Art and soul


Spring is in the air, and Brussels is a hive of activity, abuzz with preparations for a major event on the international arts calendar: Belgium’s very own, very cosmopolitan Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

© Krzysztof Bielinski
© Krzysztof Bielinski

The Kunstenfestivaldesarts is greater than the sum of its parts

Spring is in the air, and Brussels is a hive of activity, abuzz with preparations for a major event on the international arts calendar: Belgium’s very own, very cosmopolitan Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

In black-box theatres and white cube galleries, post-industrial buildings and site-specific locations across the city, the festival will be presenting a programme of excellence drawn from Belgium, Europe and beyond.

With 32 productions over the three-week period - dance, theatre, film, opera and installations - many of them premieres, from 15 countries, with workshops, debates, talks and parties galore, the KFDA can hardly be viewed as a modest venture. Yet there is still a warm and inviting reception at the annual event with a name that mixes the Dutch and French languages.

The first edition in 1995 aimed to unite the Flemish and Walloon communities in open and intercultural dialogue, so it seems inevitable that the same spirit of generosity should lie at the heart of KFDA's approach to contemporary multiculturalism. After 16 years, the festival has evolved to embrace innovative and interdisciplinary work from across the globe and has become a home away from home for many of the individuals and companies who have returned time and again, often in the meantime acquiring a substantial international profile.

This year's festival brings together artists from Krakow and Cairo, Toronto and Tokyo, Berlin, Beirut and Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Marrakesh, Reykjavik and Rennes, Delhi, Vienna and Yokohama, not forgetting Ghent, Antwerp, Liège, Brussels and Amsterdam. In this towering Babel of languages, communication is central: The festival functions in three languages, with programmes in English, French and Dutch, and surtitles often in two languages, to assure accessibility for as many people as possible.

The tortoise and the lizard
If you prefer your arts to have an overtly political edge to them there is Sven Augustijnen's Spectres, an exhibition (in Wiels) and film (at KVS) about the assassination 50 years ago of Patrice Lumumba, the newly elected prime minister of the independent Congo. Toshiki Okada, on the other hand, has developed his own inimitable and hilarious style, and his new show, The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise, dissects the emotional and spiritual deficiencies of contemporary Japan.

Another old favourite at KFDA is Argentine director Mario Pensotti with Sometimes I think, I can see you, a site-specific piece at Kruidtuin metro station. The high- profile French choreographer Boris Charmatz, this year's artistic associate at the Avignon Festival, also returns with Levée des conflits (Suspension of Conflicts), a new piece for 24 dancers.

New to the KFDA is the living legend of Polish theatre, Krystian Lupa, whose multi-award- winning play Factory 2 is an imaginary scenario based on Andy Warhol's infamously creative New York studio The Factory. In Seen at Secundrabad, Indian director Zuleikha Chaudhari collaborates with the Raqs Media Collective to deconstruct a photograph taken by colonial war photographer Felice Beato in 1857. Lagartijas tiradas al sol ("Lizards Stretching in the Sun") arrive in Brussels from Mexico City for the first time with El Rumor del incendio (The Rumour of the Fire), a very visual show about the legacy of 1960s and '70s rebellions among today's young adults.

Stirring the soil
On the Belgian front, the father of Flemish theatre Jan Decorte presents his adaptation of Purcell's The Indian Queen, a hybrid of theatre and opera reduced to its essentials in Decorte's engagingly unorthodox style. Antwerp's Jozef Wouters and Menno Vandevelde create Stadium 3 on the Oude Graanmarkt, a construction with a void at its centre, the void in the city waiting to be filled. This event is free, open throughout the festival and will contain the "most insignificant and most important things in life". Prepare to be amazed by a lecture, a conductor playing a silent serenade or sheep shearing. Fabrice Murgia updates a modern masterpiece by Franz- Xavier Kroetz to the age of digital avatars in Life: Reset/Chronique d'une Ville Epuisée.

Thomas Hauert's You've Changed and Dominique Roodhooft's Smatch 2 are my hot favourites among this year's Belgian offerings. Hauert's exploration of the vast potential for dance improvisation has always been fascinating, grounded as it is in a study of the body's intelligence and capacity for intuition. His earlier works seem to set up a chain reaction between bodies and with the music that acts like gravity, drawing the spectator in as if by centrifugal force.

Roodhooft, on the other hand, combines poetry with politics and philosophy with science in fantastical multimedia creations that engage positively with those discourses of despair that flourish in contemporary societies. Smatch 1, which premiered at KFDA in 2009, was set in something like a cross between a sci-fi kitchen and a pet shop. It was wonderfully uplifting, enlightening and hilarious, while pointing out that we have certain responsibilities as communities and individuals towards life on this planet. In Smatch 2, a woman goes gardening with a team of thinkers, academics and artists, and, while stirring up the soil for signs of life, we learn about putting down roots when we are in danger of losing everything.

See a show, get your hair done
The range and scope of creativity at the KFDA is staggering. It is a festival for artists and audiences seeking communication, searching for new perspectives and exploring new avenues of debate. It is a festival of hope that dispenses with post-modern cynicism, and it is a festival for people with an open mind, a ready curiosity and an eagerness for fresh ideas.

But above all, it is a festival for people who delight in imaginative collaborations, when audiences and artists depart together on unconventional journeys and pursue idiosyncratic twists of the imagination to arrive at startling new insights.

Belgians can be proud of the KFDA. It plays a crucial role in the production and dissemination of new work throughout a large number of affiliated festivals and venues across the globe, and it also fosters the development of newcomers to the international circuits through NXTSTP, an EU-funded initiative for artists on the brink of a breakthrough.

In remaining true to its origins while expanding its scale, KFDA has become a feast of diversity and generosity opening up channels of communication between participants and spectators who are prepared to broaden their perspectives.

The Festival Centre this year is in the Rits college on Dansaertstraat, a congenial ambience in which to have a coffee, buy tickets, glean further info about events, have dinner courtesy of l'Affaire Culinaire or meet friends after the show to imbibe a few beverages. There are parties three nights a week, and this year there even is an official Kunstenfestivaldesarts hairdresser to spruce you up creatively for a show.

What more could any cosmopolitan festival offer?

Pictured: Polish theatre legend Krystian Lupa's Factory 2 is an imaginary scenario based on Andy Warhol's New York studio The Factory

6-28 May
Across Brussels