Against a bright orange curtain are silhouetted two puppet-like figures, one standing with forearms raised as if in question, the other bent forward, hand to chin, as if pondering

review, article

Queer Darlings 2023

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The Making of Pinocchio by Rosana Cade and Ivor MacAskill. Photo © Tiu Makkonen
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An in-depth dive into the fourth and final edition of Berlin’s Queer Darlings festival

While performing arts in general, and contemporary dance in particular, have long turned to queer narratives and imagery for inspiration, few festivals and programming initiatives focus exclusively on queer-feminist perspectives and aesthetics in dance and performance. Queer Darlings festival, organised and hosted by Berlin’s Sophiensaele and co-curated this year by Lena Kollender and Mateusz Szymańowka, is one of those rare birds.

While Sophiensaele mostly aims to produce local dance works, Queer Darlings mainly focuses on bringing international acts to Berlin audiences. Szymańowka explains that ‘It is always interesting to look for aesthetics or perspectives that – in our opinion – are missing locally. An exciting festival presenting international work in a local context should also challenge how things are done and the audience’s expectations.’ This year the festival brought together a short, but an incredibly diverse set of shows: a full-blown theatre piece with its parallel digital version, a durational dance performance and a pop concert, among others.

This fourth instalment of Queer Darlings is also its last. After twelve years of artistic direction, Franziska Werner leaves Sophiensaele, and according to Kollender, some current formats will change: ‘With these types of changes, usually comes a restructuring … of the artistic profile. Of course, not everything will change, but [Queer Darlings] is one of the formats that will make space for new ones.’ This is not, though, the main reason why the central theme of Queer Darlings 2023 is ‘change, transformation, crisis and transition(s)’. Recent years have seen an unprecedented rise of inequalities, warmongering, climate and sociopolitical crises; radical change and transformation of dominant discourses is no longer just an option, but rather a dire need. According to Kollender, queer people are often experts in facilitating such change: ‘Queer people have always been at the forefront of creating change, together with BIPoCs, disabled people, the working class, women’s rights movements, sexworkers and so on. Most of the time, this comes out of a need and a struggle to simply survive.’ A recent backlash against queer and trans people’s rights in many western countries (‘drag bans’ in the USA, ludicrous trans-exclusionary ‘culture wars’ in the UK to name just two) calls the artists and festival curators to take a firm stance against anti-queer violence and rhetoric in their artistic and programming choices. And the opening show of the festival, The Making of Pinocchio by Rosana Cade and Ivor MacAskill, is the brightest example of how these complex and emotionally charged topics can be brought to stage with baffling honesty and disarming assurance.

Rosana Cade & Ivor MacAskill: The Making of Pinocchio

The Making Of Pinocchio is based on Carlo Collodi’s story of a wooden puppet becoming a boy and on Ivor MacAskill’s own real-life story of gender transition. Presented both as a live show and a filmed digital version, the piece relies heavily on masterful and witty cinematography by Kirstin McMahon and Jo Hellier, Tim Spooner’s ingenious set design and the whole toolbox of purely theatrical tricks, so well executed that I instantly forgot all tedious and tepid theatre productions I’d seen in recent years. Camerawork and perspective play are particularly remarkable: as a tree, MacAskill looms large in the foreground, his silhouette dwarfing Cade as they work in the forest; but as a puppet, he becomes miniature, hardly visible in the wooden framework of Pinocchio’s puppet theatre.

Just as genially do Cade and MacAskill navigate their own and Collodi’s stories, discovering layers of adult desire, satire and tongue-in-cheek depictions of MacAskill’s transition. Pinocchio-MacAskill has to convince ‘at least two people’ he is a real boy, to which Cade replies: ‘Make it up and give ’em what they need.’ But Cade has questions of their own about where they fit into the story. Is it all about the transitioning puppet or is it also about those who support him along the way? What happens to their couple, when Pinocchio-MacAskill becomes ‘a hot wooden boy’? Will they now become a ‘nice normal heterosexual couple’?

Nor do they shun exhilarating in-your-face asides. In one memorable moment, Cade asks the audience to play the role of the audience at Pinocchio’s first performance as a puppet: ‘Who will you decide to be tonight? Avid supporters of puppet rights? Puppets ourselves? Puppet allies? Allies in theory, who would rather puppets not share our bathrooms or teach our kids? Who might you be? Who could you be?’ The work playfully twists the ‘becoming’ of gender transition and eventually blurs the very notions of fiction and real: a deer becomes a whale, wood turns into flesh, Sophiensaele’s cellar turns out a sex dungeon, and MacAskill exclaims: ‘I’m a boy, I’m a puppet, I’m a whale, I’m a donkey, a cricket, and everything in between’.

Just as Pinocchio’s road to maturity was strewn with pitfalls, putting together a comic version of Collodi’s story about gender transition is a real minefield. Not only do Cade and MacAskill steer clear of all humps and bumps of complacency and bad taste, but they also question the ethics of autobiographical performance, criticising yet indulging in the cultural economy of exposing one’s own pain for good art. In a theatre world full of tearjerkingly melodramatic queer stories, The Making of Pinocchio proves that you do not have to be highbrow or conveniently sentimental to tell a moving and convincing queer narrative. Honesty, humour and wit also do the trick.

On a bright yellow background, a figure in loos white shirt with dark hair and mustache holds a bunch of white flowers
Astrit Ismaili, The First Flower. Photo © Jules Harather

The opening evening continued with The First Flower, a performative pop concert by Amsterdam-based Kosovan performer and singer Astrit Ismaili. Sophiensaele’s Kantine, arranged for the occasion into a bifrontal seating setting and brightened with the scent of lilies, is a cave-like room, particularly fitting for an intimate concert. Ismaili appears from a gigantic flower bud and is quickly joined by Logan Muamba Ndanou and Fabian Reichle, who will by turns be backup vocalists, dancers and musicians. The show follows a linear concert structure and oscillates somewhere between a soothing and dramatic Ivo Dimchev queer cabaret and a mordantly witty Selin Davasse performance. Ismaili fearlessly plays with the codes and cues of the concert genre, their dramatic singing swiftly turns into a high-spirited pattern dance, occasional musical intermezzi morph into lively beats. The show picks up pace towards its middle when Veslemøy Rustad Holseter’s colourful and festive light (an art form in its own right!) warms the cavernous space and plunges the audience into a blissful utopia. Pop music has played a major role in the development of queer movements across the globe (think Stonewall jukebox, for instance), and Ismaili’s concert-performance is undoubtedly an enlivening addition to the Queer Darlings programme.

Sorour Darabi, Natural Drama

If The Making of Pinocchio’s main plot twist was built around the assumption of what is real and what is not, in Natural Drama, Paris and Berlin-based Iranian artist Sorour Darabi brings this concept aboard for a mesmerising trip across mythologies and fantasy worlds, and does so with the composure of someone who is unafraid of doubt.

Darabi begins half-hidden behind a slightly elevated downstage area, on which lies a carcass-shaped structure of long white hair locks. Same locks form a long double curtain on the left side of the stage. Clad in beige leotard and holding the tip of the hair lock in his mouth, Darabi collects it, stands up and cautiously advances towards the curtains. The pace is slow and hypnotising, and the work’s symbolic dimension unfolds as Darabi develops his tip-toed routine. A starting point of Darabi’s research were two feminist figures of the beginning of the 20th century: Isadora Duncan (clearly referenced in Darabi’s dance vocabulary) and Iranian princess and women’s rights’ activist Taj al-Saltaneh (appearing in poems that Darabi reads and sings on stage). This helps Darabi first examine representations and embodiments of the so-called ‘female’ body and then embark on a fascinating journey, where his careful and vaguely evocative dance brings to life myriads of mythological references and dreamy creatures. In parallel, Pablo Altar’s dense and multi-layered soundscape builds the tension, from romantic subliminal lullabies to menacing drone buzz towards the end of the show.

Darabi employs a wide range of tactics to bring to life those genies and avatars: he grimaces, sings, mimics, screams, quivers and sways, passing in a second from angel to demon, from centaur to nymph, from old sage to baby. His inimitable stage presence is elusive, yet credible in its uncertainty, and his Natural Drama has nothing ‘natural’ and even less ‘dramatic’. Rather, Darabi challenges the essence of what is ‘natural’ and ‘real’ and deliberately blurs the boundaries between mythological creatures and incarnations wandering across their body. Natural Drama made me recall Anne Carson’s disturbingly powerful poem ‘Autobiography of Red’, in which she entangles the myth of Geryon with a modern queer coming-of-age story by shifting stylistic and temporal dimensions in her writing – just as Darabi intentionally veils the metaphorical message of each dance scene. And it comes as no surprise that one of the last tableaux in which Darabi, lit in red, bends in spasms of anger with arms behind his back, strongly reminded me of Carson’s Geryon – a winged red monster.

Back towards us, a somewhat tribal looking figure with long matter hair and a fur wrap draped from the wait, showing rune-like tattoos along the arms and the mid-back
UrsaX, with Liz Rosenfeld. Photo © Christa Holka

Unlike Darabi’s simple yet evocative Natural Drama, Liz Rosenfeld’s URSA-X challenges the viewer’s gaze and expectations with a rare force. Upon entering Sophiensaele’s vast and low-ceilinged Hochzeitssaal, spectators find their place around a black fabric circle adorned by a thin ring of light. Walls are wrapped in matte black foil (set: Sadie Weis) and a few aisles separate the seating space, with one of them leading to a chill-out area that I would have certainly explored had the show been longer and less exigent. Rosenfeld and R. Justin Hunt already lounge within this circle, chatting inaudibly. The room is filled with ebbing and flowing sub-bass sounds (designed by Neda Sanai and Shara Neshiimu) – a fitting precursor of what will happen next. While the performers begin to assemble a mound of fur into a strange mantle (costume design: Marquet K. Lee), a soothing voiceover provides a detailed introduction into the URSA-X world, which the voice refers to as a ‘hole’ – a free space in which ‘we are all participants’ and where ‘anything can happen but nothing happened’. The show itself is built around a series of scenes/holes, each announced as it begins with text projected on the crinkled walls. But linear dramaturgy is absent, chapters and forms slip and overlap, numbering is fractured, stories, movements and tableaux are fragmented, and even the language itself gets dislocated in the end. And yet, most scenes are heavily text-based and are at times reminiscent of stand-up comedy: Rosenfeld and Hunt exchange sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek classifications of ‘unfillable holes’ and hierarchies of twinkdom (queer twinks, twinks-in-love and ageing twinks). Accompanied by pulsating beats and droney basses, they unravel long sci-fi monologues and trade jokes. Movement material is instead slow and ceremonial: the performers, at times naked, don fur coats and beige leather pants, make unhurried circular arm movements, sway back-to-back and part ways.

‘The overwhelming pleasure of structurelessness’ (as says the wall text) is the underpinning construct of URSA-X, and Rosenfeld clearly sets out to defy the way an orderly performance should unfurl and to challenge its prevailing logocentrism. Spectators, though, do not always follow the over-complex conceptual flow, precisely because this surprisingly overstimulating performance leaves little space for their senses and emotions to plug in. An enigmatic installation rather than a show, URSA-X still enthralls with its caustic charm and brazen transgressiveness.

A cavernous dark blue room with a window of white light shows shadowed, silhouetted figures walking in a row across the back
Alex Baczyński-Jenkins, Untitled (Holding Horizon). Photo © Diana Pfammatter

Most of the Queer Darlings’ artists this year tune into fictions and utopias, metaphors and symbols to unfold them into a performative art form. The closing event of the festival though, Alex Baczyński-Jenkins’ three-hour Untitled (Holding Horizon), is based on a single dance element – boxstep, widely used in many social dances: waltz, foxtrot and rumba, to name just a few. The simplicity of the show structure (five dancers, a simple dance pattern, a great liberty to improvise with it, and a flowing, haunting sound design composed live by Krzysztof Bagiński) hides a complex and multi-layered work. The piece starts in a schematic and somewhat cold fashion. Five dancers methodically unfurl their box-step variations: elusive statuesque postures, shrugs and twists, angular elbow kicks, swinging arm gestures, and hopping sprints around the stage. Minor pace shifts, delays and iterations open up the synchronicity while the soundscape evolves from irregular thumping beats to mellow melancholic tunes. Duos and trios emerge, while other dancers slowly recede as if observing and giving space; Bagiński’s soundscape injects a sheer dose of nostalgia: distorted seagull shrieks and field recordings; distant, almost decaying saxophone solos; sub-bass noises. When the rapid scenes with their hops and twirls lend space to beautiful undulating solos, some dancers float half-toed around the space with their arms elegantly swaying, while others break the box-step pattern to suddenly freeze before leaving the room for a quick costume change.

Baczyński-Jenkins designs a choreographic drift where social interactions between the dancers are only obliquely suggested, and where longings are unfulfilled. Is it a haunted ballroom, a mourning rite, or ghost of a queer rave? Still, empathy and interdependency among the dancers is palpable, and it builds into a sense of fragile yet intimate belonging towards the end, when the dancers’ exhaustion becomes noticeable and even the fast-paced scenes carry a slumberous vibe. The show’s multiple references to rave culture (in music, light and even costume design) bring to mind McKenzie Wark’s recent book Raving, in which she eloquently and lyrically proves the importance of raves and techno parties for queer and trans communities in the era of diminishing futures when anti-queer discourse gains momentum.

It is hard not to surrender to the sheer generosity that resides in the entanglement of empathy, desire and sense of community that this work evokes. Untitled (Holding Horizon) creates a space in which everyone is free to mentally plug in and out at their own rhythm. When, lulled by Bagiński’s score, my focus slightly wanes, my memory flashes back to Sorour Darabi’s Natural Drama and to a brief moment when the performer, while fixing his strapped boots, looks straight into my eyes. His dark eyes tell of determination and strength but also call for empathy and attention, asking me: ‘What is real in this world of false assumptions and polite violence? How to escape them?’ I further recall the last scene of The Making of Pinocchio in which Cade and MacAskill nest in each other’s arms, the camera zooming in on their faces. They imagine who they could be in other versions of the show, from box office lovers to the curtains in the theatre that come apart once a night for the sake of art: ‘We can do the same but differently. I could be a donkey. Or I could be a wind. Or I could be a squirrel. Or…’ The scene left me teary-eyed, and I naïvely kept wondering: what would happen if trans-hating and queer-bashing TV pundits and politicians of all sorts attended the show? Would they succumb to its disarming display of queer love? Would they feel empathy to their on and off-stage story? If there had to be another, non-artistic reason for a festival of queer–themed dance performances, then here it is. By offering an honest and radical take on familiar traumas and on the ways they can be overcome, the queer darlings force us to observe our deeply rooted notions of family, gender and love from a distance, and so to confront our collective cruelty and assumptions to eventually become their allies. Because, as Cade and MacAskill declared from Pinocchio’s theatre stage: ‘We’ve always been here and we are not going anywhere.’ 

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Sophiensaele, Berlin, Germany
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