Mascha Kern talks with Gina Şerbănescu – a dance critic from Romania –  about the differences between the Bulgarian and the Romanian dance worlds, the impact of communism, and interconnectedness and influences in the performing arts.  

„You don’t look like a German“, Gina told me while we sat down at a table in the Red Café located in the basement of the Red House in Sofia. I had met Gina Şerbănescu, a dance critic from Romania, in the context of Antistatic, the international festival for contemporary dance and performance. While explaining to her my mixed Russian-German family background, I rummaged around in my bag looking for the things I would need during the talk with her. I took out my voice recorder, a pen and my notebook in which I started browsing to find the questions I had written down to ask Gina. I would not need them after all. The straightforward woman with a decisive look already seemed to know what topic I was interested in. We had 45 minutes left before Soul Squeezing, the performance of Tian Rotteveel would start. We have spent that time mostly talking about the differences and similarities between the worlds of contemporary dance in Romania and Bulgaria.

“If you check their origins, the Bulgarian and the Romanian ones are somehow similar”, Gina started our conversation. “The countries are so close in the Balkans, being part of an area in which the classical ballet was very established. The Russians influenced the classical ballet in this region. That classical direction still exists here, as well as in Romania, as main dance direction. After the breakdown of the Communist regime, the development was similar in both countries. Anyway, now that I am here, I have noticed differences in the way the members of the community are interacting. I think that the Romanian context is somehow more individualist, the artists are more on their own. Each person, each dancer has been forming his or her own individuality, remaining part of a community. In Sofia, I have noticed a merging presence, a merging existence as dancers, the existence of a community which shares the same topics that are relevant for contemporary dance today. There was a brilliant generation in Romania immediately after the revolution. They established the National Dance Centre, which now does not have any space anymore, because it has been in the same building as the National Theatre. Now the Theatre is being renovated and, in the newly designed project of the National Theatre there can be found no longer a space for The National Dance Centre. Thank God we also have independent initiatives in dance, like 4 Culture Association (led by Andreea Căpitanescu) that organizes Explore Dance Festival, and Gabriela Tudor Foundation coordinated by Cosmin Manolescu, that initiates constantly residencies and networks for contemporary dance.  Dance in Romania is developed as far as the mentality of the artists is concerned, but institutionally speaking everything still seems very fragile. Between the two World Wars, but also during communism, there had been some artists who did some underground things and tried to develop something in a new direction. After the breakdown of communism, new visions of dance were shown, in a completely new light. In time, this headed to a an individualist point of view, not in a negative sense, but in the direction of affirming artistic personalities within the values of a community. We always speak about the community of dance but I see and prefer seeing artists more as individuals. This is my perception, maybe I’m wrong, but there are certain directions in contemporary dance in this area that speak from themselves about this, I suppose…”.

 Gina made a pause and sipped from her glass. “I am not exactly a dance critic, you know”, she changed the topic. “I have graduated from philosophy and I am trying to give a feedback from a philosophical point of view. I am not the one who is criticising how many steps were wrong, or how many movements ore pauses have a sense or not. What for? This is weak geometry, come on!” Then she asked me: ”What is exactly the discipline you will be graduating in? Social Anthropology?” I nodded. “It would be very interesting if you can focus on this because I am  interested in the anthropological vision of the body in different cultural spaces. The body is not an existent by itself, but is culturally co-notated. It is interesting how here in South Eastern Europe the body gets more and more abstract, the problematic of the body enters a discourse which lies at the border between theory and practice. If you watch the performances of Antistatic, this is getting somehow obvious: The direction is not as conceptual as it was and still is here and there in Romania. Because, in Romania, we have had this way of conceptualism, which was, among other things, a reaction against the academic/traditional motility. We should be very careful when speaking and reflecting on conceptualism in dance, because sometimes the border is very thin…Galina Borissova spoke yesterday at the public talk of the festival about that and I agree with her, I don’t either know why I should watch a performance and wait for the people to finish. But I think that this stage is necessary in the development of a dance context (and I am speaking in general now), even though I don’t like completely conceptualist performances.  If the concept does not descend in the flesh, I don’t see its sense on stage, as long as I can find it in a book of philosophy of language, for instance. She paused: “Am I talking too much? …Because I find myself talking and talking?” “No”, I assure her, “please continue”.

“You should consider the history of Balkan Dance Platform in your study”, she suggested.”The Red House in Sofia set the basis for Balkan Dance Platform in cooperation with a Romanian foundation Project DCM, its founders are Dessy Gavrilova and Cosmin Manolescu. Also the first edition Balkan Dance Platform took place here in Sofia, in 2001. I am talking to you about Balkan Dance Platform because you cannot isolate Bulgaria from the Balkan context. You cannot split Bulgaria from Croatia, Serbia, Romania or  Macedonia… There was a period when artists that are now famous performers at international level, like Ivo Dimchev, were working together in the area. I remember a very interesting performance, Enjoy July,  that Ivo Dimchev did, in 2007, with Dragana Bulut and two other performers (Liliana Tasich and Marko Milich). Now you can watch Ivo and Dragana significantly performing on the final day of this edition of Antistatic, bringing here performances that they created in prestigious international contexts. As far as the relation with the Western culture is concerned, I think that the artists in the Balkans were confronted with it especially after the fall of communism when they could travel in Europe, but they filtered this influence and applied it to their own social, cultural and personal context. You won’t find a place that is completely isolated. You will see that artists from Romania, or Croatia, or Bulgaria always worked with other people from the Balkans. And they constructed an area of performative defence, as I would call it. And then, when they gained and increased their own individuality, we could see the Bulgarian profile, the Romanian profile, the Serbian profile and so on. But in the beginning they were holding this together and this is the idea. The borders are not fixed, you cannot say that this is Bulgaria, this is Romania, I investigate only Bulgaria. It is a merging and mixing context”.

 “Why do you think is that?”, I asked.

 “Because they were all victims of the same block of history…We are all relatives in the same historical drama. The communism put somehow the body into the brackets. There was no body to be represented”, was Gina’s answer.

 “There was a very specific and restricted representation of the body”, I argued.

 “Yes, very technical and idealistic”, Gina added. “»We can win, we can do it!«, specific phrase for the communist idea of the winner. It was not exactly a body, it was an ideological statement of the body itself. The ideological statement of the body in communism is as abstract as the body in some conceptual performances but the meanings and reflections are different. You know, to me the idea of Antistatic does not mean »let’s move«, but »let’s not get stuck into some big conceptions«. For, if the idea gets stuck, this is static”. Gina looks at her cell phone. “How much time do we have left?”, she asked. “15 minutes”, I answered, “and we won’t probably start on time with the performance anyway”. “We are in the Balkans – nothing starts on time!”, Gina laughed. “You are coming from a country where everything starts on time, right?” I nodded. “Are you sure, because I have been in London and there were people that didn’t care about the time at all, they were not as  punctual as I expected. A colleague of mine told me then: »This is because there are too many immigrants«. We both laughed and I reached out for the voice recorder to put it off. We were waving towards the waiter and getting ready for leaving the café.

 April, 2012