Romani Theatre: The Reality of the “Happy Gypsy Life”
“I don’t do anthropological theatre”: Rehearsal for “Open for Everything” (Photo: Thomas Aurin)
1 May 2012
Constanza Macras has brought a new dance project onto the stage. Her protagonists this time are Romani from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Their circumstances are the theme, but there is one thing the Argentinean choreographer does not want: sympathy theatre. By Renate Klett
“I am open for everything.” Many of the participants in the casting ended their presentations with this sentence, even if they actually spoke no English. That is why the dance performance that Constanza Macras created on behalf of the Goethe-Instituts in Prague, Budapest, and Bratislava is called Open for Everything. She met more than 80 Romani in the three cities and 40 were left from the second round of auditions.
Finally, she chose twenty of them, professionals and amateurs, young and old, musicians, dancers, and singers. Three months of rehearsals in Budapest, Berlin, and Vienna together with five dancers from Macras’s group DorkyPark turned two dozen strangers into an impressive company, which, after the premiere at this month’s Wiener Festwochen, will go on a multiple-week tour to Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Budapest, Prague, Nitra, Zürich, and Stockholm.
The initiative for a performance with and about the Romani from Central Europe came from the Goethe-Institut in Prague. The largest ethnic minority in Europe continues to be subjected in many cases to discrimination and aggression, not only in the east, but also in the west, as the brutal deportations in France in the recent past demonstrated. Presently their plight is possibly the most dangerous in Hungary, where in recent years there were numerous assaults and attempted murders.
The stories are familiar and they are frightening. Constanza Macras studied them, but she has no intention of putting a political documentation on the stage, but rather to reveal people who tell of their lives, their dreams, desperations, and passions. “I don’t do anthropological theatre,” she says. “Of course, the Romani’s circumstances are very difficult, especially in Hungary under Prime Minister Orbán, but sympathy theatre and cheap backslapping won’t help them. I’d rather demand respect and dignity.”
Hip-hop, jazz and mournful gypsy songsThe Argentinean choreographer from Berlin is skilled in working with amateurs and eliciting their best. Some of her most famous pieces were produced with “problem kids,” whom she took so seriously that there was no place for the “zoo feeling” or voyeurism: Scratch Neukölln and Hell on Earth. This time, too, she is picking up each individual player from where they stand.
Heavy-set Adam Horvath proves to be an astonishingly agile hip-hopper, Fatima Hegedüs, who once was named Raimund Hegedüs, comes along as a big-hearted, infectious diva, and Ivetta Millerova can sing the mournful gypsy songs so curtly and unsentimentally that it brings the tears to one’s eyes just for that. Add to them the outstanding professional band Gitans from Prague, which play jazz and pop in addition to their folk songs, and it is clear that this is no socially well-meaning theatre, but an artistically aspiring one.
Constanza Macras has enough humour and tenderness to make a little fun of the traditional folklore and everyone goes along with her enthusiastically. Your own culture only really belongs to you if you can play with it. Most of the Romani come from Hungary, have been settled for generations, and describe Hungarian as their native language; some cannot even speak Romani. They live in special settlements at the edges of villages, hardly any are gainfully employed, and, yes, they are poor. But, they don’t like to talk about their adverse circumstances.
They want out, perhaps even with the help of this performance, but none of them want to live without their families. Separation from them is a major problem even during the rehearsals and guest performances. For the youngest, Ivan Rostas, who they all call “Papa,” has come along as caretaker. Papa watches the rehearsals, but sometimes he can’t help himself and simply must take part. He also tells the old gypsy fairy tales beautifully. They are always about death and often about ghosts that return because they find no rest in the afterlife.
Dancing against clichésEven Goethe wrote a “Gypsy Song” that begins: “In the drizzling mist, with the snow high-pil’d, In the Winter night, in the forest wild, I heard the wolves with their ravenous howl, I heard the screaming note of the owl...” and is about ghosts and werewolves. The Travelling People, envied and insulted, have always sparked the imaginations of settled people. In the past, the life of the gypsy was considered merry and free; today, where the caravan is often replaced by a humble cottage, it is miserable and ostracized.
Today, caravans are something for the better-off and simply everyone is on the go – everyone but the Romani. The performance also centres on such developments. The DorkyPark dancers live in Berlin, but they come from Israel, South Korea, the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. They fly a great deal because the company has guest performances the world over. Most of the other performers in Open for Everything had never been in a plane and they looked forward to it like children.
Folklore and legends, colourful skirts, Carmen and sobbing violins, freedom and adventure, honour and earrings – our clichés are romantic or – worse – malicious: thieves, parasites, riffraff. Macras wants to counter these with a modern image; one that tears through the limits in the villages and in the minds. It aims to convey pride and joy, if only that of learning a complicated dance step and being able to accomplish it with poise. That, too, can be a start when one is 19 and has big plans.
The premiere of Open for Everything will take place on 10 May at the Wiener Festwochen. Later performances will follow on 12, 13 and 14 May and then in Germany from 18 to 20 and from 22 to 23 May (Berlin, Hebbel am Ufer) and from 31 May until 2 June (Hamburg, Kampnagel).