Within and Without:
Addressing Citizenship through Artistic Engagement
by Thomas May
It transpired in a mere moment: the experience of a lifetime recaptured, and with it a pang of empathy for a new generation facing the same pattern. During his appearance in Zellerbach Hall in Robert Wilson's Letter to a Man, just after the 2016 presidential election, Mikhail Baryshnikov witnessed a silent protest on Sproul Plaza led by students holding a long banner reading "Undocumented, Unapologetic, and Unafraid."
Born in the former Soviet Union in Latvia, the world-famous dancer had defected and sought asylum decades before. And now he saw it happening again, in the country he least expected: "I have forgotten nothing," he said, recalling in a conversation with Cal Performances' Matías Tarnopolsky and Rob Bailis the vulnerability he had faced—and that so many others would soon face under new political circumstances.
To belong is an essential human need, yet few topics have become as polarizing as the question of who gets to belong to our society, to be officially recognized and respected as an integral part of a nation famous for being built by immigrants. This reality stands confronted with a resurgence of nationalism, which twists this need into an attitude of "othering," of policing boundaries and building walls in an effort to keep away those deemed unfit to belong.
The resulting conflict is as urgent as it is profoundly troubling. And it is a conflict with which the performing arts are uniquely equipped to grapple. As part of the fourth year of programming under the rubric of Berkeley RADICAL—the ambitious initiative exploring cultural issues highly relevant to today's audiences—this season Cal Performances is devoting an entire series to the issue in a selection of five programs grouped under the theme of "Citizenship."
The five events will present uncompromising—and at the same time, deeply engaging—collaborations involving theater and music, including several milestone Bay Area premieres: a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People from Berlin's Schaubühne theater company (October 12–13); Inua Ellams' Barber Shop Chronicles (co-produced by Britain's National Theatre, Fuel Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse; October 26–28); Jordi Savall and a host of international colleagues in the complex musical journey The Routes of Slavery (November 3); and Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (November 10). The series culminates with the world premiere of the oratorio Dreamers by composer Jimmy López and librettist-poet Nilo Cruz, a new work co-commissioned by Cal Performances specifically to explore the theme of citizenship (March 17).
Using Art to Reflect on Citizenship
"We desired to frame this conversation internationally and invite allies who we knew would want to explore it deeply," says Rob Bailis, Cal Performances' interim artistic director, whose responsibilities under the organization's former leader, Matías Tarnopolsky, included collaborating with the latter to shape and program the season. (The 2018–19 season is the last that the two men planned together before Tarnopolsky's recent departure to become president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra.)
"More so than in other seasons, this was a true collaboration between the artistic directors and the artists," Bailis observes. "In every respect, the artists have participated not only in making the work, but also in crafting the specific context with us for how it would be presented." He adds that it's significant that Cal Performances is taking the topic of citizenship into account internationally, "with outstanding artists and leaders from around the world": Peru, Berlin, the Middle East, London (by way of Nigeria), and Catalonia. "Across incredible differences and distances, these are people with whom we share these specific values. They have so much to say to our audiences as they revise and refute historic disagreements about citizenship."
To facilitate approaching the volatile topics that each performance is certain to provoke, "a range of related events and programs will provide entry and discussion points," says Sabrina Klein, Cal Performances' director of artistic literacy. These include pre-performance talks, school visits, public forums, seminars, and post-performance conversations at the Catharsis Café (where audience members are encouraged to discuss what they have just witnessed).
A Major World Premiere
One of the season's most-anticipated events will be the world premiere of Dreamers, a collaboration between the composer Jimmy López (Berkeley PhD, 2012) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. According to Bailis, the discussions that resulted in the commission of this new oratorio—with the Hewlett Foundation, Stanford Live, the University of Michigan's University Musical Society, and Washington Performing Arts as funding partners—set the tone for the Citizenship series and its goals.
"It seemed clear that to create a work like this is the duty of art. How can we not address this at Cal Performances?" says Bailis. "From the time we started talking about the process of creating Dreamers, which was to involve direct connection to the experiences of our students, the idea of building the entire Citizenship strand began to grow." It took the form of a series of questions that Dreamers and the other works in the series tackle, each finding a different way to get inside the topic. "It's a big question in the context of democracy," Bailis points out. "Who gets to decide who belongs? The concept of citizenship is one that says as much about how you're perceived within your own borders as well as how you are perceived outside them."
López and Cruz wanted to draw closely on real-life stories, using material from interviews they conducted with members of local immigrant communities. These interactions will remain central not only to Dreamers' creative process but to its rehearsals and performance, through a series of workshops and discussions. "We want to make them partners along that whole journey," says López. "Their contribution to this project is so important. It's very different from writing an opera based on an existing novel."
Cruz transformed specific stories—ordeals encountered crossing the border, the emotional displacement that children can experience, the perspective of a worried parent—into lyrically condensed verse, using touches of magic realism and suggesting archetypes that even take on a biblical aura over the 40-minute work. Why the choice of the oratorio form, with its blend of solo voice, chorus, and orchestra? Because it frees the composer and librettist of the need to forward a dramatic narrative, "that form is ideal for this kind of text. It gives us moments to reflect on the stories that it tells. Opera is so driven by stage action, you have to think theatrically and scenically."
When he was still working on Dreamers during the summer, López pointed out that he has been discovering new facets of himself as a composer, since its large-scale dimensions for chorus and symphony orchestra (Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra of London) allow him to expand ideas and play extensively with changing colors.
López himself knows the experience of being an immigrant in more than one context: first, as a Peruvian who went to Finland to study and then to the United States in 2007. Cruz immigrated with his family as a child from Cuba to Florida. "We are not saying that we have experienced what people now are going through," Cruz says, "but only that there is a certain connection in terms of displacement and having to question what is home."
Communities and Their Metaphors
Symphony orchestras are often regarded as noble symbols for a society functioning in harmony. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra offers an actual example of a community in harmony whose members come from countries torn by never-ending hostility.
The orchestra's program (featuring a pair of tour de force classics by Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky) will mark its West Coast debut. Under Barenboim's guidance, these musicians erase borders with a power shared by all humanity: the power to make and be moved by music. "It's such an important and compelling metaphor for cooperation, for how essential it is," says Bailis. "And yet it's still actually unsafe for these specific artists to engage in that simple act of making music together in various parts of the world. In addition to their extraordinary artistic caliber, the way these artists act as a metaphor for internationalism provides a compelling example for how we want to talk about those differences, as we are experiencing divisions of our own in increasingly violent and oppressive ways."
The first performance in the Citizenship strand this season also comes from Berlin—which is home headquarters for Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—in the form of the radically imaginative Schaubühne theater company. Florian Borchmeyer's adaptation of Ibsen's classic An Enemy of the People (1882), directed by Thomas Ostermeier (a phenomenal force in contemporary theater), promises to shed light on the specter of crowd thought and populism confronting the individual conscience and the desire for reform. Even the play's title has acquired an unwelcome resonance in today's climate, when the president of the United States employs the words to attack a critical press.
Another play, Barber Shop Chronicles (in its Bay Area premiere, directed by Bijan Sheibani), will explore the themes of how communities are created from a much warmer perspective. The Nigerian-born, London-based writer, performer, and graphic artist and designer Inua Ellams turns the barber shop into a metaphorical, ritual space. Over a single day and in six barbershops around the world, a group of immigrant men from the African diaspora congregate to share their stories and anxieties. The show's all-male cast considers questions of masculine identity and intergenerational relationships.
The fifth program in the Citizenship series takes on the disturbing theme of people who, over centuries of Western history, have been forced to become immigrants through enslavement. The viola da gamba virtuoso and scholarly early music pioneer Jordi Savall weaves together an abundance of musical examples and dramatic recitations to trace The Routes of Slavery, together with musicians and performers from three continents. While addressing the atrocities of the enslavement of African peoples by colonizers from Europe, Routes conveys a hopeful message of the power to retain a sense of identity and community even when everything else has been stolen. Savall writes: "These people had lost everything, except for the capacity to sing and dance. This music is what saved them from desperation."
Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. Along with essays regularly commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, the Juilliard School, and other leading institutions, he contributes to the New York Times and Musical America and blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.
Learn more about Berkeley RADICAL 2018/19 Season