Grandma, Temi and the Crimean Fever marks The Rubberbodies’ collective first flirtation with science, solo performance… and words. Ira Melkonyan tells David Schembri about the group’s new venture.

The Rubberbodies’ collective is no stranger to experimentation. Physical performances, gorgeous props and a medley of venues have been the group’s hallmark since its inception.

Enter Grandma, Temi and the Crimean Fever. Over a 100 years ago, Ira Melkonyan’s great-grandmother Nina and her husband came to Malta for a year.

Over 100 years ago – in 1905, to be precise – Sir Temi Zammit discovered the Mediterranean strain of brucellosis, known as the Maltese fever or the Crimean fever, among many other names.

Five years ago, a 20-year-old Melkonyan, then finishing her Master’s in microbiology in the Ukraine, moved to Malta, where she has worked and performed since.

Grandma, Temi and the Crimean Fever is not your typical Rubberbodies performance. It is built on storytelling rather than the physical theatre of previous works.

It is also a solo performance, casting Melkonyan into the spotlight as she draws audiences into how her family history and Maltese scientific history intertwine, in Palazzo Castellania, the Health Ministry’s home and very place where Sir Temi Zammit carried out his work.

“My idea was to join science and performance art,” Melkonyan says.

“So we started putting things together, what my background is, the venue itself. We wanted to use the historical venue in the performance, and so it was obvious that Sir Temi Zammit would be one of the personalities within it.”

As the story was developed, Melkonyan began inserting parts of her family history into it. As the rest of the performance is based around storytelling, Melkonyan is reluctant to say much else.

“I don’t want to give too much information, but there is some intertwining between the history of Malta’s science and my personal history,” she says.

The story will unfold as Melkonyan takes her audience around the building where Zammit’s legacy was sealed.

“The story comes in as we walk around the building; it’s different from a classic presentation of a theatre performance where you come into the theatre, sit down and watch… my role in this performance is as a storyteller and tour leader,” she explains.

This work, she says, is a big departure for her work within The Rubberbodies.

“I’m so used to non-verbal theatre, and because our main focus is multidisciplinary and my main collaborator comes from a choreographic background, it was always a mixture of dance and theatre. This is something really new for us and our audience,” Melkonyan says.

The exciting, or maybe challenging, part of it would be to discover what is true and what is not

This kind of work has an internal tension to it. Although it is based on fact, it is, nonetheless, a creative work, and that entails creation, invention and drama.

“It’s a piece of art, so it’s not the history I’m narrating. It’s partly historical truth and partly invented stories that intertwine; I guess the exciting, or maybe challenging, part of it would be to discover what is true and what is not. Some people might decide not to and just go for this experience. It’s performance at the end of the day – which is based on facts, scientific facts, but there should be some creative element in it as well,” Melkonyan says.

“There is a trend in contemporary performance art called the fictional tour; it’s when a performer is giving a tour based on facts, some of which are invented or changed in order to serve a particular aim the performance has to transmit to the audience,” she adds.

“I think the performance will be very entertaining as well; I don’t like using this word towards art, but the narrative is being structured to give a positive feel.The whole idea is to see how it all intertwines; whether you want to distill it into truth and invention or take it just as it is.”

What is true is that Zammit was an extraordinary character. A medical doctor by training, he specialised in bacteriology and eventually discovered that brucellosis was transmitted through unpasteurised milk. However, he is also known as an archaeologist as well as a writer – a true polymath.

Melkonyan has no pretensions of being a polymath. However, she has only recently come to terms with accepting her dual interests of science and art. “These were two parallel lines in my life, and it was always a struggle to combine them. It was more like: ‘Ira you have to choose; are you a scientist or an actress?’ and I never wanted to abandon any of them.”

She eventually reconciled this tension after attending the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin. “I realised that the two can be combined, that things can be multidisciplinary. ”

This is her first attempt at combining science and art, and although the performance is underpinned by the concept of the medicalisation of society, this is just the start of what she hopes will be work that further integrates her two passions.

The research that came in handy was that which she carried out on her family history. When she was 12, she set about building her family tree, trying to find out information about her cousins, great-cousins and grandparents; with each name she would hear their stories.

One of these was that of her great-grandmother Nina – Grandma in the performance – who came to Malta at the turn of the last century.

“I remember my grandmother was quite a good storyteller, but I wasn’t sure what she invented and what not; but then she was my only source of information, so I decided it would be the truth. Of course, there is a way of going into archives, and that’s how I know my family history.”

Grandma, Temi and the Crimean Fever is written by Melkonyan and Verdana Klepica and is directed by Jimmy Grima, with dramaturgy by Katarina Pejović. It is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and Science in the City.

The performance is taking place on Friday and Saturday and on October 3, 4, 10, 11 and 12 at Palazzo Castellania, Merchants Street, Valletta. Performances start at 7.30pm and 8.30pm and are limited to 15 people each. Tickets can be bought from the St James Cavalier box office or online.

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