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Notes on Bitef: A fifty-year old international theatre festival from the Balkans




Deepa Punjani


The Belgrade International Theatre Festival (Bitef) is one of Serbia’s foremost theatre festivals, and is regarded as a major theatre festival in Europe that has completed 50 years. The festival’s golden jubilee was celebrated in September this year. Among the various shows, the festival put together an in-depth exhibition of its 50-year history – an audio-visual walk-through at the distinct venues in Belgrade city that have been closely associated with the festival over the years. The festival has its own main theatre, quite simply named the Bitef theatre. Bitef’s history reveals its anti-establishment and progressive antecedents in a critical period of time in former Yugoslavia that found itself in an awkward situation, caught between a rock and a hard place at the height of the Cold War. The situation was not merely political, exacerbated by the region’s geography, but also because the Balkans is a unique region in terms of its own history and culture. Today, the euphemism “Southeast Europe” for the Balkans is a far cry from its socialist past and from its famous General Tito’s non-alignment philosophy that made him friends with our very own first Prime Minister Nehru.

Bitef Theatr

Bitef Theatr

Bitef was found in 1967 by Mira Trailovic and Jovan Cirilov. It was born of an eclectic vision based on human values that would transcend ideology and division. Trailovic, a dramaturge and theatre director, was a dynamic woman with an international outlook. Her theatre company Atelje 212 was the first Yugoslav theatre company to stage their production of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF in the United States after World War II. She was a woman it seems interested in ideas and experiments and viewed her work in the theatre as a means to connect with the world outside. Her co-founder Jovan Cirilov brought the big directors of Europe and America to Bitef and kept the steam going even during the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s in the region. Cirilov was a polyglot and an obsessive worker who led a sparse life. He was a theatre producer and writer who also wrote poetry and novels; translated well-known European and American playwrights and engaged in theatre criticism. Both Trailovic and he absorbed the very essence of cultural co-operation. There could be nothing better therefore than an international theatre festival in their very own complex backyard. Thus the philosophical ground for Bitef was set.

Jovan Cirilov
Jovan Cirilov: one of the co-founders of Bitef

Over the years the festival has sustained in the internationalist vision of its late founders and brings together contemporary theatre experiments from around the world. Bitef’s themes expressed in a variety of visual motifs, different for each year’s edition (and which were part of the festival exhibition display) are little works that blend design and art. The subtitle of the festival this year: ‘On the Back of a Raging Bull’, in the words of its Artistic Director Ivan Medenica, “comes down exactly to issues such as the refugee catastrophe, closing of the borders, building walls…”

Ivan Mendencia (Left) at the Bifta opening ceremony
Artictic Director Ivan Mendencia (left) at the Bitef opening ceremony

Serbia itself is in a very different place than it was before the Wall came down but the slow burn of the dissolution of Yugoslavia can still be felt, especially with the country’s excessively strained relations with Kosovo, whose independence it still does not recognize. Much of the mess can be traced to former President Slobodan Milosevic, a leader that most Serbs would prefer to forget. As Milosevic’s heightened nationalism dismantled Tito’s legacy, economic liberalization was also underway. Here and there the nostalgia for the past resurfaces: the great Western liberal ideas of freedom and free market have not delivered on their great promise even as ethnic tensions continue to simmer.

This was quite funnily illustrated in a local production ironically titled FREEDOM: THE MOST EXPENSIVE CAPITALIST WORD, co-authored and performed by Maja Pelevic and Olga Dimitrijevic. The play is based on an actual trip that the two writer-performers made to North Korea, which is regarded as the last outpost of our world metaphorically and actually given its totalitarian regime. Well, the country is not so inaccessible after all as the two women behind the production tell us; visiting it as a tourist is perfectly possible as far as you stay with your guide and don’t wander. Curiosity about the women’s first-hand experience of a country that has assumed mythic proportions, and which they narrate in a casual, freewheeling style makes the experience worthwhile.

FREEDOM IS THE MOST EXPENCIVE CAPITALIST WORD
FREEDOM: THE MOST EXPENCIVE CAPITALIST WORD

Everything that a tourist may seek is to be had in the four corners of the hotel. An unescorted walk beyond the hotel door is simply out of the question. There is sarcastic humour to be had at the expense of the personality cult of the late dictator Kim Jong-il and in the little situations that make the country thoroughly peculiar. Things get funnier and ‘interactive’ as the duo tries to sell all the trinkets and mementos from the country to the audience. Misplaced or even perverse as their critique of the free market economy may seem, the premise provides a wicked counterpoint to the self-absorbed, and self-serving narrative of the free world.

One of the performances at the festival that will be ever so memorable was Chinese choreographer Tao Ye’s magnetic work titled 6 & 7. It is perhaps the most powerful hymn to the human body that I have seen thus far. I used to hold the Indian iconic dancer Chandralekha’s work SHARIRA as my benchmark until I saw this exceptional and singular work. All dancers deal with the body but rare is the dancer in whose hands the body is transformed, not merely for the dancer, but for those watching the dancer too. That is when communion happens between the artiste and the audience. It could be be fleeting but the moment becomes infinitely precious. Tao Ye’s work can gift you that. The choreographer’s work has been described as being highly conceptual as well as “thrillingly simple”.

Tao Ye's 6 and 7
Tao Ye's 6 and 7

Now there are any number of ways that one could respond to a show like this; at its most basic is the remarkable virtuosity that its lithe dancers demonstrate ever so extraordinarily. The minutely detailed synchronization by which the dancers appear at varying times like an indivisible unit, is not only startling but also fundamentally moving. Bodies can be messy things but in Tao Ye’s universe they are beautiful and elevated- creations to be marvelled at. The body is holy. An amazingly brilliant light design becomes an inalienable part of this very physical yet abstract piece. 6 & 7 – the two pieces – separated by an interval, can appear like mirror images of each other in black and white, but even as the first piece stuns you; the second leads you deeper into a state where it may appear that: behold, the body is the key. It is truly a prodigious work; a piece of art in motion.

Tao Ye's 6 and 7
Tao Ye's 6 and 7

On the sidelines of Bitef, various other programmes were planned, which included the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Thalia Prize that was awarded to the Nigerian theatre scholar, playwright, poet and novelist Femi Osofisan. Osofisan has been known to adapt the work of famous playwrights, among them, the Greek greats, Euripides and Sophocles. His African retelling of THE TROJAN WOMEN (WOMEN OF OWU) is counted amongst his best-known plays.

Femi Osofisan at the Thalia award ceremony
Femi Osofisan (centre) at the Thalia award ceremony with Margareta Sorenson- President of the IATC (left) and theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte

It’s hard to say in these times what the future of this significant festival might be. There are several grave concerns, not least funding. In an unstable Europe once again, disenchanted of the grand unity it conceived post the WWII, and deprived of money and jobs, things are very bleak indeed. Once Trailovic and Cirilov sought to speak to the Europe and the ‘West’ they felt distanced and removed from; today there is a breakdown of conversation within that Europe itself, with much of the world in turmoil. It is colder than ever before. Then at least one knew the “enemy”. Now, it is just chaos. A sad note like this however is no fitting end for an inspiring festival. So Bitef, I wish you only doubly well for the years to come. May the great spirit of your founders survive the crisis of our day.

*Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.

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