In the midst of a day's rehearsal earlier this week, Congolese dancer/choreographer
and the other three members of his dance troupe,
Les Studios Kabako
, repeatedly attempted to call home for news of a fire that may have affected some friends' business.
Though their time was being spent dialing a cell phone and sitting in front of a laptop, Linyekula didn't consider this an interruption, but simply another facet of the rehearsal process.
"For this piece, we have to be in touch with what's going on back home," he said. In fact, they had heard about the fire (fortunately, their friends were unaffected, though it had impacted their neighbors) while improvising to a Congolese news broadcast over the Internet. While he said that the fire was "very minor compared to all the other tragedies befalling the country," it loomed larger due to the personal connection.
"And the piece is about that," he said. "What kind of dialogue could there be between the main history, with a capital 'H,' and our little stories?"
"Festival of Lies," the multi-media piece Linyekula's company is performing in two different versions during the Live Arts/Philly Fringe Festival, was inspired by the 1997 overthrow of the government of Mobutu Sese Seko, when the country which Linyekula had known since birth as Zaire became Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"Suddenly, there was this reality imposing itself upon me," Linyekula recalled, "saying that up until this point, you've lived in some sort of lie. So I wanted to do a piece around this history not so much to tell the story, as to ask myself the question of where I stand in the middle of all this."
At that time, Linyekula was living in Kenya, where he'd gone to advance his studies in theater and dance. He had begun those studies after graduating from high school when, due to the burgeoning political crisis in Zaire, Mobutu had closed all public universities. Linyekula began attending theater workshops and after a few years realized that he'd found his path.
"I never chose this," he said. "When you grow up there, you don't dream of such things. You don't have enough examples around you to motivate you."
In 1994, Linyekula left for Kenya and, ultimately, years of touring through Europe and Africa, but he returned to Congo in 2001, where he met the artists that would eventually coalesce into Les Studios Kabako.
"After eight years, I was tired of being a stranger everywhere," Linyekula said of his decision to return. "That doesn't mean that going to Kinshasa I felt any less of a stranger, but I needed to find certain things that would remind me of where I came from, even though I'd also grown a stranger to that.
"It was also a challenge to myself. When you're outside the country, the news you hear is so desperate that sometimes you ask, 'Is it still possible to dream in this country?' So I went, and met people who made me believe that it was worth being there."
The most outrageous lie
The inspiration that led to "Festival of Lies" came from Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda's 1995 novel "Patagonia Express," which contained an account of a village where, once a year, people gather and compete all night to tell the most outrageous lie.
"I found that fascinating as an idea," Linyekula said, "because reflecting on history, especially the official history as taught in schools, whose perspective is it written from and how much do we know of the truth? It's a constant writing and rewriting of the truth until you can't differentiate truth from lie.
"Maybe we need all those lies and myths and fictions that we invent around ourselves to be able to face the day. So this piece would be a space where we gather and spend time telling lies about ourselves, but maybe this is the only way to tell some truth about ourselves."
Although the first two performances of the piece in the Live Arts Festival are two hours long, the full manifestation of Linyekula's vision is in the final performance, a six-hour-long version that lasts from 11 p.m. until dawn.
That extended version, during which the bar will be open, allows for more interaction with the audience and with local guest artists.
"This piece goes farther into the logic of creating a space where people spend time together," Linyekula said. "I felt that in the two-hour version, we were still mainly in performance mode. There was not enough space for spending time together, even getting bored together sometimes, which is part of an encounter as well."
For Linyekula and Les Studios Kabako, interaction with the audience is vital to their work. "While one might say all performances have an audience in mind, I know of many performances where the audience may as well not be there," Linyekula said. "But here the set-up allows for the audience to circulate, to go to the bar - if necessary I will interrupt the performance to ask them to go to the bar - go to the bathroom, go have a cigarette. It's a room that's alive and that involves everyone who's there.
"Most of the time when I go to the theater, the only choices that are given to the audiences are stay or leave - be with us or get lost. I asked myself if there was a possibility of exploring another type of relationship where one might choose the modalities of their staying." *
Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 6 tonight, 11 p.m.–5 a.m. tomorrow, $20, 215-413-1318, www.livearts-fringe.org.