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  • Reportage Posted 16 March 2021

    LIFT loves to share accounts of cultural experiences from afar. With travel and show-seeing restricted here, we asked international arts leader, programmer, and producer Malú Ansaldo to review the shows she saw and reflect on the time she spent at the International Theatre Festival of Buenos Aires (FIBA).

    Photos courtesy of FIBA.

    It’s 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon and I am running late. What time did you have to be there? I check my phone and the time. Now. The taxi driver takes a sharp turn. We are heading to the Chacarita Cemetery, the biggest in the country and I am wearing black on this hot summer day. I realise he is looking at me with sympathy, probably thinking the protest cutting the road that forced us to detour and delayed us will make me late to a funeral. In this global context, it is the obvious thing to think. But I am actually late for a show.

    Chacarita opened 100 years ago, when the yellow fever hit Buenos Aires so hard, they had to create a new graveyard and a tram line to carry the corpses. 500 a day. Fast-forward a century and the world is immersed in a new pandemic that forced us all to slow down, locked us in our homes and trapped us inside our screens. As summers across the globe offer some relief and governments allow outdoor gatherings, protocols get tested. In certain parts of the world like Buenos Aires, theatres dare to open too. Against all odds. So Argentinian we feel we have to do theatre no matter what a friend whispers to me, as we sit to watch a show outside one of the State’s cultural centres  the day after my cemetery visit.

    It’s true, I think. Theatre no matter what. 

    It’s the beginning of March and the International Theatre Festival of Buenos Aires (FIBA) is in full swing. I happen to be here to see my family: I came escaping winter and lockdown, in what could have been the beginning of an action movie, catching impossible flights, wearing a face-mask for 24 hours and getting multiple tests. I got to my parents and cried, immersed in a feeling of relief and sadness as we didn’t get to hug like we always do. In this new reality, things are hard no matter where you are. COVID is everywhere, it sneaks in altering everything in our lives. Theatre is no different.

    As I walk through the endless corridors of death in Chacarita I think how refreshing it is to finally be somewhere where I can escape reality. Nada de carne Sobre Nosotras is a show based on stories written by Mariana Enriquez and directed by the amazing Analia Couceyro. It is a guided walk for a handful of people, performed by superb actors which truly transports us to places and stories that are timeless. It makes me forget that Buenos Aires (and the world) is getting deep into one of the biggest financial and social crises our generation will ever see. Everything about this is cinematic and grand, their voices, the empty broken spaces, the hummingbird that randomly stayed with us for a whole story. I realise I was craving fiction. Something that wasn’t Covid themed or related. Somethingelse. Death is still hovering here, but in a different way.

    Later that night I enter one of the many commercial theatres in Buenos Aires, on Calle Corrientes. Our own version of the West End in South America. Since last year the Met Sura theatre has programmed non-commercial transfers with the hope to offer those artists new platforms and their audiences new experiences. Now, they act as one of the FIBA’s venues and, due to social distancing protocols indoors, they offer one of the biggest achievable capacities in the city for independent companies. Almost like a little miracle. The show I see doesn’t talk about Covid, but it shares marginalised stories and voices on a mainstream platform through music and beatboxing, which is surprising here. El Arrebato has been developed and performed by young people from one of the many villas in Buenos Aires, who attend the government’s Art in the Neighbourhoods programmes. It takes me back to the show I saw the previous night.

    Like two sides of the same coin, I had been to Villa 31 literally 24 hours before. The show that took me there was Resiliencia, a collaboration between a French artist and a group of local ones. The Festival team also engaged the newly formed community tourism group called Ajayu, led by residents of the Villa 31 who do cultural tours and gastro experiences where you can taste all the flavours of Latinamerica in one go, right here, where all the migrant communities have established themselves in precarious ways during the last century. That members of Ajayu walked us in, gathered in small groups to enter the Villa, and we arrived at the venue. On this occasion it was the reality around me that overjoyed me. It wasn’t the dramaturgy of this show or the fictional layer forcedly imposed … it was the fact that we were there, in that other city within my city what fascinated me. Seeing Buenos Aires from a completely new perspective in a part of town where I have never been able to enter before, meeting residents and local artists, listening to songs in Mapuche against a full moon rising in the horizon, the backdrop of the harbours’ cranes still working late at night. In this ecosystem, right here, the world felt different. Smaller. Simpler.

    The week went on and I floated in museum gardens where fairy like actors recited queer poetry and ate lollypops in the gloriously refreshing Ave del Paraiso. Flor Tropical by Maruja Bustamante based on texts from Gabriela Bejerman. Official venues, where more traditional theatre forms felt all of a sudden dated and rigid, escaped me. Something changed, maybe not so much in what was happening in front of me but perhaps inside myself. What was I looking for in all these shows beyond artistic pleasure? Day after day I questioned myself, and I kept going.

    I watched a play that screamed about the artists’ precarious living conditions, pushed by the pandemic to dramatic state, but when I looked around I saw people foraging from garbage bags just outside our crystal cage of theatre life and I wondered whether we really knew what we were talking about when we talked about a disenfranchised and marginalised existence. We still hold a stage, a microphone and a voice I thought. I sat on a car watching a show staged in a pandemic prototype made during Covid times and the thing that grabbed me the most, by far, was a hug a dad and his actor teenage son gave each other in front of my eyes. I don’t need to be reminded of what is already happening all around us all the time. 

    I went to see a show in the experimental Estudio Los Vidrios, which is run by director Lisandro Rodriguez. Like him, many artists in Buenos Aires open their own venues and studios, present work, teach, make, live and breathe theatre. This city is workshop central and, on a normal year, there are hundreds of classes you can take, devising, writing and acting, testing ideas and shaping the art scene. This year was no different but, as most workshops went online, many spaces have had to close their doors. But Los Vidrios survived. His play Extremófilos talks a little bit about Covid, but also it takes you to a place where the pandemic hasn’t arrived. It is about survival. And transformation. And it is fiction. One more sign that it was fiction what I was longing for. 

    The last show I see is back in the Museo Hispanoamericano Fernandez Blanco’s garden, around the corner where I once lived, many moons ago. It is a story about a family and death, about letting go of those we love and processing grief. It had a previous run that was cut short due to Covid, like everyone else’s runs across the world, and now it has been taken outdoors to be part of the Festival. It is fun, and sad and small. It is fiction but it also mirrors life: in this family they don’t know how to hug, or how to love. Perhaps they have their own way of expressing love or reaching out to each other?. Have we learn to live without touch?

    I sit there in the dark garden of Argentinas colonial past and have a little quiet cry next to a stranger. The play is called Tu amor sera refugio and I think this title is so right (It translates Your love will be refuge). I think about my parents, about my aunt who died the day I landed and how that made my dad so sad, about the cemetery, the pandemic, the kids in the villa, the old venues with their closed doors; I think about the geography of a city that I once knew so well and that now escapes me from time to time. I think that sometimes, like the characters in this play, I am not sure where I belong anymore.

    I want to believe theatre is here to help me understand all of this like it always has. I want to trust that maybe, when reality is so sad, the best antidote is to go back to a fictional land: see our reality through the lens of imagination, let it guide us back to safer grounds. A world where we can hug each other one more time.