'Artivism' in Europe's Last Dictatorship - A Conversation with Natalia Kaliada
by Anna Jelezovskaia
In the echo chamber of the ‘vacuum state’, the Belarus Free Theatre has become a powerful dissenting voice in a society where freedom of expression is virtually stripped of substance.
Belarus is a peculiar little place. Well, not so little in fact. It is larger than most of its bordering countries, with its territory exceeding that of the Benelux countries and Switzerland combined. In terms of population, the Republic of Belarus is the tenth biggest state in Europe.
Despite all this, I tend to get an uneasy feeling that my country is invisible to the West. Geopolitics has quite literally dwarfed its magnitude. Right there, in the geographical centre of the continent, it exists in a vacuum. An oxygen-deprived environment, ideal for the weeds of dictatorship to sprout, which they did, back in 1994. Since then, its roots have branched out in the most corrupt ways. The last dictatorship in Europe has become infamous for flouting laws and encroaching upon fundamental liberties. Alexander Lukashenko’s rule is now synonymous with falsified elections, unlawful arrests, forced disappearances and capital punishment. In a country where the separation of powers has been de facto abolished by this omnipresent patriarch, the political opposition got systematically suppressed, leaving the country in the state of recurrent stagnation.
Outsiders courteously frown upon Belarus’ autocratic regime, but ultimately turn a blind eye. Natalia Kaliada has a strong stance on Western indifference:
“It’s a pretty sad story. As I like to say, “Belarus is not sexy” - we don’t have nuclear weapons, oil or any other natural resources. We have 10 million people, but people are unpopular commodity in themselves, so we are not on the political agenda of any country. The Netherlands is one of the main trade partners, but do they care about political kidnappings, murders, cases not investigated and so on?”
Even if they did care, it wouldn’t be enough to bring about a democratic reform in Belarus. In such circumstances, Natalia realised early on in her life that change must be instigated from within: in 2005, together with her husband Nicolai Khalezin, an influential journalist at the time, she founded the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). In the last thirteen years, the award-winning collective has performed in over 40 countries, earning a worldwide reputation for its boundary-pushing performances.
Kaliada’s personal path to theatre was an unusual one. Born into the family of a vice president of “the only academy of arts in Belarus [then USSR]”, she was drawn to the medium since her childhood, but was prevented from becoming an actress due to her father’s post:
“My brother told me, ‘Listen, you should become a diplomat. It’s the same as being an actress, because you need to pretend all the time, but you will speak English.’ And this is the story of how I did not become an actress, but anyway [ended up] doing theatre.”
Natalia went on to work for the American government during the denuclearisation of the country in the early 90s. She jokes, “probably if we hadn’t moved nuclear weapons then, everyone [today] would know where Belarus is located.”
The idea to deploy theatre as a means of expressing civic opposition came “almost randomly” when her husband, Khalezin, began to face increasing oppression in his work as a journalist:
“All his newspapers got closed down. The contemporary art gallery of which he was the owner also got closed down. [...] And this is how it came about. He started to write plays, they began to be staged outside of Belarus, and on those royalties we decided that we will establish the theatre. So it was very simple, there was no ‘huge thinking’ behind it.”
In the echo chamber of the ‘vacuum state’, the Belarus Free Theatre has become a powerful dissenting voice in a society where freedom of expression, at least in its true meaning, is virtually stripped of substance. While the theatre’s performances in Belarus continue to be staged covertly due to strict cultural censorship, Kaliada reiterates that the collective’s oeuvre should not be typified as ‘political theatre’:
“I think we would limit ourselves if we said that this is a type of protest art. We definitely do not say that we are a political theatre, because we think that [Bertolt] Brecht’s idea of political theatre was invented and completely exhausted by him himself.”
She explains that their work is first and foremost an exploration of the human condition:
“For us, it is interesting to talk about life and humans. This subject matter is the most interesting one - [it shows] how complex we are. Because even those people who get arrested, who stand up against dictators, they are not necessarily ‘good’ people - they’re complex, like all other human beings.”
In her work, Kaliada and her husband draw inspiration from playwrights and directors like Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov, Robert Lepage, Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook. Unless in deconstructed form, classical texts the likes of Shakespeare are generally not favoured by the troupe as “there’s no reflection of contemporary life in those plays.” For an avant-garde theatre that aspires to “stage what is currently not being staged”, the issue of pertinence is of utmost importance. Natalia points out that the company’s repertoire draws extensively on personal experiences, giving it a universality that might explain the international success of their plays:
“We have performed in 44 countries around the globe, on five different continents. Apparently, it works [to] talk about humans, the issues of love and death, and how people can be cruel to each other, and how limitless people get in their ‘survival mode’; and this is the most incredible part, when you completely immerse yourself in human lives. And when those human lives are staged and their stories are told, every single audience member will find something that is close to them or say ‘no, no, no, this is unacceptable’. We think that, [as] contemporary theatre makers, our job is to provoke, not to say ‘let’s be nice and stay here on one side’. Our job is to tackle and to punch. Then when you [audience] leave that place, you will have very specific [mental] images.”
A deep emotional resonance produced by the tangible sense of urgency engraved in their art is essential for establishing a long-term dialogue with the audience that transcends the time limitation of a theatre performance:
"Our shows are only an entrance point - when you put a show on stage, then it is very easy to communicate with your audience. It’s about accessibility, it’s about audience development, engagement."
The only truly democratic language - corporeal - is the theatre’s principle tool for conversing with multinational public. “It’s not so much about words, for us”, Kaliada asserts. A notable example of this approach is Burning Doors - one of Kaliada’s recent productions, which sheds light on the political struggles of like-minded Eastern European artists Maria Alyokhina, Petr Pavlensky and Oleg Sentsov.
“When we spoke about Oleg’s story, the idea was: how is it possible - with no words - to show what torture means. For 26 minutes, you observe a piece of the show - an essential part of the show - where actors use their bodies to show just maybe a glimpse of what torture might be. So when the audience sitting there says ‘ok, we got it’ - which they say after just eight minutes - then you get into that mode where you tell them ‘when you thought enough is enough, it’s not enough’. He was tortured for a few months, you are here observing actors on stage, and nobody’s being actually tortured and you’re already challenged, because you think ‘Is it possible for people to do this to each other?” No, they are actors. They do a fantastic job, they really go to limits with their bodies, and when you observe them on stage, it’s clear that they can’t continue [i.e. are exhausted] after that. But after that, there’s still a curtain call, they come on stage and bow, while he is still in jail. And he’s been on hunger strike for almost 20 days now.”
Despite its global reach, the BFT remains true to its origins in Belarus. Much of its oeuvre is devoted to questioning the national identity of the Belarusian people which, as Natalia confirms, presents an unusual case study. For a nation that has known no sovereignty until 1991, the task of finding a common cultural denominator is a challenging one — more so under the still far-reaching influence of Russia. The past, she agrees, plays an important part in this process, which is why folkloric heritage occupies a central role in the theatre’s repertoire. Instilled with metaphorical meaning, traditional songs performed a cappella unleash “the power of the voice, the power of unprotected bodies”, with Belorussian - “a forbidden language” — being the secret weapon in their arsenal to affirm national uniqueness.
While the BFT's productions can be rightfully said to have achieved international acclaim, less tends to be known about an impressive portfolio of other, non theatre-related initiatives run by the collective ‘behind the scenes’. Honoring the slogan “We’re more than theatre”, for over a decade Natalia and Nicolai have been scrupulously building a one-of-a-kind social project that blurs the boundaries between art, activism and philanthropy. These range from theatre workshops in post-genocide Rwanda, to work done with former child soldiers in Uganda, to time spent at illegal refugee camps in Morocco.
The collective also carries out regular awareness campaigns abroad and publishes extensively online. In Belarus, they run their own “underground” publishing house that produces books about historical figures of Belarusian origin, like Marc Chagall:
“We thought, these people manage to leave this country and make other countries famous, so we want to link their stories to people who are still in Belarus and tell them ‘Guys, if you get your shit together, you can still do it [i.e reform your own country].’”
Back in Minsk, the BFT also offers daily professional training for aspiring theatre practitioners. Supervised by the exiled founding couple at a distance, the workshops cover “how to create theatre: write, direct, produce” as well as “everything that happens backstage: stage management, production teams”. Amounting to a two-year programme, the curriculum possesses a unique feature: ‘artivism’. Natalia introduces this vanguard subject:
“We merge art and activism and we explain how to convert personal stories, as well as taboo subjects of a society, into art form. [...] For many years we worked around the subject of disabled people in Belarus, because in our country there are ‘no disabled people’ as the government says. Blind people were not even allowed to audition [for the conservatory]. So we thought, ‘Okay, if you won’t have it like that, you shall have it differently.’ Our students brought in pianos and other musical instruments, and we invited those young people who were not allowed to audition to have a concert in front of the conservatory [building]. [...] Then, a few years later, the law was changed, and now it’s allowed. Recently, we changed a lot of things this way, including pavements and public toilets for the disabled.”
Grassroots initiatives such as these may be a much-needed antidote to the march towards senseless contemporary art under the postmodernist banner of “art for art’s sake”. Whatever the answer, the BFT is a living testament to the fact that art can still have palpable public utility. Natalia acknowledges this when she adds:
“We also have a school for citizen journalists, something we added a year and a half ago. The school [of which the theatre academy is also part] is called Fortinbras, after a Shakespearean character. In Hamlet he comes in the end of the play to drag out dead bodies, opening the space. That’s the idea - to clean the space and give life to something new; with citizen journalism, artivism, theatre making, documentary film-making and how to be human.”
All in all, she concludes, the BFT’s overarching mission demands such versatility:
“It’s lots of layers, almost like a puzzle - you need to build it from tiny pieces to produce a ‘punch’.’’
Tiresome as her “24/7 job” may be, Natalia appears to hold little doubt as to the purpose of her efforts:
“We had lots of situations where, when on tour, we would get phone calls from some of our audience members and they would say ‘When are you performing in Minsk?’ We would ask ‘Why’ to which they would answer ‘In two weeks there will be a big protest and we expect to be arrested, and when we’re in jail, we want to recall your shows because it helps us to keep going.’”With a subtle sense of pride in her voice she adds, “This is the essence of us. It’s not about audience and theatre makers - it’s about us.”
Natalia ends with an urgent message to the West — her final “punch”. With the straightforwardness characteristic of an Eastern European ‘unspoiled’ by civil liberties, she announces that the culture of protest in the EU is currently in decline:
“It’s very interesting how people under democracy just sit and observe how human rights, very slowly, one by one, are taken away from them. And they do not do anything to protect them. They should go to that demonstration and not leave. [...] Instead, they don’t even manage to stay standing until the end.”
Kaliada’s call to action comes at a time when civil liberties are under attack by would-be autocrats all over Europe. In the face of this trend, Belarus is a rather effective prophylactic for the European political consciousness — it just needs to be seen.
Luckily, there are people out there who can pierce blindness — at times, with avantgarde humanism.