Can facing certain death bring strangers together?
De Standaard – March 14, 2019 – Culture & media
Charlotte de Somviele
What it’s like to die together
We all die alone, that’s how the saying goes. But what if you were to die with a group of strangers? In a plane crash, for instance? That’s the fascinating premise of the group performance ‘Dying Together.’ – CHARLOTTE DE SOMVIELE
It is a bizarre phenomenon. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, genocides or incidents such as last weekend’s plane crash in Ethiopia, where total strangers are instantly united in life’s most intimate moment: death. And in the wake of the March 22nd attacks in Belgium’s Maalbeek, the names of the victims, who were unknown to each other, will be inscribed forever on the subway station wall. And in turn, unified by loss, the relatives will form a new community to organize memorials or speak with journalists.
Dutch theatre maker Lotte van den Berg is intrigued by the phenomenon of collective death. Between 2006 and 2009, the daughter of former puppeteer Jozef van den Berg, was the company director at Toneelhuis in Antwerp. Today, she leads the Third Space company in Amsterdam, where she experiments with participatory formats in which the audience is a prime creative force, such as with Building Conversation, a performance project inspired by conversational techniques.
To examine the idea of collective death, van den Berg developed a participatory performance where you, together with fifty to two hundred other participants, (re)experience an event in which a large number of people die simultaneously. In Dying Together, featured this week in the Performatik festival, it’s not so much about experiencing your own death ,which after all is unimaginable. It is about the relationships that evolve when people reveal their true selves, or unexpectedly change as the end nears. Who are you drawn to? Who do you turn to for comfort?
Van den Berg based the scenarios on actual catastrophes, such as the first major refugee boat disaster off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013, and the attack on the Bataclan nightclub in 2015. The form is inspired by a psychotherapy technique used in family traumas: people assume positions in the space to mirror social relationships and thus unravel deep-rooted patterns or blockages.
“Dying Together has nothing to do with role play or drama therapy,” emphasizes Lotte van den Berg. “I prefer to call it a form of physical thinking. Actually, the performance revolves around the ethical question of how you want to connect with someone, and if we can learn something about how to live together from the way we treat others in the face of death.”
Another case that Van den Berg explored is the Germanwings air crash in 2015, when the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed the aircraft into the French Alps, killing all 149 passengers on board. “Speculations about Lubitz’s motives filled the media,” she says. “Many believed he was motivated by a desire for fame, but surely it wasn’t so simple? I wondered if we could possibly see Lubitz’s suicide as a desperate attempt to connect with others? Instead of tearing people apart, can death also bring them together?”
Van den Berg realizes it’s a controversial idea, but one that might offer hope. “The people on the plane came from all over the world. They were strangers, but in that violent act, their destinies intertwined. Literally. The Airbus, and the passengers, burst like confetti. Most of the remains were unidentifiable, and they were buried in a communal grave. The victims’ genetic material was so intermixed that even a new DNA emerged.”
Van den Berg concludes: “No matter how horrific the context and how hard it is for us to let go of our idea of individuality, the knowledge that death frees you of physical limitations and merges you with your surroundings, is actually very consoling.”
The original article in Dutch can be found here.