17 May BAL: A piece about fake news, nation branding and the construction of a national mythology (among other things)
It is done! We have performed and enjoyed BAL in the last week of April, with wonderful feedback and attention from both audiences and reviews! It was a exhausting and long way, and I am glad this first rush is over. Let’s see whether the piece will find its place in the future also, now that everyone knows the truth.
And for those who don’t know what I mean, read on.
Two years ago, I was asked by the Mierscher Kulturhaus to create a piece inspired by Luxembourgish folk dancing. As some people know, folk dancing is something I am interested in (especially in the stage context). Luxembourgish folk dancing however has never been stylised for the stage and is quite simple and repetitive. Somehow, it just didn’t seem to me like material for the next piece I was going to make.
With time, my research focused more and more on the meaning of folk dancing for a community as well as on the politico-social reasons why I might have been asked to (possibly) revive or celebrate or valorise it in the first place. Especially in Luxembourg. Those living or working here will know that currently, there are many efforts made to give the country (finally!) an identity, or a brand, and to (some say, artificially) push and valorise the Luxembourgish language, Luxembourgish products and Luxembourgish Anything in a tiny country that grows more multicultural every day.
The insistence on the label “national” and its importance in our society today is unsettling. It is mirroring of course what is going on all over Europe. It is an ever-present tool in the political manipulation of whole populations. The “nation”: what a politically useful concept we invented there.
This made me think of Eastern European countries such as Russia or Ukraine, where folk dancing has long been used as a political instrument to unite and manipulate people, as something purely national, representative of the nation that is not only shown at home but also tours through the world, presenting the cultural richness of the country. These companies, as prestigious galleon figures of their nations, have fans a bit like football clubs in the West, while their subject is the presentation of a country’s history and culture (in a beautiful light of course). At the danger of generalising, I have experienced, working in these countries, the exceptional pride and fervour that both artists and audiences feel for these troupes, their performances and activities. Here is a nice short documentary clip of the Virsky troupe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYG0ljIqXWU
It’s amazing and powerful.
So I thought that to really give the Luxembourgish national importance a push, instead of going to all this trouble with having foreigners learn Luxembourgish or making Luxembourgish noodles, it would be much easier to discover a highly prestigious folk dance troupe that was founded by Luxembourgish women in the 1960s, whose work was based on Luxembourgish culture and folk dances, that became famous all over the world, and that, unfortunately, at the time was so famous so quickly, and working so much abroad, being all the time on tour, so that it actually only got to perform in Luxembourg one single time and the media in Luxembourg simply missed its existence. Which in no way diminishes its glory today, of course, on the contrary.
And that’s how I suddenly found out about the existence of the Ballet National Folklorique du Luxembourg.
The whole piece BAL was created to finally present to the possibly frustrated Luxembourgish public (suffering, many say, from a minority complex about the perceived non-existent grandeur of our country) the fruits of my research. There was an exhibition with photographs of the company and the two founding sisters, Josephine and Claudine Bal, as well as old (and brilliant) reviews and posters from tours to the Soviet Union, Spain and Brazil, and an authentic old costume. The piece itself tells the story of the sisters Bal’s passion for folk dancing, their travels to America, their studies with Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, the development of their company, their initial failure with the Luxembourg-inspired ballet “Josiane, the Countrygirl”, and their final international break-through with the ballet-hit “Tusnelda, Queen of Turkestan” – an oriental ballet that would send the company touring for years. (That the ballet was based on oriental cultures and dances and had nothing to do with Luxembourgish culture or dancing in the slightest didn’t deter the BAL sisters from proudly selling the show under their established name of the Luxembourgish National Folkloric Ballet. After all, one could say that what really defines Luxembourg today are not our noodles “Made in Luxembourg” but the international influences that have defined us all along and continue to shape what Luxembourg is. As such, the BAL sisters made a very poignant statement in their time.)
Adding some folkloric flavour, the piece then goes on to relate the tragic deaths of Josephine and Claudine Bal’s husbands in a tractor accident, as well as their own mysterious disappearance during a tour in the Soviet Union (in the region of modern Turkmenistan). Finally it focuses on the curious parallels that exist between the company’s first unsuccessful ballet “Josiane, the Countrygirl”, and the tragic fate of Josephine and Claudine Bal’s daughters, Josiane and Maud. It seems that the ballet has predicted their future (which of course is absurd).
I especially travelled to the UK to meet Alice Lawrence, a former dancer of the company, in order to learn from her all the dances that she still remembers from her time with the company. She only knew the choreography of some scenes from “Josiane the Countrygirl”, as she had left the company before work on “Tusnelda” had begun. From that ballet, we recontructed: the Pigeon Dance, Josiane and Maud’s Entrance, Josiane’s Promenade in the Forest, the Dance of the Huge Poplars that are Swaying Dangerously in the Wind, and Maud Goes Mad, all of which we faithfully performed in an attempt to give an impression of their style. Regular ballet goers would have recognised the shameless imitation of Cunningham and Graham’s choreography that are found in many of the dances.
I didn’t expect everyone to believe it all, but they did. So we had to reveal the truth in the newspaper. Which was great as it allowed all these current questions about political manipulation, fake news and nationalism to be discussed, and even extended by the involvement and reactions of the media.