The opening exchanges of Beursschouwburg’s fiftieth-birthday party set a relaxed tone for what proved at times over the course of the next fifty hours to be anything but. The Flemish arts institution in the heart of Brussels’ Bourse district opted to start its fifty-first year with an hour’s worth of creative endeavour for each year of existence, running continuously to culminate in a 22Tracks party that would take over the whole building, seeing out the celebrations in style with DJs coming from each of the four 22Tracks outposts. But before all that, we were called into action by Tom Bonte, the youthful Creative Director of Beursschouwburg whose program notes introduced the festivities with refreshing humility. The event’s title, he wrote, had “not been chosen at random: Under construction since 1965’ was chosen because everything is changing, [and] our arts Centre must stay in step, and undergo reconstruction.” Tom told us he needed us to join him in finishing one of the finest spreads of birthday cakes surely ever assembled. The Belgians can bake, and all he asked of us in return was a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ the completion of which proved less than straightforward as the 200 or so guests grappled with the venue name’s pronunciation in wishing it well. Try it. Not easy. Burr-skewr-burg.
Twenty-nine hours later and Tom was on stage playing guitar with an eleventh-hour replacement act, and an hour after that it was Tom hoovering up the detritus left by faux-anarchic cabaret hoard Bas Nylon, dutifully prepping the bistro floor for child-focused circus fun the following morning. The team at Beursschouwburg is small but strong. I was there to support one of the their newest members, so was lucky enough to meet a tightly knit and extremely supportive unit of arts professionals who I hope are still toasting the event’s success.
On Thursday night, Mark Thomkins and Mathieu Grenier invited us under the skin of show-business relationships in their “Opening Night a Vaudeville” show. Theirs was a beautifully considered vaudeville act, telling several tragicomic stories by rollicking through a list of hits at such a pace that they never felt played out, leaving us liking both performers for very different reasons, in equal measure.
The invitation from artists to consider the art of performance from a different angle underwrote all of the more thought-provoking work on show at the Beursschouwburg, shaping a reflective mood of celebration throughout. There were two audio journeys on offer as part of the festivities, both of which encouraged a re-alignment of how we listen, and therefore how we act on what we hear.
The first of these was from German sound artist David Helbeich in his ‘Brussels Tracks’. Helbeich attached instructions and tracks to sites in the city, encouraging us to listen to the tracks in a certain way by performing certain instructions. I didn’t do the walk, but I heard the talk, and I loved his idea of approaching listening as performance, as this is surely something we should all be applying all the time. Good performance gets rewarded.
The second of these was the Autoteatro of British performance maker Ant Hampton, who experiments with his audience, giving them active roles in shaping what his work becomes. In ‘Someone Else’ we the listeners found ourselves key players in an artificial conversation, some live portraiture (a lovely staring match) and a conversation with someone we would never have otherwise spoken to. There is certainly an art to getting your audience to carry out a series of tasks for the good of your own work.
The final performance before 22Tracks took over came from Swedish choreographer Jefta Van Dinther. His disconcertingly physical depiction of man against man, then man against machine was set to throbbing techno and littered with dim light and strobes. It was exhausting. At times he’d suddenly appear, standing there, breathing deeply, spot-lit and glaring, a feral futurist who’d warded off the machines for another few moments. When Van Dinther came back on stage with his light and sound collaborators for ‘GRIND’ – Minna Tikkainen and David Kiers respectively – I couldn’t help but think back to the vaudeville show and the huge creative variety they’d depicted in “Opening Night”. But this was closing night, so we discoed with Mr. Mendel, got properly jazz-housed with John K, sat it out in the photobooth then left the place safe in the knowledge that things would continue to ebb and flow sweetly at Beursschouwburg > under construction since 1965.