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Mention Belgium and I immediately think of beer. After trappist ales and lambics, waffles and chocolate come to mind. Brussels is the seat of the European Union and Colin Farrell once starred in a moody film set there called In Bruges. Judging by the name the Alliance Française de Washington has given Washington’s first festival of Belgian theater, they’ve assumed many of us have similarly short (but noble!) lists of reference points. This week, in collaboration with Wallonie Bruxelles-Théâtre/Danse, the Alliance presents “Small is More: Snapshots of Belgian Performing Arts.” Focused on emerging French-speaking artists, the festival features performances by five companies that Cultural Director Sylvain Cornevaux feels represent “one of the most innovative scenes in Europe today.”
Cornevaux identifies the use of “humor to convey a really more serious question” as a distinguishing characteristic of this scene. That, and a tendency to mix artistic disciplines and seemingly incongruous ideas into a single show. After five years of living and attending theater in Washington, Cornevaux sees this difference: “Everything’s trying to be kind of perfect in terms of production and the play of the actor, but it’s excluding the part of fragility,” Cornevaux says. “You arrive in Europe, and especially Belgium, they try to show sometimes the weakness of the actor, of the society.”
Tuesday’s opening-night gala at the Fairfax Hotel features Les Soeurs Martin in an interactive, largely improvised, multimedia performance, plus a three-course dinner. Patricia and Marie- France Martin “are going to talk about the vision of the Belgian people about Washington.” Known for tackling themes like the role of the artist in society and the dynamics of power, the Martin sisters composed Society: Strange Fruit & Frite especially for this occasion. “It’s going to be just for Washington,” says Cornevaux. “and just once.”
Existence and exile are the topics of discussion on Wednesday night’s double bill. Artisphere hosts Florence Minder‘s performance of her comedic one-women show Good Mourning. Minder portrays an outspoken, rifle-toting women with a lot to say about the realities of life in middle-of-nowhere America. She will hold a brief Q&A after her show. Following Good Mourning is the U.S. premiere of Exils, a film by Belgian playwright and filmmaker Fabrice Murgia.
Lula Bery and Barbara Sylvain, co-founders of Compagnie Oh My God!, combine acting, dance, and video in It’s So Nice, which they’ll perform at the Undercroft Theatre on Thursday night. An exploration of femininity and political intrigue, the show is “basically a duo by two actresses who are going to play Elizabeth the first and Mary Stuart,” says Cornevaux. “It ‘s very witty.”
In collaboration with the Arch Development Corporation, two of the Small Is More offerings are part of the Lumen8 Anacostia launch this Saturday. Je t’en tamponne surtout et pour rienis Lise Duclaux‘s attempt to bring humor and poetry to the mundane world of office administration. An entirely interactive experience, Duclaux’s performance invites the audience to stamp ordinary objects with poetic tags and both parties leave with a receipt to log the exchange.
Musicians, actors, and dancers perform in two different massive plastic bubbles in Distorsions Urbaines by T.r.a.n.s.i.t.s.c.a.p.e. In a performance that will presumably resemble this, Urban Distortions is a portrait of three cities—-Brussels, Hong Kong, and Mtwapa in Kenya.
As for the how and why behind the innovative energy coming out of the Belgian art scene, Cornevaux’s explanation is simple and speaks to an environmental determinism familiar to artists the world over. “It is due to the fact that in Brussels the rents are very cheap so the artists can live there. They can have an artistic place to work.”
“Small Is More” runs April 10-14. For information, tickets and locations visit the Alliance Française de Washington website.