This year, the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF) marks a great jubilee of 50 years of existence. One of the oldest, most relevant and most prestigious cultural events in the country, BITEF has been building our country’s intellectual ties with the world and the world’s ties with us. On the occasion of BITEF’s jubilee and the programme that will be presented to the audience from 24th September to 2nd October, CorD talks to Ivan Medenica, Artistic Director and Curator of BITEF Festival.
The festival has changed its face through the decades, but the common thread has remained the same: the geopolitical context was as important in its beginnings as it is nowadays. Ivan Medenica explains:
– Half a century ago, when Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov conceived BITEF, Belgrade, Serbia and Yugoslavia were on “no man’s land”, between the two parts of the ideologically deeply divided Europe and the world as a whole: on the boundary between the Western and the Eastern Bloc. Among other things, it enabled BITEF to become, on a worldwide scale, a unique meeting and exchange point of artists who could hardly come together in a different context. That is where BITEF drew its international social significance, strength and reputation from. Our interlocutor continues: “When the Berlin Wall fell, we believed with a great deal of sincere enthusiasm that it meant the end of ideological divisions and even the “end of history”, but it turned out that, historically speaking, it was a very short-lived illusion. Of late we have become horrified witnesses to the rage of the bull which carried Europa away on its back in the ancient myth. Not only through a fault of its own, but Europe is also splitting up again, digging trenches and putting up barbed wire fences. Serbia and Belgrade are in a similar position again: as a boundary – except that this time it is the boundary between the rich and the self-contained.”
As Medenica implies, BITEF again could be the meeting point for world cultures. The position that Serbia has should be used for a new intercultural dialogue in the field of theatre. These intentions are completely in line with the theme of the Main Programme of the 50th BITEF, as suggested by its subtitle “On the Back of the Raging Bull”.
– The problem axis of the Main Programme comes down exactly to issues such as the refugee catastrophe, the closing of borders, the erecting of walls…This set then extends to a kindred topic, that of the “neo-colonial attitude” of the West towards other cultures: projection of a desirable image of these cultures, their ‘exotisation’, construction of stereotypes etc. The productions in the Main Programme do not address these topics directly only: they research, problematise and shed light on their causes.
Medenica points to the fact that this concept questions relations between the West and other societies. The audience will have the opportunity to see productions of Lebanese, Chinese, African, Singaporean and Indonesian artists within the Main Programme. In many ways, the dialogue between cultures will be established.
“Another reason is our desire to take BITEF in the year of its jubilee back to its original international character and overcome the European and regional framework which has predominated recently,” Medenica recalls that the first show of the first BITEF was Kathakali, a traditional theatre from India, and this year Asian theatre will be presented with performances of contemporary dance.
Bitef and Cultural Diplomacy
As a part of jubilee festivities, an international conference will be organised on Bitef and Cultural Diplomacy: Theatre and Geo-Politics, chaired by Milena Dragićević-Šešić. This gathering should show, among other things, how big the contribution of BITEF, or specifically of Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov, was in the field that would later be theoretically defined as ’cultural diplomacy’. In addition to renowned professionals from the country and abroad, some of the leading world players in the field of cultural policies should also take part.
BITEF CONTINUOUSLY SEEKS THE NEW
That said, the main BITEF tradition, the one that evolved from its very beginning, is the search for “new theatrical tendencies”. However, as Medenica suggests, in the 1960s and 1970s, the period when BITEF emerged and made its major push forward, it was rather easy to distinguish the artistic newness, the determining features of the modern, from the traditional forms. “Today, at a time when even the post-modern is a passé concept, it is much more difficult. BITEF, nonetheless, may not crumble under such challenges; it needs to re-examine over and over again the very possibility of thinking the newness in modern theatre and performing arts in general.” As Medenica told us, the festival has to continuously seek the new and different, if not on a global level, then on a micro level, in certain environments.
The Main Programme in the jubilee year will include projects in the field of drama theatre, contemporary dance, documentary theatre, performance- lectures, video installations, musical theatre…The production of 6&7 from China will be shown during the opening ceremony.“Likewise, the idea of newness will also be articulated in a different, symbolic plane. Contrary to probable public expectations, the BITEF Main Programme shall not include productions by any director or choreographer who has already participated in the festival.”
The Main Programme in the jubilee year will include projects in the field of drama theatre, contemporary dance, documentary theatre, performance-lectures, video installations, musical theatre…
The idea of newness is very visible in ancillary programmes. One of the areas emphasised is the relation between theory and practice in the performing arts. This year, the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC-AICT) will hold its 28th congress in Belgrade to mark 60 years since its foundation. It will bring together more than 100 critics from 40 countries. The main segment of the congress will be a two-day international conference entitled “Newness and Global Theatre: between Commodification and Artistic Necessity”.
Also, the prestigious Thalia Prize of the International Association of Theatre Critics will be awarded to Nigeria’s Femi Osofisan, one of the leading African playwrights, directors and scholars. A small showcase of Belgrade theatres will be presented within the framework of the congress to show to foreign guests the highest artistic achievements of these theatres. Medenica, long-standing theatre critic himself, says it is very important that about a hundred critics from all over the world will see our productions and write about them in their media, thus making Belgrade theatre life internationally visible.
Summarising the significance of BITEF, we asked Medenica to tell us what BITEF means to him personally.“It seems to me that I realised the true significance of BITEF when I started to write about it as a young critic at Politika. I felt a great responsibility and prepared thoroughly. As a student, I couldn’t understand its significance. Today, as a professor of Theatre and Drama History, I show the best BITEF performances to students. Many young playwrights and directors have told me after graduation that watching these performances helped them in their understanding of classic drama.”
In the end, Medenica recalls the words of Jovan Ćirilov, who said that BITEF primarily contributed to the development of our theatre audience. Then, the festival was historically very important for the development of our theatre criticism. As Ćirilov argued, BITEF contributed the least to the development of all theatre professions, where acting remains the last.
In the years ahead the BITEF team will not only continue to critically appraise newness in a theatre but will also work on the democratisation of the festival. This intention should bring more and a diverse audience to enjoy in performances worth remembering.