A festival where the body moves fluently – and intimately – between stage, site, screen and headset
The Moving Body festival takes place in Varna, a small seaside town on the Black Sea coast in the east of Bulgaria. It’s a popular spot for domestic tourists, with sandy beaches and a long stretch of walkable park hugging the seafront; dance aficionados may also recognise it as the host city of a major biennial ballet competition. The festival is part of the wider Moving Body Platform, a female-led initiative with a year-round programme that injects a valuable shot of contemporary creativity into the arm of this otherwise rather conservative arts context. My invitation is to attend the 2023 festival, a weekend programme in July that spans internationally-produced films, immersive experiences with VR technologies and live art. The ambition is impressive, and it’s heartening to see such a bold programming approach supporting the arts ecology in this small, special place.
The festival directors’ individual footprints can be seen in the curation of the platform; Iskra Prodanova is a practising artist who performs herself in one of the live events, and Svetlozara Hristova is a cultural manager who has co-ordinated Varna’s RADAR Festival Beyond Music since 2014. Together they co-founded Moving Body in 2016, driven by the shared desire to create space for ‘sharing, discussing, creating’. The platform has unfolded over the last eight years as research practices, performances, a monthly online rubric dedicated to short dance films, audio-walks, exhibitions, discussions, party situations and more. The directors propose some pretty audacious questions: ‘How do we move? What makes us move? Towards what are we moving?’ and I’m intrigued. Time to dive in and explore.
There’s a soft opening to the festival programme: a work-in-progress sharing of Zhana Pencheva’s Garden/Garden, a trio which unites three physically different performers on stage through the use of a singular, sinuous ripple through the hip joints. This movement propels each dancer around the stage slowly, from kneeling to standing, separately and together, to hypnotic effect. Live digital accompaniment from Nena musician Tsvetan Momchilov, just visible stage right, adds an earthy, rhythmic layer and supports an achingly unhurried build-up of energy which eventually reaches a throbbing, orgiastic climax, all three performers drenched in sweat with their limbs thrashing. Achieving such intensity while remaining true to the spare movement principle is laudable, even if the work might benefit from a judicious edit. After the performance, there’s an opportunity to offer feedback informally, to which the audience warmly responds, and I sincerely hope this leads to further opportunities to develop elements of the works’ staging and dramaturgy in order to achieve its potential.
Each evening, the festival offers a sub-programme of international dance films, selected through open call, and the city’s small but dedicated contemporary dance audience is treated to three full evenings of outdoor cinema featuring dance shorts of the highest quality – something I’ve never experienced in London. We’re stationed consistently next to the bar at the Rubik Art Centre Terrace where we enjoy a breeze, a beer, and a snapshot of contemporary concerns from around the globe seen (literally) through the lens of dance film. It’s a rich and varied programme and the glut makes it difficult to pick out themes or common concerns. For me, the highlights from this first evening include a modern take on feminism in Looking for Loie by an all-female/nonbinary team led by Tuulia Soininen (Finland), and NALA, a study of loss by veteran dance-maker Darshan Singh Bhuller, dedicated to Sita Kaur Bhuller (USA). These powerful films both feature exceptional solo female performances, but are created by makers at opposite ends of age, geography, gender and heritage spectrums; perhaps that’s what makes their juxtaposition so exciting.
The second evening of the festival programme begins with a live event that is one of my highlights of 2023, a work that leaves an indelible mark through its bold imagery and strong sense of mysticism. Violeta Vitanova’s Sorrow Island: The North End of Outer Hope, draws on a poem by Hungarian poet Kinga Tóth, projected at scale onto the wall of The Centre, where audiences are ushered behind the curtain of a darkened stage. We move uncertainly in this shadowy state to surround a table, on top of which a naked female figure is curled, her entire body petrified by salt, her faced covered by a white lace mask – as if preserved in some ancient ritual. As she unfurls in infinitesimal increments, her crystalline crust crumbles and pools on the table, occasionally nudge to the floor as she begins to stretch, shift and coil. Her bloodless emergence feels laborious, painful even; I can alsmot feel the text of salt on my skin, the sting of it in wounds. Writhing and crunching with greater fluidity, by never away from the table’s surface, she tips back her head and pours handfuls of salt down her front. A red light catches her figure as she rises to standing – then with a plunge into blackness, she disappears. The show is over, but it lives on in my memory for days to come.
Kin_proxy by Charlotte Triebus is billed as ‘digital performance with augmented reality’. It takes place at The Bookstore, a bar-cum-bookshop with outside seating that the audience can spill into; it’s a relaxed, enjoyable context for this tech-based experience. We download an app and watch the performance on our phones, their screens becoming populated by up to three dancing avatars. These brightly-coloured alien figures move quietly around and amidst us, reactive to their environment and proximity to others. It’s an interesting and extremely well-delivered concept; I enjoy watching the avatars become part of my evening, slotting themselves in among the people outside the cafe, lying on the pavement, congregating in the street. Inside, a friend is watching her dancers perform on top of the bar. The sociable setting means that although our experiences are different, there’s space to discuss and compare them together afterwards.
The second night’s film programme includes ‘Remnants’, a UK entry from director Tolu Oshodi which artfully captures the push and pull of two intertwined dancers in such extreme closeup that the boundaries of gender and power are blurred into delicious ambiguity. Another highlight is Dina Yanni’s Joyride, glitch art created by the transfer of film from analogue to digital; a bumpy journey from the past. It morphs frames set in a car from an Elvis Presley film in lazily-paced slow motion, then adds a thudding, bassy drum/guitar soundtrack. The effect is mesmeric, a real (road) trip.
The third and final night of festival activity provides another opportunity to engage with new technologies and I’m struck by how easy and enjoyable it is for festival attendees to take in these experiences in the absence of crowds or queues, as is often the case in larger cities. This time VR headsets immerse us in Margherita Landi and Agnese Lanza’s Peaceful Places, a virtual world consisting primarily of expansive green space. Within it, other humans emerge, approaching and surrounding the viewer gently, interacting with each other. There’s a soft invitation to engage and, although it’s an unexpectedly sensitive offer, I find myself reticent to accept, feeling a little bewildered by the degree of ambiguity, perhaps also wary of the potential for intimacy. I wonder what I ‘should’ do rather than taking what I want or need from this virtual world. Certainly the work gently poses some interesting questions about what the virtual world can be or do for audiences, challenging the notion that digital technologies isolate us, but I find it difficult to let go of inhibitions in this unfamiliar territory.
Has the festival somehow brought me uncomfortably close?
To ready audiences for the final evening’s film selection, we’re treated to a screening of Like a Needle by Maxime Demartin and Beatrix Joyce. We follow performer Joyce throughout; at first from an aerial that feels uncomfortably like surveillance, then a sudden zoom in to suffocating closeness, cheek by jowl with Joyce beneath a covering of some sort, the sound of her voice issuing a running live commentary.
I wonder whether I’ve found a ‘theme’ after all: has the festival somehow brought me uncomfortably close? Does dance – as film, VR or live experience – have the capacity to impose intimacy on its audience, breaching our safe distance and forcing us to examine our relationships to it, to each other? Am I recoiling or leaning in to this closeness, and are my responses shaped by the post-Covid world, my Britishness, or the subject of the choreography? Perhaps the proliferation of dance film in this festival brings these questions into particularly sharp focus: certainly, its capacity to literally and figuratively ‘zoom in’ has allowed them to surface. The festival, with its slow pace, careful curation and informal conversations, provides fertile ground for the exploration of intimacy – a thread running through much of what I’ve seen here.
I bring these questions to the final selection of films and enjoy the depth they bring – particularly in Kane Husbands and Celia Willis’ BOYS, which challenges the complex stigmas around male intimacy in Black communities. Here, it’s easy to see how closeness is inherently shaped by lived experiences of marginalisation, societal pressure, gender. Further to this, Walks with Me, directed by Finnish Kati Kallio and created with an intergenerational cast of participatory dancers, touches me deeply with its authentic depictions of intimacy spanning a lifetime, unearthing ideas about the value of enduring relationships; who we’re really ‘close’ to, what that means over time, and what happens when it’s lost.
For me, Moving Bodies Festival proved to be a rare and generous space for the consideration of art and its gentle provocations, one that lets slow realisations and cumulative reflections emerge. There is much scope for development and greater investment, of course; but for now I’ll cherish the intimacy this edition has provided. ●