In Hamburg, the Belarus Free Theatre is presenting the documentary theatre performance ‘Burning Doors’, straight from the underworld of Putin’s regime. It features ‘Pussy Riot’-member Maria Alechina performing her own story.

Kerstin Holm, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

In one of the most important theatres on the former Soviet territories, head and body are spatially divided. While the Belarus Free Theatre, an independent theatre company based in Minsk, is performing its hard-hitting documentary dramas in private housing and garages all over the Belarusian capital, their artistic directors are living in exile in London.

Journalist-turned-playwright and director Nicolai Khalezin and his artistic collaborator and wife Natalia Kaliada were arrested in 2010, after participating in a protest against electoral fraud during the reelection of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka. After their release, they escaped to the West. This however, never prevented Khalezin and Kaliada from creating new producions with their ensemble based in Minsk. They are virtually present during rehearsals via Skype.

This is how the acrobatic documentary dance performance ‘Burning Doors’ came to life, which uses the experiences of performance artist Pjotr Pawlenski, the Ukranian film director Oleg Senzow and Maria Alechina from the punk band ‘Pussy Riot’ to illustrate the uncanny energies political repression is able to produce.

The piece, which brings the prison machinery to life that upholds systems such as those of Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka, was now performed at the festival ‘Theater der Welt’ (‘Theatre of the World’) in Hamburg’s Kampnagel, Germany's biggest independent production venue for the performing arts.

The graceful Maria Alechina’s starring as herself imbues the production with a touching sense of authenticity.

Why interrogation is not art

The set, also designed by Khalezin is a coldly illuminated arena of unequal battles. Floor-length ropes are hanging from chromium scaffolding. Three rusty, iron-barred doors set against a white back wall, glowing with German subtitles translating the constant stream of Russian dialogue, are a constant reminder of the three criminal cases against the artists.

Through one of these iron-barred doors enters Alechina, and while in the background pale black and white video of the untamed ‘Pussy Riot’ punk prayer in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour Christ is showing, Alechina, wearing a black unitard, becomes prisoner once again.

She talks about the ways in which prisoners are being humiliated, such as extensive body examinations. The actress portraying the prison gynecologist taunts her with a sweet voice. Occasionally, as Alechina demonstrates with three actors, victims are also hung from ropes.

In the underworld extreme pressure ratios prevail. The interrogation of Pawlenski, whose performance ‘Threat’ with the burning doors of Russian Federal Security Service lends the play its title is choreographed as a multi-figured martial dance. Alternating performers intonate the dialogue while their muscular bodies are wrestling torturously slowly.

The investigator accusing Pawlenski of destroying cultural heritage tries to beat the artist with his own weapons. ‘I am an artist too.’ he says. 'My art is interrogation, my audience is the prosecution.’ ‘Already false’ Pawlenski contradicts him. Art is addressed to the world, transcends barriers. Besides, he treats other life forms with great care and directs abuse only at himself.

Only because of that trash from Europe

However, ‘Burning Doors’ is also tremendously comical. A chic male pair of suits impersonating documented conversations among state functionaries discuss the kinds of troubles facing those among the higher officer’s ranks.

‘Back in the day, everything was easier’ one of them complains. He has been charged with ‘sorting out’ the ‘Pussy’ situation but is simultaneously pondering which type of yacht poses the best investment.
In the past there had been lump sum diversions and it was possible to book Madonna for a concert in Moscow. Now business dealings have to be conducted via a certain offshore company Madonna is backing ‘Pussy Riot’ he bemoans.

In another scene, we witness another meeting taking place on a double toilet decorated with a double eagle. Here, two functionaries are trying to draft an expert assessment of the ‘mad artist’.

Pawlenski’s psychological health could only benefit from prison, assures one of them. The chaos in people’s heads comes from this European trash, originating ultimately in Picasso, adds the other one. Once people begin to accept deformed forms as normal, the Ukrainian revolution can’t be far off. He himself would be in a position to judge since he owns two of Picasso’s paintings, reaffirms this member of the upper class.

Over and over into the face and stomach

In the middle of the performance, one of them suddenly improvises a press conference with Maria Alechina, the star of the evening. In Minsk there are many political prisoners, exclaims the actor who has transformed into a Belarusian citizen, laughing into a microphone.

The audience wants to know what it’s like for Alechina, working with the Belarus Free Theatre. It’s an incredible experience of solidarity, says the Moscowian guest. She feels connected to the Minskers, as if they share a body.

The two functionaries also comment on the case of convicted film director Oleg Senzow. It was necessary to send a warning to the Crimea’s population one of them philosophizes while the other one considers twenty years detention in a prison camp for unproven intentions of a terrorist nature quite a lot.

In the hands of brilliant Australian choreographer Bridget Fiske, prison torture methods used on Senzow become material for an etude on the limits of bearable treatment.

Set to a drum solo by renowned Ukranian percussionist Alexander Ljulakin a female kick boxer is kicking a man in the face and stomach, over and over again.

The highlight is a more than six minute long duet of two men wrestling during which one of them repeatedly forces the other one to the ground. Every time the defeated party rises up again in a breakdance-movement until, gradually, the attacker runs out of energy. Or the attacked has learned to resist. This is also a tribute to Senzow, who standing before a Russian court described cowardice as ‘the greatest sin.’

The writing of Fjodor Dostojewski evokes climactic existential tension during the arrest scene. As a counterpoint polyphonous a cappella chants conjure the burgeoning melancholic melodies of the Slavic Earth. Extreme Parkour for the ensemble but also for its grateful audience.

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