by Pawit Mahasarinan
(1045 words, 12-minute read)
Asian works were part of the main programme in this 50-year-old festival
From 24 September to 2 October 2016, the jubilee edition of the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF) with the subtitle “On the back of a raging bull”—with contemporary dance and theatre performances, film screenings, exhibitions, workshops and conferences—was held at various venues in the Serbian capital. In this eastern European city, where Asian visitors are a rare sight, one would be surprised, if not delighted, to find that two Asian works, alongside those from Europe, Africa and the Middle East, were in the festival’s main programme.
BITEF Artistic Director Ivan Medenica, a theatre critic and professor, highlighted in the festival’s programme book, among other things, “the ‘neo-colonial attitude’ of the Western towards other cultures; projection of a desirable image of these cultures, their ‘exotisation’ construction of stereotypes,” and his plan to take the festival “back to its original international character and overcome the European and regional framework which has predominated recently.”
And hence the 50th BITEF’s curtain raiser on the main stage of the National Theatre was a contemporary dance work, 6&7 by China’s TAO Dance Theatre. This was an unexpected choice, as Asian performances are rarely staged in this corner of the world. Indeed, Asia is largely an unknown: I found in a local supermarket that Thailand-made Sriracha sauce was listed under “Tex Mex”.
This challenge to the European gaze continued a few evenings later in the studio space of the same venue where the audience enjoyed SoftMachine, conceived and directed by Singapore’s Choy Ka Fai, commissioned by the Esplanade’s da:ns festival and featuring Indonesia’s cross-gender traditional-cum-contemporary dancer Rianto and China’s folk-cum-contemporary dancer Xiao Ke, accompanied by her husband, audio-visual artist Zhou Zihan.
These two double-bills have recently appeared in many international festivals and theatres, including a dance mecca like Sadler’s Wells. Having watched these works, the audience may now not only be reconsidering their thoughts on traditional Asia versus modern Europe, but would also start to look at each contemporary artist’s work in accordance with their specific background and current sociocultural context, instead of viewing each as representative of his country. It’s also noteworthy that although BITEF has chosen to retain its historic name, it now, like numerous theatre festivals around the globe, welcomes dance performances into its programme.
Striking another high note in the main programme at the National Theatre’s studio space was lecture-performance Riding on a Cloud by Lebanese theatre and visual artist Rabih Mroue, which I missed a few months earlier at 2016’s Singapore International Festival of Arts’ (SIFA) The O.P.E.N. Juxtaposing texts, pre-recorded voices and videos, the artist put his brother Yasser, whose apasia resulted from the Lebanese civil war, on stage right behind a desk in a performance that was both personal and political, threading the line between fact and fiction and questioning artistic (re)presentation of personal memory.
While audiences could watch a variety of local works in “Showcase of Belgrade Theatres”, BITEF’s main programme also highlighted such Serbian works as Freedom: The Most Expensive Capitalist Word and Only Mine Alone, both seen at the BITEF Theatre.
The former, conceived and performed by dramaturgs Maja Pelevic and Olga Dimitrijevic, was a partly interactive narration, with spoken words and photographs, based on their research trip, highly controlled and monitored, to the North Korean capital. This work too questioned our notion of the other as well as, of course, freedom.
The latter was contemporary dance, created and performed by dancers/choreographers Ana Dubljevic and Igor Koruga. They explored “negative emotions” in a capitalist society as they moved in a secluded rectangular room with Post-it notes on the walls and the floor. However, their performance space was too distant from the audience, who were ensconced in the comfortable seats of this medium-sized venue, to have any pivotal effect.
As part of BITEF’s side programme, the world’s largest and oldest network of professional theatre critics, the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), of which Thailand is the only national section in Southeast Asia, celebrated its 60th anniversary. IATC held its 28th bi-annual congress, titled “Newness and Global Theatre: Between Commodification and Artistic Necessity,” at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre. During the two-day conference, international critics reported on and discussed current trends in dance and theatre in their respective countries.
The opening ceremony of the congress was immediately succeeded by The Ridiculous Darkness by Austria’s Burgtheater. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, multi-award winning German playwright Wolfram Lotz double-checked our misconception and delusion of the other, the different and the unknown. Four actresses, portraying male and non-white characters, carried out their performance with immaculate skills and commendable ensemble spirit in this two-hour high-octane production by Czech director Dusan David Parizek, who also designed a thematically relevant set which proved, at the intermission, to be destructible.
During the congress, an honourary award, the Thalia Prize, was handed to Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet and scholar Femi Osofisan. Canadian critic Don Rubin praised how, “He has changed the way many Africans now perceive their own theatre and culture and he has changed the way many people in other parts of the world now perceive Africa and African theatre,” and “Words have been his weapon against tyrannies of all sorts.”
At the conclusion of BITEF, a jury headed by IATC’s ex-president and artistic director of the National Theatre Company of Korea, Kim Yun-Cheol and comprising Serbian theatre professor Aleksandra Jovicevic, set designer Aleksandar Denic, German dramaturg and professor Thomas Irmer and Thalia laureate Osofisan, gave the festival’s Grand Prix “Mira Trailovic” to The Ridiculous Darkness. Riding on the Cloud shared the Special prize “Jovan Cirilov” with documentary theatre Suite No. 2 by France’s Jorise Lacoste and Encyclopedie de la Parole.
In the city where I paid, for the first time ever in Europe, less than the equivalent of a Euro for a cup of Italian espresso, a festival with deft curation took risks in its programming and left many fond memories and profound thoughts among visiting critics from around the world.
To keep track of BITEF, visit www.bitef.rs (in English and Serbian). IATC (www.aict-iatc.org) welcomes all readers to free-access online journal Critical Stages (www.critical-stages.org), which is in English and French.
Pawit Mahasarinand is the chairperson of Chulalongkorn University’s Department of Dramatic Arts and the president of IATC—Thailand Centre. The writer’s trip was supported by BITEF and IATC (Serbia section). Special thanks to Dusana Todorovic and Ivan Medenica.