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Northern wilds: Nordwind Festival

INTERVIEW: Berlin's showcase of Nordic art and performance returns for the sixth time, kicking off at the Brandenburg Gate on Nov 13. We spoke to artistic director Ricarda Ciontos about this year's Russian focus, risk, resistance and going wild.

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Photo by Chrisander Brun

In its sixth edition, the Nordwind Festival expands past its Nordic focus to Russia. Artistic director Ricarda Ciontos talks resistance, risk and kitsch.

When Ciontos launched Nordwind in 2006, it was a modest showcase of performances from Nordic countries. The festival has expanded steadily since – it now includes work from the Baltic states and plenty of border-crossing collaboration. This year, the festival throws the spotlight on Russia and the former Soviet Union, a region that’s long had a thorny relationship with the Nordics and Baltics.

After almost a decade of running the festival, have you noticed changes in the work being produced in Nordic countries?

In many of the smaller countries, there was a wave when they were investing quite a lot of money into showing their artists abroad. Then, due to more conservative parties taking over, they started closing the gates. Finland, for example, was really different when I started out. Now the government has taken a very conservative direction, and there’s not so much money going into international collaboration. What was possible for these artists before – travelling abroad, meeting colleagues, having exchanges – isn’t anymore.

What are your goals this year?

I’ve been interested in Russia for a while, because it has a very strange relationship with the Nordic countries. Finland was part of Russia for quite a while. The Baltics, too, were part of the Soviet Union. That’s created some rational and some irrational fears. Many people think, “Okay, they took Crimea. They will come to us as well.” It’s not a relaxed relationship at all.

Resistance is also an overriding theme.

Many artists in the West say they do some kind of resistance, but they’re not prepared to go very far. Nordic artists are coming from these more-or-less secure Western countries. They’re fighting for gender rights, changes in immigration law, more money for the arts, fair wages. But in the end, they’re still in a very comfortable zone.

They’re probably not going to be imprisoned for their work, unlike Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, who’s been arrested for his acts of self-harm.

Exactly. And this is the huge difference. Pavlensky is super radical. He’s not leaving any questions open when you compare him to Western artists who sit in their comfort zones and complain about things – things that should be complained about – but don’t risk anything. This was something I was interested in: what risk does an artist take? And when does it only look like they’re taking a risk?

The festival has latched onto the Russian expression “balagan”. Can you explain?

It’s one of these untranslatable words. It means about the same thing as “chaos”, but not only chaos with the Western connotation of being horrible, but also being extraordinary and great. It’s a chance for something new, a chance for real creativity. It includes it all: balagan can be a kid who doesn’t clean his room, or the total breakdown of social and political structures. That’s why we wanted to have this huge number of artists and all these different disciplines. It should be baroque and overwhelming. Celebration is as important as critique, so we have Pavlensky on the one hand and sensual dance performances on the other.

Onstage, what can we expect?

I selected quite a lot of performances that deal with exhaustion and extremes and being oppositional. In the dance performances, too, there’s this idea of going really wild, as in Black Marrow by Erna Ómarsdóttir from Iceland, with the music of Ben Frost. It’s someone who has said, “I’m not part of this dancey-dancey community.” It’s punk power – she has a punk group and is going to give a concert afterwards.

We also have Stina Nyberg from Sweden doing a dance called Splendour to really heavy techno beats, and seeing how far we can go with rage or aggression as a form of resistance. A more classical way is Exodus, a premiere from a Danish-Swiss couple who did interviews with refugees in Sicily. Their form of resistance is singing songs. I tried to collect really different expressions of resistance – it doesn’t always have to be violent or wild or loud. It can also be silent and persistent, but still very intense.

Other personal highlights?

We have a performance from Michail Patlasow, a young director from St. Petersburg. The work, Antibodies, is very contemporary but also very well-made. It deals with a real case of a man who was killed by neo-Nazis in St. Petersburg just a couple of years ago, and it opens up to the victims as well as to the perpetrators.

There’s also a Danish group called Mungo Park – they’re outrageous actors – about the case of transgender teenager Brandon Teena, which was made into the film Boys Don’t Cry. They’ve adapted the story to a Danish small town. It’s dealing with right-wing restrictions in these Nordic countries – how all these LGBT rights are sometimes just on paper, and when you go to a small village somewhere, they’re not interested in what was passed in Copenhagen.

Compared to theatre in Germany, what sorts of differences do you notice?

In Russia as well as in the Nordic countries, there’s not the same fear of emotions as in Germany. That’s a stereotype, but it’s true. In Russia, you see a lot of kitsch – the “Russian soul”, the samovars. But in the end, because the actors are so amazing, they still get you. Here there’s always this Brechtian distance. It’s like, “I do it, but at the same time I demonstrate that I don’t mean it.” As an audience member, you can’t really jump into it.

So: any shows with samovars?

No, but I already said we have to buy one for the bar.

Nordwind Festival, Nov 13-Dec 23 | For full schedule and venue information, see nordwind-festival.de