Natalia Koliada

BELARUS-FREE-THEATREWe perform simply because we love our jobs in the theater. It’s a life that we choose to lead, to be able to say what we think.
We’re on a wanted list — we’re public enemies.
Much of the oppression Belarusians are subjected to is comparable to that in Egypt and Libya. The only difference is that Belarus doesn’t generate great geopolitical interest. We don’t have gas or oil, we just have a lot of people.
We are not politicians. We believe it’s necessary — whether you’re a businessman, a doctor, an actor or anything else — to tell the truth. We are very interested in the lives of people…we speak about very, very personal issues, and everyone who attends should find a connection in our work to their own lives.

3 thoughts on “Natalia Koliada

  1. shinichi Post author

    Most artists grapple with various challenges in their decision to pursue a career in the theater, from first-time audition jitters to long-term financial instability. But for the cast and crew of the Belarus Free Theatre, onstage success meant facing more serious risks: political persecution and even imprisonment in their homeland.

    “We [perform] simply because we love our jobs in the theater,” says the company’s artistic director and co-founder Natalia Koliada. “It’s a life that we choose to lead, to be able to say what we think.”

    In New York, where the Belarus Free Theatre is back in repertory for the next five weeks with a gripping triumvirate of productions — “Being Harold Pinter,” “Zone of Silence,” and “Discover Love” — it’s easy to believe that their work has paid off. And in London, where members recently performed inside Britain’s House of Commons and with the likes of Jude Law and Ian McKellen, the artistic accolades members receive are perhaps even greater.

    But the ghosts of their authoritarian homeland continue to haunt the cast and crew both onstage and off. In their native Minsk, where media and artistic works are subject to heavy government censorship, members are forced to rehearse in secret and then hastily organize performances in makeshift venues with no publicity. The troupe’s fortunes seemed to take a turn for the worse last December, when the capital was rattled by violent protests against the fourth term of President Alexander Lukashenko, mere weeks before they were set to depart for the 2011 Under The Radar Festival in New York. Held on Dec. 19, the elections were widely considered rigged, with the results manipulated in favor of Lukashenko, in power since 1994.

    Two of the underground group’s artists were arrested in the ensuing chaos, and though they performed to sold-out crowds at the festival in early January after secretly fleeing Minsk along with their cohorts, Belarus Free Theatre members remain unable to return to their homeland in any official capacity for fear of arrest. “We’re on a wanted list — we’re public enemies,” Koliada says, noting that family members and friends have continued to face interrogation and threats from the secret police since the troupe’s departure. Much of the oppression Belarusians are subjected to, she says, is comparable to that in Egypt and Libya. “The only difference is that Belarus doesn’t generate great geopolitical interest. We don’t have gas or oil, we just have a lot of people.”

    For now, however, the Belarus Free Theatre is simply happy to be able to present its work safely and to an appreciative audience. “Being Harold Pinter” is an elaborate hybrid piece which intercuts transcribed dialogue by Belarusian political prisoners with scenes from some of Pinter’s best-known plays, while “Zone of Silence” is a three-part show which tackles various Belarusian social taboos. Making its New York premiere is “Discover Love,” based on one Belarusian woman’s experiences after her husband was kidnapped and allegedly murdered by government forces. The choice of the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, one of Manhattan’s more intimate venues, lends each production an eerie, almost voyeuristic quality — perfect for the subject matter at hand.

    Though the Belarus Free Theatre’s politically-tinged shows have consequently raised awareness of human rights violations taking place within the nation known as “Europe’s last dictatorship” each time the troupe performs, Koliada insists her company values artistic integrity over simply being seen as a global advocacy campaign.

    “We are not politicians,” she says. “We believe it’s necessary — whether you’re a businessman, a doctor, an actor or anything else — to tell the truth. We are very interested in the lives of people…we speak about very, very personal issues, and everyone who attends should find a connection in our work to their own lives.”

  2. shinichi Post author

    Rendering a City With a Blowtorch

    Belarus Free Theater’s ‘Minsk, 2011’ at the Public Theater


    Something mythic — a sight to inspire fear and wonder — tears its way into existence toward the end of “Minsk, 2011,” the beautiful and brutal performance piece from the Belarus Free Theater. Like many of the richest moments in theater, this one involves very simple elements: black ink, a long roll of brown paper and a naked woman.

    Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? But you could call what happens in this sequence a joke only in the cosmic sense, as visions of retribution sometimes are. Sure, what you’re looking at is only a metaphor, but one with a visceral reality that claws at your imagination and leaves scars. An image that could be fully achieved only by live performers on a stage, it’s a fierce reminder that in art, anger can be a most fertile mother of invention.

    That relationship has made the Belarus Free Theater, which is banned from performing in its own country, one of the most powerful and vividly resourceful underground companies on the planet. (I first saw the troupe in New York two years ago when it came with its dazzling “Being Harold Pinter.”) The full title of its latest production, part of the invaluable Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater, is “Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker.” Like Acker’s book “New York City in 1979,” Minsk” is a portrait of a metropolis as defined by its sex life.

    Sex, as is observed several times in this production (performed with supertitles), is not the same as sexy. Certainly sexy is hardly the word for the scene I referred to above, although its central figure is a beautiful nude (Yana Rusakevich).

    In a monologue written by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, the company’s co-artistic directors, Ms. Rusakevich describes a teenager’s memory of being arrested, abused and fingerprinted by the state police. As she speaks, male performers cover her body with ink and then press her onto a long swath of paper on the floor. The paper is then wrapped tightly around her into a head-to-toe chrysalis.

    As the woman continues to speak, her head tears through the paper cocoon. She looks blank and dangerous. She has a whip in her hand, and she roves the stage in a rudderless rage. “Hear the whip crack, and start to understand,” she says. “That girl. She’s grown up. Minsk is right there!”

    In both its poetry and harshness this birth of a monster, gestated by violence and repression, is perhaps the most extreme scene in “Minsk,” but not by much. Conceived and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, the production offers a jagged mosaic of vignettes that portray a world in which violence enforces silence, and sex and pleasure are seldom synonymous.

    That landscape is summoned into existence through journalistic narratives, first-person testimonies, jazzlike riffs of monologues, catalogs of statistics, and ensemble set pieces that include a vivacious treatise on the naming and consumption of rotgut wine and a harrowing re-enactment of a subway bombing.

    Video footage is occasionally projected. But mostly our sense of place comes from words, movement and the artful deployment of props as rudimentary as balloons, plastic chairs, a red runner rug and three bags of sugar. By the end you’re likely to feel that a map of Minsk is tattooed onto your brain, as specific as James Joyce’s Dublin, and not just its squares and streets and clubs and prisons.

    You’ll also feel the throb of the body of water that runs beneath the city, the Nemiga River, which, we are told, “is a ghost river, not shown on any map”; it was channeled into pipes underground in the middle of the 20th century. And this sense of a vital force, dangerously thwarted and mechanized, courses throughout the show.

    Three abject, huddled women throw off their robes to strut their stuff for a government inspector in a strip club, before collapsing again, like run-down windup dolls. A nocturnal gay Brigadoon of a sex club (a workers’ canteen by day) erupts into fleeting life in a joyless orgasmic frenzy.

    A student with dreams of becoming a stripper starves herself into anorexia after a bruising encounter with two men she has met on the Internet. A friendly setup for casual sex between a man and a woman never gets very far. She loses interest after he describes being beaten up on a train and then having an oddly reassuring epiphany inspired by the sight of a smiling rat in a deserted lot.

    A rat? Hey, if you’re looking for favorable omens in a hope-stripped landscape, you work with what’s at hand, don’t you? And as bleak as the life described here is, “Minsk” is also steeped in an uncommon lyricism and in the hope that lies in the transformative powers of art.

    Poetry shows up in the damnedest shapes and places, as when a team of imprisoned prostitutes is released to help clean up an unexpectedly heavy snowfall, and we see them as joyously, liberatingly airborne. I first saw “Minsk” last summer in London, and as both agitprop and art, in which the political becomes personal and vice versa, it has only melded and strengthened.

    When in the final scene the members of the ensemble speak directly and quietly to the audience about their feelings about their city, the emotions are profoundly mixed. There’s resentment, fear and rage, yes, but also a sense that they ineffably belong to this conflicted, unhappy place.

    One actor, Aleh Sidorchyk, a political refugee living in London, talks about his calls to his mother, who is still in Minsk and has Alzheimer’s. “She thinks I still live there,” he says. “Actually, that’s not it. She doesn’t think I’m living there. My mum knows the truth. I am still there.”


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