Roots in transit 
IV Women International Theatre Festival and Meeting 
Holstebro, Denmark, 15-25 January 2004  
by Ileana Citaristi, Bhubaneswar 
February 22, 2004   

Often artists search for a technical base and a professional identity among people whose cultural habits are different from their own and in places where their mother tongue is not spoken. Even those who strongly identify with their culture may find their artistic inspiration not much in the contemporary patterns of the living society but in the traditional wisdom passed on from a living past. 

‘Roots in transit’, an international festival and meeting among women working in theatre, music and dance, was organised by the Magdalena Project, a network of women in contemporary performing arts. The encounter, hosted in the premises of the Odin Teatret in Holstebro, intended to be an occasion for coming together of different artistic experiences with particular attention to geographical diversities. More than 150 artists, mostly female, assembled from all over the world  to take part in the event, either as invited artists or as participant to the workshop and demonstration sessions. It was an opportunity for young students of theatre and dance to learn from experienced artists and for older practitioners to come in touch with the need of another generation.   

The event was conceived at different levels: there were practical workshops, demonstrations of physical training, discussions, concerts and performances. The general atmosphere, which circulated among the participants was one of camaraderie and companionship, without any trace of hierarchic inhibition or uneasiness from the part of the younger artists. 

Each of the four workshops was conducted by a pair of invited artists who were supposed to integrate or complement each other’s approach, to offer a more holistic experience to the participants. ‘Points of view’ was led by Sandra Pasin, Italian born theatre director who transmigrated to Denmark and Julia Varley, an actress of the Odin Teatret and one of the main organisers of the entire event. The aim of their working together was to explore along with the participants the different stages and roles in the process of collaboration between directors and actors, which result in a performance.  

‘The score’s breath’ led by Geddy Annisksdal, director of Greenland Freeteater of Norway and Brigitte Cirla, a singer and actress from France, was meant to explore the interaction between the voice and body, through the combinations of physical and vocal exercises and improvisations. ‘Figures and characters’ conducted by Claudia Countin, a specialist of Italian Commedia dell’Arte, and Cristina Wisteri, who Italian by birth, transmigrated to Bali around 20 years ago and specialised in Topang and Gambuk, two ancient forms of Balinese dance-theatre, intended to explore the geometry of the body in space and the specific technical vocabulary of the two masked traditions. 

‘Hidden in the feet’ was conducted by myself and Ana Woolf, an Argentinian actress specialised in ‘salsa’ and Japanese ‘suzuki’ technique; the purpose of collaboration was to explore the shift of energy which occurs in the body when one steps from one technique to another. 

The evening performances saw around 30 presentations of theatre and dance productions mainly performed and directed by women. The cycle of performances started off with a series of highly structured demonstrations by Julia Varley, which were to illustrate the different phases of the process in which text, music, actor and director interact for the creation of a performance at Odin Teatret. Particularly interesting was her illustration of how she struggled to find and develop her own voice during the training days and the outstanding versatility she has reached in the utilisation of the voice in the interpretation of different texts. 

Luisa Calcumil from the Patagonia region of Argentina brought through her works and life story tales of rebellion, suppressed myths and fight for justice and recognition. Her plays ‘It is good to look at her own shadow’ and ‘Hebras’ were marked by the ‘naivety’ flavour of her tribal origin as well as by the fiery determination to fight against the impositions of a white dominated society. 

Elements of struggle, rebellion, search and loss of identity seemed to be common in many of the life stories and works presented at the festival; women rebelling against orthodox parents and a male dominated environment to be able to find and express their artistic aspirations and identities seem to be a common feature to societies belonging both to the east and the west. 

 From the east there was the performance by Uhan Shi Theatre Group from Taipei directed by Ya-Ling Peng, an actress and playwright who, after studying acting in London, returned to Taipei and helped her countrymen to rediscover their own indigenous theatre and dance. Her work entitled  ‘My journey’ presented the life story of Yue-Shu Shei, one of the most famous Opera actresses in Taiwan, who throughout her life was forced to interpret only male roles. The psychological tension between her real identity and her artistic persona was brought out in the play through an excellent combination of traditional movements of dance and martial art and a modern and highly professional utilisation of props and lightings. 

The performance of Topeng, a masked dance drama from Bali, was presented with competence and wit by the duo Cristina Wistari and Ni Nyoman Candri; they both excelled particularly in the comic characters representing the common people. By wearing half masks, which gave them freedom to speak, they had the freedom to go back and forth from ancient to modern times and to improvise on themes relating to contemporary issues. 

 The other two works from the east were my Odissi dance performance and the  poignant film ‘Chinese take away’, a cinematic adaptation of an acclaimed physical theatre show which tells the story of performer/writer Anna Yen’s grandmother, mother and herself in an unique blend of storytelling, performance, archival footage and poetic cinematography. 

‘Antigone’ and ‘Medea’ were two interesting modern adaptations of classical texts rendered first by Peruvian actress Teresa Ralli and the second by the German actress Gilla Cremer. The tragic story of Antigone, carried away like an animal and walled in a cave by  orders of her greedy uncle Creon, was enacted with restrain and extreme versatility by Teresa, who was able to bring to light all the characters of the tragedy utilising simple traditional elements and symbols from the Peruvian culture. This performance has been played in connection with political protests concerning missing people in Peru. In ‘Medea’ Gilla successfully presents the modern everyday drama of a broken relationship by borrowing the voice of the tragic heroin Medea and transposing the ancient story in a modern set up.  

The tragic-comic character of the masked Harlequin, a very popular figure of Italian Commedia dell’Arte, was presented with rhythm and vivacity by Claudia Contin in her play ‘Arlecchino and his double’. The postures, angles and tilts of the comic nature of the masked character were intercalated in a very imaginative way with the darker aspects emerging out of a more contemporary interpretation of the popular myth. 

Hasna el Becharia, an Algerian singer from the town of Bechar, presented songs and tunes belonging to the Gnawa tradition of healing music. A very independent and strong willed woman, Hasna carries in her voice and songs the weight of her tradition as well as the defiant determination of her struggle for woman freedom in contemporary society. Cherifa Kersit from Morocco presented with warm and gentle voice the songs of Berber poets, which accompanied by captivating rhythmic sounds of percussions and lotar, put the entire audience on its feet in a collective dance. Perhaps the most original and creative among the music programs was the one presented by the couple of French actors-singers Brigitte Cirla and Vincent Audat entitled ‘Nakasone’. The couple is dedicated to research in the field of musical theatre and in their play they successfully created an humorous blend of songs collected from different parts of the world to create a coherent backdrop to the hilarious skirmishes and daily life actions of a married couple caught around their kitchen table. 

The festival concluded with a ritualistic gathering of all the participants around the symbolic image of a fragile boat containing in it a burning flame. The boat was passed by one participant to the other in a symbolical journey across the many nations represented by each of them; each of the participant, in receiving the little boat, expressed in a sentence, thought or resolution the intense feelings created in them by the encounter. 
Ileana Citaristi is the artistic director of Art Vision. She organises the annual Kalinga Mahotsav exclusively dedicated to martial dances. She is a regular contributor to