As the first of the Dash Arts Café autumn season, ‘Art on the Brink of Brexit’ delivered a stimulating evening of conversation and performance that explored the experience of UK-based international artists and the impact of Brexit on their practice, as well as their relationship to Europe.
The evening began with a highly entertaining excerpt from Miriam Sherwood’s autobiographical contemporary cabaret Rendezvous in Bratislava. Sherwood has drawn inspiration from the cabaret scripts, autobiographies and jokes of her Slovakian born grandfather Laco Kalina to tell his story of ‘surviving fascism only to be imprisoned by the communists’. She was accompanied by musicians and performers Thom Andrewes and Will Gardner who wrote the original music.
Sherwood was joined in conversation with performance artist and writer Bojana Janković, Romanian stand-up comedian and co-founder of EE Com Fest Victor Pătrășcan. The evening was compered by Josephine Burton, co-artistic director of Dash Arts.
Janković came to London from her native Serbia nine years ago to study for an MA in Performance Art. She stayed to co-found with Dana Olărescuthe ThereThereSerbian/Romanian performance company delving into issues of immigration and identity. In 2016 there were plans to tour outside London with Eastern Europeans for Dummies, but ‘forty eight hours after the referendum it seemed irrelevant’. However, to their astonishment they were deluged with calls as they became the ‘Poster Kids’ for ‘Eastern Europe’– a term subsuming both Central and Eastern Europe. The huge spike in violence against Eastern Europeans raised serious questions about how to create links through installation based work and performance. Wanting to reclaim the brand ‘Eastern Europeans’ how’s it possible to work with diverse audiences? Is it possible to develop a conversation with an audience about immigrants that’s not toxic? A game show format was adopted – ‘How to be a benefits scrounger’ and ‘How to hook a job’ looked to get Eastern European Immigrants themselves to take a lead in the conversation. There was an open call for anyone who was ‘Eastern European’ and working with six invigilators then performed with an audience at the Tate Modern. The performance installation has been taken to festivals as it’s important to make connections outside the diaspora.
Six years ago it was stand-up comedy and an MA in film at UCL which led Pătrășcan from Romania. Initially in his gigs he did not refer to his background, but inevitably audiences were curious about his accent and he became more and more confident to talk about being Romanian. There was a discernible gasp from the Dash Café audience when he revealed that he’s had the heckle ‘Go back to your country ‘. However, Pătrășcan cautioned, ‘you must not be too quick to assume that the person is bigoted – he sees it as a back and forth dialogue’. Audiences in areas that voted leave ‘will laugh if your jokes are funny’. We don’t look enough at human connectedness. ‘Some people ask if I am really from Romania’ – this is an opportunity to share and build connections. Talking about the launch of the Eastern European Comedy Festival, Pătrășcan emphasised that the comedy can be universal as well as culturally specific. Perhaps only those who’d lived through the communist era got the joke about the man who walks into a shop to find out if there’s any bread and is met with the reply ‘We don’t have meat here – it’s next door where they don’t have bread.’
Sherwood had childhood holiday memories of her Grandad’s cabaret posters in her grandmother’s Munich flat. After her gran’s death his cabaret scripts were discovered intact. She’d read his autobiographies and already felt connected with him so used his tricks and format to tell his story of living through extraordinary times – he was imprisoned by the communists for playing music to one person in his living room. The cabaret is performed in both Slovak and English and it was a surprise when audiences were entertained by the performers introducing themselves in Slovak. Sherwood’s finding that the work is opening up people’s minds ‘luring them in with humour and with music – an honest story that seems to have worked for an audience of mainly British Londoners’. Rendezvous in Bratislava goes on a UK nationwide tour commencing in Darlington in October 2018. A further two songs from the cabaret were performed before the evening ended with a lively and interesting Q&A with the audience.
Dash Arts http://www.dasharts.org.uk/
Rendezvous in Bratislava tour dates: https://rendezvousinbratislava.wordpress.com/tour-dates/
ThereThere performance company: https://www.therethere.eu/
Victor Pătrășcan: https://www.facebook.com/victorpatrascan