Emil Iliev[1]

Javor Gurdev © Courtesy of Gurdev
Javor Gurdev © Courtesy of Gurdev

Javor Gurdev is a 40-year-old theatre and film director from Southeastern Europe who actively works in Bulgaria and Russia. He is uncompromising in his demands and unsatisfied in his curiosity. His directing work dwells in the areas of the dramatic and the post-dramatic theatres. His style is guided by intuition and constantly evolving depending on his connection with life and the stage. This persistent change makes his productions especially fascinating for the audience.

Javor Gurdev has directed 30 plays, four radio plays, and the film Dzift. He has also worked with video art and authored performance art pieces. In his place one can find “a lively practical interest in the aecstatic theatricality, and it’s esthetical potential,” a critic of Art Margins[2]stated. He often uses texts which show bizarre situations in real-life.

In his declared fight with the sentimental, Gurdev has often said that art needs to be immune from fear and horror. And yet, in the latest play he directed, The Moth by Peter Gladilin, Gurdev exclusively works on the beautiful and the sublime in the matter of creating art. The Russian play answers the definition of “The New Sincerity,” a new tendency characterized by the avoidance of cynicism, but not necessarily of irony.[3] “Post-conceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen,’ dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm,” writer Mikhail Epstein wrote in “A Catalogue of New Poetries”[4] In Gurdev’s production of The Moth, the transcendent and the material world go hand in hand; they even explain each other.

After graduating from the National Lyceum for Ancient Languages and Cultures in Sofia, Bulgaria, Javor Gurdev continued his education and studied philosophy in the University of Sofia. During his second year, he applied for stage directing in the Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, Sofia, where a new experimental course in theatre direction is headed by Ivan Dobchev and Margarita Mladenova, founders of the Sfumato Workshop[5]. Gurdev eventually graduated with a master’s degree in directing from European schools in Leeds in the United Kingdom UK and at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany.

In 1994, Gurdev co-founded the Triumviratus Art Group’ with his colleagues Georgi Tenev, a director and dramatist[6], and Nikola Toromanov, a stage designer[7].

In the last couple of years Gurdev has actively worked in Russia. For example, he staged The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg at Saratov State Academic Drama Theatre; and Killer Joe by Tracy Letts at Moscow’s Theatre of Nations. In Sofia, Bulgaria, on the stage of the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov,” Gurdev directed The Goat or Who is Sylvia by Edward Albee in 2009 (part of a season of American plays project) and A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh in 2011. His most recent show The Moth by Peter Gladilin is part of the Bulgarian National Theatre‘s season of Russian plays[8].

The following interview with Javor Gurdev focuses on what the director describes as the mystical and the metaphysical aspects of the stage and their vital interrelationship with the physical.

“A Behanding in Spokane,” written by Martin McDonagh, translated by by Joseph Benatov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Kalin Nikolov
“A Behanding in Spokane,” written by Martin McDonagh, translated by by Joseph Benatov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Kalin Nikolov
“A Behanding in Spokane,” written by Martin McDonagh, translated by by Joseph Benatov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Kalin Nikolov
“A Behanding in Spokane,” written by Martin McDonagh, translated by by Joseph Benatov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Kalin Nikolov

Have you ever given thought to your personal definition of theatre?

“The theatre is a place, where people walk on the stage and talk one after the other” (from the play The Moth by Peter Gladilin)

Maybe there is not a significant change in your approach as a director, but I, as a viewer, feel that the way you work with actors is different now from the way you worked in your first productions.

Yes, that’s true. At the beginning and the end of the 1990s I worked in a different way with the actors. Now it has changed. It evolves. That’s connected not only with conceptual preconditions, but also with personal experiences and what excites me. My way of work has always walked together with my life.

What do you consider important in your plays?

My personal relationship with life and my internal feeling for what is contemporary. I don’t think that being old-fashioned is a virtue.

In an interview, the Russian dramatist Peter Gladilin stated that there are some talented directors who are absorbed only by their talent and, in a way, declare, “Come and applaud my talent.” But, he added, there are also other directors who are interested in the connection between the theatre they make and the lives of people.

I hope that my connection with life is something audiences can relate to. I don’t explore what is the connection of other people with life or the connection of theatre with these other people. I explore the level I have achieved in my emotional development — my sensual and intellectual biography. To construct the vision of a play, I think, it’s important to combine these things — to go through them all and in the end to hope that what I have done can be recognized by others as similar to their own process.

There are other themes which I subconsciously connected with your last play The Moth: the problems of creativity, the game and the reincarnation. Can you say more about these larger questions?

If we accept the dualistic segregation of the condition of love and the opposite side of the love — fear — and if we agree that God is love, and the creative act is the highest manifestation of our divine essence, then we can come to the conclusion that when a person creates, he feels the strongest possible love and (at the same time) no sense of fear. Fear is the biggest obstacle in human life.

“The Moth,” written by Peter Gladilin, translated by Ivan Totomanov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Simon Varsano
“The Moth,” written by Peter Gladilin, translated by Ivan Totomanov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Simon Varsano
“The Moth,” written by Peter Gladilin, translated by Ivan Totomanov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Simon Varsano
“The Moth,” written by Peter Gladilin, translated by Ivan Totomanov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Simon Varsano

Tell me: Why do we creat art, and what is the idea of art in The Moth?

I have tried to devote myself completely to this play. It is very atypical for me, because the play has a very strong emotional line, a very strong sensual and positive side. I usually work with the dialectic combat between the Dark and the Light, and I stay on the border of that battle, although here we can find a very strong belief in the art, which I personally share. It seems fascinating, intriguing and beautiful. I am happy that I devoted myself to that. Even though the play is sad, I feel happy over all.

There is a theory which states that the human body is a medium for the subconscious of the universe. Our place is where the energy is so diluted that the existence of Spirit is possible, so the body supports the emotional balance of the Universe. If this is true, to what extent are you interested in the transcendent and the mystical in terms of how you staged The Moth?

I am interested in these ideas, but I am also interested in the live connection with the physical, the natural and the rational. In other words, how these different aspects are possible to coexist in our world, and not just separately. I believe in the theory of relativity, and yet I am a very spiritual person. I think that between these two poles there is a very important internal connection; otherwise Einstein would not have been so religious.

I think that there is something in the physical nature of the world that is transcendent in itself, and that the theory of Evolution does not contradict Creationism. I think that theatre has the sensitivity that can put you in a “black hole.” To get into it means that you should twist time and space, find yourself elsewhere and discover things about your self that you never knew. Theatre is a reliable medium for discovering the self — knowledge and development. You can find yourself in its parallel worlds — to twist its own time and space and in a way receive an experience, which is superior (and in a different time). What I want to say is that in using theatre I can be more naïve than I am in this moment. I can be wiser in theatre than the position in life I am now.

“The Moth,” written by Peter Gladilin, translated by Ivan Totomanov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Simon Varsano
“The Moth,” written by Peter Gladilin, translated by Ivan Totomanov, directed by Javor Gardev at the National Theatre, Sofia in Bulgaria, © Simon Varsano

Are you saying that the modern director is a kind of mystic?

Theatre is not mystical. It is both physical and metaphysical. I am not a director of theatre magic. I am a director of the naked theatre reality, which contains possible answers to another dimension. I don’t illustrate, through the medium of the theatre, that other dimension. I don’t illustrate it through some theatrical magic either. On the contrary, I concretize in the theatre as much as possible.

In the material side of life there is proof of the metaphysical, and that’s what I am looking for. It’s not a form. You cannot illustrate it, and it can’t be shown. Sometimes I use theatrical tricks to show spiritual entities. I think that the more we go into the nature of the human, the more we find proof of the mystical sides of life (without using kitschy, illustrative manners in showing the spirit on the stage).

“Killer Joe,” written by Tracy Letts, translated into Russian by Sergey Volynets, directed by Javor Gardev at the Theatre of Nations, Moscow, Russia © Kalin Nikolov
“Killer Joe,” written by Tracy Letts, translated into Russian by Sergey Volynets, directed by Javor Gardev at the Theatre of Nations, Moscow, Russia © Kalin Nikolov

What are the tendencies you have noticed when you work in different countries? What questions are modern directors asking, and what answers are they looking for?

There are all kinds of directing tendencies. These tendencies depend greatly on what is fashionable in each local context, and they strongly differ across Europe. What is deemed important in each theatre context is dependent on where the new theatrical tendencies can be realized in each city. For example, something that can happen in Berlin may have a less chance to happen in Paris, even less in London, and it can’t happen at all in Southern Europe. A work of dance-theatre or post-dramatic theatre which might have a huge audience in Netherlands, for example, may not have any audience in Eastern Europe, or it may only have audiences in festival conditions. That means that the communities themselves still use theatre for different objectives.

Bulgaria and Russia are countries where dramatic theatre is used a lot. Theatre is built-in in our social functions. It is the same in the United States with its mainstream theatre. In Europe, there has been a huge tendency to shift into post-dramatic interpretations of drama or to create a theatre that has absolutely liberated itself from the dramatic in its core. So there are many different paths that a modern director can take, and that’s normal. The problem is in how you match them up. Theatre artists maintain different identities in each local context. I am one person in Bulgaria, another kind of artist in Russia or America or Berlin. I am not the same, and in each situation, I am not doing the same thing.

“The Ugly On,” written by by Marius von Mayenburg, translated into Russian by Svyatoslav Gorodetsky, directed by Javor Gardev at the Saratov State Academic Drama Theatre in Russia © Kalin Nikolov
“The Ugly On,” written by by Marius von Mayenburg, translated into Russian by Svyatoslav Gorodetsky, directed by Javor Gardev at the Saratov State Academic Drama Theatre in Russia © Kalin Nikolov

In one of your published writings, you wrote about the style, the barbarians, and the relationship in the art and the direction in Europe. You wrote: “The international relations in the cavernous world described above reproduce another Platonic myth — the myth of androgyny. Ravennese and Droctulfts on one level and fellow citizens and barbarians on another are still running towards each other in their dreams; according to their best expectations they reach the supposed missing half of their lost identity, embrace each other, stick to each other and forming jolly self-sufficient spheres start rolling across the Elysian fields of Europe. But when they wake up from that prophetic dream and do rush towards each other, they find out to be using different perfumes and have incompatible temperaments.”[9]

This is a text from the 1990s, which characterized one specific situation, in which there was a very strong interest in Eastern Europe. That’s not the case anymore. That interest was to be expected. At the time the two sectors, the Warsaw Convention and Western Europe expressed a strong interest in invigorating each other‘s culture: in Eastern Europe, the consumption, and in Western Europe the idea that in the East there is some powerful drive, an internal need, which is realized through forms of art and that it can nourish them.

Were the expectations justified? Yes and no, but the liaison did happen, and the problem was played out. I saw it; I was there. This interest ended in the beginning of the 21st century. Around 2005, it was totally gone. Of course, that gave birth to traditional theatre destinations, international exchanges, and so forth. Anyway, these things happen in countries where theatre cultures are strong: Russia, the Baltics, Poland, Germany and parts of Western Europe.

What about Balkan collaborations in the cultural area?

These collaborations have taken place more in the area of the exotic. For example, Bulgaria has never been appreciated as much as Romania has been. Bulgaria can’t be accepted as a place with cultural tendencies. It can be viewed as a geographical place, which has given birth to individualities in the artistic world. We are one of the countries where the cultural context is not as greatly respected as it has been in Poland, for example. Bulgaria doesn’t exist on the cultural map. On the basis of the cultural dialogues I’ve seen in Western Europe, there are no points of reference or cultural contexts that exist when it comes to Bulgarian art and culture.


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[1] Emil Iliev is a writer and critic based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He has a bachelor’s degree in theatre studies and management at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. He is the international relations coordinator for the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov” Sofia.
[2] http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/archive/422-for-a-new-ecstatic-theater, For a New Ecstatic Theater, Javor Gardev
[3] Alexei Yurchak biography at University of California, Berkeley Department of Anthropology website (retrieved February 15, 2009).
[4] Mikhail Epstein, “A Catalogue of New Poetries,” in Mikhail Epstein, Aleksandr Genis, Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover, eds., Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (Berghahn Books, 1999), ISBN 9781571810984, p. 146 excerpt available at Google Books.
[5] http://sfumato.info/
[6] http://www.contemporarybulgarianwriters.com/category/1-writers/georgi-tenev/
[7] http://www.theatreofnations.ru/en/performance/metod/toromanov/
[8] Повече информация за спектаклите можете да видите на
[9] http://www.javorgardev.com/Public/Blog/Entries/2010/3/17_The_Unbearable_Lightness_of_Being_Barbarian.html, The Unbearable Lightness of Being Barbarian, The case Droctulft, Javor Gardev

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“You Can Twist Time And Space And Find Yourself Somewhere Else” — Javor Gurdev, Bulgarian Director