International: Europe watches at Poland’s Malta Festival

A spectator at the Malta Festival in 2016. Photo: Maciej Zakrzewsk A spectator at this year's Malta Festival. Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski
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A crowd of approximately 8,000 people is standing in a square in the Polish city of Poznan. A stage has been erected alongside the Imperial Castle – a building that now houses art galleries, a theatre, and a museum dedicated to the Poznan Uprising of 1956. On a series of screens around the square, archive footage of this event – a pivotal one, both in the history of the country and of the Eastern Bloc – plays out to a jagged soundtrack. It’s just possible to glimpse the outline of the imposing monument to the fallen, a towering double-cross, behind the stage as the sky darkens.

It is June 28, the last night of the 2016 Malta Festival and also the 60th anniversary of the Poznan Uprising, a day of remembrance. This collision is being marked by a large-scale outdoor performance, live-streamed via YouTube and Poland’s TVP2, following on from a ceremonial wreath-laying and a series of speeches from politicians, some of which were met with chants of protest.

Over the past 12 days, some 70,000 people have participated in 240 events at venues around the city. The Malta Festival, which now encompasses music, theatre, dance, film and debate, was established in 1991, at the end of the period of democratic transition that put an end to the Polish People’s Republic. The festival takes its name from nearby Lake Malta, and initially it was a festival of street theatre. An emphasis on outdoor work and the transformation of public spaces remains a key part of the festival’s identity.

This year, festival activity centred on Poznan’s Plac Wolnosci – Liberty Square. It is an urban space that lacks the colour and bustle of the old town square, with its rainbow-hued merchants’ houses and ornate town hall, complete with little mechanical goats that butt heads at midday. But for the duration of the festival, it has been turned into a bit of an oasis, an island in the middle of the city.

A scene from Ksenophony, Symphony for the Other
A scene from Ksenophony, Symphony for the Other

There is a fountain. There are deckchairs and hammocks, with a stage area set up along with a bar and plenty of space for relaxing and reflection. Access and community are part of the ethos of the festival, the creation of a space for free expression and the sharing of ideas. There are workshops, debates and concerts, as well as a silent disco.

From 2010, the festival programme has included a strand of themed work curated by a different guest artist. Last year, it was curated by Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells and the theme was Never Sleep. This year’s curator was the Dutch artist Lotte van den Berg, and the theme was The Paradox of the Spectator. In 2017, Croatian director Oliver Frljic and Goran Injac of the Slovensko Mladinsko Theatre in Ljubljana will curate the festival around contemporary art of the Balkans, and in 2018 faith will be the theme of the festival curated by Belgian director Jan Lauwers.

This year, many of the pieces were concerned with what it was to watch or to be watched, the act of looking: the things that engage the eye and the mind, and the things that make us look away. Van den Berg presented Building Conversation, a series of her own pieces. One of them, Conversation Without Words, involved a group of participants attempting to engage with one another without speaking. In a week of great turbulence and unrest – the UK’s EU referendum took place during the festival – it was a lesson in communication, powerful in its simplicity.

The Extra People, a new audio piece by British theatremaker Ant Hampton, also explored the relationship between audience and onlooker. Designed to be experienced by groups of 15 people at a time, and taking place in a dimly lit but otherwise empty lecture theatre, it required participants to don hi-vis vests and wrap themselves in old blankets, to huddle together in the dark while a recorded voice fed them instructions. It felt a bit like a post-apocalyptic party game, people responding to voices that only they could hear.


5 things you need to know about the Malta Festival

1. The festival was established in 1991 as a street theatre festival and takes its name from Lake Malta, one of the oldest man-made rowing venues in Europe.

2. Music has always been a central part of the festival, and Portishead, Goran Bregovic, Beirut and Nine Inch Nails have all performed here over the years.

3. Since 2010, a strand of programming has been curated by a guest artist. Last year’s curator was Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment.

4. The 2016 curator was Dutch artist Lotte van den Berg and the theme was The Paradox of the Spectator.

5. The 2016 festival concluded with Ksenophony, Symphony for the Other, a large-scale, multimedia event marking the 60th anniversary of the Poznan Uprising.

This year’s festival was also, understandably, preoccupied with history, memory and commemoration. In June 1956, students and workers at Stalin’s metal manufacturing complex clashed violently with the Polish authorities, and the resulting military response caused the death of many, with estimated casualties of between 57 and 100. The piece commissioned to mark the event, Ksenophony, Symphony for the Other, was directed by Jan Komasa, choreographed by Mikolaj Mikolajczyk and featured the music of Kwadrofonik.

The festival’s director Michal Merczynski says: “The uprising of workers in Poznan in June 1956 is a testament to the universal struggle for freedom, equality and fraternity, a testimony of a purpose that does not expire and, in the current socio-political situation in Europe, continues to be quite dramatic.”

A company of 28 young dancers, from countries including Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Spain and Poland – including the winner of Eurovision Young Dancers 2015, Viktoria Nowak – took to the stage, clad in white vests and shorts. Their coordinated movements resembled the mass gymnastics of the Falcon movement: young bodies moving as one. As they danced, the lighting rig, a series of white globes, lowered slowly, growing closer to their heads as their movements became more frenzied and desperate.

Mikolajczyk, black-suited and bare-footed, walked among them, smoking, spitting orders, dragging them to their feet, manhandling them. The music became increasingly ferocious, throbbing, thumping. The piece ends with the young dancers standing with their arms aloft, bathed in blood, before being cut down. It is a striking, angry, political image.

It was Komasa’s intention to make a piece that could speak to people regardless of generation or background. “It is an artistic event through and through, intelligible for everyone regardless of where they come from, as it is communicating through dance and not words,” he said. In a turbulent week for Europe, the piece was resonant.

There were other programmed pieces that explored the act of commemoration: who it serves, who it speaks for, and how it shapes public memory. This was particularly true of Goraczka Czerwcowej Nocy, by Teatr Nowy w Poznaniu, a play that focused on the various ways the uprising has been represented and retold over the decades, in stone and on screen.

It looked at the figure of 13-year-old Romek Strzalkowski. As the youngest person to die in the uprising, he’s come to occupy a particular place in the national narrative. The play gave voice to his grieving mother, but also to the dead whose names and faces are not remembered. The theatre had been inverted, with the audience seated upon the stage while the cast performed among the red rows of the theatre’s seating.

The line between audience and actor blurred – everyone was a spectator.

Profile: Malta Festival

General director: Michal Merczynski
Founded: 1991
Based: Poznan, Poland
Dates: June
Spaces/venues: 58 (including 21 indoor and 37 outdoor)
Events: 241
Artists: 780
Audience figures (2016): 70,000 (including 8,000 participants in Ksenophony)
Budget (2015): 5.3 million Polish zlotys (£1.2 million)
Funding 2016: Malta Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, is the overall organiser of the festival. Funding varies from year to year, but grants this year include: City Hall of Poznan, Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Marschal Office of the Wielkopolska Region, European Union House on Fire project, Performing Arts Fund NL, sponsors (Tempus, SGB-Bank SA, Exide Technologies/Centra, Eurocash, Zeto, logistic partner: Toyota Poland), public institutions, income from ticket sales and other income. 
Contact: +48 603 531 002, office@malta-festival.pl, malta-festival.pl/en