In 2020, Bitef could not have its regular edition due to the coronavirus pandemic but was postponed until this year and scheduled to be organized as an integrated (that is - its double) edition. Bitef 54/55 will be held under the same slogan as its last year version, when, instead of the regular edition, only a three-day-long Bitef-Prologue took place, with two performances in the main programme and several side programmes, providing a sample of what last year’s Bitef had been planned to be, and offering a glimpse into this year’s festival. The slogan is Edge of the Future.
The topics that generated the slogan span from the most urgent global problem nowadays, climate changes, destruction of ecosystem and, consequently, the genuine risk of global cataclysm, to the projection of the “world after”, the world which, in modern theory, some thinkers refer to as posthumanism and transhumanism. Additional justification for this programme focus can be found in the fact that the first group of topics, the ones linked to ecological crisis, are not only global but also local, since Belgrade is one of the world metropolises with the highest air pollution. Moreover, the fact remains that also the coronavirus pandemic was partially caused by ecological disturbances.
I use the notions transhumanism and posthumanism in their broadest sense: not as a projection of a world without people (which was the topic of 52nd Bitef), but of a world which will not have humans in its centre. Out of the desire to get as “upgraded” as possible, and thus achieve the (secretly) pursued ideals of bliss, immortality, and godlikeness, as Harari writes in Homo Deus, man has, paradoxically, led to the defragmentation of human subject. In theoretical sense, I see these notions as Cary Wolfe describes them: transhumanism as an intensification of humanistic ideals in the sense of technological "upgrade" of man, and posthumanism as a critique of such an essentially still anthropogenic concept, in favour of the idea of the renewal of the natural balance. All this in mind, artistic line of the 54/55 Bitef practically formulated itself. It comes down to various forms of the digitalization of performer’s body, i.e. the defragmentation of human performing subject. Therefore, in some of the performances in the second half of the festival, which focuses on the aesthetic aspect of the concept, body of a performer gets supplemented or even substituted with a drone or a robot (I Put a Spell on You and Future Fortune), while in others it still is the only agent of the performance, but gets, through lights and other effects, and robotized choreography - dehumanized (Flesh and Climatic Dances). Moreover, in some performances, especially the ones created during the ongoing pandemic, as a response to the challenges that the physical distancing has imposed to theatre, body is “absent”. It is either transposed through screen (performances made for online platforms - The Cherry Orchard in the Cherry Orchard), or does not exist at all, leaving the audience to assume that role (Conference of the Absent, and As if the End Were Not Quite Near).
The dramaturgy of the festival brings, like always in the past several years, the Prologue before the grand opening, with a performance which introduces us to some of the topics and/or performing practices on which the concept of the festival edition is based. This year, Bitef Prologue will last for two days, presenting two performances, both produced by Belgrade Drama Theatre - Cement Belgrade (directed by Sebastijan Horvat), and Living Room, which will premiere at Bitef Festival (directed by Ersan Mondtag, coproduction with Bitef Theatre). This decision is motivated by our wish to draw attention and lend support to a programme upswing that Belgrade Drama Theatre has seen over the past year. The upswing has happened in the direction of what we colloquially call “Bitef-like trends”, and the performances are created by the directors who have achieved their international acclaim at Bitef: Sebastijan Horvat, Ersan Mondtag, Tomi Janežič, Boris Liješević. The concept of the project Living Room is based on a visually spectacular stage design and the general visual atmosphere which comes between Almodóvar-esque camp and magical realism. It is an ideal frame for a lyrical meditation on transience, loneliness, hopes lost, and greatest losses in life, which can be seen as a contribution to one of the thematic lines of 54/55 Bitef, the vision of a “post-humane world”. On the thematic level, young German director Ersan Mondtag does not problematise the responsibility of Milošević’s regime for the war of the 90ies, but defends the idea that women, regardless of the side their men were on, represent the biggest victims of every war. The performance Cement Belgrade by Sebastijan Horvat, a triple laureate of 53rd Bitef, represents a warning - presented on stage as a metaphorical combination of contemporary dance and traditional realism - in what kind of physical and spiritual disintegration one ends up when one betrays the ideals of youthful rebellion.
Thematic part dedicated to ecological challenges starts with the performance Traces by one of the leading world choreographers, Wim Vandekeybus, and his company Ultima Vez from Brussels, and will be shown at the grand opening of 54/55 Bitef. In an energetic, witty, and exciting choreography, which involves elements of spoken theatre, this performance develops a dramaturgical arc - not in the least illustrative - from constructing roads through forests, destroying nature, to a comic but also threatening finale in the form of the "nature’s vengeance". The performance Lungs, by the young Slovenian director Žiga Divjak (Slovenian National Theatre Drama Ljubljana) is based on the play by the contemporary English playwright, Duncan Macmillan, and deals with the challenges that love couples have to face nowadays, raising, among other things, one seemingly absurd, but essentially legitimate ecological and ethical question: is it justified to have children in an overpopulated world in which every being uses invaluable supplies of oxygen, but also in the world where that new life is to face some serious existential problems with possible tragic outcomes - ecological cataclysm, pandemics, utter social insecurity. This minimalistic performance, based on an amazing play by two young actors, also presents a new name not only of Slovenian, but judging by his creative potential, also of regional and European directing, Žiga Divjak, which is one of the important missions that Bitef is trying to achieve.
Ecological problems are in the core of the following three performances. The dance performance Climatic Dances, by the Chilean-Mexican choreographer Amanda Piña, is dedicated to the mountainous area which her mother comes from, and whose ecosystems are endangered by the projects of multinational companies. It is a visually atmospheric installation which symbolically resembles a mountainous landscape, but which also has a soul, it is alive, it breathes and moves. All of it is brought through gradual emergence of choreographed bodies from the visual surroundings. We are particularly delighted to present a work by one of the leading French and world directors of middle generation, whose performances visit some of the prestigious festivals in the world, and who has not been to Bitef until now - Philippe Quesne. He will be presented through his project Farm Fatale, a coproduction between his troupe from Paris and the famous Kammerspiele from Munich, based on an ironic vision of ecological revolution raised by scarecrows who for various reasons, including the situations when huge corporations turn against individual farmers, lose their jobs. The section of the programme dedicated to the problem of threatened environment is completed with a famous classic play on this topic, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which tells a story of a scientist’s struggle against the corrupted “pillars of society” (politicians, industrialists, the media) who have jeopardized water sources. This classic play comes, this time, staged by one of the favourite directors of Belgrade audience, Thomas Ostermeier (Schaubühne Berlin), and achieves actualization through a provocative scene in which the audience, in the fictional context of a political rally, can raise local, current issues of ecology and related social topics.
The shift to the second part of the festival programme, marked by posthumanism - more aesthetically (the aforementioned concept of deconstruction of a live performer’s body on stage) than thematically - is made by the performance Kaspar, by Yugoslav Drama Theatre. The director Miloš Lolić, whom this performance brings back to Serbian theatre, has adapted and modernized the famous Peter Handke’s play by emphasizing not the language and other cultural practices that both form and restrain man’s individuality, but current, direct, authoritarian, dystopian mechanisms of suppression of freedom. In the Belgian performance I Put a Spell on You, by a young but already internationally renowned Iranian choreographer Ehsan Hemat, a robotized choreography with three performers from Iran, Belgium and Japan, together with the supervision of a drone, articulate one of the main problems in the world today, the one no longer ruled by humanistic values: ubiquitous media and technological control and manipulation. Just like the performance by Amanda Piña, this one also marks yet another important line in the concept of Bitef: presenting and promoting creators from non-European and non-Western cultures. Besides presenting the (successful) work of our artists in the world theatre, the project Future Fortune by Dragana Bulut, realized on the stage of HAU in Berlin, fits perfectly within this year’s Bitef conceptual lines. The appearance of a humanoid robot on stage, the performance which started as a recreation of historical avantgarde (of the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek, in which the term robot is used for the first time ever), gets conceptually deconstructed, turning into a debate on (im)possibility of projecting and controlling our future.
Two (new) forms that developed during the period of the pandemic, as a reaction to the necessity of physical distancing - the performances on the Internet platforms and “franchise performance”, will be presented on this Bitef through projects by the authors also beloved by Bitef audience (Croatian director Bobo Jelćić and the German collective of directors Rimini Protokoll). The project The Cherry Orchard in the Cherry Orchard by Bobo Jelčić is a highly intelligent, witty, and exciting adaptation of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s play, in which the dramaturgical compression to the very act of bidding for the cherry orchard represents a “naturalistic” justification for the fact that actors meet only in the virtual space of a Zoom conference. We follow their final, online consultations before the crucial event. The latest project by the famous Rimini Protokoll belongs to the concept of increasingly popular “franchise performances”: thoroughly developed artistic and technical concept of the performance is, in another surroundings, realized by local performers, with an idea to exclude travelling, since air traffic is considered one of the main sources of air pollution. In the performance Conference of the Absent, the form is (ironically) tested: the audience is invited to take part and perform the fictional situation (scientific conference).
A distinctive climax of both artistic and the thematic line of 54/55 Bitef, the sublimation of both concept plains, and therefore the projects appropriate for the end of the festival, are the production by Bitef Theatre, As if the End Were Not Quite Near, by the playwright Maja Pelević and the director Nikola Zavišić, and the French performance Flesh by the director Franck Vigroux. The first project is a spatial-visual-auditive installation which, using the help of artificial intelligence, allows meditation to the audience (only five people can attend one performance) to the topics raised by the apocalyptic times we live in. Flesh is also a spatial-visual-auditive installation, since it does not follow a clear storyline, but is entirely abstract and utterly futuristic, performed by two dancers whose bodies, their human identity, get deconstrued through costumes, light, smoke effects, and other stage elements.
Like every year, the main programme is accompanied, and occasionally conceptually supported by numerous and diverse side programmes. Besides the traditional ones - Bitef Polyphony, the festival of new circus Cirkobalkana, Bitef Library (promotions of book on theatre and performing arts), Philosophical Theatre (talks that Srećko Horvat and Maja Pelević lead with one of the leading intellectuals on current and topical issues related to the main programme), as well as the programme of follow-up discussions on the main programme performances, this year’s Bitef also brings a big, three-day-long conference called We Are Sitting on a Branch: Solidarity or Downfall. The conference focuses on climatic changes and the global disturbance of eco balance, the economic and social consequences, as well as an attempt to offer new forms of the natural protection, eco-conscious city planning, but also something truly important - a model of ecologically sustainable theatre. The conference will gather about thirty guests from all over the world, and will consist of thematically varied sessions, and various formats (lectures, debates, workshops…). This conference, alongside the Philosophical Theatre and follow-up discussions with the authors, accomplishes Bitef mission, making it not only a platform for the recognition and the promotion of performing forms, but a place of critical and proactive examining of the world we live in.
Art director and curator of Bitef
 According to Steve Dixon, “digital body” includes robots, cyborg (human body with some machine interventions), and virtual bodies (which exist only in digital reality).