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Affirmation

Queer Theatre of the Belarusian Emigration—Jury Dzivakou

‘Gogol: Fatum’, inspired by ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol, Gomel Regional Drama Theatre, 2018, photo: Uladzimir Stupinski

The humanitarian and political crisis that broke out in Belarus in August 2020 severely damaged theatre, the most democratic of all art forms. In this context, any kind of struggle for freedom and self-determination takes the shape of protest. Belarusian LGBT+ culture is instrumental in opposing Alexander Lukashenko’s neo-totalitarian regime, whose defining features include: militarization, dehumanization of socio-political opponents, restoration of Stalinism, cult of toxic masculinity, and heteronormativity. 

In experimental Belarusian theatre, LGBT+ culture is embodied by the appearance and behaviour of the main characters, as well as explicit and implicit plot threads, clear cultural codes, and a particular style and aesthetic. Belarusian, queer theatre took shape as an independent form of experimental art—in fact, as protest art. It emerged in the mid-2010s during the so-called thaw of the Lukashenko regime, in the period from the Minsk agreements in 2014 to the mass protests of 2020. Following the defeat of the 2020 revolution, oppositional Belarusian theatre in general, and queer theatre in particular, operates in exile and largely within the alternative art community of Warsaw.

One of the most prominent practitioners associated with the queer turn in Belarusian theatre is Yura Dzivakou (b. 1982). While still living and working in Belarus, he boldly introduced queer aesthetics into the conservative state theatre in plays including Woyzeck (Войцэк) by Georg Büchner staged at the Janka Kupala National Academic Theatre, and Sophocles’ Oedipus at the Gomel Youth Theatre and Gogol: Fatum (Гоголь: Fatum) at the Regional Drama Theatre in Gomel. Dzivakou graduated from the Minsk State College of Arts and the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts. As an actor, he worked at the Belarusian State Puppet Theatre in Minsk and the Mogilev Regional Puppet Theatre. He later established the independent group, Laboratory Figures Oskar Schlemmer. Since 2021, he lives with his wife Tatsiana and son Oskar in Warsaw.

‘Bad Blood’ by Jury Dzivakou and Marta Sokołowska, Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, 2023, photo: Marianna Kulesza

‘Bad Blood’ by Jury Dzivakou and Marta Sokołowska, Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, 2023, photo: Marianna Kulesza

‘Nastia’ based on Vladimir Sorokin’s short story, Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, 2022, photo: Marianna Kulesza

‘Nastia’ based on Vladimir Sorokin’s short story, Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, 2022, photo: Marianna Kulesza

Between 2022 and 2023, already in exile in Poland, Dzivakou staged a number of performances in which the use of queer aesthetics emerged as his trademark artistic strategy. These include, for example, Nastia, based on Vladimir Sorokin and Bad Blood, staged at the Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, as well as the literary monodrama performed by Natalia Lange, Anxiety Comes at Dusk, based on the debut novel by the Dutch, non-binary author, Lucas (Marieke) Rijneveld.

Nastia, co-written by set designer Tatsiana Dzivakova and composer Olga Podgaiskaya, is a remarkably timely play. This neo-naturalist parody of Russian and Soviet culture condemns patriarchal violence justified by traditional values. Just like Chronos, Russia devours its children and ultimately the future of the entire society. Throughout the performance, the actors each perform multiple parts and don various ‘masks’. A conversation between Sablin (Nikolai Stonka) and Mammoth (Artem Manuilov) on Nietzschean philosophy begins as a wrestling match and eventually turns into a homosexual sexual act. Played by the same actors, Sablin and Father Andrew’s recollections of studying together are accompanied by Arina’s (Volha Kalakoltsava) homophobic, snide remarks. Lange’s superbly performed character combines the portrayals of both the Rumiancews, husband and wife. In a bloodstained white, men’s suit, the actress parodies the ‘new Russians’ of the 1990s.

‘Clausa fores’ by Jura Dzivakou, 2023, photo: Tomasz Kulbowski

‘Clausa fores’ by Jura Dzivakou, 2023, photo: Tomasz Kulbowski

‘The End of a Half-Pig’ by Helmut Kajzar, Inexkult Production Centre, 2023, photo: Alyaksandr Walodzin

‘The End of a Half-Pig’ by Helmut Kajzar, Inexkult Production Centre, 2023, photo: Alyaksandr Walodzin

In addition to Nastia, it is also worth noting the monodrama Clausa Fores, depicting one day in the life of a tyrant. The artist-emperor Caligula is played by Aleksander Kazełło. As a dictator, he thrives on complete self-sufficiency—he no longer needs to depend on the outside world. His provocative, personal stories are homoerotic and queer: he dresses up and dons crowns and earrings. He is intoxicated by his own beauty, but at the same time, looks over his shoulder as if danger is lurking nearby. The tyrant’s main job on stage is to build a coffin and lay himself in his own grave.

Arias, based on Dzivakou’s poems, evolve into autonomous musical parts (author: Olga Podgaiskaya), while the set design by Tatsiana Dzivakova consists of digital projections whose theme are images of Soviet life presented as a computer game. The musical parts are accompanied by AI-created images of animals, which serve as a metaphor of a return to pure, natural beauty.

The final scene of a funeral takes place outside the theatre auditorium, in the garden. A surprise and a question await the audience: has the tyrant risen from the dead?

Dzivakou’s multifaceted, ambiguous work has allowed him to venture beyond the context of the Belarusian expatriate community. The wide range of queer theatre techniques on display in his plays is of great importance for the development of Belarusian art and its dialogue with contemporary Polish and European art. The importance of queer theatre in exile is all the more important at present, when the LGBT+ community in Eastern Europe is marginalized to an absolutely unprecedented degree.

Dmitry Ermalovich-Dashchynski—Art History graduate (MA), theatre critic, and researcher of queer culture in Eastern Europe. He completed doctoral studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus (2018) and held an internship at the University of Warsaw (2021). Since 2020 he has lived and worked in Poland, Ukraine, and Moldova.

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