Archive | September, 2010

Lek, absurdity and contemporary Albania’s cultural inertia

27 Sep

By Ekphrasis Studio

Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist, has claimed that “we inherit the greater part of our belief system at a young age”. This system is supported by cultural practices and shapes us up to the point when we decide to examine and/or challenge it. In Albania, cultural and economic isolation produce a cultural inertia – a resistance to change- manifested in one of the most regular daily exchanges, that of money transaction: the “lek” [the national money introduced in 1926 by King Zog and revaluated by Enver Hoxha in 1965] despite its transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is used as ‘new’ while comprehended or communicated as ‘old’. The result is the use of two names [‘old’ and ‘new’], two values and two different types of writing which leads to communication clashes not dissimilar to the theater of the absurd:

A man asks a shopkeeper for 200 lek of cheese, and the shopkeeper struggles to
fill a small container. The man then ‘corrects’ himself by saying “2,000 lek”, to
which the shopkeeper responds, “Oh, I thought you meant 2 lek!” The shopkeeper
then fills the container with ‘2,000 lek’ worth of cheese, and the man pays 200 lek.

Subject to this cultural inertia, Albanians have for decades resisted the ‘new’ face-value lek and have created an un-real experience where 1 is not 1, but is 10. The result is that on a daily basis the consumer must try to decipher if the price talked about is ‘new’ or ‘old’. Conventional logic, where presumably one means what one says, in this case is subverted: there is no conflict when both money users speak the false price, but the consumer who speaks the true number written on the lek is likely to cause confusion. What inevitably ensues is a distrust of language as a means of communication surrounding the use of the lek with its additional ‘new’/‘old’ reference, extra decimal spaces and large numbers. This is particularly true if viewed from the point of view of a foreigner who, witnessing a casual exchange, experiences something akin to watching a piece of absurd theater – the theater of the ‘old’ lek:

A buyer walks into a shop with no prices listed. “How much are the potatoes?” she asks.
“Six-thousand-five hundred-and-fifty-five old lek.” She then pays 655 ‘new’ lek, and
continues on her way.

The ‘old’ lek is still referred to as such by government officials, media outlets, educators, and virtually every business in Albania, let alone by the people. Why such a cultural resistance in allowing language to evolve on this issue? There are several obvious reasons: time, in many ways is stuck in Albania and while many changes occur very quickly, others do not. Many people still live as they did decades ago, and most cannot freely travel to compare the local state of time and place with that of elsewhere. Old mentalities and ‘norms’ still reign supreme. Even today, Albanians remain isolated from the world, as well as within their country. There are visa issues, transportation issues, even a ban on the use of motor boats. The lek is also isolated in that Albania does not produce much to give it value, nor is it a major global currency, thus relatively
unimportant and somewhat idle, along with unemployment rates ranging from 12%-30%.
These social conditions together with culture’s self-reinforcing cycles [to go back to Jung] supported by family, education and social life, result in the recycling of absurd communication patterns such as those surrounding the ‘lek’.


Pesanteur de femmes

23 Sep

By Aktina

When I was in the National Theater of Greece, Andrei Schoukin, a movement instructor from the Vachtangov School of Moscow, gave us an exercise: take an object, study it, and create a movement piece with it. I chose a frame, about the size of a cupboard and created a pretty elaborate piece where I would slide through it, swirl it around with my feet, climb over it and so on. After I presented it to him, hoping to impress him, he said, no, that’s not what we’re looking for. I want you to honestly explore your object; study it; discover it; play with it to see what it can do, how it can move or stand, how you can hold it, all the different ways you can simply relate to it. It is about the object, it is about the relationship, it is not about you or your dance skills.

This story came to my mind last night, as I watched Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen’s Madame Plaza at the Alliance Francaise. A piece of contemporary dance, with four female dancers of all shapes, sizes and ages, weaved together with the tradition of Aita song and dance, an exploration of movement, a reinvention of what the body can do, how it can relate, how it can express itself, how it can feel, outside of stylistic norms or boundaries. A piece that allows the spectator to see bodies moving, turning daily life into movements without any preconceptions about beauty, style or meaning.

The tone is set from the very beginning: the four women seated on three divans suggesting domestic interior, dressed not in theatrical costumes but in everyday clothes, take a series of poses of daily ease and relaxation: lying on their side supporting their heads on the hand, crossing legs leisurely, lying face down, then slowly sliding from the divan to the floor. There is absolutely nothing pretty or “dancy” to the sequence. The sense of rhythm, the slowness by which the women change positions, the silence, the way movement and stillness are orchestrated, create an imperceptible choreography conveying the slow passing of time [what an immediate contrast to the hectic rhythm of the city outside the theater, of all these audiences, including us, rushing to the last minute to see the performance!], the Mediterranean heat that slows things down, the household boredom as the women “melt” in time and into the floor.

The whole piece consists of sequences of relations between the four women- quarrels, prayers, desires, courtships. In these, the bodies explore themselves and one another, they explore their own possibilities and effects: the sound the feet make when they stomp, the women rejoicing in their own sound; a smile as a younger woman dances freely in a space seemingly contained between two older women; bodies that roll on the floor and on one another in the sound accompaniment of their own murmur growing louder and louder. Bodies, voices and facial expressions come together and then apart, on, under, behind, with one another, at all times inconsiderate of how they look [forget about body lines, angles, any of the modern dance rules and aesthetics], yet fully devoted in the moment that gives birth to each movement, to each next relationship.

The conscious break with a modern dance aesthetic- although the piece is presented as modern dance- makes it a challenge to come up with a set of criteria to evaluate a performance like Madame Plaza [I am looking forward to reading how dance critics will approach it]. Fortunately, the piece defies classification- not modern, not postmodern, not folk [how liberating that feels, to see something that one does not have to measure by a certain category, a certain set of criteria, and can enjoy for just what it is!]. Where the modernity of the piece lies, in my view, is not in the movement vocabulary itself, but in the handling of time, rhythms, music and silence and in the reintegration of live singing, speech, theatrical elements and dance in a new set that is neither pure theater, nor dance nor folk spectacle [interestingly a similar, though stylistically entirely different reintegration of text, dance and theatricality we saw last year in Moroccan-Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo at the Joyce]. Therein also lies the cultural identity of the piece offering a really viable answer to the question of bridging modernity with traditional elements and cultural specificity without compromising either [a long time problem of intercultural creations as well as postcolonial societies]. The piece’s rootedness to a culturally specific locality is manifested predominantly on something as intangible as the perception of time, slowness and rhythm, which is so central in Madame Plaza. This together with a dialectical composition of elements- traditional, quotidian, abstract- make the piece a contemporary piece of work for an international stage.

Madame Plaza is part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival and is co-presented with Dancespace project. Performances on September 22nd and 23rd at the Alliance Francaise.

My Med, part I

19 Sep

“Warm and friendly people
Lazy afternoons
Small streets full of restaurants and cafes
Plenty of sunshine
Mediterranean gardens, geraniums, lavenders, rosemary, and sage . . . plants which can survive with minimum water.
and of course olive trees . . .”
öngün, Turkey

“Mediterranean time”. This seems true from Spain and the South of France, through Italy, Albania and to Greece…where things are a little less prompt. 12:00 actually means 12:15″ Kevin, Albania

“Cultural and political wind rose; the cradle of modern civilization; terra madre. Gorgeous islands, worm weather, the best ever food, music, and vines. When nostalgic, I dream about it, hearing the bora in branches and pup of falling cones. Together with that picture always goes the smell of pines resin, and crickets’ chirping…a choir of them. And I see small towns, with narrow alleys: when you walk there, you hear people, loud happy people voices and see a white linen drying up in the air, between houses.” Vesna, Canada

“Warm sunshine, warm ocean, olive oil, Roman monuments… and three days in the back of my Dad’s car to get there from north-west England! The Mediterranean, to me, more than anything else means the holidays of my childhood.” Stephen, England

“For me it means Egypt – my parents’ home land, the place they emigrated from when my oldest brother was just 3. They left for Canada, partly to join family, pursue careers and opportunities, but also to escape religious persecution. As Egyptian Christians (Copts) my parents were part of the minority of Egypt’s largely Muslim demographic. They were not given their just desserts and jobs were taken from them only because of their religion. Despite this, they have returned to their homeland many times since leaving it because of its beauty and its rich culture. No grudges are held, and no ill-words are spoken. Life only pushed them west, where they have lived happily and in harmony for 37 years…” Andrew, Canada

What does the Mediterranean signify for you? Send us your feedback at

Talking about each other

3 Sep

By Aktina

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Anthony Lane offers a review of Fatih Akin’s latest movie, Soul Kitchen (Slice and dice, p. 86). I am not so interested in engaging with his analysis of the movie which I find to have largely missed the point along with the film’s humanity. I am most interested in something he mentions in passing which I found disquieting. Writing about the way the Greek- German hero of the movie and his brother deal with the “craziness that befalls them, seem[ing] both settled and sketchy”  he makes the following, comment, in parentheses:

There could be a simpler reason for this: they are Greeks, and it would be a miracle if Akin had got under their skin. Given the depth of hostility between the two nations, it’s a miracle that he even tried. (p. 87, my emphasis)

For one, the comment on the assumed hostility, parenthetical and out of any political-cultural contextualization as it is, amounts to no more than a easy generalization that only serves at reproducing an old stereotype that ignores the richness and complexity of the two nations’ relationship. In addition, it denies art one of its most valuable qualities: the capacity for empathy. If it is a “miracle” that Akin “even tried”, by the same token and given the vastness of cultural differences in the world, it is “a miracle” that i.e. men make movies about women, Americans about Iraqis and so on and so forth. Leaving aside my personal view that Akin gave a great portrait of the young Greek Germans avoiding the pitfalls of folklore or stereotypes, I find that such comments should be examined twice before being  inserted in a context that cannot at least provide enough argument to support them. Innocent or parenthetical as they may be comments like that do carry an ideological weight.

New York-Fip-Montpellier

1 Sep

The first piece of information to kick off this blog came via Paris and our favorite radio station, Fip.

As I am sitting here in my NY office putting the blog together, one of the notorious Fip female voices announces the exhibition “Mediteranee, terre d’epices, jardin d’aromes” [Mediterranean land of spices, garden of perfumes]. My ear is by now trained at picking up instantly anything Mediterranean- related, so after a bit of research  here’s the info: the event that runs until Dec. 31 at the Agropolis Museum in Montpellier, exhibits seeds and spices, recreates gardens and the interiors of apothecaries and domestic kitchens from around the Mediterranean.

I am thinking, this is a great way to start this journey- filled with the aromas, the tastes and colors that we share! Bon voyage Between the Seas!