Boris Nikitin

Produktion „F wie Fälschung“, 2009 © Boris Nikitin

Boris Nikitin was born in Basel, Switzerland, on 11 August 1979. He grew up in a cosmopolitan household – his father was half-Russian, half-French, while his Slovak mother had Jewish roots –, which meant he was shaped by a diversity of culturally determined experiential models. Nikitin was permanently influenced by the first season of Stefan Bachmann’s tenure as artistic director at Theater Basel in 1998/99. It was there that he did his first internships and was employed initially as an assistant. In 2001, Nikitin worked as an intern on Frank Castorf’s production of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” in Zurich. Subsequently, Bert Neumann helped him to get a job at the Prater, the studio theatre of the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, where he worked as an assistant director on several productions by René Pollesch.

From 2002 to 2008, Nikitin studied Applied Theatre Studies at Gießen, where he participated in a range of collective artistic projects for the first time. The first production he directed in his own right, “Woyzeck” (2007), won the Jury Award at the 2008 100° Berlin festival, shortly after which it featured in the Körber Young Directors Studio competition at Hamburg. Together with his next staging at Gießen, his graduation piece “F wie Fälschung” (“F for Fake”), “Woyzeck” was selected in 2009 as one of the ten best fringe theatre productions invited to the Impulse Festival, where “F for Fake” received the Dietmar N. Schmidt Prize.

Since 2010, Boris Nikitin has been living in Basel again, creating his productions at and with independent theatres such as the Kaserne Basel, the HAU Berlin and the Gessnerallee in Zurich. His projects often tour internationally for several years – most recently, “Imitation of Life” (2009) was taken to places as different as Johannesburg, Cape Town, the Sakharov Center in Moscow, Stamsund, a fishing village in the north of Norway, and Zagreb. At the same time, however, Nikitin also directs at the Theater Freiburg and the Schauspielhaus Graz: His Graz production “Der Fall Dorfrichter Adam” (“The Case of Judge Adam”), Nikitin’s “contribution to the Kleist anniversary year”, was invited to the Heidelberg Stückemarkt in 2011. In April 2013, Nikitin was the curator of the Basel Documentary Platform 13 at the Kaserne Basel, which gave him the chance to bring together contributions from luminaries such as Milo Rau, Gob Squad and Gregor Gysi under the motto “It's The Real Thing”.

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Boris Nikitin: Portrait

The performance artist Beatrice Fleischlin stands on an empty stage and tells us her life story. Back when she was at drama school, she informs the audience, she learned a technique for conjuring up emotion that was based on working through real memories. Whenever she has to weep on stage, she thinks of her dying father. And while she is explaining all this, she begins to weep.

This evening, theatre has almost imperceptibly infiltrated reality. To the point where real life and its imitation fuse indistinguishably. It is not just in “Imitation of Life” (2009) that the Basel-based director Boris Nikitin succeeds in pulling off pieces of magic like this. All his minimalist, precisely staged theatrical spaces permanently shift the coordinates of truth and lies, reality and fiction.

Even in his 2007 debut, Nikitin transformed Woyzeck’s famous question “What is speaking?” into an evening of drama designed to thoroughly disconcert the audience. For a long time, the solo entertainer Malte Scholz switched between his private self and the character on the stage. Quite a few people in the audience must only have realised his laconic monologue on “Woyzeck” was not an introductory talk, but the production itself after 45 minutes, when Scholz brought the piece to an end and invited them in his charming manner to join in the post-performance public discussion. In his meta-commentary on the polyphonic nature of this dramatic fragment and its main character, Boris Nikitin did not limit himself to addressing Woyzeck’s “criminal responsibility” – including a discursive tour to the sources of his crime, the forms in which the self is delimited, identity and heteronomy. He also used the question “What is speaking?” to critique the historical construct of Georg Büchner’s “authorship”, and its relationship to the legal documents and medical records of the historical case. It was no accident that Nitkitin’s work on “Woyzeck” coincided with his quest for an artistic methodology of his own, a quest that first required him to emancipate himself from the “collective” at the Gießen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies.

In the German-language theatre landscape, Nikitin is a maverick who distances himself just as clearly from classic representational theatre as from a zeitgeist obsessed with documentary theatrical forms. Apart from this, he is notoriously self-effacing. “Of course, there are also other ways of beginning a play,” he admits, laughing. “Making the grand gesture straight away: art and power; establishing a clear dividing line so the spectator knows: I am a middle-class nobody and the spectacle is raging up there in front of me. – But that is simply not my approach.” Instead of this, he creates meticulously observed intellectual and experimental spaces full of polysemous elements that openly display the means by which they try to guide us in a particular direction. “Theatre is a peep-show from which the spectator is never separated. It functions like an extension of perception.”

Boris Nikitin called the reliability of perception into question even more profoundly in his second directorial work, “F – wie Fälschung” (“F for Fake”). Inspired by the suspicions of forgery implicit in the title and Orson Welles’s cinematic essay (1972), Malte Scholz had the opportunity to display the full range and vigour of his artistry, dismantling the categories of the self, truth and art as he revealed all the theatre’s manipulative strategies. At what was probably the production’s most beautiful moment, the stage set itself became a character. As the performer’s emotional eruptions intensified into what some would call “authenticity”, the set commented on them by dancing around him, moving its glowing neon tubes in time to the “The Blue Danube”. As a professional liar, of course, Boris Nikitin is less interested in illusion than in dis-illusion: The belief in putting the “authentic” or the “biographical” on stage does not represent “the real breaking in”, but is merely a successful fiction. Whether Boris Nikitin is interrogating the German constitution’s claim to universality from multiple perspectives simultaneously, presenting professional strategies of dissimulation that enable people to stand up to the rampant terror of the private according to the principle “don’t be yourself”, or grandiosely deploying the religious discourse of a Freiburg Mormon church to detonate the fundamental precepts of faith every convinced atheist has suppressed but cannot rid themselves of completely – a Nikitin production always leaves behind impressions that are not forgotten as the members of the audience leave the theatre behind them. He recently conducted a painstaking examination of what is so attractive about the most polite expression that has probably ever been used in refusing to do something, the perfect exemplar of passive resistance: “I would prefer not to.” Yet, while Hermann Melville’s eccentric scrivener Bartleby has renounced all attempts to change the world, Boris Nikitin seeks spaces in which possibilities open up: “As far as I am concerned, the feeling that there is no alternative is a condition I cannot accept. Ultimately, I am interested in a concept of freedom.”

Anja Quickert

Boris Nikitin: Productions (Selection)

“Sei Nicht Du Selbst” (“Don’t Be Yourself”)
2013, Styrian Autumn/Schauspielhaus Graz

It's The Real Thing - Basel Documentary Platform 13
2013 (curator), Kaserne Basel

“How to win friends & influence people”
2013, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints/Theater Freiburg

“Bartleby oder Sicherheit ist ein Gefühl” (“Bartleby or Security is a Feeling”)
2012, Schauspielhaus Graz

“Das Grundgesetz” (“The Constitution of Germany”)
2011, HAU Berlin

“Diese Kinder sind in Ordnung” (“These Kids Are Alright”)
2011, Theater Freiburg

“Universal Export”
2011 Kaserne Basel

“Der Fall Dorfrichter Adam” (“The Case of Judge Adam”)
2010, Schauspielhaus Graz

“Die Zeitmaschine 1980-2010” (“The Time Machine 1980-2010”)
2010 Kaserne Basel

“Imitation of Life”
2009, Kaserne Basel

“Talking Car”
2008, Kaserne Basel

“F wie Fälschung” (“F for Fake”)
2008, Probebühne, Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, Gießen

2007, Probebühne, Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, Gießen