photo by Joe Chvala
Flying Foot Forum presents “Heaven” – a dance/theater piece that looks at life and death in war-torn Bosnia in the early 1990s. Performances run through April 10 at the Guthrie Theater. Thinking about seeing the show? Check out what the local critics think. I’ve included excerpts from their reviews below – click on the links for the full text.
It’s an understatement to say extreme adversity changes people, but words often fail to fully describe the impact of earth-shattering events. “Heaven,” a dance/theater piece directed by Joe Chvala of Flying Foot Forum, uses movement, music and story to convey the horrors of the 1990s Bosnian war.
The work is a compelling study of hope in the face of inhumanity but it is also so jam-packed with historic, cultural and literary references that sometimes the poignancy of individual experience is lost. Still, “Heaven” is recommended for its fearless exploration of the relationships forged quickly when people are thrust into crisis. It juggles tragedy, humor and irony in a manner that makes perfect sense for a world turned upside-down…
…”Heaven” focuses on Peter Adamson (Doug Scholz-Carlson), a photojournalist from Chicago ready to leave Bosnia because he feels his pictures are not spurring the world to action. He meets a Bosnian soldier, Faruk (the eloquently stern Eric Webster), who tricks Peter into accompanying him from Sarajevo into the countryside to find his wife. The journey changes their lives in ways neither could imagine…
…Chvala infuses “Heaven” with raw and vigorous dancing that reflects the tumult. The performers circle and toss one another while percussive rhythms propel with the aggression of gunfire. The haunting music and lyrics by Chan Poling (with additional contributions by Peter O’Gorman, Victor Zupanc, Nowytski and Chvala) draw on Balkan influences, as well as opera, pop and rap, to evoke the bleak poetry of wartime.
There are painfully beautiful moments within the songs, particularly as citizens-turned-refugees wonder, “What would you pack if this happened to you?” It’s a question that gives pause, especially for those fortunate enough to know war only from afar.
Doug Scholz-Carlson as American war photographer Peter Adamson
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio
…To be honest, Adamson’s story–there’s a love interest in there too–is probably the least interesting material here. It’s the experiences of the residents from all sides of the conflict that bring the show to full life. These are realized through spoken monologues, songs, and the expressive, masterful dance work that Chvala is famous for. Some of these moments are absolutely stunning, as the propulsive, traditional-folk-inspired score lets the dancers act out horrifying moments, from attempts to escape, to the soldiers hunting them, to a woman’s fantasy about striking back at her tormentors as they rape her.
The heaviness is balanced with characters desperate to stay in touch with their humanity, finding moments of humor, love, and even peace. Still, the horror is never far away, from discovering a mass grave of victims or being forced to watch as a friend is brutally murdered. Near the end, Adamson explodes with ineffectual rage at the whole situation, and it’s an emotion the whole audience should be feeling by that point (and continue to feel as the world is no safer now than it was 15 years ago) in the show.
The piece has some maddening lapses–Adamson’s relationship with a local woman on the run never gets off the ground and features a duet that seems to belong in another show entirely–but the strength of the ensemble and the creative fire behind the project bull their way through any of these hitches. Onstage, Webster provides not just the spark but the fuel for much of the action in a stunning turn as a man desperate to find a shred of former life still intact.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio
In the 1990s during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, over 100,000 people were killed and more than 2 million people displaced in one of the most horrific set of human-inflicted tragedies since WWII. Heaven, a new work by Flying Foot Forum, directed by Joe Chvala with music by Chan Poling (The Suburbs, The New Standards) is an ambitious and heart-wrenching piece of dance theater about the impact of that conflict. This emotionally-charged, human story left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the gut. Never heavy-handed, it educates without descending into didacticism. And with the news of the struggles in Egypt and Libya on the news each evening, I wonder: is there a more timely and important work being performed on a Twin Cities stage right now?
…Director and choreographer Joe Chvala succeeds in uniting the show’s many winning elements. The versatile and attractive set by Joel Sass is a hit, music direction by Jake Endres (with help from Balkan music consultant Natalie Nowytski) is equally stunning, and there are too many memorable performances from the nearly two-dozen-strong ensemble to mention. To the credit of the entire cast (though the show is performed mainly in English) language consultant and translator Stele Osmancevic and dialect coach Joseph Papke had me totally taken in by the dialog (and even some complete songs!) in Serbo-Croatian. (Subtitles provided during those sections were projected on the back wall of the theater.)
For a brand new show, Heaven is already a tight production that could benefit from only a few cuts; overall it’s well-constructed, with deft use of refrain and reprise. Chan Poling’s songs drive the action and are never irrelevant, and when I left the theater, I believe I had gotten one of the main points of the show. More of a question or challenge, really, posed by Adamson in one of his stints as narrator: “Do you keep your eyes open, or not?” This is theater that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you in your seat.
A woman near me sobbed through part of the second act. This show is that powerful. I can’t help but direct you to the Dowling Studio to see it.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio
War is hell. Anyone want to argue about it? Of course not. That’s why Flying Foot Forum gets away as well as it does with the overstuffed farrago Heaven. The show is the theatrical equivalent of a commemorative 9/11 plate: you can’t fault the intention, even if the execution is kind of tacky.
…What is definitely not done well in Heaven are the hackneyed book and lyrics, which are heavy in metaphors (“Here, hope is a plane that never lands”) that sometimes get awkwardly mixed (“Deep down, he had bigger fish to fry”). The technique of portraying a foreign land through the eyes of an observer who comes from the same place as the audience is an old dramatic standby–with good reason–but one that’s often criticized, also with good reason. Regardless, squeezing two love stories (or three, or four, or more, depending on how you count) into Heaven is too much. Matthew Everett’s Leave is a good example of how to effectively integrate a love story into a broader historical context; here, the romance between the local girl and the foreign guy feels tacked on and distracting.
For all its flaws, Heaven is a sincere testament. On Saturday night, a number of audience members were moved to tears. My friend who attended the performance with me said that her father’s girlfriend–a native Serbian–just gave her father a book about the 14th century battles in which the Serbs were defeated by the Turks, resulting from which this woman still holds a grudge against Muslims generally. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”; Chvala and Poling agree, but additionally urge that our memory not be selective.
So, have you seen “Heaven?” If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments section.