Aja Jung, ballerina and director of the Belgrade Dance Festival:

I Can’t Recall a Single Day Without Dance

I've always loved dance. Ballet came into my life much later, when I was eight years old. My grandma is responsible for me going to ballet school, because she constantly took me to the theatre and often spoke of the time between the two wars, when some interesting Russian dancers and instructors showed up in Belgrade, bringing the aromas and atmosphere of the great stages and an amazing profession.

Aja Jung

Ballet was then in vogue all over the world. And in Belgrade some notable productions were presented back then. Great ballet stars came and it was in that great energy and curiosity that little Aja found her route to the big stage. “When I look back on the time that has passed, I can’t recall a single day without dance. I’m happy about that,” says Aja Jung speaking to CorD.

What will you always remember about the time in your career when you were dancing actively?

I enjoyed both in the creation of performances, as well as traveling. Of course, there’re always those parts of the job that I had to do and get through for the sake of those moments of happiness. A lot of training, effort and stress working with institutions and sponsors, organisation, promotions… I generally worked by myself on producing my shows, as well as on negotiating and implementing guest appearances. I looked forward to discovering new scenes and audiences, believing that the sole purpose of dancing is in constant movement. Dance took me to New York, Moscow, Paris, Rome and Athens, while I might never have discovered some cities were it not for dance. It was a real adventure to go on tour to Senegal, Mexico, Venezuela, Armenia, Colombia, Peru etc.

Today you run the ballet school of the National Endowment for Dance. What distinguishes this school from others of the same kind?

The quality of educators and the curriculum. There is one very important rule in choosing a ballet school or studies, and that is that parents should not look for a place where their children will go for ballet, but rather qualified educators to work with children responsibly. In Serbia there is no academy for ballet or dance, so it is logical that there are no trained educators, except from just a few older dancers who had the opportunity to complete ballet pedagogy in Russia. Therefore, the basic problem of our schools or studies in qualified personnel. When we founded the National Foundation for Dance, the main goal was to improve the training process in the field of ballet and contemporary dance. It was in this context that the ballet school was established and teachers have come from the Academy of Teatro alla Scala and the Vaganova Academy of St. Petersburg. It is not easy to maintain quality, but that is the only way to achieve good results. In conversation with any top dancer, the first thing you’ll find out is who his teachers were. That’s also how it is in sport, is it not? In addition to educators, what we offer is a space in the city centre, in Kolarčeva Street, where children work on a professional surface, or ballet floor, in conditions that are above world standards, and under constant consultation with orthopaedists.

It was at the peak of your career that the Belgrade Dance Festival emerged, which effectively separated you from dance. How did you experience this transformation from a dancer to becoming a producer?

Frankly, I found it hard to cope with the realisation that I would no longer dance. On the other hand, the space of the ballet hall had begun to suffocate me. I was no longer able to spend six hours in a closed room watching my own reflection in the mirror, to maintain a diet, to be harsh towards my body, to suffer when the legs did not want to listen to me… I enjoyed this new freedom. The Belgrade Dance Festival became my successful transition, in which I simply crossed elegantly from one side of the curtain to the other. I stayed in dance!

Dezmond Ricardson

The Belgrade Dance Festival became my successful transition, in which I simply crossed elegantly from one side of the curtain to the other. I stayed in dance!

How did you come up with the idea, 13 years ago, at a time of economic and political turbulence, to launch the Belgrade Dance Festival?

It is true that there was no kind of special strategy, rather it was all about courage. There was never a right time for art in Serbia, at least as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I’ve always been aware that my generation has no other time. We could only change place. I often also brought my fellow dancers to Belgrade, wanting to present their work and some dance that was happening at the time just beyond our little courtyard. That talent of mine was noticed Yair Vardi, director of the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv and – along with Jovan Ćirilov and Nebojša Bradić – he began to convince me that I should organise a good festival and try to not waste time, but rather to focus all of my energy on an event that would represent different artists and productions in one period of the year.

The conversation had started, ideas lined up, and soon we had a draft of the programme for the first edition. That first festival was a success in an artistic sense. However, in terms of finance it brought with it many good reasons to quit. I sold my car in order to pay debts, but I did not want to give up. I soon succeeded in securing the guest appearance of the Ballet of the Paris Opera for the opening of the second edition of the festival. I knew that was that. The festival grew every year and became better and more recognisable in the country and elsewhere in the world. The only recipe was plenty of tenacity, several important contacts and little luck, which teaches you in a cruel way that there’s no going back.

This event is considered by many as being among the biggest and most important cultural events in the region. How is it funded?

I am proud of my long-term partnership with companies operating in Serbia, because without them the programme would not be so good and so rich. For nine years already our main partner has been company Vip mobile, and that is cooperation that has become a good example and model for investment in culture in the region. We have launched a series of activities under the auspices of the festival, some of which include the Vip Calls Award, which is presented to Serbian ballet artists who have had brilliant careers abroad, the Vip Talents project – dedicated to young dancers, or the Days of Dance event at the Yugoslav Film Archives Cinematheque. For many years we have also had with us Societe Generale Bank, the Hemofarm Foundation, Nivea, DDOR Novi Sad, Nestle Adriatic, Amstel, Lasta, Hotel Hyatt Regency Belgrade, but also new partners such as companies Vahali, Ball Packaging, or the Karanović & Nikolić Legal Practice.

We count a lot on our success with ticket sales, because we have established a kind of awareness that buying a ticket means supports the survival of the event, which was not previously the norm in Serbia. We expect to receive approximately a quarter of funding from local institutions, which is also a very small percentage of support compared to the support granted to festivals that were founded by the City of Belgrade and which do not need to compete in the area of the real market. I believe that the relationship with institutions is slowly but surely changing towards private and successful initiatives in the field of the creative industries.

What kind of reactions do you encounter from major dance troupes when you invite them to be guests of the festival?

Today they react with pleasure, in a similar way to when they receive invitations from some other significant world festival. Just 13 years ago, it was difficult to persuade known troupes or artists to come to Belgrade, because their participation in our festival was not a sufficient reference for their resumes. Honestly, a financial challenge was also lacking, because there was no possibility of some show being maintained for a few weeks in a theatre, or to offer the usual level of fees globally. We had a lot of trouble convincing some people to come to Belgrade… The negotiations were difficult, and usually I had to travel in order to convince them in direct and lengthy negotiations. Today, however, we receive over 300 applications annually, as well as myriad applications for co-productions or the opportunity for us to reveal some new artist. In this sense, the festival has begun a new epoch, that is, it is focused on new works and new audiences, and has become a bridge between the experience of established choreographers and big stars, as well as very young authors.

What will make this year’s dance festival special and different?

Each festival is different and somehow better than the previous edition. And that is our only goal. It is very difficult to surprise and captivate audiences today, but in the years behind us our audience has become mature and very demanding when it comes to contemporary dance. This year the festival welcomes the Nederlands Dans Theater, which is certainly a treat that is a dream for the world’s biggest theatres. The long-awaited company Dresden Frankfurt is coming with the fantastic setting of choreographer Jacopo Godani. From Athens arrives Dimitris Papaioannou, who CorD has already written about, and from Copenhagen comes famous director Kristjan Ingimarsson, whose piece to be performed at Terazija Theatre is already a hit worldwide! There are also troupes from New York, Barcelona, Prague, Lucerne, Tel Aviv and Malta…

A tanz Luzerne

I am proud of my long-term partnership with companies operating in Serbia, because without them the programme would not be so good and so rich

The Delegation of the EU is supporting the Belgrade Dance Festival for the fourth consecutive year. What kind of cooperation does this entail?

Cooperation with the EU Delegation in Serbia is valuable to the Belgrade Dance Festival. I am extremely proud that our event is recognised as a project that best promotes European values. Dance is definitely a universal language that communicates directly. This year we have advanced our cooperation with one more project, and that is a great masterclass that Italian ballet teacher Marco Ferrini will hold in Belgrade for young dancers and ballet school students. The course will be held at the Ballet School of the National Foundation for Dance. It will be free of charge and runs from 2nd-8th March.

It seems that some countries are more represented as participants of the festival than others, but at this year’s festival we will see for the first time troupes from Malta and the Czech Republic…

There are countries in which artistic dance is incredibly present, but also supported financially. In this sense, there is a strategy in production and promotion, but also a number of interesting authors and troupes, which have developed thanks to this kind of relationship. Here I am primarily referring to Israel, France, Italy, the Netherlands … These countries are also highly involved in the possibility of penetrating the world market, in terms of the world scene and festivals. Of course, dance also lives in some other areas, and creativity knows no bounds. This year it will be interesting to discover the National Dance Company of Malta, whose director, Mavin Khoo, is actually one of the top dancers and a long-time assistant of Akram Khan, and who we saw perform on stage at the Sava Centre a few years ago! Czech troupe 420PEOPLE is led by Vaclav Kunes, who danced for the Nederlands Dans Theater, and it is particularly interesting that for the Belgrade performance of their dance stand-up comedy they hired our actor Branislav Trifunović.

In which way will the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia contribute to the festival?

The Ministry of Culture’s High Patronage of the Belgrade Dance Festival, which has lasted for two years already, is a good sign that things in Serbia are changing. I am proud of that kind of recognition, but also on the dynamic and professional cooperation with the Ministry, which aims primarily to improve the implementation and promotion of the programme of an event that has already proven and justified its success.

Will you present the Jovan Ćirilov Award in the end, which has been discussed so much?

Of course! The first laureate of this award was Jiří Kylián. His troupe is coming to perform the fantastic show “Eastern shadow”, tickets for which are almost sold out!

Last year’s Belgrade Dance Festival was opened by the legendary Karl Fracci. Who will be the guest of honour to open the thirteenth BDF?

The thirteenth edition of the Belgrade Dance Festival will be opened by famous French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. It is known that this choreographer originates from the Balkans and that he often points out that he feels a special respect for the Belgrade Dance Festival. His appearance in front of the Belgrade audience, as well as the arrival of all stars and amazing artists, merely serve as confirmation that Belgrade is today the centre of the world, at least when it comes to dance.