On the Back of a Raging Bull

Half a century ago, when Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov conceived BITEF, Belgrade, Serbia and Yugoslavia were on „no man’s land“, between the two parts of the ideologically deeply divided Europe and the world as a whole: on the boundary between the Western and the Eastern Bloc. Among other things, it enabled BITEF to become, on a worldwide scale, a singular meeting and exchange point of artists who could hardly come together in a different context. That is from where BITEF drew its international social significance, strength and reputation. When the Berlin Wall fell we believed with a great deal of sincere enthusiasm that it meant the end of ideological divisions, and even the „end of history“ , but it turned out that, historically speaking, it was a very short-lived illusion. Of late we have become horrified witnesses to the rage of the bull which carried away Europa on its back in the ancient myth. Not only through a fault of its own, Europe is splitting up again, digging trenches and putting up barbed wire fences. Serbia and Belgrade are in a similar position again: as a boundary – except that this time it is the boundary between the rich and arrogant North and the poor and impotent South, the centre and the periphery, the societies which close up and protect their interests and those which are a transit path for a sea of desperate and helpless people, refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

We are confident that this position should not frustrate Belgrade and rather that it should represent a challenge and an incentive to become once more a unique place of meeting, exchange and, first and foremost, solidarity among different and often painstakingly joined cultures, in the spirit of its cosmopolitan and libertarian values, drawing, among other things, on the tradition of the Non-Aligned Movement, suppressed due to xenophobia and the wars of the 1990s. Such Belgrade, who would be born from the deep knowledge of their own delusions of the nineties, could grow, both in geographical and cultural terms, in the main gate of Europe, the one we want, and which is now on the big shocks and challenges: Europe’s openness, solidarity, acceptance of diversity, civil ideals of freedom, equality, independence, rational and critical spirit…The first institution which should accomplish the mission of that Belgrade, Belgrade we should like to live in is precisely -BITEF.

The theme and problem axis of the Main Programme of the jubilee 50th BITEF, as suggested by its subtitle On the Back of a Raging Bull, comes down exactly to issues such as the refugee catastrophe, closing of the borders, erection of walls… This set then extends to a kindred topic, that of the “neo-colonial attitude” of the Western towards other cultures: projection of a desirable image of these cultures, their ‘exotisation’, construction of stereotypes etc. It is important to point out that the productions in the Main Programme of the 50th BITEF do not address these topics directly only: they research, problematize and shed light on their causes. Some productions, for instance, shift the emphasis from the refugee crisis itself to wars which brought it about and for which Western societies also bear a big responsibility. Do we, when we are sincerely and deeply moved by the photographs of the dead body of a small refugee, ask ourselves what responsibility our society bears for the sufferings which drove this unfortunate child and his family away from their home?

The fact that this concept questions the relations between the Western and other societies is one of the reasons why the BITEF Main Programme features also productions of Lebanese, Chinese, African, Singaporean and Indonesian artists. Another reason is our desire to take BITEF in the year of its jubilee back to its original international character and overcome the European and regional framework which has predominated recently. An important contribution to this truly international context is made by the fact that the prestigious Thalia Prize of the International Association of Theatre Critics  (IATC) which will hold its 28th Congress during BITEF, will be awarded in special ceremony to Femi Osofisan, Nigeria, one of the leading African playwrights, directors and scholars. This conceptual thread is followed by two German productions, Compassion. The History of the Machine gun and The Ambassador: A German-African Singspiel, Austrian The Ridiculous Darkness, Lebanese Riding on a Cloud, Croatian On the Grave of Ignorant Europe and, up to a point, SoftMachine from Singapore. They should be added this year’s festival production Freedom: The Most Expensive Capitalist Word by dramatists Maja Pelević and Olga Dimitrijević, based on their study visit in Pyongyang and addressing the topical projection of stereotypes about the other, the enemy, and more specifically the juxtaposition of domicile and Western propaganda relating to North Korea.

However, the broadest possible cultural diversity and powerful social and political awareness was not the determining feature of BITEF in its long history. Paradoxical as it may sound, the main BITEF tradition, the one that evolved from its very beginning, is the search for „new theatre tendencies“. In the 1960s and 1970s, the time when BITEF emerged and made its major push forward, it was rather easy to distinguish the artistic newness, the determining features of the modern, from the traditional forms. Today, at a time when even the post-modern is a passé concept, it is much more difficult. BITEF, nonetheless, may not give way before such challenges; it needs to re-examine over and over again the very possibility of thinking the newness in modern theatre and performing arts in general. This self-reflexive approach – already very much present in visual arts – requires the support of theoretical thinking in the form of accompanying conferences and the like.

The exploration of “new theatre tendencies” at the 50th BITEF will mostly come down to further realisation that the hybridisation of forms, genres and styles is ever more present in the contemporary art, so that today we speak not about the theatre so much as about the performing arts. The Main Programme will include projects in the field of drama theatre, modern dance, documentary theatre, performance-lectures, video installations, musical theatre… The production of 6&7 from China will be shown during the opening ceremony. It is a performance of highly conceptual modern dance: the Asian theatre will show not one of its traditional performing practices, as was usually the case at BITEF, but a radical and modern stage form. Only Mine Alone by the duo of authors Ana Dubljević and Igor Koruga stand out in terms of form in the context of national performing practices and address the impossibility to express negative feelings under the present-day precarious conditions in artistic and any other production. This is a production of the Serbian independent dance stage confirming that BITEF is not an elitist event, the programme of which should include festival trump cards (e.g. 6&7), but also a

research theatre of less confirmed artists; needless to say, only if they meet, in both cases, the criteria of artistic and social innovation and emancipating potential.

The diversity of forms in the Main Programme of the 50th BITEF is also contributed by conceptual projects in the field of modern dance, combined with other performing forms such as concerts, performance-lectures and/or video works (SoftMachine and The Ambassador: A German- African Singspiel), drama productions (The Ridiculous Darkness, On the Grave of Ignorant Europe, The Patriots), documentary theatre and/or performance-lecture (Compassion. The History of the Machine gun and Riding on a Cloud), music theatre (Suite Nº2). Furthermore, a separate whole in the rich accompanying  programme  will  be the regional festival of new circus, Cikobalkana.

This hybridisation of performing forms and their theoretisation in the accompanying festival events has not been a BITEF novelty during the past dozen years of so. Anja Suša has insisted on it, but this year we shall sharpen the focus even more. In this sense one should single out the conference to be held within the congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics, addressing the subject which directly reflects and questions the definition „new theatre tendencies“. The theme of the conference is Newness and Global Theatre: between Commodification and Artistic Necessity. The conference will be chaired by Savas Patsalidis (Greece), editor-in-chief of the Critical Stages magazine. The Introductory speakers will be prestigious theatre scholars Erika Fischer Lichte (Germany) and Georges Banu (France) and it will be attended by some twenty theatre critics and theatre scholars from France, USA; Greece, Rumania, Brazil, Turkey, Serbia, Nigeria, India, Georgia, Latvia, England, Iraq and Canada.

The conference will take place in a theatre which will be the host of all regular activities of the 28th Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics – the Yugoslav Drama Theatre. A small show case of Belgrade theatres will be presented within the framework of the congress so as to show to foreign guests the highest artistic achievements of these theatres as chosen by the selector team,. The show case is very important as it makes it possible for about a hundred critics the world over, from Japan to Argentina and from Canada to India, to see our productions and write about them in their media thus making the Belgrade theatre life internationally visible something that, we take the liberty to say, it has almost never been.

Likewise, the idea of newness will also be articulated in a different, symbolic plane. Contrary to probable public expectations, BITEF Main Programme shall not include productions by any director or choreographer who have already participated in the festival; in other words, „new theatre tendencies“ will also come down to – new names, new faces. Only domestic authors have been exempted in part from this rule because in this framework it is difficult to find „debutants“.

This does not mean that the 50th BITEF will not evoke memories of its extremely rich and immeasurably important history but this will happen in the course of accompanying programmes such as conferences, forums, exhibitions. Kantor Downtown of Teater Polski from Bydgoszcz (Poland) will perform the function of ‘homage’. This is a well-analysed and sophisticated combination of a ‘reconstruction’ of Dead Class, the famous production of historical avant-garde by Tadeusz Kantor, shown at the 10th BITEF and a ‘video installation’ made of several recently done interviews with well-known and unknown players of the New York theatre avant-garde in the latter half of the 20th century. The confrontation of this material questions, intelligently and touchingly, the fate of the avant-garde, the situation on the independent artistic stage today, numerous challenges posed by a specific life style etc. This production participates in the competition but it will be shown a day before the opening ceremony. We called it Prologue and it is devoted in full to the festival past.

The Prologue will also include the opening of several exhibitions dedicated to BITEF, done in cooperation with Radio-Television Serbia, Atelje 212 and New Moment Art Gallery. These exhibitions are not dedicated to BITEF alone, but also to the above institutions who have been important festival partners for many years; every exhibition is also dedicated to the activity of these institutions within the framework of BITEF: recordings of BITEF productions shown on RTS, the first 20 years of BITEF (when the festival was organised by Atelje 212), BITEF posters… With this is connected the screening of the film-made according to the original Kantor presents, as part of the selection of the oldest, with Bitef polyphony, the accompanying program of festival, and who has been edited for years by Vera Konjović – Bitef on film. As a part of jubilee festivities an international conference will be organised on Bitef and Cultural Diplomacy: Theatre and Geo-Politics, chaired by Milena Dragićević-Šešić. This gathering should show, among other things, how big was the contribution of BITEF, or specifically that of Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov,  in a field to be theoretically defined later as ’cultural diplomacy’. In addition to renowned professionals from the country and abroad, some of the leading world players in the field of cultural policies should also take part.

In addition to these all-permeating conceptual threads the Main Programme will include some narrower programme units. One of them emphasizes the fact that the independent stage is not the only context for experimental, emancipating and radical artistic and social practices and that they can also be pursued by national theatres. This year they are Burg Theater from Vienna, Ivan Pl. Zajc National Theatre from Rijeka and the National Theatre from Belgrade. The Croatian and Serbian productions stand out as works of national theatres which in the most direct way possible condemn nationalistic demons in their own histories and the modern society. Another concrete whole will be the emphasis on and affirmation of the post-colonial discourse in the modern German theatre, featuring multicultural projects from this country with artists from Africa and addressing relevant topics (German political attitude towards Africa).

Last but not least: the Main Programme productions will be shown twice, at 19:30 and 21:30. Both performances will be treated equally and both will compete for prizes. This has been done in order to help the audiences make their choice because those at 19:30 are a part of the big festival and/or repertory production, they have well-known theatres, companies and/or artists behind them, have been crowned with prestigious awards or have participated in leading world festivals whereas those at 21:30 are of a somewhat more chamber nature, more experimental, revealing, to us at least, less known authors and companies. However, this division is quite conditional and sometimes the criteria “cross’. For instance, because it is of a chamber character, the production of Riding on a Cloud by Rabih Mroué, well-known Lebanese theatre and visual artist, will be shown at the later hour. As we have said, the division was made to help the spectators but the fact that all productions on the Main Programme will be treated equally is important, inter alia, because we wish to uproot some prejudices and indicate that the scale of the productions and ‘fame’ of their authors have never been nor will be the criterion in the selection of productions to be shown. We thus wish to contribute even more to the tendency to open BITEF for broader audiences, yet without giving in to even the smallest artistic and social compromises and this should be one of the strategic road-signs for the next 50 years of the festival

                                                                                                           Ivan Medenica