Holocaust Toys

01 03 2023

Photo: Laura Vancevičienė

Author: Dovilė Zavedskaitė

Translated by Laima Bezginaitė

Gintarė Radvilavičiūtė’s performance “The Choice”, presented at the Vilnius theatre “Lėlė” and based on the recollections of a Holocaust survivor Edith Eger, represents the world as a storehouse of body parts. Among a vast collection of heads, legs, busts and forearms, a fierce and intense humanity that contrasts with the order of this world is howling.

Dismembering and deforming bodies when looking at the Holocaust in art is becoming almost a common practice which is replicated in various art forms. In the Jüdisches Museum Berlin’s space called “Memory Void” visitors walk over more than ten thousand metal faces with gaping mouths. The faces are flat and not spatial shapes. The gaping mouths are what creates the strongest effect, as all those thousands of faces are shouting. Without any sound. And visitors have no other way to view the exhibition than by trampling these faces with their shoes. Just like that, without any shoe-covers.

In the series of paintings “Executions” by Polish painter Andrzej Wróblewski, the bodies are twisted (legs are in front, bust is backwards, head is between the legs, etc.), as if dismembered and reassembled again. However, it is not coincidental: for example, in the painting “Execution V”, although the male body resembles a pile of spare parts, it nevertheless retains humanity, thought, and dignity. This painting series contains thinking throughout and these are not simply structural deformations: these are sets of body parts that express human pain even more accurately than the intact bodies nearby, as if extending and strengthening humanity.

The performance “The Choice” wanders between the random choreography of body parts and their assembly into a human memory: bodies here are seen both as anatomical collections of cells and as stories. Surrounded by the stench of the Holocaust, survivor Edith Eger portrayed by Sigita Mikalauskaitė attempts to assemble from individual pieces something which she could save for the future. It is not necessarily a shape with a human head, it could as well have a horse’s head. More importantly, the dismembered bodies need to be restored to their place in the world’s history. A place among the never-forgotten, even though physically lost in the field.

“The Choice” is a clean and pure performance. Sigita Mikalauskaitė’s Edith is sensitive, precise, and detailed. Her first solo appearance creates the illusion of her floating above the ground: while dancing, she leaps and stays in the air, with her bare legs she traces the trajectory of movements that defy the Earth’s gravity. Finally, she simply takes off one of her legs - turns out it was not one of her own, it was borrowed. Maybe from her mother who was killed in a gas chamber. Or perhaps from someone else’s mother from some other chamber. The simplicity of the glance at this horror, the gentle taming of the abnormal reality, and the laughter caught in between the flying limbs very quickly establish new laws of “normal in this world” and force to trust them without any questions.

In Edith’s next solo appearance, with significantly elongated arms she is shaping a picture which transforms reality into a fairy tale: if I lie, my nose grows (remembering Pinocchio), when I long for something, my arms lengthen (remembering the performance). These arms that are constantly searching for other arms become elongated from this long search. Both elongate and longing have the same root. Both of them are also present in Edith’s dance. During the performance, the idea is sounded twice that if one had to single out a certain moment of life, it would be three women in dark woolen coats, holding hands, and waiting for something, not yet aware that it is their last moment together (playwright Virginija Rimkaitė). In order to make this moment prominent, the choreography of elongated arms was created - so rich that one instinctively begins to feel those arms and their memories.

Both of the aforementioned solo mise-en-scènes act as counterweights to the remaining macabre landscape of dismembered body parts (the performance also features acts by Deivis Sarapinas, Lijana Mushtashvili, Indrė Vėlyvytė, and Eliza Bondarenko). Throughout a large part of the performance, we observe Edith’s relationship with various body parts, first only human, later - of a horse as well. They are like toys for her: some she dances with, others she extends using her own body. If a bust is missing a leg, she lends one of her own, if there is no head, she sticks her arm through the neck opening and creates a sort of a “handhead”. This world can also contain other shapes, for instance, legs or hands sticking out of armpits. Because the order of attaching body parts is not really important, as nothing reminds of a human being anyway. One just has to see Edith’s “dance with meat” - it is really hard to not confuse it with a girl dancing with flowers in a meadow.

The only purpose of this never-ending dance is to silence the mind stuck in Auschwitz forever. And, after having danced with the past, to somehow appear in the present. It seems that one has to choose only something to remember and to think about. And yet, whatever the choice, Auschwitz already lives in the body. Every centimeter of it. Here, corporeality emerges as a double memory: both the bodies of the dead in Edith memories and her own body, that clatters from dusk till dawn, are important.

The themes and the expression of “The Choice” seem so broad and all-embracing that one eventually begins to realize how there is painfully too little space for them on the stage of the “Lėlė” theatre, how they are absorbed into the walls and have nowhere to reverberate around. This strange feeling of tightness of space and the sense of the hermeticity of the action is present throughout the entire performance, therefore the imagination eventually begins to transfer the action into open voids and ringing spaces. This goes on all the way to the mise-en-scène, where we see a wall of heads: the aesthetics of the heads stuck in the gold ground, based on the play of lights and interchanging volumes, completes the performance and brings the focus to the image where, as Edith tells us, you wake up on the day of liberation surrounded by the dead and unable to move. All that remains is to explore the new freedom, which changes only as much as the light does, because the bodies are no longer moving. In this wall (by set designer Julija Skuratova), one’s gaze has space to wander in and to expand, and it is there that the performance as if opens up. 

The timing of the performance is particularly important: now is the time when the questions of the devaluation of life are the most relevant. If for a long time one would often hear the question: “Can we stop speaking about the Holocaust already?”, today, alas, it is again very relevant with all its sadness. And the heads stuck in the ground no longer are a sign of respect for history, but rather a modern stab under the skin. And it hurts, it really hurts.

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