It isn’t often that I am one of the oldest people visiting a show. On the other hand, it was bound to happen eventually. At the premieres of, say, the Dutch National Ballet, I am usually the one who brings down the average age. But this definitely wasn’t the case on 21 November when I went to the Jonge Harten Festival in Groningen to see the Dutch premiere of EL NACIMIENTO or [REBIRTH] at the Grand Theatre.
A crowd of mostly youngsters and students was thronging in front of the doors to the auditorium. It is quite an impressive feat for Jonge Harten, a festival for theatre, performance, dance and more that specifically focuses on people aged 29 or younger. The artists themselves are usually also youngish, but in the end the pieces have to speak for themselves: Jonge Harten is particularly on the lookout for work that provokes, that lingers, and that – more often than not – forces its audience out of its comfort zone. There is a reason why the Q&A’s are called ‘Awkward Aftertalks’ here. In a pretty genius move, it is the audience that first has to answer questions from the moderator – if you had to describe the work in one word, what would it be?
EL NACIMIENTO by Ariah Lester and Aymará Parola – coproduced by Jonge Harten and CAMPO arts centre Ghent – definitely ticks all the boxes. It all starts off innocently enough. Two titans, or gods, are seated on stage, wearing masks made of plaster (the material is a recurring motif in the work). On two big screens the cosmos is projected. Slowly the two get to their feet and stride across the stage. The figures command the viewer’s attention from the start, mysterious, majestic and awe-inspiring, even though their robes seem to be made out of duvets and pillows (the costumes have been made by Stefan Vella).
Then, the unmasking begins. The man (Ariah Lester), sitting on a simple wooden crate, disrobes first, as if he were getting ready for bed. Whatever I thought I would discover behind the mask, it certainly wasn’t this: the being underneath wears monstrous contacts and displays a row of pointy teeth. He speaks gibberish and blood comes spewing from his mouth, staining his mask that lies below and his white undergarments a deep red. In the middle of his forehead, like a third eye, there is a golden disc; an ingenious device with which Lester can control the musical cues just by tapping on it.
His lady (Aymará Parola, known from Wim Vendekeybus’ company Ultima Vez) soon follows suit, revealing similarly hideous teeth and one wonky eye. Lasciviously she gazes into the audience, caressing her teeth with her tongue. With a few simple manoeuvres the two have completely transformed: from imposing gods into nightmarish devils.
EL NACIMIENTO is all about reincarnation, about rebirth, about shedding one’s skin. The piece shapeshifts as well. The audience never knows what the next act – the work is described as a ‘telenovela in 13 acts’ – is going to bring. One moment Lester is singing a Spanish power ballad – his vocal range is quite impressive – with Parola clinging to his midsection. The next he is a magician at a carnival, conjuring a line of dental floss several meters long from inside his mouth. When the floss is stretched taut, he and Parola take it with them into the auditorium, pulling it along right over the rows of chairs, forcing the audience to duck for cover.
Lester’s gleeful routine comes very close to camp, leering into the camera, blowing kisses at the audience, waving pieces of fabric around as if he were Isadora Duncan. At one point, his trouser legs even start spewing mist. Parola’s performance is more focused, more intense. I just couldn’t look away, whether she was giving birth to a big cosmic rock (maybe that’s where the meteorite from Scapino’s Cathedral came from!), or performing some kind of exorcism or witch dance, tittering and moaning, twirling and thrashing about on the floor.
Not everything works. The returning motif of making plaster casts and destroying them is a bit literal – also, the grainy definition of some of the videos (also by Lester) makes it hard to see sometimes what is actually happening. But EL NACIMIENTO or [REBIRTH] never becomes dull, and definitely offers its audience something different.
Seen: November 21, Grand Theatre, Groningen.
Photo: Leontien Allemeersch.
Created and performed by: Aymará Parola & Ariah Lester I original music, video and direction: Ariah Lester I outfits: Stefan Vella I casts: Barbara Vackier & Lieven Goetinck I advice: Hildegard De Vuyst & Merel Heering.
Developed in Co-laBo I coproduction: kunstencentrum CAMPO Gent & Jonge Harten Festival Groningen.