It’s a hot, starlit June night in Transylvania, and crowds are streaming past the restaurants and bars on Bălcescu Boulevard, a bright pedestrian thoroughfare, into this city’s historic Big Square for an opening night celebration of the 24th Sibiu International Theatre Festival. Four Spanish clowns in fantastical bear suits strut and shuffle and sniff their way into the throng, eliciting screams from children; tourists snap selfies with masked and costumed circus artists from Australia, Canada, and Argentina.
In the square, a great blue-lit balloon fish, engineered by the French troupe Compagnie Remue Ménage, bobbles over hundreds of heads, accompanied by a posse of glowy jellyfish trailing neon tentacles. A few stories above the cobblestones, daredevil cyclists zoom growling motorbikes along a taut high wire while Swiss acrobat David Dimitri, alias “Lord of the Wire,” ascends a thin, impossibly tall spire to cavort like a wiggly white spider against the night sky. The fireworks hit at midnight.
Is there another world-class theatre festival anywhere that casts so broad a net as Sibiu? Alongside its nightly outdoor extravaganza of circus arts and street performance—a mecca for night crawlers and smartphone videomaniacs—the annual 10-day event in Romania’s 14th-largest city* (pop. 150,000) showcases masterworks by globally acclaimed directors, contemporary music and dance, film, even top student shows from the world’s best drama and arts management universities. The festival undergirds its eclectic programming with live readings and interviews with participating artists, workshops and exhibitions, a book fair, and a week-long performing arts market—the kind of perks that make academics and managers giddy.
There’s something for virtually everyone, which was actor Constantin Chiriac’s idea when he and a group of colleagues from the Radu Stanca National Theatre launched the festival in 1993. Over the two-plus decades since, the steady growth of the Sibiu festival has put this well preserved medieval hill town on the map in any number of ways: economically, culturally, politically. Romania’s current president, Klaus Iohannis, whose D.C. photo op with Donald Trump made big news on Day 2 of the festival, is from Sibiu, and is a friend of Chiriac. And thanks in no small part to the festival’s draw, Sibiu won the coveted title of European Capital of Culture (and the financial benefits that go with it) in 2007.
All this has turned the festival’s much-honored organizer into an entrepreneurial icon. Every inch the actor, Chiriac oversees his festival with effusion and élan, relishing introductions and reunions, robustly reciting poetry when the occasion permits. “The festival has brought a miracle that should be studied,” he says in a program interview, discarding any pretense of modesty.
Miracle or not, the Sibiu festival takes itself dead seriously, and the presence of headliners like Robert Wilson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Brook, and Romania’s own Silviu Purcărete—amid a purported 503 events from 72 countries, in 71 venues—by no means detracts from the appeal of less celebrated artists and as-yet-unheralded works.
“This is the only festival in the world at which every performance—every single ticket!—is sold out,” Chiriac insisted at a mid-week party where a gaggle of theatre students from New York City’s Pace University mixed it up with their East European counterparts. Judging from the packed-to-the-rafters houses at the dozen or so shows I was able to see during the first 7 of the event’s 10 days (June 9-18), Chiriac’s boast was justified.
My schedule didn’t allow me to see some of the most alluring Romanian works on the festival calendar: an already legendary Faust directed by Purcărete that debuted in 2007; Cosmin Chivu’s new teen-infused, where-it-happened staging of The Rocky Horror Show. But three of the four host-nation shows I saw left unforgettable impressions. (The fourth, a nuance-free staging of Jean-Claude Carrière’s religious potboiler The Controversy of Valladolid, did little to confirm the live-theatre acumen of director Radu Jude, a darling of the film festival circuit.)
Metamorphoses, master director Purcărete’s epic open-air distillation of Ovid’s first-century masterwork, was theatrical dynamite. Premiered by the National Theatre in Luxembourg in 2007 and not yet seen in the U.S., the piece is performed entirely in water: At Sibiu it was set in a great square pool in an outdoor industrial space, framed by a crimson-curtained proscenium at stage right and a drive-in-sized upstage projection screen.
Spectators were greeted by giant faces altered by globs of paint or attached debris, while smoky flames from a barrel cast flickers on the waist-deep water. A troupe of 20-plus actors, scantily clad in white briefs or blouses, plunged into the set carrying construction materials, baby carriages, and buckets of vegetables to perform a sequence of wordless actions, some virtuosic, some clumsy and primitive, derived (or loosely extrapolated) from Ovid’s narrative. There were animals hunting in packs, the rape-induced childbirth of alien-like creatures, the delicate mating dance of a pair of centaurs, group fire-breathing, scenes of watery death evoking sci-fi infection or concentration camps.
In the show’s final minutes, the arrival of 19th-century dresses and wigs hoisted Ovid into relative modernity, and the huge projection screen went up in flames, to spectacular effect.
In a 180-degree shift, director Cristian Juncu’s compact rendering of a trio of thematically related Neil LaBute one-acts, cleverly assembled under the title Happy Holidays, demonstrated that intimacy, subtlety, and comic flair are as valuable to Romanian audiences as big-canvas spectacle. LaBute is a veteran of previous Sibiu fests (his honorary star is engraved, along with 30 others, on a Sibiu Walk of Fame, modeled after Hollywood’s), and this new work, despite the production’s twinkling, overblown Christmas set, certifies the validity of that tribute with its funny, touching, unsettling dive into relationship dysfunction, LaBute style.
In the hands of Bucharest’s Teatrul Mic, the unsettling German classic Spring Awakening became an almost-musical, thanks to a feisty rock quartet, stationed above the stage and playing a score by composer Daniel Rocca Stoicea, which augmented Frank Wedekind’s text with musical interludes and commentary (memorable lyrics: “Soon my desire will penetrate your velvet skin,” “I don’t belong in this world,” “Fuck you, you little punk”). The key roles of Wendela, Moritz, and Melchior were rendered with convincing passion by top-flight young actors, though they tended to disappear along with the rest of the cast under billowing clouds of stage smoke, apparently ordered up by director/scenographer Vlad Cristache for the production’s attenuated second act. In service to Wedekind’s pioneering indictment of sexual repression (and, more generally, to the East European morbidity quotient), Moritz’s suicide was fodder for an extended rock aria (the body was still there after intermission), and Wendla’s abortion became a choreographed dance of explicit horror.
In Russian theatre, an overlay of spectacle and stage business is, as often as not, calculated to evoke melancholia rather than grotesquery—which was emphatically the case in director Rimas Tuminas’s production of Thomas Bernhard’s philosophic character study Minetti, brought to Sibiu from the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre. Essentially a monologue about an aging actor’s inability to fulfill his destiny—“Theatre is an impossible art,” Minetti intones to no one in particular, mourning his fruitless dream of playing King Lear—the play spread itself out into a vast, deep stage space simultaneously representing the lobby of an elegant hotel, where New Year’s Eve revelers rush in to sing and dance, and the wasteland of the self-deluded title character’s consciousness. Slow-paced and elegant, Minetti was more festive than Beckett, more bitter than Chekhov.
Aside from a star turn by Robert Wilson, appearing in his five-year-old homage to experimental composer John Cage, Lecture on Nothing (which I didn’t see), the relatively minimal but high-interest lineup of American work included the New York-based company 600 Highwaymen’s new interactive exercise The Fever; veteran actor/writer/director Roger Guenveur Smith’s well-traveled solo show about race in America, Frederick Douglass Now; filmmakers Brent Green and Sam Green’s mash-up of cinema and live action Cinema Live; and Trap Door Theatre of Chicago’s exuberant staging of How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients, an absurdist riff on political ideology by French/Romanian playwright/poet Matei Vişniec that, one imagines, must have had some of the festival’s more doctrinaire clientele squirming in their seats.
It was in the discipline of dance, though, that Sibiu ’17 convinced this festival visitor (and plenty of others as well, judging from animated late-night conversations in the open-air club adjacent to the National Theatre) that radical innovation in that art form is alive and well across national borders and wildly dissimilar cultures.
A pair of virtuosic Israeli dance companies—Vertigo, created by choreographer Noa Wertheim, and Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, supervised since 1996 by choreographer Rami Be’er—were on hand to demonstrate Israel’s generally acknowledged preeminence in the world of new dance. From a different part of the world, the Republic of Korea’s amply acclaimed Ambiguous Dance Company, under the direction of founder/choreographer Boram Kim, gave the Israelis an exhilarating run for their money.
Stitching together choreographic themes from Vertigo’s 20-year history into an hour-long performance aptly named Vertigo 20, the company’s guiding force Wertheim tossed her corps of 12 highly individual dancers, dressed in muted black and white, into alternating circles of unity and angular patterns of conflict, then sent them scurrying up walls onto elevated ledges from which they alternately plummeted like breaching dolphins or toppled backward like felled trees. Gripped by a constant tension between the collective impulse and private passions, the dancers seasoned their flawless ensemble expertise with dollops of eccentricity and personal flair.
The Kibbutz company’s Horses in the Sky was permeated by a corresponding brew of singularity versus unity, but this no-holds-barred plunge into the Israeli present turned that dichotomy into portents for an unspecified future: What’s in store for us, the dancers seemed to be asking: conflict or peace? Love or alienation? The mechanistic or the human?
Choreographer Be’er’s 16-member corps, dressed scantily in neutral whites and beiges and bathed in gold light, flew into immediate, confrontational action, scurrying frenetically across the stage space like herds of animals, then writhing backward like receding ocean waves. Group moves morphed into unabashedly erotic duets (including one paean to male friendship, complete with affectionate boxing moves). In another sequence, dancers convulsed like defective machines, while the sound score (a hip mix of such millennial pleasers as Bjork, Fuck Buttons, and Faultline) beeped and quivered.
Kibbutz dancers aren’t nonvocal; like the corps of Vertigo and Ambiguous, they are prone to huff or shout in unison, and, in a key scene of Horses in the Sky, a male dancer with a microphone half-sung, half-recited lyrics about rampant violence and social disintegration (“violence brings more violence/And liars bring more lies”), tying the work firmly to issues confronting Israelis now.
Social analysis and embedded commentary were even more blatantly foregrounded—in this case with frequent twists of wry humor and ironic winks—in Ambiguous’s Body Concert, an award-winning show first seen in Seoul in 2010. Planted among the audience in aisle seats, the dancers (most dressed in business-like white shirts, suit pants, and black skullcaps with goggles) boogied onto the stage to a rap beat, then proceeded to do what choreographer Kim has called “beating their own drums”—exercising the rhythms within their own bodies that, as Kim puts it, “tell a story of the difficulty and beauty of acknowledging freedom of expression.”
The effect of that effort was an exhilarating sense that the concert’s century-hopping soundtrack, from Mozart to Daft Punk, was ensconced within the dancers’ bodies, struggling, via flashdance footwork and syncopated shoulder convulsions, to burst free. Having shed their business attire, but not the headgear that ensured a certain uniformity, the dancers eventually ducked back into their aisle seats, panting beside us spectators, while a soloist in an onstage spotlight rotated to piano accompaniment in a pool of his own sweat. Why should these movements be meaningful or compelling? Because, these artists are telling us, the human body can do this.
Times have changed, and so has dance. The dancers in the companies invited to Sibiu ’17 are not Busby Berkeley’s dancers, or even, I would venture, Martha Graham’s. They are more like Olympic athletes, nurtured and trained to a state of superlative physical potential, capable—as the productions at Sibiu thrillingly demonstrate—of fulfilling virtually whatever demands the choreographers to whom they’ve entrusted their bodies see fit to make.
The resulting dances are not about aspiring to or surpassing a preexisting ideal, as in classical ballet, or reinventing and reinvigorating classicism itself, as can be the case in modern dance. This work is something else entirely—a new genre that indeed celebrates virtuosity without reservation, and at the same time maintains the right to expend that virtuosity in service of capturing and illuminating the real world, with all its pitfalls and ironies and uncertainties, that these passionate young dancers live in.
Jim O’Quinn is the founding editor of American Theatre magazine.
*A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Sibiu was Romania’s third-largest city.