From 16 to 24 May 2014, the Festival Der Figurentheater Nationen, better known as FIDENA, is taking place in Bochum, in the Ruhr area, the industrial heart of Germany. It is one of the largest festivals held in the Germany and is, without a doubt, one of the most important in Europe. I had the opportunity of attending as an observer, at the invitation of the NRW Kultur Ruhr, an institution responsible for promoting and connecting local culture with the rest of the world.

Image of “Mystery Magnet”, by Miet Warlop. Photo by Reinout Hiel

The FIDENA Festival is noted for its focus on interdisciplinary performances, at the intersection of the languages that characterize contemporary puppet theater.

This explains why Annette Dabs, artistic director, chose the Belgian choreographer Miet Warlop for the inauguration, with a show, Mystery Magnet, which breaks molds in all genres.

The stage of “Mystery Maguet” after the show

Premiered at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels, Diet Warlop gives us a universe inspired by Comics and pictorial action, to develop a struggle between materials, shapes and colours. The result is a succession of scenes strung together with no apparent logic, seeking above all to surprise the viewer, and taking him and his actor-manipulators to unimaginable limits.

Exhausting work for the performers, who received heartfelt applause from an audience captivated and amazed by the show.

Annette Dabs and the crocodrile

This work, performed in the Study Room of the Schauspielhaus Bochum, was preceded by the opening of the Festival by Annette Dabs, FIDENA’s director. The unannounced appearance of a playful crocodile from the street, with which she had to wrestle, provided a very entertaining and relaxing start, which encouraged people to break the protocol barriers and to enjoy the performances.

Another feature of the Festival is to present recent work from the two main puppet schools in Germany, the Berlin and Stuttgart schools – a source of new and always pleasant surprises.

Image of “Anti_Korrosion”, in Rathausplatz.

In Bochum’s Rathausplatz, and competing with a small flea market in the square, students from the Berlin School presented Anti_Korrosions, a street performance conceived by Gildas Coustier, Tobias Eisenkrämer and Friedericke Miller, directed by Joss Markus, that entertained an audience who were somewhat astonished to see four friendly aliens with very large and wrinkled heads. But they were still more surprised when a van pulling a mechanical monster with alchemical powers of transformation appeared. The elaborate work of students in the art of clowning and playing with colourful objects demonstrated the excellent level of training in these high-flying puppeteer schools.

FIDENA 2014“Toi-toi-toi”, by the Stuttgard students.

The group of students from Stuttgart, meanwhile, presented toi-toi-toi on Rottstr5 Theatre, Bochum, a lovely studio venue in a vaulted space built under the railway tracks. The show was a brilliant display of stage talent and youthful energy, with three actors, Sascha Bufe, Jan Jedenak and Eike Schmidt who played with three plastic toilet cabins, for which they got a great reaction. The vibrant energy of the actors, full of humor and very accomplished cabaret gags, immediately connected with the audience, excited by their justified showing-off as they manipulated the heavy and bulky objects. A work that was choreographic, almost of circus juggling, full of smart and original freshness.

Maksim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko from AKHE Engineering Theatre, Russia.

A highlight of the first days of the Festival was the work Gobo. Digital Glossary, by the collective Akhe Engineering Theatre, from Russia. Just two actors occupied the space, which they cut up and organize at will, with cheeky and provocative freedom. Hard black humor that seeks to shake the audience’s seats with actions that combine rock music, object theatre, video and unending visual effects, using a degree of strength and tough liberty that is only seen today in the movements opposing power in Russia, where protests usually end in fierce repression. So we were able to breathe, and be shaken by, the tremendous language used by Maksim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko, the performers, who are both also the authors, directors and constructors of objects and gadgets. Fresh air from nearby Russia –but sometimes so far, given the delusions of politics–, now a place of enormous creativity in the field of arts.

More energy was displayed by the four dancers from Holland directed by Boukje Schweigman in the work Whips. An unusual choreographic creation, again, this time in a circus style (whips were the co-stars of the show) which, however, as the work progressed, became a real catharsis in which four young dancers were literally trapped in a fierce kind of trance.

Four dancers in “Whips”.

Set in a square space with the public seated all around, this observer suddenly felt himself transported to archaic and visceral experiences, as if before some young Bacchants (from the XXI century, of course) in a state of fury, well armed with whips, marking the rhythm of their frenzy.

Not everyone connected with these emotions, of course. But when I asked one of the actresses, at the end of the show, about the sensation she experienced during the course of the performance, she said it was to be in a raw state of catharsis, driven by frenzy, but also obliged to exert great control, faced with the audience -the lashes came within inches of the spectators. This confirmed my impression. I left exhilerated and happy.

“Count to One”. Photo by Mani Lotfizadeh

In a very different key we saw Count to One, a play directed and designed by Iranian director Sabri Zarha. It is known that puppet theater in ancient Persia is living a very sweet moment, thanks, on the one hand, to the existing schools, which are very active with many students, and secondly because of the generational change that exists in this country, origin of the huge wave of creativity in many fields of art and culture. A reality in which women, at least in the field of puppetry, seem to call the shots.

Count to one proposes a figurative work in a live construction made with modelling clay by three actors-puppeteers on stage. The result, with live music performed on traditional instruments, is highly poetic and suggestive, with little scenes that symbolize the struggle for life and the absurdity of war and oppression. In fact, the actors are dressed in military garb, with their helmets. Poetic and political theatre which aims to reach the essence, through sound, the earth as a single material and the noble and simple gestures of three craftspeople working with their hands.

The last show that this observer could see in the PACT Zollverein, Essen, was Pulling Strings, a proposal for object theater by Eva Myer-Keller.

“Pulling Strings”, by Eva Meyer-Keller. Photo by Eva Meyer-Keller.

Their goal was to use the technical elements you find in a stage theater -cables, lights, fire extinguishers, rubber flooring for dancers, hangers for clothes, brooms, vacuum cleaners … – and concentrate on manipulation in order to create a surprising succession of visual effects. The originality of the proposal was in how objects move. Thin but strong rope, suspended from the structure of the overhead lighting rack. Thus it was possible to create the effect of a performance space divided by multiple strings pulling spotlights, microphones, and other devices placed on the stage. A choreographic work in which the dancers’ place was occupied by objects.

The Soul of the People, by Etcétera.

The FIDENA Festival also allowed us to see images of “The Soul of the People” by Enrique Lanz and Yanisbel Victoria Martinez, from Etcétera, a company from Granada, Spain, who presented the project to the international guests and programmers. We were able to enjoy the splendid and stunning images filmed in Spain, Mali, Vietnam and elsewhere, too. As the presentation of the project says:

The traditional puppet is a metaphor for different human lives. It is present in very distant cultures, a synthesis always of thought, spirituality, sensitivity, the expertise of each society. The puppet is the crossroads where craft forms, materials and tools, dances, music, songs, myths, stories, masks, and theatrical forms all meet and cross. All life converges on the puppet and this is a beautiful reflection of its people, the soul of the people…

image from  “The Soul of the People”. Photo by Enrique Lanz.

I had not seen before the beautiful images shot in Laguardia (Spain) nor the carnival in the mountains of Navarra, a real marvel.

The project, which seeks to rescue from oblivion many of the traditions that exist today threatened by the changes of this century, was very well received by the audience, who encouraged the authors to pursue their goals.

A Festival that encourages encounters.

The other great feature of FIDENA is the care put into fostering contacts and networks between companies, artists, festivals, theatres and programmers. It would be impossible to name all who were present at Bochum. We have included some pictures taken in the early days of the Festival.

Participants invited by the NRW Kultur and FIDENA Festival: Right to left, Christophe Loiseaun (France), Annika Land-Reisser (Estonia), Amina Abodoma (Egypt), Pei-yu Shih (Taiwan), Evalina Hristova Kyosovska-Kostolova (Bulgaria), Anurupa Roy (India), Dimitris Stamou (Greece) and Toni Rumbau.

On this occasion, Fidena organized on 19th and 20th May the Third International Meeting of Directors of Festivals and a Symposium to discuss the dilemma Cultural Education / Artistic Freedom, as well as the issue of the International Festivals in times of crisis.

FIDENA 2014Mrs. and Mr. Sugita, from Japan, in Bochum.

The speakers were Oliver Kontny from Dortmund, a writer located between the cultures of Germany, Turkey and Iran, Airan Berg, creator of the Festival “The Power of Wonder” in Austria, Catherine Poher, a French artist installed in Denmark repeatedly awarded with the Danish Reumert Award for her theatre for infants and children, Darren O’Donnell, director of “Mammalian Diving Reflex” in Toronto, Canada, Louise Lapointe, soul of Montréal Festival “Les Trois Jours des Casteliers”, also from Canada, Inge Ceustermans, director of the “Atelier for Young Festival Managers” and currently developing the project “The Academy Festival” in Belgium, Anarupa Roy, from the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust and Secretary General of UNIMA India, New Dehli, the company Helios Theater Hamm and Susanne Rehm, involved in the FIDENA Festival and director of the Baden-Württemberg of “blondes Kulturagenten für Schulen” program.

We hope to provide more information soon about the papers presented at the Symposium.