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Kafka in Love

(2003 - WorldStage Festival/Autumn Leaf Performance, Hart House Swimming Pool)


Soundscape includes works by Lesley Barber, Rainer Weins, Linda C. Smith, Bruce Nicol, Gyorgy Kurtag, Dimitri Shostakovich, O Yuke Conjugate and Sigur Ros

Performance featured : Kirsten Johnson (Gerti Wasner) and the Toronto Synchronized Swimming Club.


Featuring Avi Phillips (Franz Kafka), Kelci Archibald (Gerti Wasner) and Zoran Sadiq(Felice Bauer) & Natasha Mytnowych (Nurse)


Production designer : Tamara Ulisko

Lighting design : John Denniston

Swim Wardrobe : Patricia Edwards 

Wardrobe : Aleksandra Podbereski 

Music Supervision : by Christine Seki

Puppet consultation : by Brad Harley 

Assistant director : Natasha Mytnowych

Stage Manager : Kendra Fry.

Video associate producer : John Crockford,

Director of photography : John Denniston

Technical Director and editor : Keith Holding

Conceived & Directed (Video and Performance) by Thom Sokoloski

Freestyle Kafka

Colin Eatock

Special to The Globe &Mail
Published April 23, 2003


In some ways, Monday evening's run-through of Thom Sokoloski's Kafka in Love was much like any opera rehearsal, with performers, stage managers and technical crew reviewing their notes and cues in preparation for a scene. But for Kafka in Love, the stage is a swimming pool at the University of Toronto's Hart House, the cast is clad in Day-Glo bathing suits, and the lighting system consists of flashlights and candles. Sokoloski, a gaunt man clad in black jeans and a T-shirt, calls his artists to attention: "Let's try this thing now and see what happens," he announces.

"The time is 1936," he continues, as the cast members take their positions at the side of the pool. "The show you're participating in has been prohibited by the Nazis. It's about Gerti Wasner's love affair with a Jewish man. This is her last show." Six women -- members of the Toronto Synchronized Swimming Club -- dive gracefully into the water, as new-age music wafts through the room, and waves reflect eerily on the ceiling in the dim light.

The rehearsal runs to midnight, but afterward Sokoloski, artistic director of Autumn Leaf Performance, stays to talk about the show he conceived, wrote, produced and is now directing -- and which opens on Saturday night in Toronto as part of Harbourfront Centre's World Stage Festival.

"It's not an opera, as we understand it," he begins, going on to explain that it's an opera as we generally don't understand it. "For lack of a better term, I called it a 'water opera.' It has a narrative that is very simple, which is told in a silent film projected on the walls. And then there's a secondary narrative that's going on in the swimming pool. There's no live singing, so from a purist point of view, it's not an opera. But you can have theatre that is not a play -- and it's still theatre, conceptually."

With that proviso, he offers some helpful background about his show.

"I first encountered the idea when I was reading Max Brod's biography of Franz Kafka. Several times throughout the book, he mentions a little affair that Kafka had at a sanatorium in 1913, with a young Swiss woman. Kafka destroyed almost everything that he wrote to her -- letters and little fairy tales -- and he really didn't talk about her very much," says Sokoloski.

"So it's not an opera about Kafka, it's about a woman's re-interpretation of a love affair. She creates the production for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But Kafka was Jewish, so when she's readying the show. . ., she gets a letter saying she can't do it."

In other words, it's a "re-creation" of a fictitious, banned show, supposedly produced by a mysterious woman recalling a brief romance she had 23 years earlier.

Fair enough -- but how did it end up in a swimming pool? "The Hartenburgen Institute [where Kafka met Wasner] practised hydrotherapy," continues Sokoloski. "I liked the whole idea of a spa, and I knew I wanted to stage it in a pool. I just had to find a relationship between the pool and Kafka."

As strange as Kafka in Love might sound to some people, nothing in it should come as much of a surprise to contemporary music and theatre cognoscenti. Sokoloski is known for cutting-edge productions, such as his austere, otherworldly staging of Claude Vivier's Kopernikus, seen in Toronto, Montreal and Banff, Alta., and hailed by The Globe and Mail as one of the best music events of 2001. The 52-year-old director has built a precarious career on challenging the conventional: He has no patience for artistic complacency, or federal and provincial arts councils that "just care you're not running a deficit."

Since 1991 he has produced works by Arnold Schoenberg, R. Murray Schafer and many others -- but with Kafka, Sokoloski is taking a new step. "Having collaborated with some really interesting artists over the years," he observes, "I wanted to return to my own work. When I sat down to conceptualize Kafka in Love, I was in charge of what the film was going to look like, what the pool would look like, and the choice of music." His musical selections range from Dmitri Shostakovich to Toronto composer Linda Catlin Smith to Sephardic folksongs.

There's no denying it's a pastiche. The entire project sounds like a Kafkaesque collaboration between swimming actress Esther Williams and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. But like many postmodernists, Sokoloski is trying to rid that word of its less-than-respectable connotations. He sees a unifying energy, rather than divisiveness, in mixing art forms, cultures and eras. "It's the idea of taking things and repositioning them," he says, "to find a whole."

Performances of Kafka in Love take place at the University of Toronto's Hart House pool on April 26 and 27, and May 3 and 4. For tickets call 416-973-4000.

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