The theatre of war, the murder of bridges

Christine Evans in Belgrade

Belgrade, June, 2001: along with 40 or so other artists from a dozen countries, I’m here to attend Dah Teatar’s 10th anniversary festival, Endurance and Transformation. To a visitor, reminders of the recent war abound. It’s a cash-only city (no functioning ATMs or credit thanks to the US embargo) and amidst the cosmopolitan buzz of a lively cafe society, bomb-wrecked buildings dot the city. And although next week Milosevic will be extradited to The Hague, the dead are still being exhumed from newly discovered mass graves, not 10 km from the heart of Belgrade.

In 1991 Dah Teatar was formed, the same year Serbia began its disastrous decade of war against its neighbours. With the Milosevic regime a very recent memory, the company now celebrates its 10th anniversary. Founded by Dijana Milosevic and Jadranka Andjelic, Dah’s theatre laboratory is part of the “third theatre” movement—a term coined by Eugenio Barba with whose company, Denmark-based Odin Teatret, Dah have a long and close association. Their work continues a tradition derived from Grotowski and involves intensive actor training and long development time for work, with the director creating montages from the results. In Australia the “third theatre’s” physical rigour and density, its emphasis on visual dramaturgy and its lack of script-as-source (though text is often used) would see it defined as nearer to performance than theatre.

Ironically for a company whose resistance to the Serbian wars has been both public and steadfast, Dah Teatar began with no desire to make political work. However, Serbia’s involvement in war—and the public ban on acknowledging it at a time when, as Dijana Milosevic says, “every second person on the street was in uniform”—provoked Dah to respond. Their first public work, This Babylonian Confusion, was based on the anti-war poems of Brecht and performed in the streets of Belgrade, a city with no tradition of street theatre. Dah writes that “great theatre masters have said that the first steps of a theatre company will define its destiny. This performance certainly defined the destiny of Dah Teatar. In general the performances of our theatre offered an artistic response to the social turbulence in Yugoslavia and represented a voice against destruction…”

In addition to hosting the festival (which included performances by Yoshi Oida of the Peter Brook ensemble, Om Theatre, Sun and Moon and others) and chairing the daily round table discussion on the themes of endurance and transformation, Dah Teatar performed 2 works: Documents of Times and their new collaboration—made this year with Seven Stages in Atlanta, Georgia—Maps of Forbidden Remembrance. Of the former, Dah writes: “Documents of Time was created in Belgrade May and June of 1999 while NATO was nightly bombing Yugoslavia. It is the testimony of reality dissolving in front of us.”

On a warm June evening, 2001, a group of us wander down a cobblestone street away from the centre of Belgrade to the Geozavod, an imposing old building with an ornate façade. We enter and face a wide stone staircase ascending in front of us, flanked with statues. A musician plays softly. An old woman enters, bent over with the weight of the books she carries. She places them on the floor and tries to climb the staircase. The steps are too wide apart. Painstakingly she creates a smaller step, using a book, between each stone stair and slowly makes her way up the staircase.

She is joined by a second old woman who appears at the top of the stairs. They meet near the middle and talk—memories, jokes, Hitler’s few good points. There are movement sequences, highly stylized and fascinating to watch: a strange old-lady dance up and down the stairs. The musician sings an ironic lament by the Klezmatics about the life of a refugee, “unwelcome everywhere.” At some point the women begin opening the books. From between the pages fall strange objects. Water. Salt. Money flutters from one (Yugoslav notes from the height of inflation: ridiculous but real banknotes for 10,000,000 dinar). A contraband stocking. The wrapping to a child’s present.

Eventually the women begin rolling, falling, in impossibly slow motion from the top of the stairs, the old-fashioned clothes revealing glimpses of voluptuous young thighs, different ages enfolded in the fall. It takes a very long time, this silent rolling fall. Female bodies become unrecognisable and familiar in turn, as if time were being gently dismembered. Their extraordinary, controlled fall slows my thinking and forces me to just watch, evoking a flood of associations: bodies falling machine-gunned down the steps of Parliament; the ecstatic abandon of children rolling down a hill; the way the old fall away from memory; the abandonment to sexual motion…Suddenly I recall a news article in the Sydney Morning Herald weeks before I left Australia, reporting the fate of 40,000 books donated by the university of Sydney to the University of Western Sydney (Nepean). There weren’t the funds to catalogue them so the new University, in its first flush of economic rationalism, decided to bury them. It dug them into landfill beneath the foundations of the new library. (Strange to connect Sydney and Belgrade by the fate of books: Bosnia joins in the memory chain—I recently heard that in Mostar, winter during the war left people with no firewood or fuel and so as a matter of survival, they burnt books instead.)

Finally the endless fall is over and the women stand and remove their outer garments. The lace gloves, the buckle-up shoes, are gently laid on the books. Sanja’s shimmering hair falls from her hat as she leaves behind the trappings of an old body and a dying century, walking away into a slow haze of light.

I loved this work for its apparent simplicity, its site-specificity and the density of images and associations created. While images of libraries in the ruins of war may seem cliched, the physical work of the actors and the intensely focused use of rhythm, speed and juxtaposition quickly dispel this impression. Work like this takes time to make; Dijana Milosevic estimates 6 months minimum for new work, in order to develop the complexity and layering that, like a crystal, forms from the inside out. By contrast with this usual slow incubation, the Dah/Seven Stages collaboration, Maps of Forbidden Remembrance, which premiered in Atlanta and at the festival, was developed at a slightly more American speed—a 3-month period. Both companies consider it still a work-in-progress and intend to refine it next year prior to a US tour.

Maps of Forbidden Remembrance deals with memory, loss and the violence of borders. The opening image of rocking chairs suspended from silver hooks, to be taken down, occupied for a time and hung again, remains vivid. My favourite image was created by an actor taking five-pointed red stars from the blue, star-spangled floor cloth and hanging them like bait on the lines just above the empty silver hooks where the rocking chairs hung. Through such images and the use of constant movement both behind and in front of a translucent scrim, the work creates a strong theatrical engagement with both the fixity of ideology and borders, and the sorrowful flux of the great tides of refugees the last century has seen. The singing (songs from the various histories explored by the actors) is well performed and carefully layered in solos, rounds and harmonies in a complex dialectic with the constant movement from absence to presence, death to life, which the actors perform.

Maps…took its inspiration from Carlos Fuentes’ novella, Constancia, the story of a Southern doctor in Savannah, Georgia who marries his Spanish love, Constancia. There is a mystery enfolded in this marriage, involving refugees and a bargain between the living and the dead. At the heart of Maps… is Fuentes’s Doctor’s question “How long a vigil… does historical violence impose on us? How far can or should my personal responsibility extend for injustices I did not commit?” This question resonates strongly in the Australian context of reconciliation and the heated debates surrounding it. In relating the question to our own context I’m following Dah’s footsteps: in making Maps… Fuentes’ question was refracted through the histories of its Serbian and American cast. And so it transpires that the recent dead of Srebenica are there too, amongst a throng of other victims of ‘historical violence.’

A performer, Maja, enters carrying armfuls of bread; she recites “Srebenica.” Then, laying a loaf of bread on the floor for each name, she recounts an alphabetical list of Muslim names—the names of those massacred at Srebenica by Serbian forces. Just as I’m taking in the sudden stillness in the room (Srebenica is not easily mentioned in Belgrade, not yet) Sanja enters. She begins goose-stepping, reciting the names of Russian artists exiled and killed during the Stalinist terror. Kathy, dressed in Spanish flamenco style, chants the names of the “disappeared” in Argentina. Faye, with a string of empty shoes tethered behind each heel and following her in a forlorn line, tells of her grandmother, an Irish immigrant who was bought in marriage for the price of her ticket to the US.

For me, this quick theatrical layering of one historical violence over another had the effect of TV news atrocity-montage: the impact and specificity were lost. In particular, the question—“how long a vigil does historical violence impose on us?”—seems prematurely posed in the case of Srebenica, where the bodies have barely had time to decompose and no kind of reflective vigil has effectively begun. However, the charged context of this performance—in Belgrade, by Serbs—is also a vital part of the meaning created. Mostar Youth Theatre commented to Dijana that the iteration of that single word “Srebenica” by a Serbian actor had more impact than if they, as Bosnians, had created a whole show on the subject. Like Dah, Mostar Youth Theatre have been deeply engaged in resisting the hatreds unleashed by war. They are committed to remaining a “multi-ethnic” company in Bosnia’s Mostar, the “city of bridges”—which had all its bridges destroyed, literally and metaphorically, as the town was violently bisected along “ethnic” lines redrawn in blood. (When the city’s oldest and much venerated bridge was bombed, its 400 year-old clay stained the river red as it fell. Mostar Youth Theatre again: “We don’t say it was destroyed, we say it was murdered.”)

Near the end of Maps…, Fuentes’ Doctor imagines the collective voice of the refugees saying to him “You owe us nothing, except that you are still alive, and you cannot abandon us to exile, death and oblivion. Give us a little more life, even if you call it memory, what does it matter to you?”

What is the quality of this memory? Surely it is specificity charged with affect: this voice, this strand of hair, this shade of red as Mostar’s oldest bridge bleeds away into water. Certain moments remain, isolated from oblivion by their luminosity. Another scene in Maps… which troubled me—speaking of rivers, bridges and oblivion—involved an “endless river” of refugees, created by performers rotating roles in a series of confrontations between refugees and border guards. Although the point of the unbearable repetition of tragedy is clearly made (the “one single catastrophe” which Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History perceives), here it is staged at the expense of that particularity to which memory lends “a little more life.” While it’s true that Dah Teatar (out of heroism and necessity) have deputized as “recording angels”, bearing witness during a decade when all the lights went out in Serbia, these 2 scenes err on the side of the angels’ static view and away from what we, in contrast to the Angel of History, cannot help but “perceive (as) a chain of events.” The static view is inherently depoliticising, because who can affect the inevitable?

There are other moments, however, that gesture evocatively towards the “little more life” which memory grants. On this note the show ends; behind the translucent scrim, laughing and drinking, are the gathered actors who suffered so many deaths in the performance. The Doctor joins them, clinks a glass. They wait. He proposes a toast: “May the joy of this moment last forever.” And it will, for as long as we care to remember it: it’s the task of this production, still to be realised, to make it unforgettable.

Documenti Vremena/Documents of Times. director Dijana Milosevic, performers Aleksandra Jelic & Sanja Krsmanovic Tasic; music Nebojsa Ignjatovic; Maps of Forbidden Remembrance, director Dijana Milosevic, performers Faye Allen, Del Hamilton, Sanja Krsmanovic Tasic, Maja Mitic, Kathy Randels; dramaturg Dubravka Knezevic; designer Nesa Paripovic; music Kathy Randels; lighting Jessica Coale, texts L. Anderson, W. Benjamin, C. Fuentes, D Ugresic.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 6

© Christine Evans; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001
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