If contemporary dance was a sea, then its local festival currents only began to move in the years after Bulgaria's accession to the European Union, when the first editions of the oldest specialized forums in this field began to appear.
If contemporary dance was a sea, then its local festival currents only began to move in the years after Bulgaria's accession to the European Union, when the first editions of the oldest specialized forums in this field began to appear. And if they looked like rather exotic individual islands of this art at the time, today they are slowly starting to resemble an archipelago that stretches across country and increasingly puts it on the global map of modern dance and brings it in step with its representatives in the world. In all the countries whose cultural scenes we wish ours resembled, contemporary performing arts festivals are a constant element of the artistic landscape and receive significant and sustained support, while our local counterparts still have to fight for their place under the sun with state institutions, fight to overcome outdated conceptions and working conditions, as well as to do their best to hold on to their boutique audiences, while also building up a new audience base that will trust them.
Today we think of One Dance Week as a well-established event in the cultural calendar, but this was far from the case in 2008, when was then called Sofia Dance Week took place in the capital as the debut edition of the first and so far only international festival in Bulgaria, dedicated entirely to contemporary dance. In order for this "thing that was definitely missing in Sofia at the time" to appear, as its founders Asen Assenov and executive director Elianna Lilova recall, they had to go through a "complete financial fiasco." They did it, because back then, in the capital of an EU member state, "you could only watch performances by the Arabesque company, and once in a blue moon, a foreign show organized and entirely funded by a Western European embassy." The event doesn't receive a single lev of public funds, Assen even staked his apartment for one day, international corporations were the only sponsors, and they ended up losing 60,000 euros. "We made many mistakes, but the biggest was to expect Sofia to start dancing with just a single edition. During the eight years when the organization was paying back the bank loan, we learned all lessons in the most difficult way possible. But no, I don't regret anything! It was and is a beautiful adventure," he says.
Sculptures by Ivo Dimchev | photographer: Tanya Decheva
In the same year, a similar absence of this kind of stage content inspired the creation of the International Festival of Contemporary Dance and Performance Antistatic. "A year after our accession to the EU, we felt that not only in Sofia, but in all of the country there is no festival with not just dance productions, but bold stage experiments conducted by artists who are looking for their own paths and methods," recalls one of its three founders Stefan A. Shterev. Shterev, Iva Sveshtarova and Willy Prager have a common professional history dating back to the 90s, which to this day serves as their motivation to be a festival of artists for artists.
Then and now, funding continues to be a problematic and painful topic that riles up all festival organizers in this genre. But in the beginning, difficulties included "a lack of space for dance performance, ambiguity about the concept of contemporary dance," Sveshtarova recalls. Today they have over 160 Bulgarian and foreign performances behind them, and since 2012 they have been running the educational platform "No Distance," but she still fears that due to the continued lack of investment in cultural development and the limited resources available to the independent scene, it will collapse and "everything achieved so far will turn out to be a waste of energy, work, creativity and dreams."
The team behind Antistatic: Stefan A. Shterev, Iva Sveshtarova and Willy Prager | Photographer: Teodora Simova
It is their dream that, with time, Antistatic will be not just a signature Sofia dance festival, but an important event for all Balkan countries. However, in order to reach its full potential, the festival needs to find support not just from international sponsors, but from Bulgarian institutions, which "need to finally understand that contemporary art is not avant-garde, but rather the future, and it needs appropriate support," adds Prager.
Asenov wants One Dance Week, which started out in Sofia and became a Plovdiv festival, to one day be among the best festivals for contemporary dance in all of Europe. He shares that Plovdiv is where he first started dreaming about it and that he owes a lot to the city. But he also realizes that "this cannot happen without ambitious involvement on the part of the state." "When you receive support here, it comes with 'we gave you what you asked for'. You hear this and you immediately understand the mentality and the lack of culture and understanding." According to him, in order to develop the Bulgarian dance scene, more investment is needed. "What are we supposed to create, how are we supposed to create it and where exactly can we go with it when the total state budget for dance productions in 2021 was 60,000 euros?… It's like asking how many tourists will visit the country if its marketing budget for tourism is 1000 euros per year. It's shameful." He thinks a lot more can be done, but our diagnosis is "chronic provincialism," given that we do not have a single theater that presents contemporary performing arts from Bulgaria and abroad year-round, which speaks to the cultural isolation of the country.
Transverse Orientation by Dimitris Papaioannou | Photographer: Julian Mommert
With 13 years of experience between them as organizers of this type of festival, all of them still highlight the positive trends they have observed and follow with great interest. For Asenov, it is the disintegration of frameworks: "In the future, art will not remain in the boxes we're currently keeping it in." According to Shterev, the local scene is developing, growing, finding its own forms of existence, finding a new audience, aesthetics, even taste, if you will. Audiences grow up, new ones emerge, seeking, having already seen a lot of things.” Prager adds that, as a strong social art, contemporary dance “reflects on current social problems, formulating them into stage works… And asks questions and leaves the answers to the audience. Because of our interest in new trends in this field, in 2019 the festival team launched the only Bulgarian Dance Magazine, whose pages look at the past, present and possible future of contemporary dance, classical ballet and urban dance culture."
Shifting our gaze away from the two largest cities in the country, we find the successful beginnings of smaller recent festivals with a similar focus. They not only confirm that the demand and need for such events is palpable everywhere, but that the audience for them is slowly gathering in other major cities as well.
The Moving Body festival in Varna, whose sixth edition is coming up this year from November 5 to 12, is the brainchild of Iskra Prodanova and Svetlozara Hristova. Their initial goal was to create an environment for contemporary performance art in their hometown and to show the unconventional side of dance. "We started with movement studios and gradually expanded the program with performances, talks, lectures, residencies and screenings of screendance works from around the world, also conversations – interviews, articles. This collective body is constantly looking for and finding ways to move," Iskra shares.
How fast life goes from January to December, Galina Borisova | Svetlozara Hristova and Iskra Prodanova | Photographer: Gergana Encheva
Although Varna has many pluses, it is still a conservative city, mostly attracting tourists for the summer season, and unable to retain young, capable, creative people the rest of the time because they cannot find anything to identify with, she says. That is why the main challenges here, then and now, have to do with finding an audience. But also with planning activities and building partnerships when there is no sustainable funding, no strategy for developing this type of audience, as well as no signature space that offers a regular program, not only for performing arts but contemporary art more generally, Iskra explains and adds: “For us, the decentralization of art is very important, both in the summer season and the rest of the year. That's why the festival takes place during the first week of November." She adds: "There are many things we are proud of and that we have achieved in these six years. We hope to find recognition and establish a dialogue with local authorities, as well as find the kind of support that we do not always receive."
In 2017, the contemporary art festival WATER in Burgas faced the same challenges in another seaside city. In its first years, it was carried out with the immense effort of a large, mostly volunteer group and the city's Youth House, and used its pool and adjacent rooms – sauna, engine room, locker rooms and corridors – as a stage and location for performances. installations and exhibitions. The idea for the functional transformation of this space belonged to the festival's founder Petya Stoykova, whose name is associated with the dance school Dune, and came to her back in 2002. That's when the ballet made its first dance film The Aquarium.
Shot from the stage - the empty pool of WATER, 2019.| Photographer: Georgi Georgiev
In addition to financial challenges and the ever-present challenge of what its audience will be, the festival had to attend to pragmatic problems such as putting linoleum in the empty pool –"it's like an alien ship landed on the main street in Burgas," Petya says. During the few years of its existence, however, WATER managed to overcome these challenges, to inspire interest in the achievements of contemporary creative thought and to change how arts are viewed in the city, she says. And although its fifth edition, from September 10 to 12 of this year, is the first in which its native pool will not be part of the program, the festival finds new alternative locations to fill with the WATER of dance, performance and installations, such as the clock tower at the central train station, Symbiotic near the salt lakes, the Modern Theater and the bar Barbossa, and continues to be the only festival of its kind in Burgas.