Bitef (Belgrade International Theatre Festival) 57th edition in Belgrade, Serbia, October 3 to 10, 2023.
The motto of the 2023 edition of the Bitef Festival is a quote from Radmila Petrović’s poem: “Strength, don’t let yourself be anyone’s.” According to Bitef’s new curatorial leaders, Nikita Milivojević, Tijana Grumić and Ksenija Đurović, the motto refers to resistance, rebellion and non-conformity. Not surprisingly then, glasses are heard shattering on stage. In Children of the Sun, the sound of rebellion is experienced inside a house under threat; in Desire to Make a Solid History Will End up in Failure, the auditorium is persuaded to join in the rebel spirit.
Matti: This may sound unfair, but is not Maxim Gorki a diluted Chekhov? I mean, once you have staged a certain number of Chekhovs but have not reached your definitive version, you turn to Gorki, when you wish to show what happened to Chekhovian characters after the curtain. Gorki’s work is less familiar to the viewer and can therefore be adapted more freely.
Gorki’s Children of the Sun (1905) came to Bitef from Schauspielhaus Bochum in Germany, directed by the Slovenian Mateja Koležnik. She and her dramaturg, Angela Obst, have created extremely short scenes, where dialogues overlap. The characters are constantly striving to overhear things not meant for their ears, or resolutely refusing to pick up signs obvious to everyone else. It reminds me of how social media exercises its incessant surveillance; the program booklet, however, dates the goings-on to the 1960s.
Rosa Tina: Once the show was over, many were asking what the reason was for choosing Children of the Sun, an apparently conventional performance, for the opening of a festival historically known as a display of new theatrical tendencies. I’m not quite sure, but if I had to look for some original features in it, I would point to the unusual combination of its constitutive elements and their contrasts: Gorki’s text is all about the failure of the aristocratic society in the dawn of the proletarian revolution, yet tragic destinies and events are represented in a distant, almost light-hearted tone, underlined by the fast, somehow joyful rhythm of the action. Is it a very subtle, ideologically motivated parody? Vintage style set design and costumes from the 1960s add another layer to the riddle: if it’s neither about them nor about us, whom does this performance address? I see it as a story of a little creature called man, trapped in his own personal, sentimental, existential drama, imprisoned in his unfulfilled dreams and incapable of seeing the larger picture, be it political and historical, or of a higher purpose.
Matti: I grew up to irony in the 1980s, in my native Finland, where irony finally thrust aside a dark decade of socialist realism; I still look for irony everywhere, even though I understand that it often only serves as a mask for sloppy research (at least in Finland). But I failed to perceive this layer in Children of the Sun; I simply took it as a statement.
What about Goodbye, Lindita from the National Theatre of Greece? A performance without words, yet not exactly a dance piece?
Rosa Tina: From the first moment, I realized that it was going to be an extraordinary experience. Actually, it brought me back to 1996 when, on Bitef and in the same auditorium (Atelje 212), I saw the unforgettable Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (Théâtre de Complicité): not only similar brownish tones and real soil on stage, but the presence of Death as the invisible yet omnipresent actor! Not surprisingly, they both won “Grand Prix Mira Trailović” for best production, considered as the main Bitef award, and moreover, Goodbye, Lindita won the “Bitef Special Award Jovan Ćirilov” for outstanding contribution to theatre art! And it is only the second production of the young Greek artist Mario Banushi! Some of his inspiration for the play comes from Balkan funerary practices, which may have something to do with his Albanian origin, but, essentially, it is a universal story of loss and mourning, the space where life meets death.
Matti: The beginning was very low in intensity, non-intensive if I may say so. Family members washing the naked body of a young woman, then dressing her in a funeral costume. Toward the end, this gave way to convoluted dance movements, which were like the twists of a dead body in a crematorium. Indeed, there were flames outside the house. What did you make of that one mourner, who apparently did not participate in the wild movements of the ending but just collapsed in a heap and was next seen only during the curtain call?
Rosa Tina: Oh, I didn’t even notice that! And interestingly, I didn’t experience the beginning as low in intensity; I rather thought that the form of this performance has nothing conceptual in it but is organically born out of the subject: the grief is slow and silent, nevertheless of very high intensity! It’s true that the author creates a simple frame almost without a story: the audience becomes witness of the slow and inconsolable moments of mourning, the rituals of cleaning and clothing, of praying. The dead person is a young girl, beautiful as the sun, but already dark as the earth. The beauty and nakedness of the girl impact us immensely: how can such a beautiful life disappear? The mourners are probably the family and close friends: a mother, a sister, neighbors, her loved one?
Matti: He rushes on to the stage from the auditorium quite unexpectedly, half-way through the show.
Rosa Tina: Now I remember, his sudden appearance changes the stage dynamics, based on execution of simple actions, such as folding the laundry, watching TV . . . The mourners are slow, silent, painful, empty . . . Their presence is absence, death is still alive, totally present. The author is actually very brave not to add any external reference, so that the life and death phenomenon can speak its rudimentary language. He chooses only extremely functional aesthetic elements to underline it: perfectly measured sounds and music, balanced, almost sculptural visual compositions and lighting, striking body movements to represent the rite of passage . . .
Matti: My favourite show was Desire to Make a Solid History Will End Up in Failure, authored and choreographed by Igor Koruga. Rather boldly, it purports to be an archive of the Serbian independent dance scene. Six performers recreate moves from the heyday of their careers; the time span reaches from the 1970s onward. At the same time, video clips from their old shows are superimposed on a back canvas. Audio excerpts from their recent interviews get plenty of space.
A dance archive is not—says the meticulous program booklet—“a place of storing and documenting, but rather a place of reinterpretation.” This is, of course, a privilege of the young, and it may often be used for deliberate misunderstanding. Not here though: the pioneers of modern dance are invited to perform in an atmosphere of respect. As I understand, reinterpreting the past, the dancers have grown older, and I believe it shows in their movements, which—so says the program—replicate old shows, but yet I cannot help thinking that aging makes this archive a fluid one. A failure in the sense of exact bookkeeping, but a failure which comprehends time and vulnerability, to use the program’s favourite word.
The independent dance scene drew attention to questions of gender, political power, social injustice, artists’ salaries and so on. There were numerous references to local conditions; for example, abbreviations of various artistic organisations, which went beyond my knowledge—but then, my fault, my ignorance.
The audience interrupted the performance with applause when the artists recounted their involvement in street demonstrations against the war the Serbian government waged against its former Yugoslav neighbours.
The artists are Nela Antonović, Jelena Jović, Sanja Krsmanović Tasić, Tatjana Pajović, Anđelija Todorović and Boris Čakširan.
Rosa Tina: I’m very glad that you, as a foreigner, appreciated the concept and the aesthetics of this performance, which, I can assure you as someone involved in the topic, has a noteworthy importance in the local context.
Matti: Given that my sample of Bitef was but a fraction of the entire offering, I refrain from pronouncing the new Bitef leadership as either triumphing or failing.
*Matti Linnavuori wrote theatre criticism between 1978 and 2013 for various newspapers and weeklies in his native Finland. In 1985, he worked for the BBC World Service in London. Since 1998, he has presented papers at numerous IATC events. In the 2000s, he wrote for Teatra Vestnesis in Latvia. Since 1993, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE the Finnish Broadcasting Company. His latest stage play, Ta mig till er ledare (Take Me to Your Leader, 2016), ran at Lilla Teatern in Helsinki.
**Rosa Tina Perić (MA in Art theory, PhD in performance studies) is a researcher in performance theory, a free-lance critic, a songwriter and a performer from Belgrade, Serbia. She is the author of the book The Way of the Performer: From I to Self (Sterijino Pozorje, 2019) She is actively taking part in various projects in the field of dance, music, theatre and performance art. Her performance Ruža (Rose), realized with her mother and daughter, premiered in March 2022.
Copyright © 2023 Matti Linnavuori and Rosa Tina Perić
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