On Slovak contemporary dance

Inside and outside eye take a look at Slovak Contemporary Dance 

Yasen Vasilev, a dramaturge and a writer, operating between Belgium, Bulgaria and Norway, was invited to become the outside eye of this year’s Slovak Dance Platform, a coach for the artists and an ally for the team. Maja Hriešik is a local dance dramaturge and activist standing behind many of the Plast organization activities – including Telocvičňa residency space and Slovak Dance Platform, as the co-organizer of the event.

[MH] What did you know about Slovak dance before collaborating on preparation of this Slovak Dance Platform? What did you expect?

[YV] I didn’t know much. I had a residency in Telocvičňa the previous year and the artists I had the chance to meet and talk to (Eva Urbanova who’s in the selection, was in residence at the same time), were for me the only glimpse of the Slovak dance field. I had some knowledge of the Czech scene, through Aerowaves (a European project that promotes emerging artists internationally), and through attending the Czech dance platform, so I expected similar developments (albeit with less support and infrastructure). I also thought there’d be a stronger Austrian influence, since Vienna is so close, but this turned out not to be the case, and the division between West and East is still quite present. I think of contemporary dance today as quite transnational. People mostly study abroad, the working teams are mixed, English is the working language, the co-production funding comes from more than one country. I try not to look at artists as representing their particular countries. At the same time I understand the need for national dance platforms supporting the export of the works and putting a particular context on the map.  

[MH] Yes, this transnational focus or international angle is natural for dance yet it is much more the case within the Western and Northern parts of Europe. Nationality is not an issue there, it is the rootedness within the local community that counts. If we move more to the East and South, where the conditions for creation are more precarious, and the political situation is less stable, the scenes become more closed in themselves. Yet, pandemic years have done some good in this sense. There is much more exchange of thoughts within the creative industry in Europe and I can sense the effect of it in Slovakia as well. The concept of periphery has diluted. 

Three pieces in the programme of the platform, that were the result of an international co-production or a collaboration with a guest choreographer, are a tangible sign of opening.

[MH] At the moment you are working in Belgium, but also trying to stay active in Bulgaria, where you come from. What are the challenges of “smaller”, less represented cultural territories? 

[YV] The most obvious answer is, of course, lack of resources and infrastructure, and challenging working conditions. One can also add the lack of good quality education and interest from the so-called center and its institutions, houses, festivals, curators, programmers, funding bodies.
What I identify as a major problem in Bulgaria particularly is an individual mindset where after the retreat of the state with its central planning and strategy, all was left to the market, and therefore to personal ambitions and interests. Most of the organizations I know are run by small teams that lack proper long-term funding and therefore fail to create a structure, institutionalize the initiative and pass it on to the next generation. Thus things appear and disappear in a quite random manner, and memory is quickly erased, while the state fails to recognize and support important contributions.

[MH] As a part of preparations of the artists for presentation formats at the Slovak Platform, you were their first partner in dialogue. How did you find it inspiring? Based on this meeting – what is your impression of the Slovak contemporary dance field?

[YV] I’ve heard people speaking of the so-called “embedded criticism” – where the critic is not an impartial person who judges the quality of the final piece but follows the development and dialogues with the team. So in a way my role felt a bit like this, getting involved in the thought process behind the works, and criticizing them as an ally. The dialogue opens up dimensions of the work and its intention which are not always visible. Some might have not materialized in the particular work but a piece is also one step of a longer artistic trajectory where the artist is learning and testing its craft and toolbox. So it’s also a matter of trust that these intentions will manifest as the artist grows.

It’s difficult to summarize these nine works because they’re so different in their approach and interests. I’d say it’s a lively field, striving for high quality, depth in research, and dialogue with the processes internationally. I found inspiring the social aspect of some of the practices and initiatives – attempts to decentralize the cultural scene, bring contemporary works to remote regions, work locally, search for accessibility and audience engagement, empower specific groups, think of art not only as pure artistic expression and individual path, but as a vehicle for change and collective action.

[YV] You also have a quite good observation of the local dance field. Do you see a thematic line, or an aesthetic trend, that is present in Slovak contemporary dance today?

[MH] At first glance I see a big aesthetic and generational diversity despite the smaller scale of the local scene and persisting precarious conditions for creation and presentation. I am happy to see different generations working side by side – new collaborations between young striving dancers and the mature ones. Some works are more cynical and critical (Custom View), or they massively deconstruct the theatrical and choreographic language, working with the performativity of the body (Soft Spot, Abnormal Repetitive Behavour), others introduce humour and text when reflecting growing frustration and panic in people (Matter, You only live twice), or videowork when exploring the inner life of a dancer (Autonomy) or they work around the mythology, reflecting human nature in a more poetic way at the same time relying on more expressive language of dance (Charon). A common thread is also the wish to engage the audience, to transmit energy and sensitize them – to hold a space for them to experience something beyond verbal, rational way of seeing the reality.

[YV] As an organizer, can you share how the idea of the platform came to be, what are its main ambitions and objectives, why do you think it’s important? And also, what were the challenges in organizing it?

[MH] Platform was a long term obsession, even trauma for the Slovak artists, as all surrounding countries had already found ways of positioning their artists internationally. Yet it has been an impossible task from an organizational and financial point of view. Due to the non institutionalized character of the scene, it had to be carried out on the shoulders of those who already struggle from year to year to keep their projects alive. The magic moment arrived after several years of the Arts Council’s substantially higher support for contemporary dance than ever before but unfortunately shortly before the Covid pandemic, therefore the timing wasn’t ideal. But crucial was that the prominent agents found a consensus and decided to make it a joint effort. 

I think the expectations from it are super high, unrealistic even, because the scene waited for it for too long. Yet the fact we managed to find the common goal and share resources is already an impressive state of the Slovak art scene and incredible power of the networks at the independent cultural scene. The artists naturally expect this event to bring them bigger visibility but the effect of Platforms is not an instantaneous one – it is just a start which by continuous nurturing might bring potentially beautiful and deep future partnerships.