Wednesday, June 19, 2019

ORIGINS at the Globe - Guest Post by Mei Ann Teo

Madeline Sayet performs WHERE WE BELONG at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Monday night was an historic occasion, when Mohegan theatre-maker Madeline Sayet performed her solo piece WHERE WE BELONG at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to a standing ovation.  The play, which deals with Shakespeare, colonialism, personal stories and shifting identities, sat wonderfully in this iconic space, which gave the event a very particular meaning.

Director Mei Ann Teo writes:

June 17, 2019. London.

The last day of our run at Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival (visionary artistic Director Michael Walling) happens at Shakespeare's Globe. Every time I hear this story, another rich layer emerges, and this time, in this space, I am beside myself.

Maddy's story did something to that space last night. She was not only speaking to the people in the room, but all those who have passed through it, and are buried around and beneath. She was speaking to the walls, embedding them with new DNA. She was also speaking towards the future; speaking to enable us with the tools to have a future, speaking us into understanding, existence, survival, and into thriving/flying.

It wasn't a solo show, no. She was not alone. With her were the people she met in England, the family she came from, many others but most sweetly, the Mohegan chief Mahomet Weyonomon who has a rock memorial in the green grass at Southwark Cathedral.

With her were all of us, witnessing, being transformed through the passion of her struggling with the question "where do we belong" and while there are never any easy answers and endings, I'm finding the courage to decide to make mine, "everywhere".

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Belonging

NO WOMAN'S LAND
The themes of ORIGINS come together in the idea of Belonging. Madeline Sayet’s WHERE WE BELONG (Rich Mix 14-16 June, Shakespeare’s Globe 17 June) offers an Indigenous perspective on Brexit Britain, exploring both the causes and the consequences of the 2016 referendum through the eyes of someone whose culture was colonised by ours.

A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION (Rich Mix 14-16 June) probes ideas around identity, culture and cultural ownership to offer new ways in which diverse & minority communities might stake a claim to belonging. Similar themes appear in the photographic self-portraits of Meryl McMaster, who is both First Nations and Scottish.  Meryl’s work is part of SUBSTRATA (Baldwin Gallery 4-18 June).  In NO WOMAN’S LAND (The Place 14-15 June), Naulaq LeDrew and Avâtara Ayuso confront the challenge of belonging to an Arctic that is being destroyed by people who seem to think the planet “belongs” to them, and not the other way round.

At the climax of the Festival, WESTWAY SOLSTICE (Maxilla Gardens 21-23 June) will engage with one of London’s most diverse communities, working with Anishinaabe choreographer-in-residence Brian Solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE to respond to the ground we stand on, the people who live on it, and the lives that live with us.  Belonging, at the deepest level.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Participation

A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION
For our 10th anniversary Festival, we have expanded the remit of ORIGINS beyond performance and dialogue, into fully participatory events.  From early May, contemporary First Nations choreographer brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE has been working with the community in North Kensington to create a site-specific dance performance called WESTWAY SOLSTICE (Maxilla Gardens 21-23 June).  Using a large and very diverse cast of local people, Brian’s work draws off his Anishanaabe cultural heritage to generate an intense relationship to land, environment and the body.

At the start of the Festival, Indigenous Australian artist Marree Clarke will be leading a KOPI WORKSHOP (Rich Mix 11-12 June), where you can experience the traditional mourning practices of her people. It’s an extraordinary privilege to work with an Indigenous artist on such an intimate and intense aspect of her culture.  Marree will guide participants through an emotional and spiritual journey, focusing their emotions into the creation of their personal clay cap of mourning.

Moe Clark (no relation!) is a Métis artist from Québec, whose practice ranges from the traditional drum to contemporary electronic music.  As well as performing at THE ORIGINS CONCERT (Rich Mix 13 June), Moe will be the host of KIYOKEWIN (Rich Mix 15 June).  Drawing off the traditional gathering and storytelling events practiced by her Elders (and hidden under the kitchen table because they were banned), KIYOKEWIN uses contemporary technology to bring Elders into a living exchange with Festival-goers in a calm and open space.

Through these participatory experiences, we hope that people might start to think differently about their relationships to culture and locality.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival. 1: Migrations

INO MOXO
From 2017 to 2020, Border Crossings is focussing on the issue of migration, both in our theatre work, our community and education programmes, and in ORIGINS!  From an Indigenous perspective, migration FROM (not to) Britain is the source of current tensions.  Every event in the Festival in some way responds to the history of colonisation, and its ongoing impact on Indigenous people, their cultures, lands and environments.

NO WOMAN'S LAND (The Place – 14-15 June) brings together two migration stories, as Inuk Elder Naulaq LeDrew and Spanish dancer Avâtara Ayuso bring together their hugely different experiences of life in transit.  Naulaq’s migration from the Arctic of her childhood to the Toronto of today has strengthened her desire to preserve her cultural traditions, the Inuktitut language, the music, dance and costumes of the Inuit and the games they play.  It’s also turned her into a climate activist!  As well as appearing in the show, Naluaq will be talking about her culture at the National Maritime Museum and Rich Mix.

Another encounter between two women from different cultural backgrounds is at the heart of A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION (Rich Mix 14-16 June): in this case Canadian Métis visual artist Nadia Myre and non-Indigenous theatre-maker Johanna Nutter.  Bravely and playfully facing up to challenging issues like cultural appropriation and the politics of race, the performance responds to the complex cultural and ethnic mixing that is the legacy of imperialism.

SONNY ASSU’s extraordinary visual art (Canada House 21 June – 5 September) and brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE’s probing and insightful dance piece THE NDN WAY (Playground Theatre 17 June) are further examples of work that confronts the cultural politics of colonisation. By presenting this work, ORIGINS will broaden debates around migration and diversity to include the ongoing impact of colonial histories, raising questions around cultural ownership, appropriation & the need for dialogue.

There are also, of course, histories of migration in the other direction too: many Indigenous people have visited London across the years.  HIDDEN HISTORIES (National Maritime Museum 19 June) tells some of their stories and relates them to the present day, while Madeline Sayet’s WHERE WE BELONG (Rich Mix 14-16 June, Shakespeare’s Globe 17 June) evokes the memory of her Mohegan ancestors to make sense of her own contemporary experience of London.

The experience of watching INO MOXO (Southbank Centre 15-16 June) is a journey in its own right, as the audience is led up the Amazon in search of the great Ayahuasca shaman Ino Moxo.  Here the migration is internal as well as literal: the Ayahuasca experience inspires a visionary new theatre form that helps us see the world through different eyes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

More Than Words - Dancing in Hungary


At first glance, Hungary is not the most obvious place to run a training week around minority ethnic groups and linguistic diversity.  Even Budapest is an astonishingly homogenous city by the standards of contemporary Europe.  During our day in the city, waiting to catch the plane home, we saw only two darker skinned women.  One of them was selling sunglasses on the street, and the other was emptying the waste bins.  We speculated that they were probably Roma.  In the remote spa town of Cserkeszőlő, where the training took place, there was even less diversity.  Unsmiling and overweight middle-aged couples in white towelling robes prowled the hotel corridors, occasionally dipping themselves in the indoor pool or the outdoor jacuzzi, taking buffet meals and rarely venturing beyond the front door.  On the last day, when I had time to enjoy the outdoor pool with some of the other participants, it was very clear that the people sharing it did not like the fact that there were foreigners in their water.  And when we tried to relax in the evening with an Italian friend’s guitar, the disapproval of noise after 9pm was matched only by the exasperation that these barbaric souls could not even speak Magyar.

So, actually, Cserkeszőlő was the perfect place for this MORE THAN WORDS week.  It was a place where a group of cosmopolitan Europeans, used to intercultural and multilingual spaces, to acceptance and diversity, could experience what it actually feels like to be in a cultural mi-nority.  It was a place where the Magyar tribalism advocated by Viktor Orbán was openly on display, and the famous fences made total, terrifying sense.  It was a place where we tried hard to integrate, and were not made to feel welcome.

And so the training room became at once a sacred space and a refuge - a place where, thanks to the careful leadership of IKTE, we were able to operate as an uninhibited and creative group, and to build a sense of security through the processes of moving together.  It offered a very clear lesson in the potential value of such experiences for people from minority cultures: in the dance workshop, there is a chance to escape from the social stigma of the outsider and to acquire a renewed confidence in the self as a physical presence, and to enjoy being part of an integrated and non-judgemental group.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

The Promised Land - A Week in Oldenburg

At the Migration Centre, Oldenburg
Artistic Director Michael Walling reports on THE PROMISED LAND week in Oldenburg:

We spent a lot of time talking about the Shoah.  If you are in Germany, and you’re dealing with questions of cultural diversity, cultural conflict and the presence of the “Other”, then that is to be expected. If you’re also talking about the role of museums, then it becomes inevitable.  German museums, and the German cultural sector more widely, have a crucial role as the guardians of this “cultural memory”.  Holding history and educating society about it, they are charged with ensuring that nothing like the Shoah ever happens again.

This is very important in understanding why Germany has been so exemplary in its response to the (so-called) “refugee crisis” of 2015, and the presence of so many new citizens in its cities since that time.  A highlight of our week in Oldenburg was a visit to the city’s Migrationcenter – a space where refugees were able to learn skills and language in a positive, supportive and well-equipped environment, mentored by experts, with the real expectation of a place in the job market.  We met people on the way to becoming painters, carpenters, metalworkers, dressmakers, hairdressers, warehouse managers, gardeners and cooks.  The Centre Manager explained to me that the German government asked her to justify their funding on the basis of how many people were placed in jobs after training.  It makes perfect sense: invest in new citizens when they arrive so that they come to be contributors to the social and economic space.  It saves a lot of benefit costs and a lot of psychological pain.

The contrast with other countries we have seen during THE PROMISED LAND is very marked.  In the UK, asylum seekers are still not allowed to work, or even to be formally educated or trained.  In Italy, where the situation had seemed a little more positive only a year ago, migrants are now being demonised.  The Reception Centre Opera Padre Marella, which we visited in Bologna, has been told to close by the end of the month.  The young men who were living there will become homeless: Micaela from Teatro dell’Argine tells me that many are simply disappearing into a growing sub-culture, and will no doubt be condemned as morally degenerate when they turn to crime because they have no other way to feed themselves.  In Turkey, where the situation is particularly difficult because of the country’s position as a holding place on the periphery of Europe, we saw Syrians being caricatured as terrorists by Turkish students, even when they were in the same room.  France, where we will be working next, seems as hostile as ever to the presence of minority cultures.

Germany is different BECAUSE of cultural memory.  There is a deep desire to be international and open, a clear moral sense of the danger that comes with “Othering” people from different countries and cultural backgrounds.  If anything proves the constantly reiterated point made by the project team - that the problems faced in Europe around migration are essentially cultural problems in the host population - then it is this.  In a society that recalls with pain and shame what happened when other people were labelled as alien, when it cast itself as culturally and racially superior, then that space of remembrance becomes ready for acceptance and peaceful co-existence.

Of course, Germany is no Utopia.  There are clear economic pressures, and the threat of the AfD is very real.  I found it disturbing that the refugees should themselves be the subject of programmes against anti-Semitism, because they come from Arab countries where there is an understandable objection to Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people.  To subject these traumatised people to images of mass graves in concentration camps is not best practice in cultural education.  But it was heartening to see at IBIS, a refugee organisation we visited, that refugees were being offered specific training in how to counter the threat of the radical right.

Exploring the relationship between Germany’s horror at its own history and the open culture that characterises its present, I perceive an extraordinary contrast with the woeful inadequacy of historical understanding in other European countries.   Germany looks back on the Third Reich with shame: but in France, Italy, Turkey and the UK, an assertive imperial past is still regarded as a matter of pride.  Much of the Brexit discourse has been around Britain being “a great country”, which still seems to regard its past global hegemony as a civilising mission.  Our museum sector and our cultural sector need to learn from Germany: we have to reassess our imperial past for what it was – a plundering of global resources, both material and human, which has resulted in the grotesque inequalities that blight the world today.  We have to confront the systematic massacres of indigenous peoples in Australia, North America and sub-Saharan Africa, the uprooting of people from their lands and the psychological wrecking of their languages and cultures.  We have to get past the comfortable lie that the Shoah was a uniquely evil event in human history.  It was conducted on an industrial scale that was indeed unique – but the underlying urge to destroy those regarded as inferior is common to the imperial projects initiated by European societies across many centuries: projects of which many nations are still taught to be proud.  We have to develop a cultural sector and a museum sector that is inclusive and honest about history: that is what will equip us to deal with the huge dangers of the present.

So it was good that we talked a lot about the Shoah during our week in Germany.  But, at the same time, I felt that the museums we saw were not applying the same sense of cultural responsibility to the present.  We saw an outreach project at Oldenburg Castle, where a group of migrant women had responded artistically to the building, with some really challenging insights – but their work was not incorporated into the narrative of the museum itself.  The Castle retained its identity as the legacy of a “great man” from the 17th century – there was no sense that it might have been built or run by people who were less wealthy, who might have been female, and who might even have come from somewhere else.  Migration and the need for inclusion imply a new understanding of local history that relates the specifics of the locality to the international networks and influences that mould such spaces.  We need to link the local and the global – a process towards which European programmes are well placed to contribute.

It’s odd to find myself responding in this way to North German culture.  After all, this is the land of Lutheranism.  It was here that the Bach Passions were created, offering a lasting example of “great art” that is also participatory, “high culture” that is available to the entire community.  But contemporary Germany still seems to harbour a belief in cultural class divisions: a perturbing exclusivity seemed present in the museum spaces that we saw.

This brings me back to our evening at IBIS, and our morning at the Migrationcenter.  In both cases, the refugees themselves showed us the way towards a culture of welcome.  At IBIS, after they had told us about the centre and its work, we all sat down to eat together, and the young refugee men (they were all men) played music.  They danced – and we danced.  We danced together.  The music was Middle Eastern, and the dance traditional.  If anyone had felt possessive, then this was their culture, not ours.  But they invited us in, and we participated.  And this led us very easily towards the important conversations, to the human stories, to the empathy that makes for acceptance.  One young man told me about his journey across a European border in the back of a van with 38 others crammed into a tiny space, unable to breathe. He talked about kicking the door down, about old people and children collapsing at the roadside, about the driver running away.  Another man talked about an ISIS massacre, and the murder of his grandmother.  They told us this because they wanted us to know, and because they were at ease to speak.  A sharing of culture had facilitated this profound exchange of truth – this most basic necessity for social cohesion and functional democracy.

At the Migrationcenter, we were also invited to participate.  The refugees asked us to plant flowers in their garden to mark our visit, and to write messages on the eye-shaped symbols they had carved, which were then mounted on sticks as an art installation outside the centre.  I found it very moving that this should happen – that it should be them who welcomed us, and not the other way round.  That it was they who drew off collaborative artistic practice to make sense of our presence in what had become their space.

Here is what I wrote on the eye:
The Eye is the Beginning.
Before we can encounter another person
chat with them
eat with them
work with them
vote for them
love them
first we must see them. 
In this symbol, the most basic and necessary act of welcome:
You Are Here.  We See You.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Clowning in Potenza - Guest blog by Sinéad Elinore Emery

During our time together in Potenza I was massively impressed by people being willing to explore, learn and grow with such commitment and trust. I was especially inspired by the learning opportunities provided by combination of professionals in the room, from nurses, to engineers, to architects and youth workers. The unity we felt as a group so very quickly, has made me think of past workshops run cross-discipline and how they failed and faltered, through giving space to too much talking and debate. I for one am guilty of all too often hiding behind the power or distraction of words and failing to embrace the power and precision that communicating non-verbally can manifest and this week was just the reminder I needed to re-wire a touch and refocus elements of my practice.

Since undertaking the training, I have used several of the games we explored during out time in Italy, one of favourites being Ha Ho Hee, which I managed to deliver with 80 young people in one go in Egypt, in a prison with 10 category A offenders and at a 60th birthday party in Ireland. What I loved about this great opener was that it provided a wonderfully powerful physical way of either expelling or gathering energy depending on group or individual needs. I have used this game to invite people to pass on good energy across the circle or rid themselves of their nerves through the clear and strong movements and the bold sounds of the ha, the ho and the hee. Within each of the above examples groups were calmer and more focused having played the game.

When in facilitator mode I often find we can over-explain things that are far better communicated through doing and feeling, as opposed to lengthy verbal instructions. The training in Potenza helped me to reflect on how to incorporate less words in to my facilitation. This came in very handy in my most recent facilitation in Egypt, with large groups of young people. Drawing on some of the nonverbal approaches, I found myself resorting to clear and simple nonverbal cues in place of lots of over-explaining and unclear gesticulation.

My time in Potenza was one the hardest weeks of training I have ever experienced. While I took away a heap of great activity ideas and learnt a lot from the practitioners I met, I went on a challenging personal and professional journey during the sessions. This training taught me to remember the value of letting barriers down – something I do not find comes easy- to be ok with things going out of ‘control’ from time to time – a challenge to a perfectionist, to keep things simple – tricky when you feel the need to cover all bases and above all to be ok with failing and things not working out... In fact this is where the clown thrives, working with the problem instead of around it or away from it….  Speaking of which I don’t think I found my clown this time around but I am OK with that.

Something which came flooding over me after our day out in Matera, interacting with unsuspecting members of the public, was the quality of genuine connections and the sheer volume of compassion in this group, something I found utterly overwhelming - juxtaposed with the disheartening consideration of the absence of connection and compassion in so many aspects and elements of day to day life in this complicated world. I will be making it my mission to play Secret Angel with so many of my groups to come - what a wonderful and touching way to encourage people to connect and consider another being, to observe them and think about how they can silently support them, one small way to combat some of the tough stuff we humans go through…. Powerful.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

NATIVE at the Berlinale

VAI
The Berlinale is extraordinary.  A documentary about a Maori woman who herself made documentaries, directed by her son as his first film, might just about squeeze into the London Film Festival in a small venue for what is perceived to be a “niche” audience.  At ORIGINS, we would put it into an intimate cinema and focus on the debate it provokes.  At the Berlinale, MERATA: HOW MUM DECOLONISED THE SCREEN was shown on a Saturday night on a gigantic IMAX screen to a packed cinema, and was followed by a long and effusive Q&A.  The indigenous film-makers continually expressed their thanks to the festival for giving them such an empowering platform, and the audiences for coming in such numbers.

But then, Berlin is a genuinely international city.  I don’t mean that it’s intercultural - it’s less diverse than London or Birmingham - I mean that it sees itself as a space engaged in the global exchange of culture, people and ideas.  Pretty much everyone speaks fluent English, which is the main language of the Festival.  Nobody resents the “Other”.  People are eager to learn and to engage with ways of living very different from their own.  As we prepare to fall off the cliff of Brexit, we should look to Berlin as an example of how we can improve ourselves as a necessarily cosmopolitan society in an intimate global space.  I hope that ORIGINS can contribute to this: the need has never felt more urgent or more extreme.

MERATA was one of two films made by emerging directors about their inspirational mothers.  The other was SHE WHO MUST BE LOVED, by indigenous Australian director Erica Glynn, about her mother Freda, who was a pioneer of indigenous media.  About half way through the film, Freda mentioned her youngest son, Warwick.  A bit later on, she mentioned that she had been briefly married to a certain Bob Thornton….   It was only at the end of the film that Warwick Thornton himself appeared, collecting an award at the Sydney Festival and saying that he owed his film-making success to his mother.  Both the films made it very clear how the close family ties in indigenous families can generate an immense cultural energy.

I was also struck by how little of the ego that characterises Western directors was present in the NATIVE presentations.  VAI, the opening feature, was directed by nine indigenous women, each presenting a ten-minute vignette, portraying a woman called Vai (meaning “water”) at different stages of her life.  They weren’t actually the same woman - she could be many ages in the same era, and moved around the islands of the Pacific - but they were like the same woman, with other people in her family always having the same name, even if their personalities were very different.  Vai, water, flows between Polynesian people and binds them together across the vast Ocean.  And, like this story of common cultures and continues regeneration, the very process of film-making suggested a community approach that puts aggressive individualism in the shade.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2018-19


I didn't write the post that normally ends the year on this blog: although, now I think about it, 2018 was an extraordinary year for Border Crossings.  We found ourselves leading two large-scale European projects, The Promised Land and More Than Words, as well as partnering in a third.  Our photographic exhibition, Pocahontas and After, was visited by more than 20,000 people during its time at Syon House in West London, and won a British Library Labs Award.  It's now on its way to St Andrews...  We offered a whole series of ORIGINS Offshoots events with some amazing partners, including the National Maritime Museum, whose new galleries opened in the autumn, featuring the sound installation that we had jointly commissioned from Tanya Tagaq.  As the year ended, we got the news that the Arts Council will fund us for the 2019 ORIGINS Festival - that's something to look forward to in June!

So - why has it taken me until January 15th even to think about taking stock of the year that has just ended?  Well, today is the date of the "Meaningful Vote" in Parliament, and there is a palpable tension in the air.  Everything we do or try to do in Britain at the moment happens in the shadow of Brexit.  Only weeks before the date when we are due to leave the EU, there is complete uncertainty as to the terms of that departure - indeed, in my more optimistic moments, it seems far from certain that it will happen at all.  Here's hoping.  From the perspective of the company, Brexit is a terrifying paradox: it has the potential to destroy us, and (if it happens) will certainly make it much more difficult to sustain our work.  On the other hand, it makes all that we are doing even more essential.

Over Christmas, I read Fintan O'Toole's brilliant analysis of Brexit: Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.   What an extraordinary post-colonial irony that it should be an Irishman who provides the clearest insight into what we might call "the English question"!  It's the post-coloniality that is most striking in O'Toole's argument: England, he suggests, has tried to compensate for its colonial history by re-casting itself as the colonised, and for the meagre rewards of World War Two by regarding itself as defeated and invaded.  Brexit is the result of an independence movement against a colonial power that does not exist, and a defence against an invasion that has never happened and never will.

The last days of 2018 underlined his case, when a series of little boats, bearing tiny numbers of desperate refugees, attempted to cross the Channel.  Far from admiring this echo of Dunkirk (O'Toole is very good on the "Dunkirk spirit"), Sajid Javid decided that this was a "major incident", and deployed the Royal Navy.  The over-reaction is comic in its extremity - but it is also characteristic of the present moment.  "We are being invaded, we are under threat, we are the victims.  There is bound to be pain, but it's like the war: the pain is part of our heroism."  Except that the pain is entirely of our own making.

What O'Toole makes abundantly clear is that, while Remain politicians have been obsessed with dire warnings about "the economy, stupid", Leave has understood Brexit for what it truly is - a crisis in culture.  This is what I mean when I say that our work is being made more and more essential by what is happening.  What sort of a culture could accept the representation of a handful of hapless refugees as an invading force?  Only one that has completely lost its sense of reality, one that has been fed an entire bogus mythology.  Whatever happens politically in the coming weeks, the work of recreating our identity for a contemporary, intercultural, globalised space will take a long time, and is very urgent.  It is in the cultural sphere that this turmoil must be resolved.

And that is what Border Crossings does.  The Promised Land is all about the refugee question, and how culture can aid the process of integration, of building new communities in which both established and new citizens have a place.  ORIGINS, Pocahontas And After and The Great Experiment all engage with the mythologies around our colonial past, and seek to redress them through the voices of the colonised.  That's why we have to keep going, however difficult it is likely to be.

Happy New Year, everyone.