“Do not feed the polar bears” by Domokos Kovács and Petra Nagy. Photo © Anett Kállai-Tóth


Domokos Kovács & Petra Nagy: Do not feed the polar bears

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‘Do not feed the polar bears’ by Domokos Kovács and Petra Nagy. Photo © Anett Kállai-Tóth
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Two Hungarian creators on their response to environmental questions in conception, production and performance of their latest work

A couple of years ago, millions of YouTube watchers were shocked by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen’s video, shot on Canada’s Baffin Island, in which he filmed the last minutes of a starving polar bear’s life. The animal was searching for food in vain in a habitat that had changed dramatically as a result of the climate crisis. The photographer could not have intervened even if he wanted, as feeding polar bears is illegal in Canada. The video served as inspiration and starting point to Hungarian puppeteer-actor Domokos Kovács, graduate of University of Theatre and Film Arts Budapest, director-choreographer of the performance Do not feed the polar bears. Kovács teamed up with his former university classmate, Petra Nagy, to create an allegorical piece in which they reflect on our ecological and social crisis through puppetry, movement and contemporary dance. The result is an aesthetically pleasing performance that confronts us with the consequences of our neglect towards our planet in the most beautiful and heartbreaking ways.

Why did you choose movement as your primary means of expression for this topic?

Domokos Kovács: This is the theatrical language that I’m most interested in. I experiment with how puppetry and movement can interact and complement each other. I felt that this was also a very adequate choice of language for my chosen theme, as the issues that we talk about are truly elementary and visceral, just like dance itself. This two-minute video of the dying polar bear brought on so many associations to me, and I wanted to share my thoughts in a very stylised form.

Petra Nagy: At first I was very nervous, because I’m rather shy, and dance is a challenge for me. On the other hand, I adore puppetry: it is the language I understand and love doing. When Domokos told me about his concept I was thinking of stories and narration, but he wanted more abstract things. I wondered if our different points of views would collide – but since we know each other so well and connect easily, it took me only two days to tune into his abstract way of thinking and his movement language.

Rehearsals took an unusually long period of nine months – why?

DK: I wanted a prolonged rehearsal period from the beginning, where we work on the material for a few weeks, then let it rest for a while, then take it up again. I happened to have nine months to devote to this project, and I liked the metaphorical meaning of this, and the fact that I can dedicate this time to the intensive work on the piece. In the end, Petra was only available to rehearse for two and a half months, but I started with the preparations months earlier. Each month we shared a video on YouTube about our progress, and every month we focused on a different aspect of the performance: music, dramaturgy or the puppet.

The central puppet, which depicts the head of a bear, is made entirely of plastic waste. Where did it come from?

PN: Our visual designer, Zsófia Mihály-Geresdi, created a wonderful thing: a sculpture from a pile of rubbish. It consists of empty detergent bottles, residual Styrofoam and paper waste. One of the detergent bottles had a drop of liquid still left inside, which made the puppet smell incredible. I fell in love with this animal right away.

DK: Zsófia started working on the puppet during lockdown, and it is actually like her quarantine footprint: she only used rubbish that she and her family produced at home. You can also find boxes of takeaway Chinese food in it.

You also asked the public during the rehearsal period to collect plastic wrapping for you. How did they shape the performance?

DK: We used most of them for the set. The idea was that since we wanted to draw attention to the overuse of plastic, and it would have been quite hypocritical to buy or produce a lot of new plastic wrap for our bearskins. So we thought these should be made of recycled plastic as well, and we tried to spend on as few new things for the show as possible. Also, we invented a technique involving an iron to repair damaged plastic.

PN: One of the bearskins was donated by me: we bought a mattress, and I kept its wrapping for about a year, so that we can use it for the show! I was really proud of that.

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Our audience started to feel anxious watching us drown in plastic wrapping over and over again

Blue Quote Mark

You talked about wanting to create an interactive performance. How did this come about in the end?

DK: I wanted the kind of interaction where the audience is in a passive position, and that is what makes them uncomfortable. I wanted them to realize that we are all just passive observers of the catastrophes around us. In the end, we decided that the strongest way of that is to reinforce the feeling of sitting in an auditorium and being a passive observer of what is happening on stage. With a metaphorical wink we say: we know you are out there.

To what extent can sustainability play a role in your other works?

PN: At Vaskakas Puppet Theatre, of which I’m a company member, we all strive to reuse and renovate set elements that have been in our warehouse for years. We don’t throw away anything; we use everything several times.

DK: As a freelancer, I work mostly in independent productions. In Hungary, in these productions we are forced to recycle things, as the budget is so small that there’s not enough money for new things. We don’t buy our costumes in fashion stores or get them tailored; we go to second-hand shops instead. With Do not feed the polar bears, our production partner, Manna Production joined a programme called ‘green theatre’. Their aim is to not buy new things any more, but use only existing sets and props, or exchange things with other theatres in the programme.

Did you have any new revelations or experiences regarding climate crisis during the making of this work?

PN: There are scenes in the performance where we are entirely wrapped in plastic, and our whole bodies are connected with it. I started to be disgusted by this material: I don’t like touching it, while on the other hand I’m locked in it, I dance in it, and of course it means a lot of things in the context of the performance, other than being just plastic. We got a lot of feedback from our audience that they started to feel anxious watching us drown into the wrapping over and over again for 50 minutes. We don’t want to alienate people from plastic; we just want them to realise certain things. Like that polar bears – and a lot of other species – are going to die out. Lately, I’ve started to feel a kind of shame any time I buy something unavoidable that is made of plastic. It turns into anxiety, which is not a good thing, because after all, anxiety is an illness that needs to be cured. I think it will be very interesting to see what happens in the next decades, when whole generations will grow up with climate anxiety.

DK: I think it’s important to find harmony and balance and avoid extremes. I can relate to the human side of the performance the most. Maybe it’s because I’m a puppeteer – or maybe that is the reason why I became a puppeteer – but I anthropomorphise everything, even the Earth. I’ve recently heard about the term ecofeminism, that compares the centuries-long exploitation of women to the exploitation of the Earth. According to this theory, the Earth needs a kind of emancipatory process that women have had, and just as feminism is still an ongoing fight, the Earth needs to go down the same path. While working on this show, I thought a lot about my connection to different social groups, and about the things people can do for each other. This is how this project made my connection to the world more empathetic.

“Do not feed the polar bears” by Domokos Kovács and Petra Nagy. Photo © Anett Kállai-Tóth
‘Do not feed the polar bears’ by Domokos Kovács and Petra Nagy. Photo © Anett Kállai-Tóth

Tell us about your next plans, please!

PN: During the period of lockdown I started a kind of family theatre with my fiancé; we felt a certain helplessness during those months that brought the idea to life. In these productions I can try out things that I cannot as a member of a company. Next week will be the premiere of my first performance for babies as a director, and I’m rehearsing in two more productions as an actor. I’m in a good flow, and this project with Domokos helped me get into it. It was a refreshing experience and an exciting job. We would also like to work together again in the future, because we are also like a little family.

DK: It’s more a matter of opportunity. This piece took two and a half years to complete from the moment we first applied for funds. I feel very lucky to be having a lot of work and with many different people, but it seems to me that it’s very hard to find grants and opportunities as a young artist to create your own work. Currently I’m working on a Peter Pan production as a choreographer; later in the season I’m creating a half-puppetry, half-performance show for teenagers with another former classmate of mine. Last year I took part in one of Eszter Salamon’s dance pieces, and we were meant to go on an international tour which was cancelled because of the pandemic, so it’s now scheduled for next spring. And in the meantime, I just keep being preoccupied with all these recent big fires around us: from the Amazon to the bushfires in Australia, wildfires in California, in the Arctic… 

The stimulus for Kovàcs and Nagy’s performance: Paul Nicklen’s video of a starving polar bear on Baffin Island
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