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Cutting-edge Theater Flies at 'Under the Radar Festival'

A scene from "Samedi Détente," running January 14-17 at New York Public Theater. (Laura Fouqueré courtesy photo)

It's not your traditional night at the theater. Among the offerings at this season's Under the Radar Festival: an Inuit throat singer, who's also an electronica composer, accompanying the silent film Nanook of the North. There is also a pair of transgender South Asian poets putting on a cabaret show.

This year, there are more than a dozen works from across the globe being featured from places such as Chile, Japan, France and Canada, as well as the U.S.

The festival takes place every January at the New York Public Theater.

It's definitely off Broadway but, occasionally, these shows have moved onto the radar — as happened with Gatz, an eight-hour adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

One child's story of genocide

One of the most intriguing pieces this year is a highly personal dance theater work by Dorothée Munyaneza. Samedi Détente is about her twelve-year-old self trying to survive the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In a phone conversation from her home in France, Munyaneza says she started to work on the piece two years ago.

A scene from "Samedi Détente," running January 14-17 at New York Public Theater. (Laura Fouqueré courtesy photo)
A scene from "Samedi Détente," running January 14-17 at New York Public Theater. (Laura Fouqueré courtesy photo)

"Somehow, symbolically, it meant a lot to me to address my memory, my history, twenty years afterward, she said. “And, I chose to write and to create this choreographic/musical/historical/storytelling piece."

She begins the piece in a blue dress, inspired by her school uniform, crouched on top of a table and singing a song, to the accompaniment of a man who is sharpening his machete.

"It's true that this object, which was normally used as a tool for cutting wood or killing animals for food, suddenly became this tool for killing," Munyaneza said, "and killing massively, and killing people cruelly."

Meiyin Wang and Mark Russell, co-artistic directors of Under the Radar, think even extreme stories like Samedi Détente have a universal message.

Theater for everyone

"...this is for everybody," Russell said. "All of these stories have an integrity of purpose, everyone should be able to approach them, without having to know the history of avant garde art."

Munyaneza says she’s trying to find some kind of peace through her work.

"I'm trying to share this story,” she said. “I'm trying to leave something in the minds and hearts of people who will carry it. And it's something I can only do through art."

Buy why theater? Russell says that's a question he asks of all the artists who present at Under the Radar.

"So, in this day, when there's all sorts of great ways of telling stories and everyone's got a camera and everyone's telling stories and there are so many other cheaper ways to do it, we're looking at why do theater now?" he asks.

The answers, he says, are in the works themselves. Audiences can experience them much like at a film festival: They can see three, four or five shows in a single day.

And that's just what Under the Radar's artistic directors want to present: work that is unique, urgent and relevant, and told in a surprising yet accessible way.

The festival runs through January 17 at New York's Public Theater.