Focus Dito'Dito (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Nov 2004English

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"There are probably as many different ways of conceiving what a city is as there are cities. A simple definition therefore has its attractions. The simplest is that a city is a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet."

(Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man)


In Duiven en Schoenen (1987), one of the first plays Willy Thomas wrote for the theatre company Dito’Dito, the leading character, Wolf, flees the city and seeks sanctuary in a wood. He addresses the trees: ‘Greetings, chosen company. To you I can say it: I am fed up with people and their cities.’ The scenes in the play alternate between the wood and the city and they are always about encounters between bizarre people who may or may not be strangers to each other. But in the end the trees find themselves in the city too. And it is true that in Dito’Dito’s work since then, the city has absolutely won out over the wood: the city – more especially Brussels – is not only the biotope in which they work, but also the all-determining subject of what they do. They define the most essential and simple identity of the city – like Richard Sennett – as ‘a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’.
They started out with three ideas: in 1984 Willy Thomas, Mieke Verdin and Guy Dermul set up their own small organisation which they gave the self-mirroring or self-duplicating name Dito’Dito. Willy Thomas: ‘In choosing to work in our own organisation like that of Dito’Dito, our aim was the search for individual freedom, free of any system, any tradition or anything else; that is the primary basis for the work one does.’ Thomas, Verdin and Dermul are three theatre-makers who in their previous lives had at least one thing in common: they had all worked with Jan Decorte and/or even been taught by him. Cymbeline, Torquato Tasso, Hamletmachine, King Lear, Scènes/Sprookjes, and so on: one or more of their names is to be found in the cast of all these Jan Decorte productions.
The Dito’Dito approach is connected to a theatre philosophy whose protagonists in the eighties were Jan Decorte and Jan Joris Lamers and which was characterised by absolute faith in the emancipated actor: the actor who himself takes full responsibility for what he tells on stage together with the others; the actor who therefore has no need of a director and will increasingly make his own plays and write his own scripts; the actor who is, in addition, aware of his own subversive power, of the voice he has or is capable of having in the artistic-political debate of a society; the actor-storyteller who addresses his audience directly and thereby restores the basic democratic element of communication to its rightful place. On the basis of this philosophy, Dito’Dito combines great seriousness and depth in its commitment (both social and theatrical) with an intense lightness: they handle their commitment with joie de vivre and often with plenty of humour. Laughter, putting things comically into perspective and thereby presenting a counterforce. As Pirandello wrote, ‘Le comique précisément est une constatation du contraire.’


"When I discovered political violence from the inside, I was no longer able to write in political, but only in affective terms, and at the same time was terribly annoyed by this accomplished fact."

(Bernard-Marie Koltès in conversation with Hervé Guibert, Le Monde, February 1983.)


Looking back at Dito’Dito’s twenty years we can divide the work into two equal parts (Dito and Dito, perhaps): the first decade from 1984 to 1994 and the second up to 2004. In the first period the company worked without money – except the occasional project subsidy – on pieces based on writings by Willy Thomas and Guy Dermul or on existing material (usually not for the stage) by Gombrowicz, Mishima, Mayakovsky, Burroughs, Yourcenar and others. For these projects they sought to collaborate with other groups such as Stan and Maatschappij Discordia, sometimes in the framework of the Flemish-Dutch repertoire association called De Vere.
The 1991 elections, with the decisive breakthrough of the far right Vlaams Blok party, caused turbulence in Dito’Dito’s hearts and consciences: they sought increasingly concrete answers to the questions they already had about theatre’s social responsibility; they found one of these answers in the initiation of creative workshops for youngsters from ethnic minorities, together with the Beursschouwburg. As theatre-makers they wanted to have a greater impact on the social reality. The realisation that Brussels was not only a multicultural city, but had also for a very long time been a multilingual city, and the realisation that the oldest communities in this city – the French-speaking and Dutch speaking – had barely any cultural links with each other, led the company to a thorough reorientation of its work.
The first culmination of this development was possibly the performance they made in 1994 based on a play by Bernard-Marie Koltès: Willy Thomas performed both Dutch and French versions of the monologue La nuit juste avant les forêts / The Night Just Before the Woods; the speaking character – a foreigner who is looking for a place to spend the night in a city – was joined on stage by the French-speaking ethnic minority rap group Les Vils Scélérats: they represented ‘the other(s)’, who, with their different language, their different culture and their different social condition possibly own the city more than the white foreigner who thinks he belongs there.


"If we do not share beauty it is criminal or else it is nothing."

(Georg Büchner)


After this Koltès play, more and more people from ethnic minorities and speakers of other languages appeared on the stage with Dito’Dito and have not left it ever since. 1994 was also the year when, in the setting of the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts, Dito’Dito became acquainted with the French-speaking Brussels theatre company Transquinquennal, with whom it went on to make several plays. In addition, the ethnic minority performing artists Nedjma Hadj and Abdelmalek Kadi became members of the company’s permanent core. The Brussels melting pot, with its varied languages and cultures, became the driving force behind their artistic practice and appeared in a wide variety of combinations on the stage. For example, in Fruit van rotte bomen/Les Fruits de l’Arbre Maudit they brought about a clash between Gerardjan Rijnders’ cynical play Liefhebber (performed by Guy Dermul) and the aggressive songs of Les Vils Scélérats and the bitter but tender reflections of Nedjma Hadj on the differences between here (Belgium) and there (Algeria). For example: in David Mamet’s Oleanna the teacher is put in a tight spot by a female pupil; what tone does the relationship between the two characters that Mamet created assume when the teacher is played by a man from an ethnic minority (Abdelmalek Kadi) and the female pupil by an emancipated white woman (Mieke Verdin)? Etc.
In 1997 Dito’Dito received operational subsidies from the Flemish Community for the first time. One of the most interesting experiences in the mixing of languages and cultures on stage was undoubtedly the first major joint-venture by Dito’ Dito and Transquinquennal in that same year in Rudi Bekaert’s ‘Brussels council flats soap’ Ja ja maar nee nee / Ah oui ça alors là: 32 characters who, in a solid structure of five acts of ten scenes each, spread out over the stage and, in Brussels dialect (that comical Flemish larded with French or vice versa), tell each other of their ups and downs, from gossip to apocalypse. What Dito’Dito achieved in this play was not only the combination of two Brussels communities in a single theatrical project, but above all an examination of bringing together two ways of acting, two approaches to rehearsal and working in the theatre: what came literally into being here was a finely meshed interpenetration of each other’s ‘cultures’, a possible synthesis of the more empathic acting style of our French-speaking neighbours, rooted in their language and often felt by the Flemish to be rhetorical, and the more playful but aloof and often more physical Flemish variant, a synthesis that was achieved by actors conscious of their independence on stage. Whereas in this play we were already shown ‘a community’, ‘a multitude’ on stage by way of a number of figures – which in any case requires a different approach to character and acting – the two companies took this a stage further in Les B@lges/De B@lgen, which was created in 2002. The fusion of the Flemish and French-speaking cultures here became even closer. Partly because of the subject itself: the Belgians, a people only held together by ‘their common national debt’. Partly by the fact that the script was written collectively by two authors: the Flemish Paul Pourveur and the Walloon Jean-Marie Piemme. And partly by the fact that this project was coproduced by two major Brussels theatres: the Théâtre National, where Les B@lges opened, and the Kaaitheater, where De B@lgen was first performed. The main purpose of this performance was to focus on that ‘invisible’ and yet ‘real’ Belgian philosophy of the makeshift, with Belgium as a hut on an allotment.


"This is a whispered story, a story about trying. Above all trying to understand. An attempt to let the stage and the city have an effect on each other."

(Willy Thomas in his Letter to Ciska)


Since 1994, Dito’Dito has established connections and built bridges not only on the stage but also in its practices in general. Apart from the above-mentioned joint ventures in and outside Brussels, which are being continued, they have also created plays together with Tristero, Bronks and the Dutch company Monk, and have generated collective projects with the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts, Théâtre de la Balsamine, KVS/de Bottelarij and various organisations that concern themselves with, among other things, social-artistic projects with deprived people in the Brussels area. In their Octobre/Oktober initiative, the company additionally tried to bring the Beursschouwburg and Théâtre de la Balsamine closer together and to merge their two audiences: the bilingual programme of these October weekends was compiled in such a way that Dutch-speaking spectators were lured to (the French-speaking) Théâtre de la Balsamine and the French-speaking to the (Dutch-speaking) Beursschouwburg.
The company’s social-artistic work has in the meantime increasingly taken shape by way of such plays as J’y suis resté depuis/En daar ben ik gebleven, a collection of stories from a colourful crowd of Brussels inhabitants, and S.T.O.E.M.P., in which a number of ethnic minority youths, with the help of such authors as Pol Hoste and Paul Pourveur, put their view of life in the Brussels setting into words and add their comments. In these social-artistic projects, Dito’Dito tries through its professional contribution to mediate in what these amateur actors want to tell us: in this sort of work the company continues to see artistic quality as a priority; the creative motif surpasses the social, on the basis of the notion that everyone can be an artist (a little), even though in our society one does not receive the necessary social (and other) instruments to achieve this. In recent years intensive corporation has come about between Dito’Dito and KVS/de Bottelarij on the basis of a variety of projects (including S.T.O.E.M.P.): the basis for this is of course to be found in the great affinity between their ways of thinking and working. The KVS – which in the meantime has left de Bottelarij in Molenbeek – also gives priority to developing ties with the city of Brussels and its highly varied spectrum of inhabitants. From their discussions together arose the idea of a merger, which at this moment is being given concrete form in the collective submission of the subsidy application for the period from 2006 to 2009. So as an organisation in itself, Dito’Dito will cease to exist but will be able to continue its work with more resources and support – but first the company will briefly still be the driving force behind the project revolving round Cordoba, the city which so long ago was already home to multicultural practices. Dito’Dito, that ‘travelling company in its own city’, has found ‘a home’ in the KVS; this will not prevent them from continuing to cooperate with a wide range of partners in the Brussels area. After all, they continue to see the city as ‘a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’.


(Translation: Gregory Ball)