'The audience comes in and sees the stage decorated and lit. It's like an amphitheater with the stage down below. The audience comes in and walks through the stage decorations. Already they can see the props and the musical instruments - a forest horn, a saxophone, and all kinds of weird things. The audience is seated, the lights go down and the first thing you hear are people walking down the steps. Then a sentence from Isaac Bashevis Singer about Chelm - the legendary town of fools from Jewish folklore - which I am singing in a falsetto voice. Then some orchestra, playing a sort of Hassidic melody. It sounds almost Gypsy. An angel appears and tries to fly, weighted down with two huge sacks, one of smart souls, the other of foolish souls, with instructions to scatter the two kinds of souls evenly throughout the world. The angel, however, collides with a mountain, the sack full of foolish souls breaks, and the foolish souls all land at the foot of the mountain. The town of Chelm has now been created. The show begins."
The show is The Wise Men of Chelm, current production of the Clipa Theatre of Performing Arts. The description is related by Dirk Kunesch - avant-garde musician, experimental performance artist, and one of the Clipa Theatre's principal actors. Native of a small German village roughly half way between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, Kunesch, aged 40, discovered Israel in 1993 during a lengthy period of backpack-traveling around the world. Gentle and very soft-spoken, Kunesch's voice seems at times to get lost amidst the soothing sounds of large metal wind chimes and a small aviary of colorful loud birds that stands outside his small rented cottage on Moshav Gan Haim, at the edge of Kfar Saba. As Kunesch explains in his heavily German-accented English, the aviary came with the house - belonging to the landlord, with some additional birds added over the years by previous tenants. As the birds chirp and the wind chimes ring incessantly in the early winter breeze, Kunesch softly recalls the long and winding road that led him here to Israel and a life in the theater.
"My parents were not actors or musicians," he says, "but they used to sing in the village choir. My father used to entertain friends at parties with jokes and sketches. I think that I got my desire to perform from him." Kunesch began playing trumpet at the age of 11, along with the recorder. He played in a small informal youth ensemble, called The Village Recorder Group. "Can you imagine!" he exclaims with laughter, "My poor parents' ears!" His was employed as an electrical engineer. "And me also, I started my formal, straightforward German career in electronics, which has been very helpful for the technical part of my work in the theater." Kunesch was then briefly in the civil service, which got him into organizing cultural activities and working with kids.
Like any young middle-class German, Kunesch decided in 1991 that the time had come for university studies, but nothing seemed to appeal to him. He recalls, "So I figured, okay, I'll travel for half a year, figure out what I want to do, and then go back to school and study something. But then, as the big wide world opened up to me, that half year became one and a half years, and more. I just kept traveling and meeting musicians and starting projects." Thus began a period of travel that lasted until 1993.
He spent a few months in Thailand, where he met an Austrian who played Indian tunes on his mandolin. "He would just walk along the beach and suddenly become entranced by a sound, become mesmerized. I was spellbound by him and couldn't leave him. I myself spent many nights with my pocket trumpet, sitting by a river and diving into the sounds of nature," Kunesch recalls. From Thailand, it was off to the Indonesian island of Bali to hear the music of gamelan. He and his friends then returned to Thailand with jewelry to sell to pay for their travel to India. "We traveled and made a bit of a living at the same time - very Gypsy-like," he says. All the while, of course, Kunisch was being exposed to a wide array of exotic musical forms and traditions. Kunesch spent a half year in India, followed by a quick visit to Japan and then a return to Germany to attend his sister's wedding. After a short time in Germany, he took off for Ireland to attend a Woodstock-like music festival called the "Rainbow Gathering," and from there the wind blew him and a few of his musician companions to Israel, for another music festival in the Negev.
"I couldn't imagine what was waiting for me in Israel," he remembers. "Once I came, we went straight down to the Negev. And I felt like I was living in the Thousand and One Nights stories I had read as a kid. It seemed like a door to all of that was opening, like in a dream, in front of my eyes. Just amazing. Sitting there at night, around a fire with more than 20 other people, looking up at the stars and moon. Completely silent, not one sound. Then someone started to beat a drum and there was a sudden outburst of voices singing together. This was my first impression, a very strong, wonderful impression of Israel."
This favorable impression ultimately led Kunesch to hang up his backpack and settle here. "I just fell in love with the country and the people. So I kept coming and staying longer and longer. When it got too hot here, I would go back and travel around a bit in Europe, playing music. Then, when it would become cold in Europe, I'd come back here." The final pull came when he met his wife Yael in the Sinai, while sitting one night with his eyes closed, playing an Australian Aborigine didgeridoo. "I opened my eyes and found myself looking into this pair of big brown eyes." He and Yael, a teacher of Feldenkrais, have been married for 11 years and have two children: Ophir, aged 7, and Yonatan, one year and nine months. His traveling days over, Kunesch has been here in Israel ever since.
Kunesch had met numerous Israeli artists and musicians along the backpack trails of Asia, and had spent time with others in Ireland. It thus took him little time to connect with any number of artistic soul mates in and around Tel Aviv. By chance, he managed to meet some people who were beginning to plan and put together a street theater group in Bat Yam. These people, Kunesch was told, were looking for someone to help with the music. He and his wife went to their apartment, which turned out to be the workshop of their theater group. "All of the scenery and decorations were piled up in the living room. There was a sewing machine in the bedroom to make costumes, and costumes from different productions were being stored outside on both balconies. My wife and I just looked at each other, and she said, 'Well, it looks like you came to the right place,'" he recalls, laughing. "The people in the apartment glanced up. We didn't talk much - we just said 'hello' and then said 'okay, why don't we play something,' and then began playing music straight away. We jammed together without stopping for around one and a half hours."
That promising beginning ultimately gave birth to the Clipa Theatre of Performing Arts, which describes itself as "visual theater incorporating motion and live music." No longer strictly speaking "street theater," this now highly acclaimed, innovative performance art group presently stages its productions in a lovingly renovated industrial building at 38 Harakevet Street in Tel Aviv. As Kunesch explains, "Clipa is the Hebrew word for 'shell' or 'outer skin.' In a kabbalistic sense, it has other meanings as well. Clipa also means 'witch.' But it also refers to what the group does - clips, or short skits - brief images put together with not necessarily a plot, but perhaps a feeling or a mood. Movement, music and visual effects of lights and decorations. The music is elemental, basic. It is a total theatrical world with its own kind of language."
This kind of art seems to be what Kunesch is all about, especially at this time in his life. "I am 40 years old," he says, "a time in life that presents one with a lot of question marks, like 'Who am I?' I ask myself that question every day. In music and theater, I discover who I am in each performance, each production."
Asked if he considers himself primarily an actor or musician, he replies, "I would say both. I am a performer. When I do music I feel what an actor feels, enjoying being on stage, communicating with the audience, sharing something - it's a special thing that happens there. It happens in the music and, in a stronger and more direct way, in theater. My theater part came from my music side, searching for a combination of movement and sound. Then I was much interested in the sound of the voice, of the didgeridoo, of more abstract sounds. I was also very interested in how the sound combines with music. I checked with some dancers. Tried some improvisations, and decided that there must be something out there - sound and music - that fits together like a hand and glove."
Kunesch seems to have found that fit with the Clipa Theatre, and values the rigorously avant-garde creativity that keeps moving it in new directions. "Certainly, there is a structure in the show, of the performance, in the choreography. But what we are really looking for is the happening of the very moment. We keep ourselves at a high level of alertness and sensitivity. We may suddenly feel that something very special is opening up, and we have to strive to make the most of that moment. In this way, the performance is completely fresh every time, and we surprise ourselves with every performance. And on top of that, with each performance we interact with a different audience. So, it's never the same twice."
Kunesch also considers himself fortunate to be an artist in Israel. The Israeli theater audience, he says, can be counted on to be curious, welcoming and receptive to virtually any new form of artistic expression. He acknowledges, however, that being a non-Jewish, German artist in Israel sometimes functions as the proverbial "elephant in the room," which people awkwardly try not to mention. But his thoughts on the Holocaust are intense and unequivocal. "For my generation, the one that came after the war, it is incomprehensible how such a thing could have happened, how people could have allowed such a monstrous thing to happen. We don't understand all the people who said they didn't know what was happening, and all their excusesâ€¦It is simply impossible to understandâ€¦incomprehensible," he says softly, his voice slowly fading to silence. He reads much, particularly short stories about the Holocaust, to try to gain a better understanding.
In addition to acting and making music in the theater, Kunesch plays music with his band, called the Panic Ensemble - whose music he describes as "cabaretistic, pop, and rock - and with his other band, Digital Samsara, which performs what he calls "a fusion of ambient computer-generated layers of sound and instruments." He has also performed with a third group, Mendy Cahan and the Yiddish Express, playing trumpet and, yes, didgeridoo.
The Panic Ensemble's next performance will be at the Tmuna Theater, 8 Soncino Street, Tel Aviv, tel. (03) 562-9462. Information about upcoming performances of the Clipa Theatre of Performing Arts can be found on their web site, www.clipa-theater.com.
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