Curiosity as a driving force
We talked to Bek Berger, the Australian artist and curator who now heads the Homo Novus festival in Latvia, about being enthralled by Latvian audiences and Finnish contemporary performances, one performance in particular.
Bek Berger is the newly-appointed director of the New Theatre Institute of Latvia (NTIL) and curator of the Homo Novus international contemporary theatre festival held each September in Riga. Berger, born and educated in Australia, has toured the world both as a performing artist in her own right and alongside her fellow artists as a producer and dramaturge. We were interested to hear her plans for NTIL following Gundega Laiviņa's departure, and how she would characterise the Finnish contemporary theatre scene now that the NTIL is planning a Baltic takeover of Helsinki in June 2023.
Falling for the audience
“I’ve no family in Latvia, and if I’m completely honest – I wasn’t exactly sure where Latvia was on the map”, she says over Zoom when I ask her how an Australian ends up in the Baltics. It was only when Berger attended the Homo Novus festival in 2018 with choreographer James Batchelor, that she first became curious about Latvia and quickly became enthralled by the Latvian audience.
“The audience here is the most distinct audience I’ve ever met as an artist. I’ve toured more than 15 countries, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an audience I’m so curious about and feel so connected to. I feel like there’s an audience of real people, who are incredibly loyal to the festival, and to the NTIL. The festival is not presenting works in a vacuum, or in a conversation with itself, but working in and for communities, traversing barriers of language, economic situations, and experiences. This audience is bold and curious. This is super exciting to experience as an artist and as a creator. ”
In 2019, Berger returned to Latvia for a month on an i-Portunus Grant with her German collaborator Daniel Hengst.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, at all. It was the start of Covid-19, but I was very much working as a touring artist predominantly with James, making my own work with Daniel and my own personal projects. But when this job came up it was very impossible to deny my curiosity for Latvia or Latvian audiences, and so yeah, it worked out and now I’ve been here since July of last year,” she says, laughing.
The pandemic as a site for evolution
When we spoke in mid-May, theatres in Latvia were still closed, and the country was in a state of lockdown. Bars had re-opened the weekend before, and public events were expected to continue after midsummer. So far, NTIL has been able to run one outdoor workshop for 10 people, and there is hope that the Homo Novus festival can open as scheduled in the second week of September.
“In addition to the festival, we’re inviting artists to Latvia, and sending Latvian artists abroad to work and embed in different communities throughout Latvia to create contemporary culture. I feel very much like being the custodian of the institution. NTIL has always been about supporting risk and collaboration and interrogating contemporary performance and theatre. It’s about responding to new forms, and to the zeitgeist of the contemporary performance world.”
The events of the last year have made Berger and her team consider what international mobility will look like in a post-pandemic world. NTIL is currently working on an online workshop with Tim Etchells from Forced Entertainment and has recently appointed an access manager to explore how to make performing arts more accessible in Latvia.
“We’re bringing everybody online, and while it’s not where we want to be, it’s a way to start discussing what we need to do so that when culture opens again, we can enter into a new reality. We want to use this pandemic as a site for evolution, and not as a site to long for something lost. I think we can all be guilty of this paradox of wanting to travel to see a particular work in, for example, Paris, while at the same time opposing the purchase of anything that isn’t recycled. We live with these paradoxes. I hope that this pandemic can give us an impetus to evolve as humans together, and as practitioners. That’s why we are also trying to carve out opportunities to do so in the future.”
The upcoming Baltic Take Over
One way in which the NTIL aims to increase cooperation between neighbouring countries is the Baltic Take Over project. In June 2023, Berger plans on bringing Baltic artists together with the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre and the Estonian Kanuti Gildi SAAL to Helsinki to create a festival for Baltic works presented through a Baltic lens. They are teaming up with Finnish partners – a diverse group of theatres, festivals, and production houses – to deliver performances, talks and workshops between Finnish and Baltic artists.
“It’s about generating a cohort of Baltic and Finnish artists who would know the insides of each other’s practices. As performing artists, we are bodily practitioners, we need proximity to each other, we need to exchange ideas and knowledge about our practices in physical space. The screen is fine for now, but we need to meet up.”
Why choose Finland for the take over?
“I think we have interesting sensibilities in common, a connection with nature, and a vulnerability of identity that we are struggling with. We want to strengthen the Baltic and Nordic connections because it makes sense curatorially, financially and climatically.”
The curator’s view on Finnish performing arts
How would an Australian artist, curator and festival producer based in Latvia characterise the Finnish contemporary performance scene?
“One of my first impressions of Finnish artworks was attending the Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, and seeing animatronic puppets present a lecture on Finland. It was utterly crazy and entirely wonderful. I think Finnish works are referential and humorous in a way that is uniquely Finnish. There’s an element of acknowledging the situation with a bit of humor. There’s also something very profound and very epic about Finnish contemporary performance particularly, and dance – aesthetically Finnish artists have a real eye for the epic.”
Berger sees this as a reflection of wider Finnish society, where silly fictional creatures such as the Moomins are part of national culture. That is not to discount the value of those works, she points out; humour and playfulness are important, after all, and the edgy and silly humour is possible precisely because of the careful thought and dramaturgical skill that goes into creating these works.
What’s there to find?
But why should international curators be interested in Finnish artists and their work? Berger hesitates. "That’s a tough one," she says. "I think Finland in terms of the history of colonialization of the Sápmi people, and now in the process of decolonialization as well as in a process of understanding the inequities of the industry is producing interesting things. Artistically interesting works are coming from a place of healing, or at least from a place of dealing with a problematic history,” she says thoughtfully. These new works are possible through inspiring educational institutions, teachers, and artist elders, but also by the sheer number of projects, production houses and festivals. And people.
“There are incredible curators that really care. I feel like this is special to Finland, that you have places like Kutomo in Turku, the ANTI Festival in Kuopio, the Silence Festival in Rovaniemi, and incredible resources at Annantalo in Helsinki, where work for young people is super excellent,” she continues.
And Berger should know. Her first impression of Finland was not of Helsinki, but of sitting in a bar in Outokumpu, a small mining town with a population of 6,500 people closer to the Russian border than to the capital region.
“My time in Outokumpu, producing Deepspace in a mine, was one of the most extraordinary shows that I’ve ever been part of. It was incredible. I've observed a real sense of openness and curiosity with Finnish artists and organisations to listen to other stories and being curious about others. In my experience there’s an open space for strangers. And I’ve also just had some really fun experiences,” Berger adds, before asking for the ensuing anecdotes about her interactions with Finnish artists and curators not to be made public.
Although she's a bona fide festival producer who’s seen performances all over the world, Berger still hasn’t lost her capacity to be enthralled.
“I’m a big fan of W A U H A U S and I think Flashdance is one of my favourite works of the last 5 years. For me, I’ve never been so scared of a performance in my whole life, nor more surprised. I’ve seen it twice.”
TINFO / Linnea Stara, 19 May, 2021