Brno Street Theatre: From Charming Old-Fashioned Tradition to Edgy Performance Art

The 99-year-old tradition of lighting the giant Christmas tree on Náměstí Svobody. Credit: Paul Prinsloo.

When it comes to street theatre, Brno produces electrifyingly different options. Take Friday night in the Brno city centre. Take your pick. Charming tradition with conventional showmanship and spectacle? Or edgy, minimalist pop-up performance art?

The fabulous truth is that you can experience both, within just a few blocks of each other, and less than an hour apart.

Charming old-fashioned tradition

Náměstí Svobody again featured the 99-year-old traditional lighting of the giant Christmas tree. The colourful, participatory audience enjoyed the carefully crafted street theatre. It began with a gradual building of suspense, from quieter, solemn music and solo singing to the increasingly climactic announcements of the three ringmasters. This trio strode flamboyantly around the square on stilts for maximum visibility and speed.

They used an illuminated ball to direct the audience’s attention around the square, and this bright globe segued cleverly into circular spotlights at various stages.

A highlight was an exciting acrobatic display on ropes hanging down the front of a multi-storied building. Epic music accompanied the choreography which culminated in the synchronised meeting of the acrobatic pair, in the middle of the facade of the building.

An exciting acrobatic display on ropes hanging down the front of a multi-storied building. Credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.

Then the final public countdown followed, and the festive lighting of the Christmas tree in a burst of coloured lights, giant illuminated wooden ornaments and twinkling glass balls.

The spectacle was old style entertainment, full of visual delights, and even the moon seemed part of the cast of this sparkling production.

Edgy pop-up performance art

Just three blocks away, on Orli, Café Spolek was a good place for a coffee and strudel. We left the café afterwards through curved black curtains, which looked theatrical, but also served the practical function of insulation at the frequently opened front door.

In the poorly lit café courtyard we dodged a young couple wearing boxing gloves, locked in a clinch, and sporadically tap boxing each other. They were being watched by some bystanders.

Was the woman boxer in trouble? Why were the bystanders doing nothing? Was this domestic violence? Should we intervene? It was a bit disconcerting. So we checked with a young woman carrying a camera at the entrance to the café.

Artist and performer Tamara Pavlechova explained that this was a pop-up performance called “Free Christmas Punch by the Postpost Gallery.” It was a witty, seasonally relevant play on words, and also an experiment in consumerism and audience reaction. If it’s “free” it must have some response, right?

A traditional advertising sandwich board at the entrance promoted this “free offer”, as did a poster on the passage wall.

Explaining the group’s motivation for this performance on Facebook, they wrote that “This performance deals with the tendencies and ways of behaviour of a society whose affectivity is conditioned by the principles of consumerist thinking and the constant flow of visual information.”

None of the bystanders, nor any visitors to the café, took the boxers up on their offer of a free punch. Everyone instead took great care to avoid the couple barrelling into them, with pram-pushing parents understandably taking the widest detours.

What the performers possibly did not anticipate was the concern of perplexed passers-by.

The two main performers were Andrea Tušimová, a PhD student at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, and Adam Andrea Michálek, a student at FAVU’s Body Design studio, both drama, dance and fine art students. Pavlechova told us the pair has worked together on several performance art productions.

This relationship was evident in the fluidity of their pas de deux combative choreography. At specific moments, their grip loosened and this suggested the hope of some kind of resolution. Occasionally the clinch seemed on the point of transitioning into a kind of tangled dance. But it did not.

There was no soundtrack, just an occasional moan or small mutter.

Their movements, whether starting to draw apart, or moving together again, were always sculptural. Seen against the inauspiciously dull walls and dim lighting of the courtyard and passage, they had a curious classical gravitas, like an old film, or a photograph by Cartier-Bresson.

Instead of the bright colours of Náměstí Svobody, the only colour in this performance was Michálek’s cherry red boxing gloves. The other colours were classic black and white, with both performers wearing identical tracksuit pants. Why the same outfits? What inferences should we draw?

Would they ever disengage from this terrible, unloving and exhausting embrace? Their struggle was poignant, and frustrating. Where and when was the happy ending? And what was the significance of the little smoking pan in the corner? Was it a funny nod to the popular motif of mysterious swirling fog in alleys in mainstream movie thrillers?

The main curator of the project, Viki Pardovičová, explained later that “The boiler on the ground was a reference to the Christmas punch that is sold on the streets. A drink was brewed there to be smelled by the audience during the performance. However, it was not for sale and drinking. The performance was a metaphor for the word punch. It tested what advertising can do and how the public is able to respond to and understand art.”

Sometimes these accidental, random and unplanned culture encounters in Brno are the most inspiring and evocative. Often they are not produced on a big budget.

They are even more fun when they follow and contrast with a big, planned, theatrical production. Because despite a paucity of props, costumes, music and special effects, they bravely stand their ground. They deliver their performance, and affect their audience.

Theatre is theatre.

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