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Romathan: Roma Theatre in Action

By Andrea Chalupa

    Dancers at Romathan
 Dancers at Romathan
 Photo: Courtesy Romathan

In the eastern Slovak town of Košice, not far from the famous Cathedral of St. Elisabeth, a unique cultural experiment is underway.

An old, nondescript building houses the Romathan Theatre, the only state-funded Romany theatre in Europe, and perhaps in the world. It is a place filled with constant echoes of rhythmic sounds and singing, where girls in colourful, flowery dresses run up and down the stairs while musicians are tuning their instruments. Walking into the building to the sounds of hand claps, violins, and dulcimer is like entering the sometimes hidden world of Slovak and Central European Gypsy music and culture.

Founded in 1992, through the efforts and persistent lobbying by Roma political organisations in Slovakia, the company has grown to a staff of 46, including an ensemble of 34 musicians, singers, dancers, and actors.

"The goal of the theatre is to preserve and maintain Romany culture with traditional music from not only Slovakia but also Poland, Russia, Hungary, and Romania," says first violinist and director Karol Adam.

While focusing on performing original music and drama, they are also trying to do more than simply entertain. Romathan works towards a two-sided goal: to increase Romany self-identification and pride in their own culture as well as to combat the persistent prejudice against them. Where argument and force fail, the troupe believes, the persuasive power of music and drama may succeed.

"Some people have streaks of racism, but this is about showing them something positive," says Adam. "And I think that the arts are a very good way. It's with music as a weapon that we should fight racism, because violence never pays."

Ján Šilan, Romathan's 72 year-old artistic director, is non-Roma and has worked with Romathan for 10 years. Having previously worked for many years in theatres in Plzeň, Kiev, and Prešov, he describes his involvement with Romathan as an altogether different and enriching experience. He speaks enthusiastically of Roma talent in Slovakia.

"The polyphony of expression, the synthesis of dance, song and acting is really large," Šilan says. "It's very rare that talent is one-sided. They often have a very broad range and there is a great freedom of expression."

Šilan describes the Romany culture as very emotional compared to Slavic and Germanic cultures. He says that in other theatres, when people are tired, they lock themselves up in their dressing-room, have a coffee or maybe they rehearse texts. "Over here if people are tired we have a break and in that moment, there is guitar, singing as a way of relaxing," he says. "So instead of really resting, they live through what their heart is dictating at the moment, which is a bit of a paradox to the tiredness."

Alena Klempárová, 27, is an actress who has been with the theatre for nine years. Having previously performed in other groups, she agrees with Šilan about the differences in Romany and non-Romany cultures.

"Over here, it's much more emotional, both when it comes to work on stage and relationships between people" she says. "The Roma are very emotional and express their immediate feelings more than non-Roma. This can, of course, be both positive and negative. It's positive on stage and negative when it comes to relationships, which tend to be sharper".

Bringing talent and great potential to the stage was a challenge in the beginning. Just scheduling rehearsals was a major obstacle.

"In the beginning we learnt a lot on both sides," Šilan says. "When it came to issues like punctuality and conception of time, there were problems. We would set a time for rehearsal at 9:00 and people would show up at 11:00. I saw this in a very negative way before I understood the reasons for it. They simply lived in another dimension. We had to be very strict and gradually discipline improved. The second thing I learnt was that all that matters is the present. And the reason for it is that for centuries life was lived from day to day. So there is that condition, that feeling that if you give me something now, I'll do it. It's as if tomorrow doesn't really exist."

Funding poses a perennial problem. Romathan will receive about Sk6 million in government funds this year - not a bad subsidy in a financially strapped country, but a Sk2.4 million drop from original funding levels. The company generates another Sk700,000 in annual operating income (ticket sales, etc.), which is still not enough to keep a talented ensemble together. Turnover is constant and Adam says he could easily use another 10 performers.

The company stages about 150 shows a year, and tours constantly throughout Slovakia. It has also performed in cities like London, Paris, Budapest, Brussels, Strasbourg, and Prague. Unfortunately, tours abroad are not as frequent as before due to lack of finances.

Romathan debuted in December 1992 with Than Perdalo Roma, a dramatisation of the nomadic lifestyle, starting in India and following its spread throughout the European continent. Subsequent productions have touched on everything from romantic love to folklore, and also dealt with controversial subjects.

"We have dramatised the Romany holocaust," notes Adam. "During World War II, half a million Roma lost their lives in concentration camps. This is not mentioned very often."

Romathan's most recent production is Kamene Osudu (Stones of Fate) a musical drama set in the beginning of the last century about a Romany girl who falls in love with a non-Roma (gadjo). The musical is written by Marián Balog, 30, one of Romathan's soloists.

In all of their productions, Romathan plays breathtaking traditional music which intermingle Slovak, Hungarian and Russian roots. They also perform more modern Romany songs called 'pop-rom'. This is what interests the ensemble above all-to perform and spread the joy and beauty of Romany music. Still, in any discussion of the theatre's work and goals, it doesn't take long for the conversation to turn political.

"What kind of democracy do we have in this country when, for example, neither I nor my wife were allowed in to the best hotel in this city?" asks Adam. "I was well-dressed, but they had orders not to let in Roma. In some places, this happens frequently. I am neither for segregation nor separation. On the contrary, I want us to live well together. But human rights have to be respected for Roma."

A walk on the main square in Košice, a stone's throw from the protected world of the theatre, reveals little ethnic tension for the casual visitor. The Roma on the street seem as integrated as any other citizen. But that can be as illusory as any stage production according to some members of Romathan, who reinforce Adam's comments about discrimination.

"We want to go out and enjoy ourselves like everyone else," says Marián Balog, 30, actor and singer. "We usually go to bars where the waiters know us. But if we want to go elsewhere, we're just not let in. No matter how well-dressed and 'adjusted' a Romany is, he won't get in. A Gypsy always remains a Gypsy."

Not everyone, however, has this experience. Ján Žiga, 20 dancer, singer and actor has been with Romathan for a year. "I have never felt discrimination or racism," he says. "Maybe I avoid situations like that. And it doesn't matter to me if my friends are Roma or not. I have plenty of non-Roma friends."

It's impossible to determine what percentage of the population Roma comprise, since many of them register under Slovak or Hungarian nationality. Officially, there are approximately 30,000 Roma in Košice. Many of them live mainstream, middle-class lives, while others live in ghettos and settlements.

The multi facetted, yet unresolved, issues of integration are subject to an ongoing debate. The infamous Košice suburb Luník IX is often discussed in Slovakia as a failed attempt of the communist government to assimilate the Roma.

"From experience I know that aversion against Roma usually prevails and is contagious if anyone has bad experiences" says Ján Šilan. "During communism Roma were given these complexes of flats and many of them could not handle the new circumstances that they found themselves in," he says. "They had loud parties and sold windows and other parts of the flats which disturbed neighbours. Things that are normal to us were not normal to them. The reaction was anger from non-Roma who understandably claimed that these people could not appreciate what they had been given. But these are very complex issues and have to be resolved by the whole of Europe, not only Slovakia," he says.

Not far from the city, other Roma live in settlements of squalor and poverty. And this is the image that characterises Romany culture for many outsiders, a problem cast members are keenly aware of.

"We Roma have also contributed to this bad image," says Ondrej Ferko, 28, singer and choirmaster of the ensemble. "We, the young generation, are now trying to correct this image that the older generation has created of us. We are trying to show that all Roma are not the same."

Romathan also works from within, staging shows in the poverty-stricken Roma settlements, hoping to foster pride and confidence among their people. "We Roma should really help each other more, and resolve internal problems within the community," Ferko says. "We should show the world that we know how to take care of ourselves."

Prejudice against Roma often starts young. A common threat parents make is: "Be good or I'll give you to the Gypsies."

"This is often said to children in this country," says Šilan. "It is this intolerance which we are trying to fight."

Even with that kind of upbringing, children have proven to be a receptive audience. The young, impressionable minds that unconsciously adopt the prejudices of an older generation are also fertile ground for new ideas.

"Often when they arrive they are churlish, like teenagers are when they have to go to the theatre with the school," says Šilan. "But then they get absorbed by the performance and go home with an entirely different view on Roma."

Adam recalls seeing skinheads at Romathan shows: "Before the performance they would shout, 'filthy Gypsies.' But when we started to play, the shouts silenced and there was applause instead. When people were on their way out, I heard with my own ears: 'These are not that kind of Gypsies. These people are artists.'"

While generations of prejudice will not change overnight, anecdotal evidence suggests that Romathan is succeeding not only in preserving an important musical heritage, but also in opening up people's hearts.

"This is our goal: to influence the majority so that they will not look negatively on Roma," says Adam. "Because we all live here, in Slovakia. We are all born here and this is everyone's country."

For more information on Romathan, check

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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