Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Environment

Are We Stronger Than Winston?
"Where is the Environment?" asked Caroline Lucas yesterday.  She's quite right to challenge the major parties - neither of whom have said anything about this most crucial of issues during the current election campaign.  Across the Atlantic, it now seems that Donald Trump aims to withdraw from the Paris deal on climate change.  It's a scary moment, and no mistake.

This is the time when, more than ever, we need to be listening to the voices of indigenous people, who experience climate change at the front line on a daily basis.  Not only do they feel its effects particularly acutely - they also have long cultural traditions of living in close harmony with nature.  In indigenous cultures, you do not own the land but care for it - passing it on as a healthy inheritance to the future.  Now, more than ever, we need to be engaging with indigenous people as we try to find a way forward in our relationship with a damaged planet.
Reports from Standing Rock
ORIGINS 2017 has a range of inspiring and provocative events about indigenous ideas on the environment, beginning with REPORTS FROM STANDING ROCK on June 11 - a series of short films that show the realities of the protest and explore the depth of the Native American activists' passion to save their land and waters.  Trump's refusal to engage with indigenous protestors may yet prove to be his political undoing - his failure to engage with environmental issues is certainly very dangerous for us all.
Are We Stronger than Winston?
Just how dangerous is shown in ARE WE STRONGER THAN WINSTON? by VOU Dance Company from Fiji, performing at The Place on June 23 and 24.  Winston was the cyclone that hit Fiji in February 2016: the worst recorded tropical storm in the history of the South Pacific, killing 42 people and causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. In the words of the choreographer, Navitalai Waqavotuwale: "Soon the house that once sheltered us, now threatened our very lives as it collapsed in shreds around us. Soon the ocean that once fed us came pounding at our doors demanding our breath. Soon the wind that once rippled through our children's hair and carried their voices homeward, snatched them from our very arms and hauled them beyond the horizon where their voices were heard no more. And soon, mothers were burying their children, and children were burying their mothers."
Melissa Veszi as Poluknalai
A lighter but equally important take on climate change in the Pacific is offered in  Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new musical for family audiences, BABA THE BAD BABOON.  In this version of a Polynesian folk tale, Baba is an experienced leader who assures the goddess Poluknalai, the supreme protector of animals and nature, that all will be well under his watch - leading to a dire loss of animals and ecology.
Angry Inuk
It's in the Arctic that the effects of climate change are probably most glaringly obvious, as the ice melts at astonishing speed.  Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's remarkable film ANGRY INUK, which has been winning audience awards at film festivals across the planet, is powered by fury at the world's failure to engage with the people who actually live in the Arctic - the Inuit themselves.  Their environmentally sustainable approach to seal hunting - using every part of a non-endangered species for food and clothing, and to give them traction in the global marketplace - is set in sharp contrast with the insanely wasteful approach of western interests in the Artic region.
Tanya Tagaq
So it seems only fitting that the last voice you will hear at ORIGINS this year is an Inuk voice - TANYA TAGAQ.  More than a traditional throat singer, Tanya seems to embody and to vocalise the Arctic landscape itself.  Her extraordinary improvised soundtrack to the silent "documentary" NANOOK OF THE NORTH is a staggering evocation of the beautiful and bare lands that sustain the planet - and that we are all too close to destroying.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Youth

Three Wise Cousins
Everyone knows the importance of Elders in indigenous cultures - but related to this is the huge emphasis placed on young people, and the passing on of culture to future generations.  ORIGINS 2017 has a whole string of stories to tell about young people growing to maturity in First Nations cultures, and what they learn along the way.  THREE WISE COUSINS is a coming of age comedy, about a young Samoan man living in New Zealand, who hears his potential love interest say that she wants a "Real Island Guy".  Cue the cultural education trip to Samoa...  

Johogoi Aiyy
Other films that treat the same sort of process in less comic way are SPEAR, which follows a young man's attempts to reconcile Aboriginal traditions with a contemporary urban world; and the extraordinary JOHOGOI AIYY (Johogoi God) from the Yakut people of Sakha in the Russian Arctic.  In this remarkable film, like no other, a young man travels to the annual midsummer festival — the Tuymada Ysekh - and we travel with him, learning as he learns about his culture, his spirituality and his destiny.
Youth is also central to our theatre programme, with Cliff Cardinal's HUFF casting an unflinching eye on some of the more horrific aspects of young lives on Native Reservations, where solvent abuse if rife and where the suicide rate is five times that in the rest of Canada.  Oddly enough, it manages to be very funny in the process.  There's light relief to follow with Joshua Warrior's Aboriginal stand-up ABORIGINAL GIGOLO, or hip-hop with the fabulous MAU POWER at the ORIGINS CONCERT.
Island Poké
Younger youth also have lots to look forward to - not least because of our Education programme, which will be taking over two primary schools through the festival, immersing over a thousand children in indigenous culture.  Some of them will be performing at PASIFIKA in Kensington, and that's going to be a great Family Day out on every level, with song and dance from a whole range of Pacific cultures, Maori martial arts, and Hawaiian food from our fabulous partners Island Poké.
Man of the Andes
On Sunday 25 June, there are two shows at Rich Mix aimed especially at young audiences.  MAN OF THE ANDES is José Navarro's puppet extravaganza, introducing children to Andean animals, Quechua music and the Scissor Dance, all without any language to get in the way!  BABA THE BAD BABOON is Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new family musical, drawn from Samoan mythology, and taking in a few thoughts on climate change.

ORIGINS is a great place to be young....

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pathways through the Festival 1: History and Representation

The New World
As ORIGINS 2017 approaches, and people are getting keen to book their tickets, we thought it might be useful to outline a few possible Pathways Through the Festival - giving you the chance to work out what events sit together well by theme or "feel".  Our First Pathway is about History and Representation.

At the heart of these ideas sits the contested figure of Pocahontas.  2017 is the 400th anniversary of her time in England and untimely death at Gravesend, aged only 21.  Celebrations can be complex: and this anniversary hasn't been without its controversy. Writing in Indian Country Today, Lisa J. Ellwood attacks the way in which the commemorations have seemed to appropriate Pocahontas (or Matoaka, as she was properly known) as a "Great and Powerful English Feminist".  Ellwood cites the alternative oral traditions of the Powhatan, which we also explored in our HIDDEN HISTORIES film.  According to this tradition, Pocahontas was abducted, raped and eventually murdered: a very different tale.   [You can see HIDDEN HISTORIES as part of our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House on June 15, or in a pre-festival screening at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham on May 27]  Our friend Graham Harvey (part of our TALKS programme) wrote a blog piece on the commemoration at Gravesend, which also problematises it in the light of colonial histories and post-colonial tensions.  As a Festival celebrating indigenous culture, ORIGINS can't enter this territory without an overt awareness of its being contested space.  So our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS night will be a Native American ritual, not a Christian one, at a site where she lived, not where she died.  It will involve contemporary Native American women who have travelled to England locating their own stories in relation to hers - or what hers might have been.  And the film we are screening about her, THE NEW WORLD, is an attempt to move beyond contested histories and into the realm of the mythological - the imaginative space where the real potential for healing can be found.

Observance by Julie Gough 
You might want to compare THE NEW WORLD with Julie Gough's THE LOST WORLD.  Julie's art constantly questions the way in which Aboriginal lands and artefacts are owned or represented by the dominant culture.  Like many of the voices in ORIGINS, hers is raised to debate the continuing dispossession of indigenous peoples, not only from their lands but also from their histories.  The same issues are tackled in very different ways in the theatre piece THE 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, in which Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman trace the indigenous Australian experience from first contact to the present day.  It's a great example of theatre and performance re-claiming history for the people on the receiving end of its more malign forces, superbly performed by the young Thitharr Warra woman Chenoa Deemal.  It's director, Jason Klarwein writes: "The language you hear in our version of this play is Chenoa’s language. The design elements of the show are based on the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where Chenoa grew up, the artworks of the people there, and the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland. We have taken the structure of this marvellously robust work and given it our experience. Our childhood and our pain. As well as the pain of generations of displaced First Peoples."
Tanya Tagaq
The question of History - who owns it, who controls it, who has the right to claim it - is perhaps most powerfully addressed by working with Museums.  ORIGINS first worked with the British Museum in 2015, and this year we're returning there, complementing their exhibition WHERE THE THUNDERBIRD LIVES with a screening of the extraordinary 1914 archive film IN THE LAND OF THE HEADHUNTERS, which opens the Festival on June 10.  A second archive film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, marks our Closing Night at the National Maritime Museum on June 25 - but this time the film is gloriously re-appropriated by the culture on which it casts its colonial gaze.  The great Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq improvises a live soundtrack to the film - embodying its representation
of the Arctic landscape and undercutting its construction of the Inuit as primitive "Others".  In many ways, this performance is an answer to the colonial writings of history that have continually dogged indigenous peoples - an issue also presented at our other NMM screening, PASSAGE, which sees the slandering of the Inuit by Victorian moralists like Charles Dickens, and the beginnings of reconciliation in the present day.  That whole history of mis-representation, leading to self-representation on film is traced in the wonderful (and very funny) documentary REEL INJUN, and countered by the re-invention of indigenous language itself in Christian Thompson's video installation BERCEUSE.
Spirit of the Ancestors
Talking about Museums and indigenous peoples often leads to the discussion of re-patriation.  It's a complex issue, but one which has to be dealt with.  TE KUHANE O TE TUPUNA (The Spirit of the Ancestors), which screens at Arthouse Crouch End on June 14, does just that.  It's a film from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, about the search for the the lost Moai Hoa Haka Nanaia, a statue of significant cultural importance.  That statue currently sits in pride of place in the British Museum.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Brexit the Stage

Intercultural Laboratory - participants from UK, Romania and Greece
Last time we ran our Intercultural Play-Making Laboratory, I had the impossible task of welcoming visitors from Europe on the day of the referendum result.  This time there wasn't quite such an element of shock - but Brexit inevitably hung over the week's work, as we dialogued with participants from Greece, Romania, Estonia, Portugal, Germany and the UK.  We actually started by inviting everybody to the V&A's symposium Brexit the Stage: if there's an elephant in the room, it's best to take notice.

The symposium was characterised by a tone of resignation.  Even David Lan, whose speech struck a more powerful moral tone than most, didn't dare to suggest that Brexit could possibly be resisted.  What seemed to me most striking and most disturbing about the day was the sense that Britain really was different from the rest of Europe, and that the difference consisted of a more mercenary approach, even to culture.  Mark Ball talked about British participants in the international theatre circuit being more transactional in their approach than Europeans (or anybody else, except Americans).  Christopher Balme, who has always had a global view of such things, looked at the UK's gradual policy shift away from an integral to an instrumental view of the value of culture; and suggested that the corresponding move in European cultural policy, from Culture 2000's belief in the inherent worth of intercultural dialogue to Creative Europe's emphasis on culture as a means to economic and social regeneration, was a reflection of British influence.  So at least we managed to mess Europe up before leaving it....

I retain a few little strands of hope as to what may happen in the negotiating process.  If, as seems virtually certain, Theresa May is re-elected with an enhanced majority, she will take that same transactional, indeed confrontational approach to the negotiation.  Her recent run-in with Jean-Claude Juncker shows just how alien this is to the European approach to policy: on the continent there is far less adversarial politics, far more consensus and coalition building.  The thought that the Brexit talks might be about "the best deal we can get" is itself anathema to the Commission.  The British government cares not a jot for culture or education - the most recent instructions from the DCMS to the Arts Council suggest that the latter should be transformed into a business development agency, a bit like UKTI.  But culture and education do still matter to the European Union, and they value the contributions that British educators, researchers and (yes) artists can make to their projects. It may just be that the EU manages to salvage our involvement in the programmes as a trade-off for some concession on tariffs or the like.  I'm inclined to direct the lobbying efforts towards Brussels rather than Westminster.

Turbulent times produce good art, though - and, fully aware of the irony, I can report that this Laboratory was the best we have done.  At our Evaluation session, and since, participants spoke about the freedom they had found in our approach, the way the workshop had enabled them to follow their creativity and emotional paths, to overcome fear, to re-frame their own roles as artists or educators.  One young man from Romania, who may or may not have known that he was arguing the case for Europe, said:  "It made me feel how travelling and communicating can help you grow...  If you put people together, it's better for everyone".

Simple really, isn't it?