Bitef (Belgrade International Theatre Festival) in Serbia, 17–25, September 2019.
In its 53rd edition, Bitef explored the disintegration of the community—both political and social—and the collapse of family and intimate relationships, as well as the possibilities for their renewal. These were deliberate choices, since one could argue that Ivan Medenica, artistic director since 2015, directs the festival as a performance in itself. Indeed, it follows a specific dramaturgical thread—from performances that open difficult, almost irresolvable questions, to those that create the space and tools for approaching the issue from a different angle.
I will concentrate on this second category, including a particular “prologue” performance, which introduces important formal issues. It is a project by Stefan Kaegi and Jörg Karrenbauer, produced by Rimini Protokoll (Germany/Switzerland) under the generic name Remote X, which gets reformulated into the name of the town it visits. Remote Belgrade, designed specifically in and for Belgrade, is conceived as a city walk for a group of people (roughly 50 “spectators”), guided by the pre-recorded voice of a robot-narrator who speaks to us via headphones.
As we walk through a graveyard, cross the streets, watch the turmoil in a nearby supermarket, or descend into a metro station, the narrator’s voice keeps turning our attention to details that we encounter on our way. It encourages us to “smell” the past or the future of certain places, thus reminding us constantly of the impermanence of our existence . . . The voice of the narrator is artificial, which induces a clear sensation of being in a matrix, monitored and controlled.
The concept of Remote Belgrade is very provocative and multilayered: we are both performers and spectators; we are present and conscious, as well as submissive and potentially manipulated; we are immersed in our environment but also isolated, not speaking with or touching anyone; some of our senses are strongly engaged, but due to the constant narration and the fast rhythm of the proposals, we are mostly “in our own head.”
The main objective of the performance is to broaden and sharpen our awareness of different layers of experience. It is a sort of modern technological happening that abolishes the difference between life and art and underlines the performativity of our daily routine. It is exemplary of so many principles of contemporary aesthetics of performance, including the one according to which the aesthetic achievement is measurable by the intensity of personal experience. In the case of this performance, as often happens, responses were very divergent.
Invited, a performance by the Belgian company Ultima Vez and choreographer Seppe Baeyens, experiments with the same principles as it slowly and systematically builds connections between performers and spectators, who ultimately melt into one unique space and action. The beauty of this performance is in its simplicity. This was by no means easy to achieve, since we know that it entailed a process of more than a year of preparation and laboratory work. It uses simple, basic actions, such as walking, running, jumping, carrying . . . These are gradually introduced by performers of different ages, who step into the round performance space from a serpentine tube, where, while not in action, they are seated along with the spectators. Moments of physical action are combined with those of small encounters. Performers meet spectators through common points of contact—eyes, hands, shoulders . . . This contact is often not so easy to bear, and we actually witness very emotional responses. Step by step, there is increasing action, contact, fusion, finally bursting into a joyous dance by all of the participants, with live music. It certainly is a cathartic experience! If the disintegration of the community is an indisputable fact of our contemporary reality, this performance brings proof that building new communities of equal, open and present individuals is also a realistic option. It opens up the question of creating conditions and tools for the encounter.
At this point, I would like to note that although the participatory format has existed for years, many recent performances I have seen, including Invited, propose a model which is almost identical to the various workshops designed for both performers and the general public wishing to broaden their range of experience through contact with their own body and emotions, and in community with others. This framework certainly responds to our society’s ardent need of sensing and sharing, a common ground for both arts and personal well-being.
On flesh and concrete, a Brazilian performance by Anti Status Quo Companhia De Dança, choreographed by Luciana Lara, brings spectators and performers into close contact of a different kind. We are all merged in one unique space, inside a huge concrete hall, and although we are occasionally invited to help the performers or to touch them, the difference between us remains clear. The way we actually meet them is through empathy, and physical closeness plays a big role in it.
The performance is almost two and a half hours long, composed of different rhythms and intensities. During the first half hour, literally nothing happens—we are left to ourselves, embarrassed by the paper bag we were given at the entrance to put on our heads, uncomfortable . . . This is the difficult part, although it may be functional with regard to the reception of the rest. Then, suddenly, a movement emerges: crawling, twisting on the ground . . . As it develops, performers rush into bags of recycling rubbish and start filling their clothes with bottles and boxes until they become enormous, unbelievably grotesque figures: mobile garbage, running, crashing, fighting with each other. The strong symbolism of people who consume, incorporate and become garbage of all kinds is combined with the scene’s intense audio-visual impact. Then, the performers fight to free themselves from all the waste they have accumulated, letting out a great deal of rage and aggression, stripping themselves physically and symbolically. Powerful!
During the remainder of the performance we are confronted with nude bodies that create various relationships: with the spatial elements, among themselves and with the spectators. We experience a strong materiality of our common presence. Sensing their bodies, their breath and touch, their rage and fragility, so close to us, produces vibrant and unexpected emotions. We are moved, but not sentimental. We are grounded, present in our bodies and their reality, receptive to our environment, alive. Isn’t this a good starting point for fighting against the alienating mechanisms of our contemporary world?
These performances, as well as the whole second part of the festival, took place at Belgrade’s port, which provided an additional real and unpolished feel to the whole experience. Next to the industrial halls and a big body of water stood a red circus tent, the only element of spectacle in the area. It hosted a major part of the Bitef side program and the last performance of the main program, Rare Birds, by the French circus company Un Loup pour l’Homme. Performed without a set, costumes, props or text, this acrobatic performance goes to the core of the human material, the body and its possibilities, especially in relation to other bodies. Five men and one woman in a large white circle, surrounded by us spectators, challenge strength, balance, flexibility, trust . . . Far from being just physical, their effort is sustained by a strong focus and a mutual awareness, which produce a mighty presence radiating from their faces and bodies. A concrete, material image becomes a strong metaphor for a sustainable and harmonious community.
Thus, Bitef doesn’t conclude its journey with a melodramatic happy ending, but rather with the experience of real, embodied, vibrant humanity. The only thing that was melodramatic, albeit very charming and suggestive, was the festival’s slogan, derived from a famous Serbian 1970s song: “Let’s Start Love Over.”
*Tina Perić has an MA in Art Theory, and a PhD in Performance Studies. She is an active researcher in performance theory, as well as in performance practice, and a free-lance critic for Serbian newspapers and magazines.