52nd Bitef, under the slogan “World Without Us”, takes place from 13th to 22nd September 2018 with ten projects in its main programme - from Slovenia, France, Serbia, Germany, Croatia, Estonia, Switzerland, Israel and Belgium. ‘’World Without Us’’ refers equally to both streams of the main programme, the artistic and the thematic. Like the past two years, this year’s programme has these two focal points, since we strongly believe that Bitef’s mission is to clearly map those artistic phenomena in contemporary theatre and performing arts which are (still) radical, subversive, and controversial and to boldly highlight certain turbulent and disturbing social phenomena in today’s world. Thus, the task of Bitef is to disturb us both artistically and politically, to make us think, feel, and act… The artistic focus of last year’s Bitef was “durational performance”, while the thematic one was grand narrations (antic mythology and tragedy, the Bible, Serbian medieval epics…) which represent our civilization verging on collapse.

                    Thematically speaking, the slogan “World Without Us” (in Serbian, the slogan reads “World Without People”) creates a myriad of associations, but we predominantly aim at three: world without good, honest people; world of (imminent) apocalypse; and the phenomenon of death. Those three associations are firmly linked, because the world without true people - a world of bad people - leads, sooner or later, to global cataclysm. It leaves nothing behind, only death, i.e. a world without people, without us. This vision of a world without real people, which is the omen of global destruction, refers to concrete and dangerous tendencies typical of Europe and the world of today. Those are right-wing populism, xenophobia, non-tolerance, authoritarian regimes (the so-called “non-liberal democracies”) which undermine democratic institutions and the system of human values -  even in those states where such principles stem. All of that, more or less, in collaboration with the looting forms of capitalism. This thematic stream has been developed from an authentic, personal feeling of uncertainty, apprehension and fear, which Bitef dramaturge Filip Vujošević and I have recognized in many performances during the process of selection, and not from an ideologically heated preconception.

                    The selection is an intimate and painful warning cry, such as can be heard in the performance Odilo. Obscuration. Oratorio. by Dragan Živadinov, produced in the cooperation of several Slovenian theatres. Živadinov, one of the leading Slovenian avant-garde artists from the 1980s, has abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted his decades-long radical experiments with projects “in the zero-gravity state”, or “encapsulations” - art opuses of his deceased actors transformed into satellites to be launched into space. Now, he has landed firmly onto the ground, having realized that today there is only one relevant global topic: the rise of Nazism (or whichever euphemistic term might be applied to the aforementioned phenomena). Hence, the performance warns us about those very things by pointing at forerunners (or analogies) from the past. Such as at Odilo Globočnik, a Slovenian who was one of Hitler’s closest confidants and whom no one in Slovenia wants to remember today. Through a spectacular ritual, which represents a plausible reconstruction of Nazi political rallies from the 30’s but is also a stylized and ironical play with iconography in the spirit of the Neue Slowenische Kunst movement from the 80’s, Živadinov presents an ideologically unequivocal exorcism: he thoroughly cleanses us of Globočnik’s spirit to hopefully prevent it from rising back again. Since it refers to the past in two ways - to the times of Nazism and to the later artistic movement NSK, which has its place in the history of Bitef - this project proves to be ideal for the Prologue Day.

                    This ritual purification from the Nazi spirit will prove to be - what an irony of the selectors! - a noble, heroic, but pointless undertaking. The 52nd Bitef opens with the performance Suite N° 3 ‘Europe’, by French director Joris Lacoste, whose Suite N° 2 was the biggest surprise of the festival in 2016 when it equally impressed audiences, the media, and theatre professionals, having received the audience award and the special jury award. The author’s new project is based on the same artistic principles: musical staging of various audio recordings which range from political speeches to random street conversations. True to its title, Suite N° 3 ‘Europe’ deals with the situation in the European Union, and consists of 28 scores, each of which is based on an audio-recording from one of the 28 EU member states. Each recording points at the danger of jeopardizing European values: the increase of xenophobia, non-tolerance, authoritarian regimes, and violence. They span from a Romanian monk’s statement that the Chinese will conquer Europe as part of some Jewish conspiracy, to a speech by a Hungarian MP claiming that the biggest problem with migrants from Muslim countries lies in their violence towards their women and children.

                    That stream is maintained and radicalized in two performances by Oliver Frljić, which are completely true to his style: Gorki - Alternative for Germany? (“Maxim Gorki”, Berlin), and Six Characters in Search of an Author (Satirical Theatre “Kerempuh”, Zagreb). The first title exploded like a bomb for German audiences, since it refers to the name of a far-right party which entered the Bundestag after the last elections as third strongest in the state. Therefore, the performance tackles the issue of the rise of the right wing in Germany. Yet, like almost all of Frljić’s projects, it also deals with the position of theatre in such contexts, its readiness and ability to react and put up resistance. In this case, the question is particularly interesting and relevant since Frljić problematizes the current progressive concept of “Maxim Gorki” theatre, which supports openness to artists from other mostly non-European surroundings, raising the question whether such an attitude represents real resistance or just a way to appease these artists’ belated conscience. As for Pirandello’s intellectual comedy, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Frljić links it to the present moment by putting the troupe of actors at the very beginning of the play in a situation in which they are not preparing another play by this famous Italian dramatist, but a satirical play whose characters represent true adherents of the Croatian radical right wing. When the “characters” appear, they implore those actors to play out their violent, traumatic, and incestuous family story, similar to many stories hidden under hypocritical mask of this, by the right wing supporters favorite term ‘’family values’’.           

Serbian theatre will be represented by an author and institution which have proved to be creating artistically and socially the most radical theatre today: Bollywood, by Maja Pelević (text and directing) and produced by the National Theatre in Belgrade. Created as a trash musical, this performance develops a completely absurd but, sadly, realistic story about the deviations of Serbian and other pillaged and ravaged eastern European societies. Actors from a provincial theatre are preparing a show - while displaying xenophobia, lack of solidarity, and lack of class consciousness - in order to sell themselves to a Bollywood producer, who, in a decrepit and abandoned socialist factory given temporarily to theatre, wants to build a huge film studio… Theoretical contextualization of these global challenges - right-wing populism, xenophobia, authoritarian regimes - will be achieved through a special edition of Philosophical Theatre, a project by the National Theatre which would also be a part of the Bitef side programme, and will be moderated by the renowned philosopher of a younger generation, Srećko Horvat, who will be accompanied by selected guests.

                    This part of the main programme is completed with the performance NO43 Filth by the Estonian Theatre NO99. It has lately become one of the trump cards of big theatre festivals, especially after receiving the prestigious European theatre award (“Premio Europa: Theatrical Realities”) in Rome in 2017. This performance does not deal with current social circumstances but establishes, in a witty and metaphorical way, the general state of a world on the brink of destruction: the actors, whose fitness, endurance and flexibility of movements make them look like dancers, perform a series of various real-life and allegorical situations, moving, dancing and diving through a sea of… mud.

                    The element of “total cataclysm” in NO43 Filth, makes it the peak of the first part of the selection, and a transition to its second part: to the, literally speaking, world without people. This slogan, at that point, assumes two aspects. Thematically speaking, it refers to what comes after doomsday: death. While on an aesthetic level, it also refers to a specific art form which lies somewhere between performing arts and visual arts, a place marked by “death of the performer” - the installation. Namely, the following three performances in the dramaturgy of the main programme, which we believe has been thoroughly developed, are installations without a single performer - a world without people, a theatre without actors. The first of the three maintains our thematic focus from the previous segment - the critique of the authoritarian regimes - thus becoming a link between the two segments. The project Eternal Russia, by Russian theatre critic Marina Davydova - for whom this is the first artwork - is produced by the Berlin theatre HAU. It is comprised of a maze of rooms leading us through various periods of political and cultural history of Russia. However, no matter the route we take, we always return to the main festive hall which constantly undergoes changes in terms of design yet remains essentially the same: epochs come and go, but the autocratic rules persist, and that is what is - “eternally Russian”.

                    The programme segment which contains installations - Bitef’s main focus in terms of art form - presents another two projects which shift focus from the political to more intimate topics and points of view. From social cataclysms we move to the most personal topic there is: death. The Israeli project PA’AM created by young artist Nadav Barnea - who is this year’s Bitef “discovery” - is a spectacular light and video installation. Eight TV sets, suspended in a physical space shaped and deconstructed by kaleidoscopic light, display abstract video works accompanied by voice recordings that tell stories of intimate betrayals, death of the loved ones, and painful memories. From the famous Vidy Theatre from Lausanne (Switzerland) comes an installation by the renowned director Stefan Kaegi, one of the members of the Rimini Protokoll, called Nachlass, piecès sans personnes. It is a spectacular stage design, a “space & time capsule” where the audience walks from “cell” to “cell”, all built in an utterly realistic and thorough way. Each of them represents a memory of real unknown persons who “devised” their deaths and the ways they wanted to be remembered. Death is experienced in a powerful and direct way.

                    A focus placed on the art of installation is, in our opinion, important for several reasons. First, in the local institutional context (still somewhat conservative) it proves one of the indisputable characteristics of modern art: interlacing of forms, of genres, and of entire arts. The art of installation represents the very field where performing and visual arts interweave, since installations belong to them both. There is, however, a small but significant difference: none of the three installations to be shown at 52nd Bitef have been created in the context of visual arts - all of them were created for theatres or for festivals. Moreover, the focus on the art of installation also emphasizes one of the most important Bitef side programmes, one dedicated to visual arts which existed in the course of the first ten years of our festival. That side programme, led by Biljana Tomić and Ješa Denegri, and not some fine arts event, introduced to our visual arts scene some radical experiments of the time. Therefore, one of the side programmes of 52nd Bitef will be a conference dedicated to the analysis of contemporary art as a field of aesthetic interweaving and interlacing.

                    When it comes to artistic interlacing and interweaving, we should also draw attention to the fact that there is yet another artistic stream which marks 52nd Bitef, although not explicitly mentioned. It is defined by various forms of music theatre: Odilo.Obscuration.Oratorio, Suite N° 3: ‘Europe’, Bollywood, and Requiem for L. Alongside the three installations, and other performances which can, also, not be defined as dramatic theatre, these music projects turn the main programme of 52nd Bitef into a possible contemporary attainment of Richard Wagner’s “Gesamtkunstwerk” ideal.

                    Dramaturgy of the programme named “World Without Us” (without people) ends, logically, in a requiem. It is a grand international coproduction Requiem for L. performed by the Belgic troupe les ballets C de la B, created by the composer Fabrizio Cassol and the renowned choreographer Alain Platel, which closes 52nd Bitef in Sava Centre. This music performance is based on Mozart’s Requiem, magnificently interlaced with African funeral songs. The entire performance, together with the video work which displays a dying white lady, reminds us of a multicultural funeral ritual performed in a very tender, intimate way. In the context of our dramaturgy, however, and especially given the fact that this concert-performance is played by an ensemble made almost entirely of African musicians, Requiem for L. also assumes a social and political connotation. It becomes a “black requiem for the white world”: the requiem for the world of suppressors, the disintegration of which is the topic by most of the performances at 52nd Bitef, performed by an ensemble made of the members of suppressed ethnic groups.

                     Besides those two aforementioned side programmes, Philosophical Theatre and the Conference on fine arts at Bitef, 52nd Bitef will also present: Bitef Polyphony, Bitef Library, International educational programme of festival management, Presentation of Bitef digitalization, and Showcase of Serbian theatre.

Ivan Medenica