More than (Classical) Dance

Penelope Chatzidimitriou*

Bulgarian Dance Platform, May 15–19, 2024, Sofia, Bulgaria.

The 4th edition of the Bulgarian Dance Platform in Sofia is a part of the larger 17th Antistatic International Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance. For five days in May, it confirmed that “stasis”—a Greek word for stagnation—is not an option when it comes to contemporary dance and performance in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Dance Platform’s flyer welcomes the public. Photo: Florian Krauẞ. Graphic design: Teodora Simova

The Antistatic Festival, unique of its kind, began in 2008. Its founders are performer Iva Sveshtarova, choreographer Willy Prager and actor Stephan Shtereff. After studies and work experience outside their home country, they finally decided to stay and systematically bring the new international trends to Bulgaria. Their goal in this year’s Bulgarian Dance Platform has been to inspire local artists, provide us with opportunities to get to know the current scene and encourage international collaboration, while trying to shake off the internationally derogatory vision of the country, and of the Balkans as Europe’s dark “other” (see Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 2009).

In Dialogue with the Past

A representative example of this mindset in the Platform was Virtual Bodies, directed by Rossen Mihailov (dance company Heteropods). Twenty Bulgarian choreographers created mini performances, inspired by twenty Bulgarian paintings and sculptures from the permanent exhibition of Kvadrat 500 National Gallery. Every day, museum visitors can see these by scanning their QR Codes on their mobiles.

Shooting Virtual Bodies in Kvadrat 500 National Gallery. Video:

A similar revisit of the past, the communist one this time, was attempted in Nonument 2.0 in the zone of contradictory desires by Stephan Shtereff, in the hills of Varna, at the Monument to Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, once the scene of bloody battles. With the German group LIGNA, they created a radio ballet, which we saw in a film presentation. In the “postsocialist contemporary” (see Octavian Esanu, The Postsocialist Contemporary: The Institutionalization of Artistic Practice in Eastern Europe After 1989, 2021), Nonument promotes artists as mediators who help postsocialist societies process changes, without demolishing their past.

In Nonument 2.0, participants visited the concrete monument which was built during the Cold War. Video:

Finally, in Esmeralda and Raymonda by Galina Borissova and Teodora Popova, the past of classical and modern dance was revisited (often with bitter sarcasm) through fragments, in a performance that was much appreciated by those spectators literate in classical dance.

In Esmeralda and Raymoda, roleplaying is central. Performers: Galina Borissova, Teodora Popova. Photo: Teodora Simova

Other performances also examined the transition of Bulgaria from an Eastern European country to capitalism. 84 Dials’ dramaturgy, by Stephanie Handiiska, explored everyday embodied practices and the commodification of the (dancing) body in neoliberal urban spaces. The outcome was playful, especially in its interplay with spectators, and thought-provoking, as it touched upon hot issues, like the financial difficulties of dancers in modern Bulgaria and the fetishization of the postsocialist female body. Still, it could go deeper.

84 Dials: The empty baskets would be filled with candies each spectator was given to “invest” in brief performances of fantasies and personal stories. The rest were asked to cover their eyes as they had not “bought” the shows. Performers: Stephanie Handiiska, Nelly Georgieva. Photo: Teodora Simova
Together We Stand

On the first day of the Platform, Critical Mass and Oratoria explored more transhistorically the condition of being together. Critical Mass, by Silvia Cherneva, was beautiful “poetry in motion,” using aerial acrobatics and contact improvisation. We marveled at the performers’ bird-like existence in the air. Aesthetically pleasing, this performance touched upon human co-existence as delicate, difficult, yet necessary.

Critical Mass used the simplest means (a suspended table and the play of light and shadows) to create visual poetry. Performers: Silvia Cherneva, Lou Couton, Danny Kearns. Photo: Teodora Simova

Oratoria, by Anna Dankova, attempted to construct a universal protolanguage. Apparently, any such utopian vision implies a criticism of a dystopian present which blocks non-discriminatory human coexistence. From its other-than-human viewpoint, human communication seemed absurdist and funnily strange. However, Oratoria had a skin-penetrating melancholy that undermined the utopia of merry togetherness. Personally, I was left longing for what language allows to surface: deep feelings and thoughts, our biopolitical speaking soma.

Oratoria was an organic polyphony, symphony and cacophony, which, even though meaningless, was tenderly human. Performers: Galya Kostadinova,Vasilia Drebova, Aleksander Gochev, Georgi Naldzhiev. Photo: Teodora Simova

Α similar attempt at the precultural could be seen in One Two by Christian Bakalov. Equipped with night vision cameras, we entered a pitch-black space to witness the five performers’ effort at trance. Yet, I think that Dionysus in 2024 (unlike Dionysus in 69) calls for a complex agenda of Artaudian aesthetics, of a Dionysian politics of life and neotribalism today (see Michel Maffesoli, The Time of Tribes, 1996). There are leading figures in this field, like Theodoros Terzopoulos or Jan Fabre (with whom Bakalov has worked), if one wants inspiration.

The immersive performance One Two tried to create a collective ritual. Performers: Nikolay Barzakov, Demir Berisha, Aleksander Gochev, Daniel Denev, Mario Tomchev. Video:

More genuinely “orgiastic” was the uncanny final scene in Code Red by Marion Darova. Rhythmically intense, physically exhaustive, intensely repetitive, that scene was bacchanalian in its frenzied bodily exploration. The girlie unicorns hanging under the female performers’ bellies sabotaged the princess culture, turning bodies into subtle hermaphrodites, not objects of male desire but subjects that feel and think.

Code Red negotiated the gaze as cultural construct, in its social and psychoanalytic implications. Performers: Ana Petkova, Vasilia Drebova, Martina Apostolova, Marion Darova. Video:

Pas Bouger by Jivko Jeliazkov, based on the French play of the same title by Emmanuel Darley (2002), also explored the question of “how to live.” Characters A and B were caught in a strongly visual, virtual, ever-flowing “river of time.” A shorter version would have allowed us to appreciate more the performance of these prosthetic bodies.

In Pas Bouger, the extended body alludes to Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture spider and Rebecca Horn’s Finger Gloves (1972), hinting at the (im)possibilities of human intimacy. Performers: Mihail Bonev, Filip Milanov. Photo: Teodora Simova
The Monster in Us

One way to understand cultures is through its monsters (see J.J. Cohen’s essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” 2008). In our post-pandemic era, Euphoria of Sickness by Iva Sveshtarova and Willy Prager, cofounders of the Antistatic Festival, touched upon our symbiosis with the virus. The virus is a monstrous, yet seductive Other that violates boundaries to unify us all in our common human condition. Or does it invade bodies like a dictator? One of the merits of this performance was that it did not seek firm answers.

Euphoria of Sickness, a post-pandemic performance from the perspective of the virus. Performers: Anna Petkova, Zornitsa Stoyanova, Daniel Denev, Iva Sveshtarova, Willy Prager. Photo: Teodora Simova

Saline Nebula, by Violeta Vitanova and Stanislav Genadiev, invited an encounter with a more archetypal monster. In a memorable visual and sound environment in the bowels of Club Dom, this solo depicted the liberation of a monstrous figure that echoes Joseph Campbell’s “inmost cave” (see his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008) and invites our descent into the Jungian subconscious. I would love to see this otherworldly piece as part of a complex dramaturgy.

Lying on coarse salt, Saline Nebula’suncanny creature made her milky way. Performer: El Vasileva. Photo: Teodora Simova

I have left for the end the highlight of the Platform, Ivo Dimtchev’s METCH. After its premiere at La Mama in New York, the queer performer returned home to captivate us. He transformed the audience into his interviewers, students, curators, buyers, enthusiastic and/or dismissive art critics. He turned passive spectators into a Chorus. His brio, satire and (self) sarcasm got richer when he went political: in his art brut style, he painted a screaming figure holding a swaddled infant, and at the last moment he wrote GAZA. Magically, the audience became an assembly of citizens (Ecclesia). Dimtchev surely knows how to play with surfaces only to take you to the depths.

With this painting, Ivo Dimtchev turned his Andy Warhol-like, provocative, queer style into an anti-war stance. Photo: Teodora Simova 

*Dr Penelope Chatzidimitriou (Greece) is currently affiliated theatre lecturer at the Open University of Cyprus and in acting schools, holding a PhD in Theatre Studies, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and an MA in Theatre Studies and Directing, Royal Holloway. As a scholar, she has collaborated with director Theodoros Terzopoulous since 2000 and has published a monograph on his work. She has also published articles in Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, Peter Lang, Theater der Zeit and so on, and reviews internationally and in Greece, specializing in director’s theatre and performance.

Copyright © 2024 Penelope Chatzidimitriou
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