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26 Mar 13

Teaching Serbia to Love Modern Dance

The festival that introduced contemporary dance to Serbia is preparing its tenth anniversary with a prestigious programme.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade

Aja Jung, founder, director and selector of the Belgrade Dance Festival.

For ten years, Aja Jung has struggled to breathe fresh air into the life of Serbia’s cultural scene as director and selector of the Belgrade Dance Festival, BDF.

The festival’s mission is not only to bring some of the best shows that have premiered in London, Paris or New York to Belgrade, but to educate local audiences about the art of dance and promote local dancers and choreographers.

She says she has managed to achieve this task without always having great support from the local authorities, but mainly thanks to the help of foreign embassies and international companies that do business in Serbia, as well as the EU Delegation in realisation of the tenth edition.

As a result of the festival that she runs, dance is no longer on the margins of the culture scene in Serbia and each year more and more people impatiently await the opening on April 5, when this year the BDF spectacle begins with a performance by Ballets Jazz de Montreal in the city’s Sava Centre.

Talking about the success of the festival in an arty café in the Dorcol area of Belgrade, Jung says much of it is down to planning.

“While we are talking about the upcoming festival, the whole year of 2014 is already booked and 2015 is being prepared,”» she notes.

High art can be fun

Over the 15 days of the festival, 13 shows will be performed in Belgrade and one each in Novi Sad and Pancevo.

All are fresh works, have recently premiered on world stages and are performed by top dance companies.

“We are proud to be bringing the Ballet of the Vienna State Opera, as it is a big company and hard to move; they only leave their home theatre once or twice a year,” she says.

On the other hand, Ballets Jazz de Montreal, which will open the BDF, is famous for its world tours and usually spends some 260 days a year performing across the globe.

“This is very important, because this kind of company is also hard to bring here. They have to put you on their tour map – there is no other way to bring them to Belgrade,” she explains.

The concept of the 2013 festival, she reveals, centres on a choreography concept by young choreographer Alexander Ekman, performed by Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, which deals with whether top class art should also be good entertainment.

“The answer is that it can be. The festival is the best proof that high-quality art can also be very amusing,” she says.

She also notes that dance is increasingly connected to everyday life and the social situation, as choreographers wrestle with the issues of the moment, to which they give their own interpretation.

“Besides French company Ballet Preljocaj, which is dealing with a true and very brutal event (four supermarket guards strangled a young man over a can of beer that he drank but didn’t pay for), there is also a show by the Chinese Beijing Dance Theatre, which deals with pollution in food, water and the air we breathe,” she says.

This element of realism is important to Jung, having in mind the current furore in Serbia over contaminated milk.

While stressing that the programme also includes choreographies that present so-called “pure” dance, she highlights some of the more ambitious offerings.

“The festival will also bring brave choreographies, such as the ‘Weight of Sponge’ by the Alias company of Switzerland and Peeping Tom from Belgium, with their show ‘For Rent’, or ‘Ship of Fools’ by the Israeli dance company of Niv Sheinfeld & Oren Laor, which deals with the influence of the media on a normal human being,” she explains.

One triple bill evening produced in Serbia by the Ballet of the Belgrade’s National Theatre will also feature on the festival’s repertoire. This is ‘Autumn Flowers’, choreographed by Marie-Claude Pietragalla, which addresses the industrial revolution, as well as two works signed by Jiri Kylian and Paul Lightfoot.

Putting Belgrade on the map

World dance critics today include the Belgrade Dance Festival among the three most important dance events in Europe, along with those in Lyon and Amsterdam.

However, Jung stresses that the BDF operates on a budget that is about one quarter of those of its counterparts.

Referring to DecaDance, a publication dedicated to the ten years of the festival, Jung remembers the tough early years, when contemporary dance was widely dismissed as boring and people said it would never attract an audience comparable to classical ballet.

“I was guided by the idea of finding... music, choreography and scenes that would interest the ordinary visitor. We used tricks to attract new audiences and then keep them,” she says.

In the meantime, the festival tripled its ticket sales and so moved on from sticking to modern classics of contemporary dance to showcasing braver, fresher works.

“We caught a good moment in the world of dance, when the scene became increasingly interesting,” she recalls.

“There is a tendency towards greater cooperation between choreographers, architects, fashion designers and composers, which all makes dance more attractive.”

While some 400 foreign dancers will be arriving by plane for the festival, dozens of trucks will be needed to deliver equipment and scenography to the venues.

“Because of the poor state of the equipment on Serbian stages, the only way to bring all these companies is for them to bring their own equipment,” Jung notes.

She says Serbia is not very successful in production terms when it comes to contemporary dance, but that the festival has helped move the situation forward.

“It does happen that a good production is made in Serbia once in a while, but it is not the result of a strategy, it’s a coincidence,” she says.

“Still, choreographers came to Serbia in past years to work with our dancers, while some of them travelled abroad and made contacts on the world dance scene, and this is important.”

She says that when it comes to the festival’s cooperation with the state and city authorities, it’s not easy to make serious planning because the relationship always varies and is dependent on people.

Aja Jung complains that, despite March having already arrived, “none of the competitions for culture projects have been defined yet by the Ministry of Culture or the City of Belgrade”.

She says that the system also makes it harder for companies to invest in culture.

“Unfortunately, according to the Serbian law on culture, major companies gain no great benefit from investing in culture, which would surely facilitate the process and offer better possibilities to an open cultural market,” she says.

Jung says the authorities’ general relationship towards dance and culture needs to change.

“Our culture exists in a mutant model made of the worst solutions of social self-governance and the most erroneous interpretations of freedom and democracy,” according to Jung.

She objects to the opinion, which she claims is shared by many institutions “that if you are successful and important you do not need donors and supporters”.

“I say otherwise: the state should support projects that are good and attract donors, sponsors and audiences that are big and important, in order to brand itself.”

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