I figured I might someday take an ambitious cultural jaunt through Europe, catching a classical concert at La Monnaie in Brussels, a musical off Las Ramblas in Barcelona, and cutting-edge dance performances in Berlin — all from the best seats in the house. I just imagined it would have to wait until I retired as The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist and retrained as, say, a plastic surgeon to the stars.
In this job, experiencing European culture has typically meant going to museums, preferably on days when they are free. For performing arts I’ve settled for concerts-in-the-park, and waited in line for hours for a heavily discounted, obstructed-view nosebleed seat to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the Comédie-Française in Paris.
But it turns out that to gorge on performing arts in Europe, you don’t have to book philharmonic tickets months in advance or ask the concierge to procure a last-minute box at the opera. Instead, you seek out the kind of performances that you (or starving artists you know) might see in your own city: alternative arts in settings not necessarily promoted at the tourist information booth and not always listed in your guidebook. In other words: Europe, off-Broadway style. Not only will this approach save you money — lots and lots, in fact — but it will also grant you access to an intimate, often quirky side of cities usually reserved for discerning residents and a smattering of traveling artists hooked into the local scene through friends and colleagues.
In May, I spent three long weekends in three cities — Barcelona, Berlin and Brussels — all of which are popular with tourists and have affordable and thriving arts options. I decided to see as many shows as I could, as long as they were all under 20 euros (a little over $25 at $1.28 to the euro).
My endeavor did require a certain amount of intrepid travel, though not the kind that involves eating ants or crossing rivers on makeshift rafts. Think, instead: combing through foreign-language listings using Google Translate and, inevitably, sitting through a dud performance or two. The payoff, though, was a dazzling and utterly diverse set of shows ranging from the nearly mainstream (but still cheap) to the over-the-top and provocative, all taken in amid crowds of local artists and art lovers — and very few tourists.
Not only is the cultural scene in Barcelona not particularly international, it’s often not even Spanish. The city’s emphasis on its Catalan heritage and language can make it feel the most insular, but can also be an advantage: Those looking for an immersive experience need look no further.
“What Barcelona longs to be is a city of creativity and innovation, especially if you compare it with other cities in Spain,” said Francesc Casadesús Calvo, the director of Mercat de les Flors, what a friend in town called “the temple of dance.” “Catalans are not afraid of new ideas, and we love the sparks that provoke innovation.”
The regional pride that pervades the city is perfectly understandable in an area with a fervent independence movement, but it can be a hurdle of sorts for tourists. After seeing a chamber choir performance of Catalan Baroque works at the smallest hall in the grand Palau de la Música Catalana (8 euros), I mentioned to a taxi driver in Spanish that I had enjoyed the concert but was sorry I couldn’t understand what the director was telling the audience. “You were in the cradle of Catalan culture,” he replied. “If he had spoken Spanish, people would have gotten up and left.”
The most out-there — and potentially alienating — performance I saw was at another affordable venue, the Teatre Poliorama, right on the Ramblas. It was partly in Spanish and partly in Catalan, punctuated by music in heavily accented English, but that’s only part of what made it a tough sell. “Elvis & Whitney” is a musical (of sorts) in which Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston are played by a (perhaps purposefully) terrible Elvis impersonator and a white man in drag. If I’ve got the plot right, it takes place shortly after Houston’s death. She arrives in a sort of purgatorial green room, where she is told she must sing “I Will Always Love You” to God to be admitted to heaven. Elvis (for some reason) is there to encourage her, shake his pelvis and sing badly. The audience loved it. My companion, a black Brazilian friend, found the portrayal of a caricatured, drug-addicted Houston played by a white man offensive. But there was no denying it was a riotous spectacle — and something you probably wouldn’t experience in New York.
If Berlin’s low-end cultural scene has a specialty, it’s genre-busting. That, in part, may be thanks to its deep expatriate community and cheap performance spaces.
“What’s happening in the performing arts is that genre borders are breaking down,” said Laura Berman, an American producer and curator who has lived there off and on since 1998. These sorts of novel formats can be difficult to navigate: some of the listings are so vague that you have no idea what you’re about to see. “My best advice is to rely on the brand — or the venue — and then go for it,” Berman said.
Of six performances I saw over a long weekend, I would describe just one as a specific genre. Anton Barbeau and Cyann, the two performers at the dank but welcoming underground room inside Madame Claude, a basement bar in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, were both singer-songwriters, if very different ones.
Everything else was firmly indefinable. Even at the mainstream-looking Volkesbühne, a rather monumental theater built in the early 20th century, the German-language play “Murmel Murmel” was neither precisely a play, nor precisely in German. The actors — or were they dancers? or clowns? — repeatedly spoke only one word: “murmel,” which means “mumble,” as they engaged in slapstick foibles: constant tumbles from the stage, a hilariously pathetic inability to pull up their pants. All this oddly matched with dancing (including a chorus line) and amazing multicolored, multidirectional screens that swooped left and right and up and down and trapped the players or caused them to vanish. It was half Broadway musical, half Wild and Crazy Guys.
Genre-scrambling by a visiting theater company served a more noble purpose in “Good Little Soldier,” a performance by the Australian company Animal Farm Collective that I saw for 15 euros in Radialsystem V, a pumping station turned “space for arts and ideas” on the Spree River. The performance was dance leaning toward theater: a two-man band on scaffolding at the back of a stage creating a terrifying soundtrack. Its purpose, seemingly, was to let the audience peer through the nightmarish glasses of a returned soldier suffering from the nightmares and flashbacks of post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’ve read many articles about PTSD, but never thought about it as much or for as long as I did after that performance.
At Hebbel am Ufer (better known as HAU), a three-space theater known for its experimental shows, I was entertained but perplexed by “Abecedarium Bestiarium” a one-woman performance in which Antonia Baehr switched between English and German as a mobile audience followed her around the stage through a series of mini-performances, each about an extinct species. She transformed herself into an animal (the Tasmanian tiger), had a séance with another (the northern hartebeest), played audio clips about yet another (Steller’s sea cow). At one point she also showed her breasts (I can’t remember which animal that was about).
Much more enjoyable, I thought, was another HAU show called “Remote Berlin,” an “audio tour” from the HAU-based production company Rimini Protokoll, in which the audience dons headphones and is led through Berlin — even onto the subway and into a hospital — observing the city, literally, as a stage.
The final (and wackiest) performance I saw actually combined the performance space and gathering space. As part of the way-out-there Month of Performance Art — Berlin festival, Brooklyn-based Panoply Performance Laboratory had set up a makeshift diner in a storefront performance space called grüntaler9. I was greeted as if I had entered a restaurant, seated with others and handed a menu of “food, objects and time-based items,” mostly for 1 euro. I ordered psychoanalysis (a brief tableside session from a “waitress”), a “natural disaster” (during which the “staff” upended tables and sprayed ketchup everywhere) and a curry, which was a curry.
I was a long, long way from standard Berlin attractions like a Philharmonic concert or a Wintergarten cabaret — and having, I’m guessing, much more fun.
More staid than Berlin but more diverse than Barcelona, Brussels is home not just to the European Union but to an equally global arts scene.
“It’s an international hub,” said Diane Weller, an Australian-born, Brussels-based performer I met for brunch. “So you’ve got big players, and from that you get a load of people who come to study under them or audition, and then stay.”
Late spring is festival time in Europe, and I happened to be in Brussels during the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, an annual and affordable one — and luckily, one featuring many Belgian performers that gave it a local vibe.
It was also admirably trilingual. Programs were in English, French and Dutch. Even though “H, An Incident,” a show I saw at the Kaaitheater, was a production of the Belgian director Kris Verdonck, and judging by accents had no native speakers in the cast, it was entirely in English, with French and Dutch surtitles above the stage.
Another night, I sat with about 70 audience members on a sort of outdoor scaffolding overlooking a “new wing” at Brussels’ Museum of Natural Sciences. This was another festival event: “The Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species,” (16 euros) created by the Belgian “scenographer” Jozef Wouters. Wouters had created a faux museum about humankind’s troubled relationship with animals (the Tasmanian tiger made another appearance), but in his presentation, part by trilingual audio recording and part live, he claimed it was highly researched and all true. True or not, there was clearly a serious message behind it all. I would categorize the event as science fair style meets Ripley’s Believe It or Not! shock value meets TED talk seriousness.
I also attended several musical performances, including a 19-euro concert by the experimental pianist Nils Frahm at Ancienne Belgique, a rather mainstream venue downtown, and a 12-euro concert at the more off-kilter Espace Senghor, where the French klezmer musician Yom teamed up with the Chinese jew’s-harp player Wang Li for a concert that had the crowd enthralled, and me bored. (Payback for my constant laughter at “H”?)
But I especially enjoyed an afternoon “Concertino” put on by La Monnaie, Brussels’ grand opera house for 8 euros, a fraction of what you’d pay for performances in the elegant 19th-century hall. The Ensemble Per Questa Bella Mano, as they called themselves, played 18th-century pieces on period instruments, including a viola d’amore and Viennese bass. The performance of the group’s namesake piece “Per Questa Bella Mano,” written by Mozart, which the program (trilingual, of course) explained had long been considered “unplayable” and “unworthy” of the composer. Then someone realized it had been meant for the Viennese bass, not its modern descendant, and the piece was reborn. A nice twist, and after all the genre-bending craziness I had witnessed before it, refreshingly quaint.