Games of Violence and Danger. Trends in the Work of Gildas Aleksa

By Aušra Kaminskaitė 2020 09 11 APAC info
Gildas Aleksa. Photo by Marius Vizbaras
Gildas Aleksa. Photo by Marius Vizbaras

In 2019, Gildas Aleksa was elected the most remarkable artist of the year in Kaunas (second largest Lithuanian city). After receiving the award Aleksa joked that the scope of his activities is so broad that it would simply be impossible not to memorise him.

There is truth in this joke. Two distinct directions can be traced in his professional path: theatre directing and organisation of international contemporary circus festival Cirkuliacija (Circulation). The former is part of the broad context of Lithuanian theatre, whereas the latter represents an extraordinary innovation, significantly contributing to the showcasing and dissemination of contemporary circus genre in Lithuania.

Theatre of Gildas Aleksa is distinguished for its originality, playfulness and comicality (often ironic and grotesque); it is often created by the team (or part thereof) brought together by director himself, regardless of whether the production is produced by his company “Teatronas” or state / municipal theatre. His theatre works address social topics, especially themes of nationalism, hatred of the Other and lack of critical thought. Such themes require permanent team of like-minded individuals (essentially agreeing over certain values) and the principle of devised theatre, when the material of the play is created by entire team during the rehearsals. Seeking to maintain a relevant and suggestive content, the director continually encourages the actors to improvise and to change their text in accordance with the events of the present time.

The said principle works best in pieces that have no literary background. The plays Kas prieš karą pasiduokit (Whoever is Against the War - Surrender), Pasimetimas (Confusion), Balandis (The Pigeon) directed by Aleksa are pieces born during the rehearsals, which allow changing text and individual scenes over the lifetime of the piece, i.e. they provide for continuous correction of content of already created works. Somewhat more closed is the play Kandidas, arba Optimizmo mirtis (Candide or Death of Optimism, associated with Voltaire's Candide or Optimism), a sci-fi piece Zygfrydas based on a novel Zygfrydas Immerselbe Atsinaujina (Renewal of Zygfrydas Immerselbe) by Lithuanian writer Ignas Šeinius, a literary work that did not attract attention for a long time. Another similar play is William Shakespeare's Othello, performed at a residential apartment for a small audience. When dealing with works distinguished for the peculiar text language of their authors, contemporary actors face a challenge of improvisation, which is much harder to achieve in comparison with monologues or dialogues written down by themselves. However, even in these works the director usually opens the space for the actors to decide upon part of the characters' words and actions, thus refusing to perceive the performance as a finite product.

Aleksa is one of the few Lithuanian directors in whose works the comical elements are of special significance. He claims that all of the works he had directed (perhaps with the exception of Vėjo Prigimtis (The Way of the Wind) after a short story of Amos Oz) are comedies incorporating dark humour and distinguished for their sarcastic or even grotesque expression. It echoes the trend prevalent in today's Western world to address society's problems and flaws (Aleksa frequently uses the latter word when speaking about the themes in his works) in an ironic or satirical manner, with conscious mocking or shaming of those, whose behaviour is considered immoral by the narrators.  The main subject of mockery for Aleksa is the society and its customs, observed in social networks, in comments sections under articles in internet portals, on the streets, in organisations, etc. That is how the director and his creative team have transferred the tragic story of Othello to an apartment built in Soviet period, turning it into an ironic reference towards domestic violence and the neighbours' decision to ignore it. That is why the piece Kas Prieš Karą Pasiduokit concerned with the horror and absurd of different forms of violence also contains an inevitable manifestation of playfulness, which simultaneously makes one laugh and also causes even greater horror, when one realises that violence might be attractive. This is how the absurdity of situations in Zygfrydas turns a sci-fi piece into a comedy, criticising the fascist inclinations of people. Critic Miglė Munderzbakaitė also notes the comicality of the piece based on Voltaire's Candide: “however, <...> the despair and hopelessness are addressed through laughter”.

Until recently Aleksa has directed most of his works in Kaunas, seeking to fill in the niche of alternative art in the country's second largest city. He attempted to achieve that through performances of theatre company “Teatronas”, established about a decade ago and by providing opportunities for Kaunas audiences to see other artists, less familiar to the city's theatre goers. Several years ago, in the hall set up at a small space of the Culture House called “The Shelter”, creators of contemporary performing arts from all of Lithuania showcased their productions. Unfortunately, “The Shelter” had to close down after one and a half years of operation. Nevertheless, such initiatives have contributed to the visibility of Aleksa's name no less than his performances (sometimes even more).

One of his initiatives is the international contemporary circus festival Cirkuliacija - although dating back to 2013, its ultimate direction was formed in 2017 after it was decided to host the festival in Kaunas districts situated away from the city centre. Every year (with the exception of the pandemic 2020) organisers of the festival erect a tent or set up an alternative space in one of the city's districts, where performances of professional Lithuanian or foreign circus performers and companies take place in the evenings; during daytime, events for families, senior citizens and even dog owners are held there. Rest zone is active outside over the course of the festival, where the visitors may spend time alone or communicating with friends, neighbours, festival team and performers; they can buy snacks, coffee and refreshments there. According to Aleksa, Cirkulacija aims to restore the communication within the neighbourhood, to bring art to the districts for those who cannot (or even do not think to) go to the city centre or capital city to see it; to provide an opportunity for Kaunas' residents to discover the areas of the city that are distant from their place of residence.

Cirkulacija has progressed to the point that we have the freedom to select the artists we want to invite, rather than be content with whatever we manage to attract”, says Aleksa. “That is how we began hosting festivals dedicated to specific themes. The topic planned for this year was titled the Private Zone. Here we intended to question the peoples' perception of the space they own and to ask what do they really know about the history of the place they live and work in. Due to the lockdown, the festival could not be held in its intended form, so the companies have agreed to postpone the programme till next year. The year after that we are planning to present the theme of duets and later on, if nothing bad happens, we will come up with Change the word 'Migration' into 'Circulation' as our credo.

The key aspect distinguishing Cirkuliacija within the Lithuanian context lies in its truly tangible attention to social aspects and their harmonic integration with high artistic quality of the performances. Festival organisers do not imitate interest in people who have health issues, low income or children growing up in asocial families. Cirkuliacija provides opportunity for all, regardless of any criteria, to enjoy one or several free shows, to take part in events, discussions and to learn something new. The evening programme of professional contemporary circus shows usually features top-tier performers, attracted by the festival idea communicated by Gildas Aleksa, along with creators of more conceptual art, specific clownade performers, as well as students, who are beginners with some level of experience. The latter often include Lithuanian circus performers and their study friends, making use of yet another objective of the festival, which seeks to provide an opportunity for new professionals of Lithuanian contemporary circus to appear on stage in Lithuania, telling children and teens interested in the genre of the possibilities to study abroad and the necessity to start training as early as possible. In other words, the Cirkuliacija festival is one of the key events in present-day Lithuania contributing to the development of professional contemporary circus in the country. 

Artistic and organisational direction of creative activities of Gildas Aleksa appear to be of equal significance. His artistic achievements resulted in his nomination for Lithuania's top theatre award - The Golden Stage Cross (Young Artist category). His organisational endeavours receive constant financial support from institutions that note the longevity and increasing quality of his work; the success in the field is further evidenced by the growing number of festival audiences. Somehow, Lithuanian theatre critics rarely address the works of the director. However, it is quite likely that most of them have an opinion about Aleksa's works, which they would express if asked.

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