I Forgot, Oxana Sankova © DIM40Studio

Leestijd 4 — 7 minuten

A miraculous understanding

Can we derive or create meaning from listening to languages we don’t understand, from the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what’? And how might this work for theatre makers in an international context? Oxana Sankova reminisces about her experiences as a theatre student at RITCS and the reception of her piece I forgot.

A few years ago I was accepted into the course in theatre directing at the RITCS, which the school’s website said was conducted in English. That wasn’t entirely true as there was quite a lot of Dutch being spoken. At first I would get nervous and even angry, and reminded my classmates to speak in English. But at some point I relaxed. After all, the theatre is a territory where people often dive to depths that are impossible to reach without your mother tongue.

I began to allow myself to listen to the music of the language and to pick up the energy of a speaker. At some point, an amazing thing happened, as if I had acquired some addi­tional organ of perception, some channel that I do not know the name of. When you don’t understand words you focus on ‘how’ instead of ‘what’. How a person is talking: body language, the music in his speaking (tonality, rhythm, volume), pauses, facial expressions. And suddenly, it’s as if you start to understand the meaning of what is being said.

And more than that, it’s like you’re discovering something about the person in question. Something that you would never notice if you only listened to what they are saying. When you “catch the wave” of another person, trust this wave and follow it. This is also how I watch performances in a foreign language.

“At some point, an amazing thing happened, as if I had acquired some additional organ of perception.”

As I write this I am seeing the performances of this year’s RITCS graduates. There have been many good ones but I specifically want to talk about the bachelor performance of Tessa Daluwein, Al dromend drijft men – a solo in Dutch. At some point during the performance I was absorbed into her world through the vibrations of her voice, the slow and “broken” plasticity of her body, the trust and sincerity with which she addressed the audience. She seemed to become what she was talking about, as if she herself had become the text. I didn’t need to understand her words to experience her longing, tenderness and vulnerability.

This miraculous understanding does not happen very often, but it happens from time to time. I am sure that language is not just words flying out with the air but something tangible, something that creates some kind of material physical field that we are able to perceive and feel.

I experienced a similar interesting thing while working on the performance 21.02.2021 by Nico Boon, which I am part of as an actress. During rehearsals, end-director Aurelie di Marino suggested playing one part (that had already been written in English before) in Russian. Initially I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, as I feared the part would become incomprehensible. She convinced me that language can function like music and that it would work very well for a certain part of the performance. Many who saw it confirmed it: meaning was somehow being created through the music of the language and through the spectators’ own imagination.

Later on, however, we still added subtitles in Dutch. In this particular case, I can’t say whether this scene benefited from that. We made this part of the play together with musi­cian Hanne De Backer, and her saxophone creates much of the atmosphere that conveys what is happening (in this case, a rover exploring Mars). The music, here, carries the irra­tional part. If the audience understands what I’m talking about, my text becomes a kind of ground connection. And in this meeting of text and saxophone, at the intersection of the concrete and the irrational, a form of poetry is born. Some people who saw both versions (with and without subtitles) said they preferred not to know what was being said, so as to experience the duet with Hanne as pure music triggering the imagination.

After experiences such as these, of perceiving foreign languages in Belgium, I would like to watch performances in Russian in the same way. To stop understanding my mother tongue, turn off my knowledge and discover something new.

All this is not to say you don’t need to know the language(s) of the country you are living in. Due to the already heavy workload of my studies I did not have the opportunity to learn Dutch before. I am going to learn it now. But I am grateful for my experience of “ignorance” which allowed me to discover an additional “organ” of perception.

I once read a review of my piece I Forgot, in which a journalist wrote that a new generation of theatrical makers are doing performances in English because they wish to be selected by international festivals. This amazing and diverse theatrical field really deserves inter­national recognition, but in my case the actors in my performances speak English just because I don’t speak Dutch.

“It could be an interesting experiment: a play in which the director doesn’t understand what the actors are saying.”

In some Flemish theatres we played I Forgot with Dutch subtitles. It bothered us a little because we sometimes improvise around the text, but the subtitles force us to be more precise. In any case, I would never have imagined that my stories about my Soviet child­ hood would one day be played in English in front of a Belgian audience. But in the begin­ning I was very worried about it. Would my stories lose something by being translated into English? It turned out that they wouldn’t. Also I was unsure if my Soviet stories would be interesting for a Belgian audience, but the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, perhaps because when you talk honestly about topics that are important to you, you can touch others, regardless of barriers of language, mentality and nationality.

I am now trying to find ways for myself to make performances in Dutch, here in Belgium. I haven’t yet found out how. Perhaps I could work with a translator? But I’m always afraid that I might miss important details during the rehearsal process.

Now you may laugh and advise me to direct in the same way that I watch performances in Dutch, as I described above. Perhaps I should take a chance one day and see what happens. It could be an interesting experiment: a play in which the director doesn’t under­stand what the actors are saying. Perhaps it will give rise to something that I can’t even imagine. Although it sounds strange, I know.


Leestijd 4 — 7 minuten




Oxana Sankova

Oxana Sankova studied at the GITIS theatre academy in Moscow and RITCS in Brussels. I forgot was her graduation piece in 2019.


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