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Coffee, Community, and Country

Welcome to the Conversation
Review by Brendan McCall

Language Reversal: Move Past What We Know
Organized by Aaron Landsman, Clarinda Mac Low, and Ogemdi Ude with Milan Vračar

Abrons Arts Center
1 February 2021 (virtual)

Two men, each in different countries on separate continents, communicate in real-time through Zoom. One is teaching the other how to make a distinct kind of coffee called sikterusa–a kind of bitter coffee one makes when you want your guests to go home. The ingredients are simple: tap water, a small cup, a lit candle, and patience.

As they wait for their water to heat, the two men begin to talk (mostly in English) about autocracy, and about what it is like to lose one’s country.

Language Reversal: Move Past What We Know (Abrons Arts Center) resists categorization. After settling in to this virtual performance while listening to Eastern European punk music, followed by a land-acknowledgement, the four collaborating artists introduce themselves, creating a real-time, interactive “bookend”. Ogemdi Ude (Brooklyn, US) takes the audience through a guided meditation, and after the succinct yet complex performance concludes, she prompts a rich dialogue with questions and observations about circling around what language we use to articulate the world we are currently experiencing, why it is often so inferior, and what (if anything) we can do to change it.

Experiencing Language Reversal is more than simply listening to a series of spontaneous conversations between writer, theater artist, community organizer Aaron Landsman (New York, US) and cultural producer Milan Vračar (Novi Sad, Serbia). Dramaturg and collaborator Clarinda Mac Low (New York, US) has approached these verbal recordings like a choreographer would phrases of movement, giving them shape and form into a kind of collage of sound. Sometimes the conversations dance like a duet, between these two minds; other times, multiple conversations occur simultaneously.

As the water slowly boils, the talk shifts into the difference between a “state of emergency” and “martial law”.

Visually, Language Reversal also features still and moving images from the two countries, making a clear link between the war in then-Yugoslavia in the late 1990s to the violent insurrection of the United States Capitol building on January 6th by supporters of the former President. Images of dragons also recur frequently–sometimes as a montage with NATO helicopters flying over the Danube River, and sometimes breathing fire on a lone warrior while the two try to recollect a joke from two years ago involving the winged creature. And yet, Language Reversal is not quite a narrative film nor a documentary.

We see footage of performers´ feet walking in a circle, backwards. We see maps of the region dissolve, merge, and shift. A dragon flies over a city.

Eventually, the candle has sufficiently warmed the water to make the coffee. The two men toast one another through their screens.

This piece struck a number of personal chords for me, notwithstanding the exceptional ingenuity and intelligence displayed by this dynamic creative team. I have visited Serbia a number of times since 2003, first as a performer for a dance festival in Novi Sad and later to visit my former father-in-law, who lives in Belgrade. When seeing the images of the destroyed bridges and buildings during the war, or listening to Milan Vračar describe hiding in basements to avoid the bombs or living without plumbing, reminds me of staying in homes whose walls were still cracked years after the cease-fire.

Abrons will present two more installments of the work this spring, the next being Ogemdi Ude will be in conversation with Amrita Hepi (Melbourne, Australia) on March 8th.

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