chatting about buying a yacht -- turn the conversation to "those chicks," concluding that "amnesty is the only option" because stars such as Madonna and Paul McCartney were protesting their imprisonment. Alyokhina was ultimately released after 21 months. At each performance of Burning Doors, Alyokhina also holds a "press conference," answering questions in English from the audience. (For the rest of the show, the performers speak in Russian or Belarusian accompanied by English surtitles.)
There is a similar half-cheeky theatrical approach to the stories of the other two oppressed artists: Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky, who is frequently arrested, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently serving a 20-year sentence for "plotting terrorist acts" after opposing Russia's annexation of Crimea. Two pairs of bumbling bureaucrats discuss their cases -- one while attending a soccer match, the other while sitting on adjoining toilets.
A full half hour of Burning Doors is given over to a physical theatre of heightened violence. Performers hang by the neck from a rope; they throw each other around the stage, or slap each other silly; they run away from a prison door attached to a bungee cord, only to be viciously snapped back -- a visceral illustration of a point made again and again in the play, that even when you leave prison, it doesn't leave you.
And yet, "There's no physical abuse in Burning Doors," Kaliada assures. "The performers are professionals who are well-rehearsed and well-trained." But she sees the extreme physicality as a necessary political statement: "We have exactly one tool: It is our body."
Top image: Maryna Yurevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Siarhei Kvachonak in Burning Doors. Photos by Alex Brenner, Belarus Free Theatre.