The BITEF (Belgrade International Theatre Festival) took place for a 56th time from 23 September to 2 October in Belgrade. After the hardship in the past two years due to the pandemic crisis, during which all festival activities were either cancelled or held in optimal and quite often virtual variant, the established theatre forum strived for returning to its usual format before 2020.
In the main competitive programme were included nine performances from seven countries: Any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones, choreography Jan Martens, GRIP Dance platform and Dance on Ensemble from Belgium, Garden Party, a concept and directing by Mohamed Al Khatib and Valery Mreza, a co-production of Zirlib company, Théâtre d’Orléans and a few others theatres from France, Tijuana by directors Lazara Gabino Rodriguez and Luiza Padra from Mexico, Dr Auslander (Made for Germany), a concept and directing by Boyan Djordjev, co-production of BITEF Theatre and Yugoslavian Drama Pozorishte from Serbia, World Without Women performance of Olga Dimitieviċ and Maya Peleviċ, a co-production of BITEF Festival and the Centre for cultural decontamination in Belgrade, Serbia, Solo, a concept and performance of Nina Ralic Kraljec, a coproduction of Ljubljana Youth Theatre and Mask Institute in Slovenia, Love, text and directing by Alexander Zeldin from the UK, Crises director Žiga Divjak, a coproduction of BITEF Festival and Udruga company in Zagreb, Croatia. Following the established tradition, the official opening of the Festival on 25 September started with the performance of the famous Belgian choreographer Jan Martens, after A Prologue on 23 September, It is not the end of the world play, directed by Katie Mitchell, Shaubuhne, Berlin, Germany.
This year’s BITEF motto was “We – heroes of our own labour”. In his usual speech ‘A word of the selector’, the artistic director of the festival Ivan Medenica explained his choice with the meaning of his work (and in particular with its loss or transformation) for the man in the contemporary world, a meaning which the pandemic and the preventive measures suddenly clearly outlined during the last weeks and months. All of the selected by Medenica nine performances in the main programme from various countries and various point of view commented the place of labour in the life of a person, inclusive of the spectrum of political appeals for his dignified appreciation and payment and the discerning efforts and exhausting work done by the people of the arts to achieve the sought aesthetic effect.
Typical of the particular BITEF poster, in its creation, apart from the thematic focus, an important role played the especially selected aesthetic strategy followed by the performances. This year, the organizers had invited mainly smaller productions, representing in their main part the aesthetics of the collaborative theatre (devised theatre).
From the five performances I managed to see, included in the main programme, I would like to pin point three especially exciting titles. Invariably, the first one is the Belgium dance act Any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones by Jan Martens and GRIP troupe, which invariably opened the 26th edition of BITEF and was one of the two acts that received ‘Mira Trailoviċ’, the big prize of the festival.
Jan Marten’s performance arrived in Belgrade after its renowned success last year at the Festival in Avignon. For an hour and a half, the performance showed the full difficult and, at the same time, ecstatic and exciting process through which a chorographic idea undergoes – initially (impulsive and unclear), from its birth to its complete realization on stage. Jan Marten’s intention to create the performance as a collaborative work of the whole team, fully convinced that it would be the best way to reveal the contributions of every dancer in the gradual building of their own presence and of the whole performance, as well as of the choreographer’s contribution, the authors of the music, the stage design and the costumes. In order to outline better the devise principle (i.e. the principle of performance creation in the process of equally engaging participation of the whole team), he adds to the dance troupe other performers. Thus, he builds and ensemble of 17 artists with diverse professional and life experiences with an age range between 18 and 71 years old. In the beginning, they all are dressed in different clothes for a rehearsal in generally white and beige colours and every dancer starts with a solo performance, which gradually manifests the growing efforts to grab and express the influence of music and space with their body movements. The next part demonstrates Jan Marten’s conviction that ‘bodies can talk’ via affective group scenes and that they would always find a way to communicate with the other bodies around them. By the end, the mesmerizing dance of the bodies dressed in bright red with its perfect movements and whirlwind rhythm uncovers the achieved glamorous aesthetic result due to mutual work and physical exhaustion. The strong impact on the audience and the noise applauses confirm that the exhausting work and the high personal price paid by the artists is worth it and they are generously rewarded about it.
In the Festival poster, an impressive performance was also that of the French play Garden party of the already known playwright and director in the field of contemporary documentary theatre Mohamed El Khatib and Valery Mrezo. Devised as an original form of a documentary and collaborative theatre, the performance took place in the National Historical Museum of Belgrade. Its title should not be misleading since it is more of a play of words and refers to a party of the guards in the museums. The performance is based on the stories of six staff members, who guard the paintings in exhibition halls of several big world known museums, namely in Paris, Saint Petersburg, Marseille, Stockholm and New York (with two representatives).
They shared between themselves and the audience how they found the job, what its specifics are and how responsible it is to guard the paintings from the visitors not to damage them and for them exactly to preserve the precious heritage for generations. Along with this, the participants, who are actual guards in the above mentioned museums, share also their personal problems, unfulfilled dreams, failures and accomplished desires. Among these personal stories, the narrative that a guard should never speak about the paintings is repeated, that he, who spends his entire day among pieces of art from different ages, is not expected to hold an opinion about them and should only discretely and quietly ‘guard’ them.
Under the same format of a documentary and devised theatre was also the Serbian performance Made for Germany by director Boyan Djordjev, with the only difference that the recorded stories of real people were impersonated by professional actors. The performance looked at an especially contemporary question in the last decades in Serbia, namely of the mass immigration of doctors and other medical specialists to Germany in a search for better professional and living conditions. The huge dose of monotony in the show was successfully made up for by the strong actors’ play and the impactful atmosphere of the place – an amphitheatre hall of anatomy at the Medical University in Belgrade.
While returning to its usual format, the festival had completed its main programme with a number of recurring events, such as a showcase of the Serbian theatre, a meeting of IETM, book exhibition, discussions and meetings with the authors of the staged performances. During the closing night on 2 October, the International jury, which consisted of Stephanie Kart (a dramaturge and a curator), Critsine Ducel (a theatre critic) from Germany, Selma Spahiċ (a director) from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vanya Eidus (an actress) from Serbia and Dino Pesha (a dramaturge) from Croatia awarded the Great Prize ‘Mira Trailovic’ as already mentioned earlier in the text, to two performances: the Belgium Any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones of choreographer Jan Martens and GRIP Dance Platform and Dance on Ensemble and the Slovenian Solo by Nina Kranjec. The special prize ‘Jovan Ċirilov’ was awarded to Love by Alexander Zeldin. The prize of the audience went to the authors of ‘World without women’ Olga Dimitrieviċ and Maya Peleviċ, while the prize of the Politics newspaper, which is awarded for 44th time, received Jan Martens for best directing of Any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.