Abecedarium Bestiarium

Portraits of affinities in animal metaphors

3/05 – 19:30 + 22:00
4/05 – 20:00 + 22:00
5/05 – 19:00 + 21:00
6/05 – 19:00 + 21:00
EN / FR / DE > FR / NL
1h 30min

The work of Antonia Baehr maps out the forces that press on us in the form of rules and habits. In her unclassifiable Rire at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2009, she reinvented herself by performing “laugh scores” written by other people. For her latest creation, she has once again invited her nearest and dearest to write solos for her. But this time, as the basis for it, she offered them an ABC of extinct animals: D is for dodo, the large bird with atrophied wings, T is for Tasmanian tiger… with everyone able to identify with their unaltered “other”. From La Fontaine’s fables to zoological physiognomy or “animal drag”, there is a long history to man’s dealings with animals. In Abecedarium Bestiarium, Berlin-based Baehr – pronounced bear – unveils awkward correspondences and shakes up categories: human or animal, male or female, living or dead. Baehr sets strange connections – and disconnections – in motion.

Concept, production & performance
Antonia Baehr

With compositions by
Fred Bigot (electronicat), Pauline Boudry, Valérie Castan, Lucile Desamory, Vinciane Despret, Sabine Ercklentz, Dodo Heidenreich, Christian Kesten, Keren Ida Nathan (Ida Wilde), Andrea Neumann, Stefan Pente, Isabell Spengler, Steffi Weismann,William Wheeler, a. o.

Artistic collaboration
Valérie Castan

Sylvie Garot

Manuel Coursin, Eric Yvelin

Alexandra Wellensiek

Production assistants
Silke Bake, Sarah Blumenfeld, Barbara Greiner

Guillaume Cailleau, Sabine Macher, William Wheeler

Subtitling & colour trading
Guillaume Cailleau

Thanks to
Angela Anderson, Lindy Annis, Bettina von Arnim, ausland, Ulrich Baehr, Sarah Bahr, Frédéric Borrotzu, Carola Caggiano, Uli Ertl, Walton Ford, Elisabeth Freeman, Andreas Harder, Nanna Heidenreich, Elisabeth Leopold, Ulrike Melzwig, Wolfgang Müller, Conrad Noack, François Noudelman, Alain Roux, Pauline Schroeder-Baehr, Marlène Shaw, Christiane & Arnulf Spengler, Gertrude Stein

Special thanks to
Beursschouwburg (Brussels)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Beursschouwburg

make up productions (Berlin)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Hebbel am Ufer/HAU (Berlin), steirischer herbst (Graz), Les Subsistances (Lyon), PACT Zollverein (Essen), Centre chorégraphique national de Montpellier Languedoc Roussillon – in the framework of the project Jardin d’Europe, with support of the European Commission and ]domaines[ (Montpellier), Tanzquartier (Vienna)

Co-production, creation & residence
Les Subsistances 2012 in the framework of A Space for Live Arts, supported by the Culture Programme of the European Union

Performance in Brussels supported by
Goethe-Institut Brüssel

This project is co-produced by
NXTSTP, with support of the Culture Programme of the European Union

Make Up, an exhibition of the work of Antonia Baehr and others, will be on display at the Beursschouwburg during the festival (Wed. to Sat. – 11:00 to 18:00).
Telepathy Experiment (32 min), a film by Isabell Spengler, starring Antonia Baehr will be screened at the Beursschouwburg after each performance.

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Abecedarium Bestiarium: Portraits of affinities in animal metaphors

"Knut, the polar bear, died. My name is Antonia Baehr (pronounced bear), and like Knut the bear, I was born in Berlin (pronounced bear-lean). The symbol of the city of Berlin is the bear; the brown bear, however; not the white bear. Many people say that I look and behave like a bear, and that my father and my cousin do too - big, stocky, a bit fat, obstinate, big-boned, and robust. When I was born, my mother designed a birth announcement that, instead of depicting humans, pictured Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear wearing human clothes. As children we had teddy bears, not dolls, and we mostly read bear stories. Now, how is Knut related to Baehr? And how does Baehr relate to the Berlin bear? B as in Bear, to be precise, and Baehr as in Bear. And Knut as in Bear as in Berlin. But what does this 'as in' signify? What relationship between A and B does it suggest? Have I become bear-like because my name is Baehr? Is the number of people who mourn Knut so infinite because he was a Ber-liner, just as they are Berliners, just as Kennedy is a Berliner? Or are facets of bear-ness applicable to me because I was, in fact, associated with this furry animal from birth, long before I had mastered language and the letter B?"
Antonia Baehr

Following the example of her solo LAUGH, Antonia Baehr has, for a second and last time, invited her friends to write compositions for her. This time around she proposed that they write scores for an ABC of extinct animals: D for dodo, T for the Tasmanian tiger, ... Each author was asked to identify their particular affinity with an extinct animal of their choice. Their scores had to metaphorically reflect their relationship with the choreographer. On March 29th, Lars Kwakkenbos spoke with Antonia Baehr about Abecedarium Bestiarium: Portraits of affinities in animal metaphors, a piece in which she will perform a selection of these scores.

In 2009, you performed LAUGH at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts. You defined that piece, which consists of scores written by friends and family for your laughter, as a self-portrait through the eyes of those who see you. Four years later you have asked artist friends to write scores for you again. Will Abecedarium Bestiarium be another self-portrait?

Not in the same way. The scores I perform in LAUGH are birthday presents that I, as Antonia Baehr, had asked for. This time I have invited the authors, by way of a commission, sending them each an invitation letter. They were paid a small wage for their work, which makes it different to being a present. More than a self-portrait, Abecedarium Bestiarium represents the relationship between my entourage and myself, in which an extinct animal acts as a metaphor.

In a brief text in which she introduces Abecedarium Bestiarium, Gertrude Ferrant refers to the correspondences carried-out during a long history of animal representation, ranging "from the double-portraits of zoological physiognomy by Giambattista della Porta to the zoomorphic caricatures of Grandville; from the bestiaries of the Middle Ages to 'animal drag'; from animal alphabet primers to the naturalist watercolours of Walton Ford." She calls these correspondences "disturbing", opening the door to "mad affinities and disaffinities". How would you define such correspondences?

What does it do to you to have a name that is that of an animal, for instance? From Dodo, a friend of mine who is called Dodo, I wanted to know what having the same name as an extinct bird does to her. That's why I started this project. The first occidental alphabet primers - in Latin these are called abecedariums - known to us were conceived and illustrated with animals. It is said that the first known version was from 1658, by the Czech educational reformer, Comenius. It uses the sounds of the animals. A is áá, the croaking sound of a crow; B is bééé, the bleating of a sheep; C is like ci ci, the chirping of a grasshopper. It is amazing how we learn written language, such an abstract thing, by relating the letters of our alphabet to the sounds that non-human animals produce. The human animal seems to know who she or he is because she or he has been relating to other animals - the non-human ones - in a symbolic way for ages. But also, the language and signs used by the human species relate symbolically to those used by other species. I remember that, as a child, the letters of the alphabet were alive for me. They weren't frozen and immutable. They were in movement, changing in time. They had an animistic power. Walter Benjamin writes about this in Der Lesekasten, a chapter in Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert. It is about his memory of learning the language and the alphabet, using a Lesekasten in which the letters were for him like nuns in a monastery.

Why did you ask the authors of the scores to choose animals that have disappeared?

It's a choice, a framework, a system, a game. It corresponds with an abecedarium type of book. As such, the authors couldn't choose from all possible and imaginable animals, but rather only animal species that became extinct after the year 1500, and then only mammals or birds. The choice of the year is linked to the history of colonisation, with which the extinction of animal species is broadly intertwined. Two summers ago, I went to the upper level of the Natural History Museum in Paris, the one with the extinct animals. As I climbed the steps, it became quieter and quieter. As I arrived upstairs, it was silent. Up there, the presentation of the dead wasn't interactive anymore, like on the lower levels. Everything was from former times, even the clock - from Marie-Antoinette, it said. Stuffed animals stared at me through their glass eyes from behind the glass of their display cases. Each was labelled with a cross, followed by the year of their presumed extinction. As Stefan Pente and William Wheeler, authors of some of the scores I perform in Abecedarium Bestiarium, have written in the introduction to their incredible performance Drawing for Witnesses, I say: "Are they dead? No, they're just frozen..." In Abecedarium Bestiarium, the floor is empty and white in the centre, the authors are absent, and the animal species are dead. We do not know how they sounded, and we don't know exactly how some of them looked, either. We can only imagine or invoke their presence. The reason I asked the authors of the compositions to choose animal species that have disappeared, rather than dogs and cats, is because of the realm of imagination and evocation that comes with that. We would necessarily have to summon phantoms, and the way that they relate to the relationships between people who are alive. And all this relates to the fact that life is fleeting, and to friendships and relationships, something that moves in time. In this sense, this project is close to For Faces, a piece dating from 2010, which consists of micro-choreographies for four faces on stage, with the spectators seated in a circle around the performers. Both Abecedarium Bestiarium and For Faces look at how the fiction of identity weaves itself through the eyes of others - the others being the entourage of the subject and animals as symbols. "I am I because my little dog knows me", said Gertrude Stein. Who am I? I am I because Dodo and the dodo-bird know me. Identity is a fable, oh dear! Oh dear!

Who will be on stage in Abecedarium Bestiarium? Antonia Baehr, Werner Hirsch, Henri Fleur, Henry Wilde?

Abecedarium Bestiarium is my second solo - LAUGH was the first. My Dog is My Piano, the piece that comes before Abecedarium Bestiarium and goes with it because it's also about interspecies relationships, is a sonic lecture-performance, so I don't consider it a 'solo'. This time I had to ask myself again: who is there on stage? What are this single person and project host representing on stage? And instead of self-expression and spilling my guts as a soloist and author, I stay at the very surface of the being, the most superficial and obvious, and ask: what's the name of this soloist? What's the name of the artist and how does that name affect the fable of her identity? And of course: "Without You I am Nothing", to quote William Wheeler once again, I had to make this project with you, my entourage, the authors of the compositions I will perform. And it is for you, the audience who I will invite on stage with me, to follow me walking from station to station. 'Antonia Baehr' will give the introduction, but the compositions do not all refer to 'Antonia Baehr' because not all authors relate to the drag name: 'Antonia Baehr'. Other authors relate to other drag names: 'Werner Hirsch', or 'Henry Wilde', for example - which is what they call and relate to me. Ida wrote a score for her husband, Henry Wilde, for instance. She does not care about Antonia (laughs). I generously give myself over to the authors' different modes of expression, and present a selection of miniatures in heterogeneous styles and moods.It is nice that different artistic genres and tastes cohabit the piece, and that you do not necessarily have to name them. As a lot of my friends are musicians, there are several musical pieces involved. Some of them are sparse and abstract and some are narrative, while others consist of electronic music that you could hear in a nightclub. Besides that, you have acting, you have costumes, you see no acting at all, you encounter complete abstraction... the whole range of achievements and taboos of post-dramatic theatre is there. (...) I am naive, in the sense of being curious. I like the double meaning of the English verb to wonder - think of Alice in Wonderland. In French, this would be s'émerveiller, but I prefer the English meaning because you can say: I wonder how this works. So it means to ask how something functions. A state of wonder is the motor for both making the work and sharing it with an audience.

However worth wondering about one's daily life may be, your work is always characterised by a remarkable sense of precision regarding its distillation. Can you tell us something more about the different phases you went through in creating Abecedarium Bestiarium?

There was a series of salons in Ausland in Berlin, where I performed the scores for the authors. Since this project is an imaginary book transformed into a performance, there was a physical book in former drafts of the piece. After the first performances, the project will be made into a book again. (...) I think the displacement of what happens in daily life, like laughter or relating to another face, or relating to a name, and putting it in a theatre context is enough. I don't need to comment on it by saying Oh, it's great, Oh, it's bad, or It's funny... That's where my work would become grotesque. Exaggerating the everyday would mean that you are creating caricatures of it, imposing on the audience your own way of reading it. I find it subtler to take the everyday, distil things out of it, and put those in the theatre without altering them too much. That is where the precision comes in. I guess, though, that these days I sometimes exaggerate. Which is forbidden (laughs). Ever since I went to China with LAUGH, faraway from my own daily life and routines, I have gone a little crazier and let myself do things that I would not have allowed myself to do before.

In your work, I recognise topics that are treated as taboos in modernity, such as drag culture. You can see it popping up in cabaret, or in the performative parts of musical subcultures, such as clubbing.

What I like most about drag culture is that it is about desire, and that the audience of a drag act is there to support the performer's desire. It is there to say: Yes, live your thing. We, as a collective, we support you in living this subversive identity, and the stage is where you can perform it, try it out or live it out, safely. Here, the stage acts as a space in which to resist and gather strength, to then survive on the street as someone who does not conform to the norms.

Which might also be true for Abecedarium Bestiarium. Everyone sometimes desires to imitate an animal, and on stage you are free to do it.

Oh yes! We all imitate animals. Children do it, adults do it, if you have a cat you do it... and the cat imitates you too. But Abecedarium Bestiarium is probably less about imitating animals than other works I've made on the same subject since 1998. And also, it's not about imitating animals, it's about the animal as a metaphor and not the animal itself, the real animal, let's say. Animals have never had the right to be just animals. They were always symbols, metaphors to us. Accordingly, in this particular project the idea is to push that a bit further. So Abecedarium Bestiarium doesn't show extinct animals or live author-artists, but it unfolds relationships. Anyway, I've received these compositions and I am giving myself over to them the best I can. When you interpret a composition that has been written for you and that concerns the relationship you are having with its author, thereby keeping in mind this metaphor of an extinct animal, that composition creates a very warm place to work in. It helps you to get rid of yourself. Giving oneself over to the different styles of other authors, and opening the door to mad affinities and disaffinities - from self to other, from human to animal, from dead to alive - helps bring some mess into identitary cramps.

Be what you would seem to be - or, if you'd like it put more simply - never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.
The Duchess, in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland

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Antonia Baehr (b. 1970) is a choreographer. Her work is characterised by a non-disciplinary approach and a method of collaborating with different people using a game-like structure and switching roles: each person takes turns being director, author, host, performer and guest. In 1994 she co-founded the Berlin-based performance group ex machinis. She studied film and media arts at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin with Valie Export, graduating in 1996. She was then awarded a DAAD grant and merit scholarship for the School of The Art Institute of Chicago where she completed her masters in performance with Lin Hixson from the performance group Goat Island and began collaborating with William Wheeler. She has been based in Berlin since 2000. She co-organised labor sonor, an experimental music and performance series, at KuLe Theater from 2001 to 2003 and co-hosted the Radioriff festival in December 2003 in ausland – Territory for experimental music, performance and art (Berlin). She was associate artist-in-residence at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers in France between 2006 and 2008. In 2008 she published her book Rire/Laugh/Lachen. Her productions include Holding hands (2000), Un après-midi (2003), Cat Calendar with Antonija Livingstone (2004), Larry Peacock co-produced by Sabine Ercklentz and Andrea Neumann (2005), Merci (2006), Rire (2008), For Faces (2010) and My Dog is My Piano (2012). Antonia Baehr has also worked with Lindy Annis, Valérie Castan and Arantxa Martinez. In addition, she also produces the work of horse whisperer and dancer Werner Hirsch, musician and choreographer Henri Fleur and composer Henry Wilt.

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