Different cultures have distinctive idiomatic sayings. In Arabic, for example, the phrase that directly translates as “I don’t have a camel in the caravan” means “This matter doesn’t concern me.” Instead of “to beat around the bush,” Czechs procrastinate by “walking around hot porridge.” And the Germans don’t “cross their fingers” for good luck; they “squeeze their thumbs” instead.
Theatre idioms vary similarly along cultural lines. In Bogotá, Colombia, where the 15th biennial Iberoamerican Theatre Festival took place March 6-27, they have a different way of encouraging the audience to appreciate a performance. At opening night of The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Finnish director Anne Rautiainen turned to me and said, “Enjoy the show—or, as the Colombians say, ‘Buen viaje,’ or ‘Have a good trip!’”
A trip indeed—in more senses than one. This marked my second time at the festival. While two years ago I focused on small Colombian theatrical ensembles, visiting their performance spaces and considering the political ramifications of their work, this time I sampled work that was visiting from elsewhere on the globe.
It wasn’t entirely a matter of my choice. Rautiainen was on hand as part of a Nordic delegation, marking the first time the festival has had a specifically regional focus (they’ve previously had caucuses on areas like French circus or new directors and writers; in 2018, the guest of honor will be Switzerland). The festival’s executive director, Anamarta de Pizarro, invited companies from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland for political reasons, she explained, as Norway is one of the “guarantor governments” in peace talks between Colombia’s government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
“We need to understand the differences and accept the differences and take part in bringing these different cultures together,” de Pizzaro said. “The festival impacts much more than the arts; the festival opens minds. The festival shows you different ways of solving problems and different ways of accepting the differences in sexuality, in culture, in the color of our skin.”
Politics intruded on this year’s festivities, though: A planned panel discussion on Nordic theatre was canceled due to protests against new economic policies that have affected wages for the lower- and middle-class Colombians. My scheduled press tour of the city was also canceled due to the demonstrations.
Still, performances proceeded without incident. The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a collaboration between Copenhagen-based company Republique Theater and London-based band the Tiger Lillies, melded Shakespeare’s original text with troubadour-esque music from the white-face-painted band members as well as aerial tricks and stunning video projections.
“I have always been interested in creating new art onstage and trying to push the boundaries of what theatre is as an art form,” said Martin Tulinius, Republique’s artistic director, who directed and designed sets for the show. Tulinius explained that he prefers to call the work “opera grotesque” rather than music theatre, and that in his search for a classic text to adapt, he was particularly fascinated by Hamlet because of its intrinsic dramatic story as well as its Danish setting.
“I wanted to do a classical piece and take it into the 21st century, using music, visual art, and physical theatre…to tell the story both in a psychological and a symbolic way,” he said. “I believe that physical expression and visual images are very strong methods of reaching an audience and talking to them in a subconscious way.”
One of the most fascinating scenes depicted Ophelia’s drowning, which created a magical effect using all the elements. While the band played a foreboding song, the actress playing Ophelia was hooked into a harness and began walking vertically up the wall, on which was projected a sea. As the music crescendoed, she fell backward and a splash was projected on the screen simultaneously.
Another festival highlight was BLAM! from Denmark-based Kristján Ingimarsson Company. Marketed as Die Hard meets “The Office,” the wordless, physical show follows four men at the desks who get into progressively bigger antics on the job.
“The reaction was amazing; Bogotá audiences are very warm and open-minded,” said Ingimarsson, who also appeared in the show. “The physicality and the musicality of BLAM! is right down their alley, because music and dance is such a big part of the Colombian culture.”
While Tulinius worried about a language barrier for his Hamlet, Ingimarsson had nothing to worry about in that department, as there is no dialogue in BLAM!—the entire show is told through acrobatics, gesture, and pantomime. “Everyone seems to get the meaning of BLAM!” Ingimarsson added. “It is totally international, and people seem to have a need for this eruption of anarchistic, creative energy.”
Nordic theatres weren’t the only participants on hand. Korea’s Theater Troupe Georipae has practically become a fixture of the event, as this year marked their third visit. In 2012 the company performed Hamlet, and in 2014 they brought Blood Wedding. But this time, rather than adapting a Western classic, the company produced an original Korean play, A Family on the Road.
The play is about the Korean painter Joongseop Lee; the company’s artistic director, Yountaek Lee, wanted to introduce festival audiences to the visual arts from his country. “In 2015, there was an exhibition about Fernando Botero in Korea,” Lee recalled, naming the famous Colombian painter and sculptor. “I wanted to introduce Korean painters like [Joongseop Lee] and art to the Colombian audience.”
Lee added that he’s eager to come back, as he calls Bogotá “heaven for theatremakers.”
“I came to know Colombia through Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Lee said. “Through this novel, I thought Colombia and Korea share similar culture—the living and the dead coexist, and the history and the individual collides. I want to direct Márquez’s novel someday.”
The final show I saw was an old favorite, Slava’s Snowshow. The show has toured all over the world and played in the West End and on Broadway, with the Russian clown Slava Polunin at the helm. The fantastical theatrical experience is always an audience pleaser, from “snow” (read: gauze) being dragged over the audience’s heads to the grand finale of ginormous balls bouncing around the auditorium.
Before the performance began, a pre-show announcement came out of the loudspeakers: “Slava’s Snowshow will depart in five minutes.” While traveling to Bogotá to see some of the world’s finest artists is nice, it’s nice to know that all you need is a ticket, a playbill, and some imagination to take a trip anywhere.