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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Body politics
Animated, Winter 2001. To the outside world, Bulgaria unlike most European countries seemingly buzzing with dance events, groups and diverse communities, may be viewed as uncharted, a terra incognita. The reality is quite different - what, how and who have remained a well-kept secret... until now that is. The emerging picture is one of innovation, grit, conviction and vision as Dessy Gavrilova reveals
The last decade has nutured a generation of dancers and choreographers thirsty to discover new ways of expression through dance. Most come from the classical tradition, unable to find within this technique that they have mastered, adequate expression of the issues and themes of contemporary life - a life that has left behind the ideological paradigm, values, points of reference, and limitations of the past. Even the study and practise of what was in the 80s passing for 'modern ballet' in Bulgaria seemed unsatisfactory and superficial - they felt that there was so much more to dance than just classical or modern ballet.

Yet the scarcity of available information about the artistic trends, styles and developments in contemporary dance worldwide and with no appropriate training available in the country, the 90s generation embarked on a journey - discovering what contemporary would mean for the body, what limitations it would help overcome, how it could become the language with which to speak about what was 'making them tick'.

At the end of the 80s, and early 1990s, few modern dance technique training opportunities existed in Bulgaria. The passion of the pioneering dancers had to be fuelled abroad - through the intensity of physical experience and dialogue, and the diverse trails they embarked on, be it the Laban Centre London (Mila Iskrenova), the Maurice Begard School, Lausanne (Krassen Krastev), Summer Courses at Palluca Schule, Dresden, and the American Dance Festival international residency programme (Galina Borissova) to Dance Web, Vienna (Tanya Sokolova). Meeting colleagues, talking to them, discussing aesthetics and styles infected them with a 'modern' expression which they brought home to Bulgaria.

The question was how, on their return, to involve other dancers in this experience; how to 'translate' what they were just starting to learn to local artists; how to convince local audiences (who had had little or no exposure to contemporary dance at that time) that there is a value in this way of expression Some chose not to take part in 'educating' their colleagues and local audiences, not to struggle with being misunderstood, and never returned. The rest made the difficult choice to stay, and to 'grow' a community around themselves.

At the beginning however the 90s generation was in its infancy, not yet a generation. Rather, a number of individual dancers and choreographers, who were following their own path of professional development but who reached a common point - an eagerness to pursue the search for 'the other dance'. Mila Iskrenova, Galina Borissova, Krassen Krastev, Rossen Mihailov, Tanya Sokolova, Petya Stoykova, all graduates of the Ballet School in Sofia, began their journey into the new landscape of contemporary dance forms. As Rossen Mihailov muses: "We first separated from our colleagues who were content with what they were asked to dance, and only later found 'souls' we felt close to." (1) Those seemingly lonely lost 'similar souls' now form the core of the new generation of dancers in Bulgaria.

Amarant Dance Company was the first attempt to form a stable group to explore expression through the medium of contemporary dance. It was also perhaps the first company to convince a mostly young audience that there is more to dance than classical and modern ballet. The group had an impressive start, but after its leader, Krassen Krastev, left the country, it became more of a name under which different choreographers and dancers made their projects. Nevertheless, Amarant was undoubtedly one of the significant pioneers of the last decade, infecting dancers and audiences with an appreciation of contemporary dance, and acting as a springboard for a growing dance community.

The numerous projects of Galina Borissova, Mila Iskrenova, Tanya Sokolova and Rossen Mihailov also became a way to involve greater circles of classically educated dancers, as well as actors, and people from different professional backgrounds, in contemporary dance. The 'lonely souls' were not so lonely anymore. They sought to help their new colleagues get training abroad, shared information, supported one another - in an environment that still did not fully recognise their work, a cultural policy that did not take contemporary dance into account, and an arts financial system that was centred around traditional cultural institutions, rather than innovative work. One sometimes wonders where this vitality and persistence came from. "We are a growing community, and there is no way that conditions for our work here remain the same" says Tanya Sokolova, and her colleagues agree with her.

Petya Stoykova, unlike her fellow choreographers, all of whom work in Sofia, is from the Black Sea port of Bourgas where she still lives and works. She is the lifeblood of a vital contemporary dance community there. Her route into dance exemplifies this as Petya did not study at the State Ballet School but uncharacteristically started dancing with a gang of 12-year olds from the Bourgas neighbourhood, whose dream was to dance. Their idol at that time - Petya admits with some irony - was the lead dancer from the film Flash Dance. What was important for this local 'gang' was to stick together, dream together and dance together. What came out of this commitment and desire was Dune Dance Company, whose development coincidentally ran parallel with that of Amarant Dance Company in Sofia.

Dune still exists today, involving more and more new dancers, 'infecting' a wider community with contemporary thinking about dance, and convincing the Bourgas audience that there is a special quality about modern dance. Petya's development as an artist, choreographer and teacher has been organic as she did not accomplish a formal dance training or education (although she started an MA programme at the New Bulgarian University). Rather, she learnt from a number of different types of short-term training. Dance Web in Vienna was a turning point for her: "Training with different dancers can turn around your understanding of dance. When you work with dance artists who come from traditions which are far from your own, you feel at the centre of the understanding of the essence of dance".(2) It is this understanding that Petya Stoykova brings back home, and shares with her dancers, and with the wider community.

A significant development of the last few years is that today there is a real community of dancers in Bulgaria. Nowadays they know one another, share information and ideas, support each other, and are even considering how to form a dance association, which would 'formalise' the community, and give it a more visible status.

Those who started the process of growing contemporary dance on Bulgarian soil however, do not consider themselves pioneers.(3) "There is always somebody, who in their context of dance is a pioneer", says Galina Borissova, even those companies like Ballet Arabesque whose style for us was something to use as a point of departure, were pioneers of their time. Or Margarita Gradechlieva of Ek studio, with her Graham technique based performances, which were considered heretic for their time. Our present generation has a different task - to nurture a variety of aesthetics, to discover new talents, to encourage them to work locally, express themselves freely, and to make wider audiences understand dance as a vital branch of the contemporary performing arts."

It is this unstinting commitment to the process of nurturing contemporary dance in Bulgaria that has resulted in a number of performances full of vitality, joy, and artistic invention. A Never Ending Story by Galina Borissova won first prize at the International Competition for Choreographers in Groningen in the Netherlands in 1998. Thanks to this award (presented to her by Sasha Waltz) Galina was able to make her new audience acclaimed piece Ataraxia this year. Afrikan Winter by Mila Iskrenova, Marcipan Concertby Dune Dance Co. and Petya Stoykova, A Trip To by Tanya Sokolova, They Tell Me Sofia by Rossen Mihailov and several other works by the youngest generation of dancers in Bulgaria, still wait to be discovered not only by the local audiences, but by the wider world also.

The time of the great geographic discoveries is long over. Every square of the world map is already described, measured, researched, analysed. The aesthetic world map though is still littered with uncharted territories. But a closer look at the unmapped bits, reveals a different picture - what at first seemed blank, is actually colourful and buzzing with life.

Dessy Gavrilova, director, The Red House - Centre for Culture and Debate. Contact

1 Mihailov, Rossen, 2000
2 Stoykova, Petya, 2000
3 Borissova, Galina, 2000

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001