Balkan Dance Reality Show by the Brain Store Project (Iva Sveshtarova, Willy Prager, Sonja Pregrad, Rose Beermann). Photo credit: Buria Pandova.
Volume 6

The Multiple Dimensions of the Bulgarian ACT: Independent Theatre Festival 2015

The Fifth Dimension. This was the slogan of the fifth annual ACT Independent Theatre Festival, which took place from 19 November to 22 November 2015 in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The festival was marked by the infectious nerve and euphoric exaltation necessary to describe itself in relation to a time-space model in which the rules of general validity lose ground; a dimension of freedom to create realities on its own terms; a dimension of imagination and unpredictability. Romanticization of theatre in general, why not? However, the main impetus of the “Fifth Dimension” slogan is to grant added value to the independent performing arts; a gesture of affirmation that they offer to the cultural scene and its role in society something more, something extraordinary and beyond the known. In the Bulgarian context, this is definitely so.

Some history: “It’s high time to take care of ourselves.”

The ACT Independent Theatre Festival was initiated in 2011 by the Association of Independent Theatre (with ACT as its Bulgarian acronym). Its driving force was a group of theatre makers determined to create a platform where the independent scene could represent itself on its own terms. Since then its crucial purpose has been to consolidate the independent artists and create more visibility for them. This was a very important step at a time, even after the democratic changes in 1989, when theatre activity remained dominated by state and city repertoire-based institutions with no infrastructure for independent artistic activity—not only in terms of spaces and venues, but also in terms of a regulated funding system for project-based works.

Cinderellas LTD. by Zdrava Kamenova and Gergana Dimitrova, directed by Gergana Dimitrova. 2015 ACT Festival. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

Cinderellas LTD. by Zdrava Kamenova and Gergana Dimitrova, directed by Gergana Dimitrova. 2015 ACT Festival. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

In previous democratic decades, ACT Festival had precursors and not that distant “relatives” that popped up occasionally, and were dispersed in time and space, with a variety of highly symbolic names such as Shall We Take Over? (1996); They Are Coming! (2001), in which “they” meant the new, post-communist generation of theatre makers; They Are Leaving? (2003); Gravity Free Art (2004-10) — the latter reflecting the homelessness of independent art in Bulgaria at that time. Over the years, the label “young Bulgarian theatre and dance” has grown mainly into “Bulgarian independent performing arts.” In 2009, the ACT Association of Independent Theatre embraced the mission of establishing the concept of “independent performing arts” and at the same time to reflecting upon and rethinking it always anew in relation to the modes of self-organization and self-definition of the scene, deemed to be in constant process and flux. Thereby it took on the hard task of advocating for the decentralization of the theatre field and for better working conditions for the independent scene.

In 2011 some active independent artists made the step towards the first Independent Theatre Festival. Following the vision of the festival as a platform for self-representation of the art scene, the selection was made by all applicants after they saw, explicated, discussed, and voted on their own and their colleagues’ work. They wanted to create a spirit of empowerment in order “to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” and bring about the desired change. Their main arguments were: the right for equality within the institutional theatre system; the value and social impact of autonomous experimental artistic work; the need for international cooperation; and commensurability. The first iteration of the festival realized these goals by bringing to the surface a variety of artistic practices, which no other theatre institution could present, ranging from new drama to object theatre, dance, and performance. It showed that a very vital and internationally-connected scene existed and that there was a need to create conditions for its development.

Turning points

Paradoxically enough, ACT Independent Theatre Festival received much more support from its international partners than from local institutions. One of the symptoms of that is the fact that in 2015 for the first time in years the Ministry of Culture did not announce an open call for independent artistic projects. On the other hand, 2014 was a very significant year for the Association. In October it hosted in Sofia alongside the Festival the Autumn Plenary Meeting of the International Network for Performing Arts IETM with around 450 participants—artists, cultural producers, managers and experts from all over the world. Under the slogan Space for Change the meeting prompted, in the local context, much needed discussion and advocacy for a Center for Independent Performing Arts.

Having the ACT Festival take place under the framework of the 2014 IETM plenary meeting caused another shift—this time in programming. The logic of self-representation, which was sustained in the first three festivals, was replaced by a more conventional model: now, the best performances from the previous season would be selected by an invited jury.

Back to the present: ACT Festival 2015

The “fifth dimension” allows for such movements in time, and the ACT Festival wanted to take full advantage of this mobility. In the program booklet, the organizers declared the intention for the fifth edition of the festival to “link what has already been accomplished with what we want to do in the future.” A special moment for that was the international forum, the Fifth Dimension of Cultural Policies.

Three professionals from different art fields composed the festival artistic program this year— the curator and visual arts critic Vladya Mihailova, the writer and playwright Georgi Tenev, and the performing arts critic and researcher Mira Todorova, artistic director of the newly opened venue DNA, Space for Contemporary Dance and Performance. The jury selected eight productions from those that applied for participation. They showed altogether a quite representative profile of the Bulgarian performing independent arts scene and revealed once again that it is centered in the capital city. Clear tendencies can be hardly outlined; however, some strong presences and individual artistic signatures can be distinguished. They appear in a variety of performance practices and thematic interests.

The 2015 ACT Festival proved that for the last ten years the Bulgarian independent scene has built up its establishment. It consists mainly of the driving forces of the Association who have been active as autonomous artists since at least the mid-2000s. Also a new generation is coming along; with the newest productions of the already more or less well-positioned artists, two debuts were also selected.

Let’s have a glimpse at some of the most successful and representative productions shown at the ACT Festival 2015.

A group portrait

The 2015 ACT Festival opened at the DNA arts space with the premiere of Mathematics of the Heart by Based on Actual Events group. This collaborative theatre performance was devised by Irina Goleva and Ognyan Golev together with the world beatbox champion, Alexander Deyanov, a.k.a. Skiller and the playwright Zdrava Kamenova. In an open, interactive, and mixed media theatrical form, the artists strive to get inside the “algebra” of human interactions and interrelations, taking as a point of departure new scientific studies of how the heart functions.

Mathematics of the Heart is a continuation in the artistic path of Based on Actual Events group since their first performance, Butterflies Are Jet-Fighters Actually, from 2009, staged by Irina Goleva. Thematically it dwells in the internal, intimate states and crises that cause a deformed relationship to oneself and others. Their performances usually look like a poetic quest for one’s inner self, traversing very personal questions and emotions. This exploration sometimes takes a naive and sentimental tone, which is simultaneously imbued with a fine sense of self-irony. With consistency, Based on Actual Events group devises intimate performative forms aimed at creating a shared situation with the audience through live music and confessional monologues.

“How do you feel? / OK, I am not that nervous actually. / Yes, me too. I feel quite well with these people in the audience over there.” We can hear the voices of the three excited performers in Mathematics of the Heart upstage of the vast scenic space. Rhythmic music begins and Irina Goleva and Ognyan Golev invite people from the audience to dance while Skiller deejays. At a certain moment, Goleva tells her dancing partner from the audience how odd it feels to approach a stranger so closely—something that might be experienced daily and that can make one realize that an encounter happens to also be a process of mutual sharing; that it has the potential to give power and self-confidence. A scene that provides scientific information about the heart follows. In it, the heart is characterized as a sensitive organ with reason and consciousness of its own, responsible for the process of exchanging energy between people and creating a common field of interaction. The performers take tablets that display a heart inside the human body on their screens. Playfully they put them on each other, creating various compositions with it. The spectators simultaneously see the performers and themselves in the seats recorded live and screened on the wall at the foot of the stage. Several layers of reality overlap in a visualization of how each person’s presence meets and traverses the other, thus creating a sensitive mutual space. Why do we need this interaction so badly? How can it be consciously transformed even in the frame of the live situation of the performance? These are the questions that come up as a refrain to unite the series of fragmented scenes in the piece. They present different aspects of experiencing this need without leading to a coherent narrative. In a psychodrama of sorts, Goleva enacts a state of victimhood in which one can be overwhelmed when deprived of attention and care. Golev, hanging in the air with a frozen mask projected onto a tablet in front of his face, tells the story of a man whose heart has been taken out in an operation and replaced by a pump. As a result the man had lost the capacity to experience feelings and a sense of attachment even to his family. The only outcome can be inner and actual death. In the frenetic rhythm and intense physicality of his beatbox, Skiller performs a state of exaltation by what he describes as a conscious sensation of “the dynamics of human communication as a process of transmitting information and energies” which have also quantitative measures, i.e. communication is pure “mathematics.”

MATHEMATICS OF THE HEART, by Based on Actual Events Formation at DNA Sofia. Photo: Zdravko Yonchev.

Mathematics of the Heart by Based on Actual Events Formation at DNA Sofia. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

In this performance about the very principles of human interaction, the artistic collective creatively mixes music, text, physical performance, improvisation, and digital media. The audience gets involved in an open, playful, and lively theatrical situation. This openness works both for and against the piece, inflecting it with the risk of dispersion in fragments of independent scenes. Its focus is also put in question by the not quite crystalized relation between the levels of presence of the performers who sometimes act as themselves and sometimes as fictional characters.

The multifunctional space of DNA transformed quickly to give way to the second performance of the opening festival evening, Cinderellas Ltd.: A Trilingual Theater Manual for (Disappointed) Princesses. This was a Bulgarian-German co-production, between one of the most active local independent theatre organizations, 36 Monkeys, and TARTPRODUKTION from Stuttgart, that had its premiere in Sofia in October 2014. The play was created through the successful collaboration between the actor and playwright Kamenova (the same author as of Mathematics of the Heart) and director Gergana Dimitrova, joined by Annette Daubner. Kamenova and Dimitrova had already drawn attention with the first text they co-authored for theatre. Staged by Dimitrova in 2014, P.O.B. Unabomber earned them the Union of Bulgarian Actors’ Icarus Award for best play. The play was subsequently staged in Baltimore and in Paris. As was the case with Mathematics of the Heart, Cinderellas Ltd. was written in close collaboration with the actors. The international group of performers was comprised of Nathan Cooper (US/Bulgaria), Gerolamo Fancellu (Italy/Germany), and Peter Meltev (Bulgaria), all of whom incorporated facts from their private lives into the play. This all-male ensemble addresses what might be considered a “female” subject: the frustrations of contemporary Woman in the quest to find her own self.

Cinderellas LTD. by Zdrava Kamenova and Gergana Dimitrova, directed by Gergana Dimitrova. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

Cinderellas LTD. by Zdrava Kamenova and Gergana Dimitrova, directed by Gergana Dimitrova. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

In the context of this performance, the central female character lives enclosed in her own world. Designed by German scenographer Bernhard M. Eusterschulte, the whole stage is in her favorite color—a soft pink carpet covers the floor running up on the wall. A blond doll with a dress of crystals whirls on an old gramophone. The play is a made-up fairytale of a woman, who runs into the woods to escape from her own fears and seek freedom. But along the way she encounters strange creatures who share with her a whole range of definitions of what it is to be a woman. The gentle female voice of the Storyteller wittily spins a web of discourses that strive to capture the “nature” of Woman. There is the psychoanalytic one that describes womanhood as pure sexuality condemned to eternal dependence on the phallus; another one diagnoses her with the Cinderella complex: the “fear of her own independence;” yet another exposes the level of social inequality between women and men; or the feminist one, which reminds us that “within the debate about the emancipation of women, men have remained outside the scope of attention,” etc. Perhaps in order to bring men back into the frame, Cinderellas Ltd. lets three male actors enact three female characters. Each one is on the verge of midlife crisis. The German-Italian translator has just split up with her last boyfriend and has totally isolated herself from the world longing for her “prince.” The American bicyclist decides to abandon the idea of becoming a great athlete—a great woman in a male world—and goes to a small Bulgarian village to teach English. The Bulgarian radio moderator has found out that her husband is cheating on her and divorces him. The performance playfully intertwines the women’s stories through the actors’ monologues. They do not attempt to “play” their female characters. By letting the stories about women be co-authored and performed by male actors, the performance creates a shifting ground, a multiple field of mirror reflections and actually it tells on many levels one and the same story valid both for men and women—the story of the need for always finding yourself anew. Here ancient rituals and self-help books are of use and the revelation comes with a trance-like dance that gradually develops in a ritual for transformation and for making wishes come true.

At the end, the Storyteller’s voice from the gramophone tells—in an ironic and absurdist manner—a strange final anecdote about the woman in the woods who longs to find “her man” there. All of a sudden, she finds out that she has left the deep forest. Even outside the woods, no man waits for her. She asks herself whether men actually exist. While reflecting on this question, she meets a unicorn ready to reveal to her the theory of the parallel universes. It goes like this: “Unicorns do not exist. In order for this sentence to have meaning, the word ‘unicorn’ should relate to something. Therefore, somewhere unicorns must exist, if not in our world, then in another one. Everything which is logically possible happens somehow somewhere.” Then the unicorn disappears. So, somewhere there might exist a notion of man and woman but there is no determined truth about them. Everything depends on finding the truth about yourself, the lesson might read. Cinderellas Ltd. resembles a fresh and deeply self-ironic psychotherapy session that playfully destabilizes preconceptions and stereotypical notions of contemporary woman. Yet, the piece is not ready to abandon fully these clichés, or perhaps it doesn’t take this as necessary.

The theatre maker Neda Sokolovska, on the other hand, is fully resolved that theatre should deal with burning social issues and that it has the power to engage and change the attitudes of the audience. In 2012, she founded Vox Populi Studio for Documentary Theater that became a resident company at one of the most important venues for independent culture, Red House Center for Culture and Debate. It quickly established itself as a strong presence on the scene and a leading verbatim theatre company. In each one of her five productions, Sokolovska and her team use documentary interviews as source material and integrate live reenactments of the interviews into their performances.

At the 2015 ACT Festival, they presented their latest performance, Crime Scene Evidence, based on a documentary play by Dessislava Gavrilova. The piece takes as its subject the investigation of the rape and murder of a young woman, Jana Krasteva, whose body was found in a park in Sofia in 2011. The case received wide coverage in the media and came to epitomize the deeply illicit interdependence between politics, the justice system, and the media. Its second victim was the wrongfully-convicted Plamen Trifonov. He had to spend months in prison until the real murderer was revealed and sentenced. Although Trifonov regained his freedom, his personal life and dignity were irreversibly damaged.

Crime Scene Evidence by Dessislava Gavrilova, directed by Neda Sokolovska at Red House Center Sofia. Photo credit: Vox Populi.

Crime Scene Evidence by Dessislava Gavrilova, directed by Neda Sokolovska at Red House Center Sofia. Photo credit: Vox Populi.

The performance Crime Scene Evidence sets up a puzzle based on media reports, press quotes, court examinations, interviews with journalists, investigators, as well as Trifonov and his family. The performers reenact on stage their behavior and way of talking marked by the situations in which they speak. The audience re-experiences the process that the whole society had to undergo while trying to follow the case in the media and discover the truth. Indeed, the staging succeeds in recreating the story told from multiple vantage points, as well as engaging the audience. However, the production fails to go beyond the personal narrative and explore the deeper institutional and social root causes.

Contemporary dance also found its place in the festival program. It was represented by two of the most active collectives in the field that are at the same time very different in their artistic practices. Derida Dance Company presented its most recent piece, entitled Zen Play. The performance took place at the Derida Dance Center—at the moment, the only independent contemporary dance space with studios used for training and residency programs, as well as presentations of small-scale dance productions. Zhivko Zhelyazkov is its artistic director and choreographer. Zen Play marks a transition in Zhelyazkov’s choreography from abstract to more theatrical dance with characters and a legible narrative. Still, it retains his already-recognizable vocabulary featuring intense, clipped and energetic movements that deform the body.

Zen Play choreography by Zhivko Zhelyazkov at Derida Dance Center Sofia. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

Zen Play choreography by Zhivko Zhelyazkov at Derida Dance Center Sofia. Photo credit: Zdravko Yonchev.

The piece creates a dark phantasmagoria staged in something like a clinical laboratory. A masked hospital assistant brings in two motionless bodies. These neutral figures are dressed in shapeless and colorless costumes. He puts them on the operating table where they become material in the hands of a doctor who resembles an enchantress, a modern witch excited to have toys to play with. The two bodies start to move chaotically, like creatures without a center. The enchantress marks them with features that soon will give them an identity. She draws on their bodies, does up their faces, and dresses them. The result is a fabricated, stereotypical image of a macho man in a militant costume, and woman-as-temptress with her wig, high-heel shoes, and sexy black jersey.

The interesting find in this dance performance is the subject of the constructed and playful “nature” of gender identities—a topic that has received little treatment in Bulgarian dance in comparison to Western dance theatre. Zen play develops a dark, gothic cartoon-like aesthetic submerged in the deep and powerful electronic sounds of Ivan Shopov. At the end, the creatures overpower their creator and not only let the enchantress die, but also change their genders. Although the performance is inclined to be illustrative and predictable, it presents an interesting direction in the work of Zhelyazkov as a choreographer.

The final performance of the 2015 ACT Festival was the Balkan Dance Reality Show, a co-production of Brain Store Project (Bulgaria) and The Fourhanded (Croatia). The performance brings together four dance artists from Bulgaria, Croatia, and Germany. The dancers, who have all collaborated before, use their experience within the highly internationalized dance scene to question how various dance cultures and contexts relate to one another. And further, what determines the contemporary production, reception, and assessment of art? The performance begins with the legendary flutes from the first movements of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. What we see on stage is quite unexpected. In contrast to the electrifying music, four performers in animal costumes rest, lean, lie, slide slowly on the dance floor covered with painted flowers, as if in a cheerful valley. After a long while, the Chicken stands up and brings a tree. The Fox slowly glides in a sign that reads “Balkans” and inevitably, smoke fills the space. The music stops. The Wolf fetches a cassette recorder and, as if in a trance, all continue to listen to the symphony it plays. The “accidents” do not stop. The light goes off but in our inner eyes, we continue to see the slow flow of the moving picture that is being created before us. What do the Balkans, The Right of Spring, and the animal costumes have in common? And why are these images presented in slow motion? It certainly gives us time to follow this picturesque landscape that floats under our gaze between progression and deconstruction. With the animal costumes and the “Balkans” sign in the frame, this region—with its constantly remapped delineations—appears as an exotic fiction and playground both for the creators and for the suspended expectations and stimulated fantasies of the spectators.

The Balkans are the place of origin of performers Iva Sveshtarova, Willy Prager, and Sonja Pregrad. Together with Rose Beermann (Germany) they step back on the stage in the second part of the piece, this time dressed in ordinary jeans and T-shirts with an image of the animal they had previously played. They take the same positions and again the same choreography begins to unfold, but instead of The Rite of Spring, it is framed in the context of a TV reality show: Work of ArtThe Next Great Artists, which is to be heard as a radio play. As Beermann explicates later, its text is taken directly from the real U.S. TV show, restructured and recorded by the performers. In this show, artists compete with one another to create “a unique work of art” that will be evaluated by a jury and shown in prestigious international venues. Hasn’t the art world already turned into a competition for uniqueness and a marketplace in which value is a matter of subjective perception and conventions? If at least for the past three centuries this has been the case, what seems striking in the contemporary situation is the complete commodification of the artistic process and product as well as the speed of its consumption. The TV reality show format is the absolute epitome of this phenomenon. The Balkan Dance Reality Show deploys this form as a ready-made, not only on the level of the text. It also appropriates some tropes typical of the genre. For instance, the so-called “reality slips” that break the strictly composed structure and let the “real reality into the performance thereby challenging the very notion of authenticity on stage. “Is the title Balkan Dance Reality Show sexy enough to sell the production successfully?” asks Prager, a colleague in Berlin, whom he calls on the phone from the stage. “Aren’t the Balkans always a bit behind the latest developments?” Pregrad consults a friend, again over a conversation on the phone happening in real time. Only after all self-respecting choreographers have done their own version of The Rite of Spring on the occasion of the centennial of its premiere, they—the Balkan artists—do it two years later. “Are people in the Balkans lazy, as is the general opinion about them?” Sveshtarova asks an audience member. Through these questions, the artists tighten the net they built with the vast variety of references in the performance. The reality show of the “Balkan dance” today reveals a dance that reflects on its own place between the historical revolutions in this art form, collective stereotypes, and the global market.

Who is going to win?

Angelina Georgieva is a performing arts critic, researcher, and cultural manager from Bulgaria. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre Studies and is guest lecturer at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia.

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European Stages, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 2016)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Elyse Singer, Managing Editor

Clio Unger, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Hamlet in a Curious Nutshell by Maria Helena Serôdio
  2. Alvis Hermanis Productions in Latvia and German-Speaking Countries by Edīte Tisheizere
  3. The Unknown, the Unexpected, and the Uncanny: A New Lorca, Three New Catalan Productions, and a Few Extras by Maria M. Delgado
  4. 2015 Dance Week Festival and Contemporary Croatian Dance by Mirna Zagar
  5. Archives, Classics, and Auras: The 2016 Oslo International Festival by Andrew Friedman
  6. The Stakes for City Theatres: Linus Tunström’s Farewell to the Uppsala Stadsteater by Bryce Lease
  7. Life is Beautiful? or Optimistically About Bulgarian Theatre? by Kalina Stefanova
  8. The Multiple Dimensions of the Bulgarian ACT Independent Theatre Festival 2015 by Angelina Georieva
  9. Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  10. Musical Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  11. Gob Squad’s My Square Lady at the Komische Oper by Clio Unger
  12. New Productions in Berlin by Yvonne Shafer
  13. Manifest for Dialogue: Antisocial by Ion M. Tomuș
  14. A Fall in France by Heather Jeanne Denyer
  15. The Iliad as an Oratory: A Warning to a Civilization by Ivan Medenica    
  16. Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theatre by Rosemary Malague
  17. Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre reviewed by Neil Forsyth



Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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