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Bacchae – Prelude to a Purge


Director: Marlene Monteiro Freitas


choreography | Marlene Monteiro Freitas | with: Andreas Merk, Betty Tchomanga, Cookie, Cláudio Silva, Flora Détraz, Gonçalo Marques, Johannes Krieger, Lander Patrick, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, Micael Pereira, Miguel Filipe, Tomás Moital, Yaw Tembe | light and space | Yannick Fouassier | sound : Tiago Cerqueira | stage manager: André Calado | stools: João Francisco Figueira, Luís Miguel Figueira |  research: Marlene Monteiro Freitas, João Francisco Figueira

production: P.OR.K (Lisbon, PT) | Bruna Antonelli, Sandra Azevedo, Soraia Gonçalves
distribution: Key Performance (Stockholm, SE) | Koen Vanhove

date of the premiere: 20.04.2017

Valentinas Masalskis – Author Sebald
Sergejus Ivanovas – Austerlitz
Danutė Kuodytė – Nanny Vera
Viktorija Kuodytė – Marie de Verneuil
Jovita Jankelaitytė – Mother Agatha Austerlitzowa
Matas Ddirginčius – Father Maximilian Aichenwald
Girius Liuga – Austerlitz as a child

date of the premiere: 23, 24.10.2020

The Wilie Agency (UK) Ltd. for W. G. Sebald’s text; photographs of Austerlitz as a child and videos filmed in nature by Audronis Liuga; excerpts from film Projections of Life from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; an excerpt from Alain Resnais’ film Last Year At Marienbad.


What I Saw

Cape Verdian born Marlene Monteiro Freitas sits alone onstage the day after the opening of her production, Bacchae – Prelude to a Purge, at the Dialog Festival in Wrocław, Poland. She surveys the audience with delight, centering herself, spine straight, legs uncrossed – a dancer’s stance. Her dark curly hair is piled high, with tendrils cascading down a bright red, turtle-neck sweater. As she looks out at the crowded room, genuinely smiling with anticipation, we are impressed by her collected energy, her natural calm. The feeling that radiates from her is in shocking contrast to the piece she directed and participated in the night before, where the audience was prepared for chaos from the moment we stepped into the theater.

Even as we try to find our seats, the players onstage are crawling, dancing, rolling around on moveable stools and making percussive sounds with their mouths and with drum sticks. Four trumpet players, standing in the last row above the audience, play a cacophony of strange noises made mostly by lowering their valves half-way, creating a kind of spook show wail. Sucking, blowing and licking, are present throughout. Buttocks are slapped and spread at regular intervals. A frenzied, anything goes, sexually charged baseline is set. And all this before the show even begins.

There is no doubt that the story of Euripides’ Bacchae is tricky to understand. Dionysus is famous for being the god of wine, fertility and partying hard and also for having the singular honor of being incubated in his dad, Zeus’, thigh at the end of his gestation. He takes revenge on his mom’s sister and her son because they refuse to build any shrines to him or acknowledge that Zeus is his father. Their disregard rankles, so Dionysus uses is jedi/God powers to create a craze in his mother’s home town. His goal: to incite his aunt to become so frantic, so out of her mind, that she and the other women in her town will rip her son, the King, to pieces. It’s a quintessential tale of disrespect and retribution. In a script-based production of this story, we would see Dionysus’ aunt holding up the head of her son, slowly realizing that she has murdered him thereby giving her nephew his revenge. But in Monteiro Freitas’ movement based Bacchae, getting this story across to the audience is more than a little difficult to do. True, many people will generally remember the gist of the tale but not the details. Other than creating the famous Dyonisian frenzy, how can she touch upon the complexity of a mother killing her son because she’s too crazed to know what she’s doing, all organized by a bratty half-god? The answer can be seen when the rhythm and tone of the piece suddenly changes midway.

Monteiro Freitas’ Bacchae crescendos and decrescendos at regular intervals, never dipping below a mezzo forte until, right in the middle, the action comes in for a landing and a quiet moment ensues – a much needed relief from the fevered first half. Audience and cast have been under bright lights together and suddenly, these are lowered for the first time. We all sit back and take a breath. A movie screen is lowered against the back wall. The players gather around, breathing heavily, drinking water, ready to settle in and watch with the audience. We are now surrounded by darkness and calm.

What we see on the movie screen, for a full ten minutes, is a clip from the homebirth of Japanese performance artist Kazuo Hara. She is alone, naked in a large bed, pushing out a baby. An older woman and young child kneel nearby, often out of the frame. Hara pushes hard, many times. First the head is born. Then, after waiting for more contractions, she pushes out the rest of the body. Nobody lifts the baby up to her. Nobody does a thing. We wish the camera person would pick up the baby. We wish the woman kneeling next to her would pick up the baby. After her son is born, he remains on the bed by her vulva, the pulsating umbilical cord next to his face. Hara tries to tilt around, to reach for him but she’s unable to pull him to her. We feel alarmed. We feel awed. We see clearly that the baby is a boy. We feel the effort that pushing him out has cost his mother. She is so spent that she can’t even reach for her son.

This moment of calm focuses on the mother’s quintessential life force and how much energy and focus she uses to give birth, how much of herself is needed. It is in clear opposition to the hysterical energy we have experienced during the first half of the Bacchae.  One event is hushed and formulated, the other is loud and disorganized. We know that Dionysus was born from his father’s thigh because his own mother had been killed while she was pregnant with him. His birth did not require this kind of sacrifice so it makes sense that he would not value it, that he would make his aunt kill her son out of childish spite. After watching this birth, what we understand on a visceral level is that it is absolutely against nature, human or otherwise, for a mother to take the life of someone she has borne. Period. The lights slowly rise, the players stand up, the trumpets begin and we are again ramping up to a frenzy but this time with a saucier, meaner timbre. After all, the murder of Dionysus’ cousin at the hand of his own mother meant that our half-god’s triumphant plan worked. A trumpet plays a difficult solo and one of the women bleats into the main microphone “Sto-o-o-o-op pla-a-a-a-yi-i-ing thi-i-i-is tru-u-u-umpe-e-e-e-t so-o-o-olo-o-o o-o-o-r I-I-I-I-I-I wi-i-i-i-il ki-i-i-i-l yo-u-u-u-u.” During this second half we are less surprised by what is going on and more game for the madness. Something shifts in the audience and we participate willingly.

Theater means a lot to the Poles and this reverence is passed down to younger generations. People under 30 regularly attend performances, regardless of genre. The respect with which they enter the theater is almost holy and this dates back to the role that theater played in Polish life over the past century, particularly during times when they were occupied and their national voice was gagged. The kind of energy seen onstage during the majority of the Bacchae, this feeling of wildness, seemed to inhabit the younger people during the second half. They accepted the unspoken rules and finally participated by guffawing, yelling, laughing hysterically, talking to their friends, all while the performance was going on. They were part of the show and this was absolutely okay. The invitation to go mad included them.

Somehow Monteiro Freitas achieved with her Bacchae what I have not seen in any other staged version. She clearly highlighted the enormity of a mother killing her son by juxtaposing it with the birth of a son. At the same time, she somehow made the audience feel comfortable enough to join the melee celebrating this murder. We witnessed an amazing birth and soon after, became welcomed guests at Dionysus’ revenge party. And it was fun. If that isn’t proof of the power of theater, I don’t know what is.

-Paige Rogers

About the Artist

MARLENE MONTEIRO FREITAS (Cape Verde, 1979) studied dance at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, in Lisbon at the Escola Superior de Dança and at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

In her native country, Cape Verde, she co-founded the dance group Compass and collaborates with musician Vasco Martins. She worked with Emmanuelle Huynh, Loïc Touzé, Tânia Carvalho, Boris Charmatz, among others. Her creations include: Bacchae – Prelude to a Purge (2017), Jaguar (2015), with Andreas Merk, of ivory and flesh – statues also suffer (2014), Paradise – private collection (2012-13), (M)imosa, co-created with Trajal Harrell, François Chaignaud and Cecilia Bengolea (2011), Guintche (2010), A Seriedade do Animal (2009-10), Uns e Outros (2008), A Improbabilidade da Certeza (2006),  Larvar (2006), Primeira Impressão (2005). The common denominator of these works is openness, impurity and intensity. In 2017 Portuguese Society of Authors (SPA), awarded Jaguar, the prize for the best choreography and in the same year she was distinguished by the government of Cape Verde for her cultural achievement.

In 2018 created the piece Canine Jaunâtre 3 for Batsheva Dance Company. Still in 2018 La Biennale di Venezia has awarded MMF with the Silver Lion for Dance.

In 2019, at the invitation of BoCA – Biennial of Contemporary Arts (Lisbon & Porto, PT) creates CATTIVO, a live installation of music stands and other materials that has been re-presented since then.  

In 2020, her piece Bacantes – Prelude to a Purge received the Prize for Best International Performance by Les Prémis de la Critica d’Arts Escèniques de Barcelona.

In August 2020, her new creation MAL – Embriaguez Divina premiered in Kampnagel, Hamburg, counting in 2021 with a world tour.

Still in 2020, it presents Un (common) Ground in various locations in the city of Lisbon, a cycle of exhibitions and conferences that explores the inscription in the arts of the dispute for land that some call Palestine and Israel, the stage of one of the most persistent conflicts the planet.  

Marlene has an ongoing collaboration with O Espaço do Tempo (PT). She is the co-founder of P.OR.K, her production structure in Lisbon (PT).

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