Dancing at the heart of the Siege

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to dance choreographer Irina Pauls ahead of the upcoming production It’s Schiller!, which adapts fragments of Schiller’s Der Maltheser – a historical drama dealing with the Great Siege

Photo by Sebio Aquilina
Photo by Sebio Aquilina

What led you to adapt Schiller’s Der Maltheser into a dance performance? Why did you feel that the piece was conducive to a dance-based treatment?

The interest and the inspiration came directly from Malta. I am a frequent visitor of the island, and I really love the place and its colourful history. In 2012 I could realise a dance performance in coproduction with German and Maltese dancers at St George Square in Valletta. Once Valletta was selected to become the European Capital of Culture for 2018, I wanted to latch onto that momentum and pin down a theme that is strongly connected to the island and its history.

And what could be more fitting for this purpose than the fragments of a work by a great German writer, directly inspired by the Great Siege of Malta in 1565? I personally think that a knowledge of history is fundamental towards coming to terms with our contemporary presence.

As a choreographer I am mostly involved in the field of Dance-Theatre. The performances as a whole are formed from ‘broken bits’, with dance being opened up to all possible movements of the human body; from music to singing, to texts and vocal contributions. The constant filing, dropping, adding and revaluing of the thoughts in the text by Friedrich Schiller in his Maltheser fragments allows me as a director the continuation of this practice in the dance performance, it challenges this art form outright.

A link to the present day is given by contemporary aesthetics of the project. The fragments are not smoothed into a linear story, but scenic presentations make up a whole and reflect Schiller’s startlingly intense preoccupation with the subject and the role of the Grandmaster.

Beyond the obvious tenors of its narrative, how important would you say Maltese heritage and history were to your crafting of this piece?

This was very important for me. To come to the point where I am able to say: ‘I am creating a dance performance and the content will be...’ Until I got to that point, however, it was all a matter of intensive research into various subjects: the history of Malta, the Order of St John, the biography of Friedrich Schiller and the main art forms of the 16th century – from architecture to painting and music.

Could you tell us something about the musical compositions at the centre of the production? How did you set out to balance the historical nature of the narrative vs a contemporary feel in the music, and how did this impact your choreography work in particular?

Friedrich Schiller believed the chorus on stage serves as a moral compass. For this reason, we will have on stage the world-class a capella singers ‘amarcord’. For the music to It’s Schiller!, I worked with the composer Matthias Engelke. We wanted to find a balance between contemporary electronic music and songs in the Christian music tradition. This happens to be the precise area of expertise of the vocal ensemble amarcord.

To this end, the songs that were composed between the 11th and 16th centuries were set into the context of music created with modern production means such as synthesizers, samplers, and effects, arranged and played by a computer. The blend between the voices and the electronics is being mixed during the performance.

Besides the historical songs, the composer integrated sounds and audio fragments into the electronic composition with the aim of enabling
associations to the story’s historical background and to Turkish-Arabic culture. We wanted to create a homogenous and modern aesthetic that also connects to the historical nature of the narrative.

In my artistic work, I am very much focused on the various possibilities of the relationship between dance and music. Working with dancers and singers on stage is a great opportunity which influences the inner rythm of the piece as a whole.

What would you say are some of the key thematic elements of the piece, and how did you seek to ensure they still feel timely and relevant?

One important thematic element is the sense of claustrophobia that envelops the island of Malta during the Great Siege. Then, there’s a focus on classical ideas of what makes a human being; like inclination vs duty, and what’s worth sacrificing one’s life for, if anything at all? Morality, responsibility, obedience... the conflict between “animal” and the “spiritual” nature of man.

A key factor is also the decidedly masculine society that makes up the Order, and the relationships of different nationalities. There is conspiracy, disobedience, insurrection, love, homosexual love, fatherly love…

In fact, it is an early European Community with all of its nationalistic jealousy and its cultural conflicts.

There will be no attempt to simply “replay” the fragments on stage, or – for example – assume the role of the Grandmaster. What the audience will experience will be contemporary people using their preferred artistic medium to translate the fragments into a particular art form. The performance is an aesthetic-spatial experimental field. A piece of art is relevant for me when it touches the emotions of the audience.

How do you feel about performing this piece in Malta? What kind of atmosphere are you expecting from the island, and what do you hope Maltese audiences will get out of the production?

Originally we wanted to perform ‘It’s Schiller!’ inside Fort St Elmo – the original setting in Schiller’s fragments. As this proved to be impossible for various reasons we were very lucky to have found the great support from Teatru Salesjan. I am really looking forward to present my performance to the Maltese audience there. A performance which is strongly connected with their capital and reflects the troubles and possibilities of our human community.

It’s Schiller! will be staged at Teatru Salesjan, Sliema on October 12 and 13 at 20:00. Endorsed by the Valletta 2018 Foundation, the show is a co-production of Irina Pauls, Schaubühne Lindenfels Leipzig, a cappella e. V. – Association for the support of vocal music and Speck’s Erbe Düsseldorf and  co-financed by the German-Maltese Circle, the Goethe Institute Brussels and the City of Leipzig. Bookings: http://ticketline.com.mt/

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