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Ivan Medenica, BITEF Artistic Director

The World Is At A Tipping Point

“Although I would maintain that dramatic and choreographic performances represent equally valuable and relevant forms of contemporary performing arts, and that they all absolutely have a place at Bitef, we nonetheless take care to preserve the stage tradition and the expectations of our milieu” ~ Ivan Medenica

For the first time in its history, the Belgrade International Theatre Festival, the world renowned Bitef, will have two editions this autumn – the 54th and 55th – because last year saw only the Prologue held, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. This will also be the first time that a larger number of plays than usual will be coming to Belgrade for Bitef – with as many as 14 set to arrive!

Under the slogan On the Edge of the Future, the main programme has been divided into two parts: the environmental problems of today, and the so-called world after, the world without man. This year’s participants hail from Germany, France, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, but also from Iran, as well as co-productions from Mexico, Chile and Austria. The new double edition of Bitef provided the occasion for us to converse with theatrologist Dr Ivan Medenica, artistic director of Bitef and professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Dramatic Arts.

The titles of Bitef, which are among its trademarks, traditionally signify some burning issue at the global level, but also criticism of those who caused that issue. Who is being criticised by this year’s title?

All those who’ve brought our civilisation to the brink of oblivion by contributing to climate change and environmental pollution. The slogan of this year’s Bitef, On the Edge of the Future, is sufficiently alarming. The future is here, we are on the threshold of it, but it is more uncertain than ever before: we will only realise it if we urgently develop an awareness of the ecological cataclysm, because otherwise we are not on the threshold of the future but rather at the edge of the abyss. A great many of the plays at the 54th/55th Bitef deal with the environmental challenges of modern humankind or, somewhat more broadly, the dystopian vision of the future. The specific subjects of criticism are the modern “pillars of society” – politicians, industrialists and the media, who oppose the free individual, that “enemy of the nation”, in his struggle to preserve natural resources; corporations with a “name and surname” that destroy ecosystems in the Mexican mountains and elsewhere; the gentrification of cities and the destruction of independent agricultural produce, which lead to the disappearance of green areas, gardens and estates where healthy food was grown etc.

From the perspective of Bitef’s interpretation, how does the world that will not have man at the centre of everything (the theme of the second part of the programme) look?

The first part is authentically thematic. It will include five plays – Traces, Lungs, Climate Dances, An Enemy of the People and Farm Fatale – all of which, in various forms ranging from drama to contemporary dance, address the issues of climate challenges, the polluting of nature and ecological revolution. The second part, which unfolds under the “cipher” of posthumanism, is not as thematically profiled as it is aesthetically. In other words, the noted withdrawing of man from the centre of the world will not be addressed at a thematic level, but rather at the level of the performances themselves, in terms of stage language.

These are plays in which robots and drones perform alongside live performers, or, on the other hand, the presence of performers is deconstructed through the use of light, visual effects and the use of digital technologies. This corpus encompasses the plays Kaspar, Future fortune, I put a spell on you, The cherry orchard in the cherry orchard, As if the end were not quite near, Conference of the absent and Flash. This is not about the “banishment” of live performers from the stage, but rather a multifaceted re-examination of the “living presence” as an aesthetic precondition of performance.

“The future is here, we are on the threshold of it, but it is more uncertain than ever before: we will only realise it if we urgently develop an awareness of the ecological cataclysm, because otherwise we are not on the threshold of the future but rather at the edge of the abyss”

This year’s selection provides the impression that classical drama plays are making way for choreographic shows and installations.

Such great differentiating isn’t the done thing at major world theatre festivals, as all these forms fall under the broader term of “performing arts”. In our country we still count what belongs to which of the “sections” of the aforementioned all-encompassing art form, just as we like to determine origins, to place national flags alongside shows, despite the fact that most of those that come to Bitef and related festivals fall under the category of international co-productions, or the fact that authors, directors and choreographers very often work in other, culturally diverse milieus.

On the other hand, such a tendency, as you hint at yourself, is very present at major world festivals; this year, for example, classical drama theatre is less represented in Avignon than it is at Bitef. Although I would maintain that dramatic and choreographic performances represent equally valuable and relevant forms of contemporary performing arts, and that they all absolutely have a place at Bitef, we nonetheless take care to preserve the stage tradition and the expectations of our milieu. As such, almost half of the performances at the 54th/55th Bitef will represent a modern and radical form of drama, or at least theatre based on the text: Kaspar, Lungs, An Enemy of the People, Farm Fatale and, to a certain extent and in a sense, Cement Belgrade and Living Room.

Solidarity, as a characteristic/phenomenon highlighted by the pandemic, will be the topic of the Bitef international conference “We’re Sitting on a Branch: Solidarity or Collapse”. The choice is ours.

That’s right! We are very glad that, since first appearing in public, this title has been wonderfully received, in the sense that it inspires interlocutors, just like yourself now. You have extracted one term from it, I would say the crucial one. If we don’t show a much higher degree of solidarity in this time of ecological crisis, of which the COVID-19 Pandemic is a direct consequence, as is the social and economic crisis that’s yet to follow, the only thing that really awaits is collapse. First and foremost, the pandemic itself will not abate until we realise that we should show solidarity and get vaccinated – if not for ourselves, then at least for our loved ones, for the survival of the health system… This isn’t catastrophism, the world is at the kind of tipping point that it hasn’t faced for a long time, and if we don’t get serious, start working in the general interest and show much greater solidarity, the consequences will be incalculable.

The first part of the title of the conference alludes to the Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which all of us in the team love very much, but it should primarily be associated with the risky position in which the human race finds itself, because a man, unlike a monkey, can instantly fall from a branch and break his neck… This conference is very important to us. We entered into work on it with plenty of faith, passion and ambition; we are working on it in cooperation with the organisation Zajedničko, and about thirty theatre artists, philosophers, scientists, environmental activists and politicians from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the U.S., North Macedonia, Syria and Bosnia-Herzegovina will speak on topics ranging from climate change and ecological crisis to the vision of environmentally sustainable cities and theatre production. Part of the conference is also comprised of workshops aimed at strengthening the “green theatre” concept – that of a theatre that would be environmentally sustainable, given that the theatre, like other human activities, has its own “contribution” to endangering the natural environmen.