From the 11th of May to the 3rd of June, the 28th edition of Kunstenfestivaldesarts will take place in different locations across Brussels. The festival celebrates contemporary artistic creation with theater, dance, and performance from around the world and Belgium. Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2023 brings many languages to Brussels, with artists from 28 countries and a Free School dedicated to the political dimension of language.
This year the festival welcomes artists who had previously been invited such as Nadia Beugré, Sarah Vanhee, Wichaya Artamat, Faustin Linyekula, Dana Michel, Amanda Piña, Trajal Harrell and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, as well as a few makers for the first time: Adam & Amina Seid Tahir, Susanne Kennedy & Markus Selg, Gosia Wdowik, Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Ça marche, Claire Cunningham, MEXA and many others.
Three weeks of adventurous artistic work anchored in today’s world come to life in over thirty locations across Brussels, with several projects taking place in the public space or at exceptional locations like the Duden Park, nightclub C12, a skate park, and the Théâtre Royal des Galeries.
1. Creations that mimic and reinvent reality
The festival 28th edition opens with Angela (A Strange Loop), a world creation for the main hall of Théâtre National by celebrated German theater-maker Susanne Kennedy. Presented for the first time in Brussels, Kennedy’s theater work is characterized by a post-humanist aesthetic and a multimedia approach. In a television studio, the audience sees the reconstruction of a day in the life of a woman named Angela. What actions define her? Can she escape repetition and reinvent herself? Midway through the festival, Scottish choreographer Claire Cunningham, who identifies as disabled, joins a group of performers with disabilities to present a powerful piece about refusing to adhere to normativity.
Through the phenomenon of ‘tribute artists’, the ensemble in sparkling costumes subverts the myth of the ideal body. The festival closes with Amanda Piña’s EXÓTICA, a re-reading of European dance history that takes a close look at exoticism. On the stage of the Théâtre Royal des Galeries, dancers of color evoke amidst a breathtaking set design their spiritual ancestors through a rousing ritual and engage in dialogue with the audience. These three creations by female theater-makers for the large auditorium depict new realities, new norms, and new histories.
2. Alternative family ties
The idea of the chosen family, of relationships that transcend any hegemonic model, resonates in several artistic projects during this edition. Ivorian choreographer Nadia Beugré, enthusiastically welcomed last year with L’Homme rare, collaborates with dancers from Abidjan’s trans community to celebrate their solidarity through an intimate yet explosive choreography. Japanese director Kurō Tanino’s hyper-realistic theater presents a cross-section of two households, showing the invisible thread that connects our lives, however different.
Sound artist Myriam Van Imschoot and set designer Lucas van Haesbroeck see polyphony as an ancient recipe for connecting people, creating a soundscape with the audience to which they fall asleep together. In Untitled (Holding Horizon), Polish choreographer Alex Baczyński-Jenkins evokes a clandestine queer rave, with a group of performers who have formed a new community through their nightclub language.
3. A critical look at productivity
Several artists invite us to reflect on the hurried, productive life and the work/life balance. The Italian company Kepler-452, together with a group of workers occupying a factory after collective dismissal, presents a piece about rebuilding an identity after job loss. Dana Michel creates a physically challenging performance through which she tries to subvert the rules of a working day at the office.
Amol K Patil infiltrates public space to stage an Indian tradition of protest songs denouncing precarious working conditions. Japanese theater-maker Midori Kurata recreates an encounter with an insurance salesman who tries to convince the audience that they should also capitalize on death. All these performances focus on the dignity of work and life.
4. Unusual locations and formats
Kunstenfestivaldesarts seeks out surprising Brussels locations and gives a stage to unusual artistic formats. Greek choreographer Lenio Kaklea presents a creation around sexuality and hunting at dawn in Duden Park. Radouan Mriziga pays tribute to the Amazighs with eight dancers in the impressive vertical hall of the Mercerie. Brazilian collective MEXA (founded by homeless people) performs a new staging of Greek mythology at nightclub C12, between theater and nightlife.
Amol K Patil claims the skate park des Ursulines together with a feminist collective of skaters. Dana Michel and Alex Baczyński-Jenkins create three-hour performances in the open space of MAD Brussels and an abandoned gym. Myriam Van Imschoot & Lucas van Haesbroeck spend the night with the audience at K1 / KANAL. Finally, with EXÓTICA by Amanda Piña, the public will experience for the first time at the Théâtre Royal des Galeries, an Italian-style theater space featuring red and gold velvet, a monumental chandelier, and a ceiling fresco by Magritte.
5. A look at how we look at childhood
Our view of childhood is questioned in several performances. Theatre-maker Léa Drouet’s new performance, following Violences (Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2021), deepens her investigation of childhood, looking at school as a factory for ‘dutiful citizens’.
A visually stunning production from the young Spanish company Ça marche exposes the power dynamic between adults and children. Kate McIntosh’s collaboration with BRONKS puts the creative power of (childlike) imagination at the heart of Lake Life, her first creation for young audiences. A mix of children, young people, and adults become co-creators of the artistic event in a sensory way.
6. Political counter-discourse
Several artistic projects explicitly counterbalance the official discourse and social reality in their countries of origin. With She was a friend of someone else, young Polish theater-maker Gosia Wdowik describes the struggle for abortion rights and the link between burnout and activism. Amir Reza Koohestani stages a dialogue between a man and his wife, who is a political prisoner in Iran. Fugitive Russian artist Victoria Lomasko uses text and live sketches to comment on the life of a dissident artist in five steps. Rayyane Tabet questions the role of the Lebanese state through the account of the looting and return of a historical sculpture.
Wichaya Artamat serves us an irreverent portrait of today’s Thailand, where religion, the army, and the monarchy are untouchable. In the Brigittines Chapel, Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme set up a performative video installation full of poetic eloquence, with images of singing and dancing people rebelling in Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Syria.
7. International voices
This year, the festival presents artists from 28 countries and showcases 13 languages on stage. With Midori Kurata and Kurō Tanino, the festival brings two big names from Japanese theatre to Brussels. Anticipation for the new creations from award-winning German theatre-maker Susanne Kennedy and Chilean-Mexican choreographer Amanda Piña is international in scale. Mumbai-based performer and visual artist Amol K Patil already stood out at the last edition of Documenta and will take residence in the Marolles.
Amir Reza Koohestani is once again a guest at the festival with his Tehran-based Mehr Theatre Group. Thai director Wichaya Artamat and Kisangani-based dancer Faustin Linyekula return to Brussels after the successes of This Song Father Used to Sing (Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2019) and Banataba (Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2018), respectively.
8. Brussels and Belgian artists
The festival’s international resonance also provides opportunities to showcase Belgian artists. Sarah Vanhee pays tribute to her West Flemish grandmothers and to all invisible women. Brussels-based choreographer Lara Barsacq is at the festival for the first time with La Grande Nymphe, in which she tackles the figure of the Nymph in the classical dance tradition and the view of the female body. In Une traduction infidèle, Antwerp-based Sri Lankan-Australian artist Ahilan Ratnamohan wonders whether learning French and immersing himself in Walloon culture can make him truly Belgian.
Filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova follows his portrait of Donna Haraway (Kunsten- festivaldesarts 2016) by pushing the boundaries of documentary to create a film portrait of world-renowned Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers. Also on show is work by Radouan Mriziga, Kate McIntosh, Léa Drouet, Myriam Van Imschoot & Lucas van Haesbroeck and a new creation by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in collaboration with Meskerem Mees and Jean-Marie Aerts.
9. Focus on inclusion and accessibility
This year there’s an emphasis inclusion and accessibility, highlighted by Claire Cunningham’s Thank You Very Much, performed by an ensemble of disabled artists. The performance will be interpreted in Flemish Sign Language, provided with audio description, and organized as a ‘relaxed performance’ with theater rules dialed down so that everyone can participate at their own pace and in their own way.
It’s meant to allow neurodivergent and autistic audience members to feel comfortable at the festival. Furthermore, Léa Drouet’s J’ai une épée will be interpreted in the Sign Language of French-Speaking Belgium, several theaters are equipped with an audio induction loop system, and all performances will be subtitled in Dutch, French and English.
10. The magical in-between space of language
“I talk about my language in the third person.” With this sentence, Lebanese writer Mirene Arsanios expresses the distance she experiences between herself and the many languages she grew up with and can speak. This gap reminds us that language may define reality but does not always correspond to it and that it is precisely in this magical in-between space that reality can be reinvented. This theme resonates with multilingual Brussels, prompting us to reflect on the tension between dominant and non-dominant languages and different conceptions of ‘integration’.
This year’s edition of the Free School is dedicated to language learning. With The School of Integration/Lexicon, Tania Bruguera and Brussels-based artists are organizing a temporary language school for the duration of the festival, with language classes in Ukrainian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Lingala and Polari (a centuries-old secret language spoken within queer communities). Bruguera advocates an integration that goes beyond immersion in national languages to become a mutual exchange of knowledge.
Several performances link to this theme, with Calixto Neto presenting a new choreography in which manipulation, ventriloquism, and language acquisition give rise to a reconquered body. Ahilan Ratnamohan learns the French language specifically for his performance, and Sarah Vanhee questions the homogenization of modern language and society with Mémé.