Despite Serbia’s own environmental issues, work that explores ecological themes and the climate crisis is still relatively rare on Serbian stages. Borisav Matić looks at the work of the theatre-makers trying to change that.
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus Longaeva) is the oldest tree in existence known to humankind. It can reach an age of over 5000 years and it is one of the most resilient plants on Earth, resistant to insects, fungi, rot and erosion. The harsh conditions of its environment – the cold and windy mountains of the American West – are the reason for the Pine’s slow growth, but also the dense and strong wood.
But different magnificent trees are present all over the world. The oldest known tree in the Balkans is an oak in the village Divljana, near Bela Palanka in Serbia, and it is said that it was planted in 1023 AD. It has an enormous diameter of three meters. Some of these trees can also be found in cities, although rarely because the average age of a tree in urban areas before it is cut down is only 50 years, as pointed out in DAH Teatre’s dance performance Dancing Trees.
In March 2019, the City of Belgrade cut down dozens of trees in Ušće park and, on the other bank of the river Sava, in the park of the Kalemegdan Fortress which is the candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ultimate aim was to cut down 155 trees and build a cable car connecting the two parks. UNESCO was quick to underline that the fulfilment of the project would mean that Kalemegdan would lose its candidacy and revolted citizens organized a mass petition and guarded the areas against further lumbering.
Although the cable car project hasn’t advanced further from that point, it’s part of a wider practice of stripping cities of green spaces, so that investors and local governments can implement their gentrifying projects. Summers in Serbian cities are blazing hot, streets that once bustled with green life during Yugoslavia are now mostly left with concrete, and the air is becoming increasingly toxic.
Only recently has the theatre scene started to reflect on this problem, but still shyly. The most notable example is the dance performance Dancing Trees by DAH Theatre in collaboration with the Belgrade Dance Institute. The performance, directed by Jadranka Anđelić and Dijana Milošević, is site-specific and was performed in Students Park in the center of Belgrade. Its main aim is to fuel the resistance to excessive tree felling and raise awareness of the importance of trees not only in providing oxygen, but also in fighting climate change and enhancing people’s physical and spiritual health.
Although it was so far performed only twice at the end of October 2021, it was also filmed by Strahinja Madžarević, so the visitors of DAH Theatre’s recent ‘Arts and Human Rights’ Festival had a chance to watch the premiere. An insert from the film was also presented at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. Shifting their focus to ecological issues – evident as well by round tables and webinars on the intersection of arts and ecology – DAH Theatre continues to deal with the most burning questions of the current historical moment. In the 1990s when the theatre was founded, they focused a big part of their work on the anti-war resistance to the Milošević regime, but it’s obvious that climate change and other environmental issues are the priorities of today.
Our Dystopian Reality
The idea that art can help us fight ecocide and preserve our humanity in times of climate crisis is also rooted in the work of another dance and theatre artist, Sanja Krsmanović Tasić. Her performance 2100: A Tale of Aska at Youth Theatre PATOS in Smederevo is set in a dystopian reality in 2100 when clear air is a distant memory, productivity is the ultimate value in society and art is banned. But a group of young people creates an underground community where they share and perform stories such as Aska and the Wolf, a story of resistance through art by the Yugoslav Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić.
As Darko Suvin, one of the most important scholars of SF and utopian/dystopian narratives says, the genre of dystopia has a function of projecting where the current negative social and political practices are leading and exposing them in their darkest forms. 2100: A Tale of Aska has done exactly that, showing us where the current practices of ecocide and industrial air pollution are leading, though this is evidently not the only theme the performance focuses on. It is also true that our reality has in recent years inched closer to fictional dystopias. To avoid the overlap, creators of dystopias are making them darker, but the reality nonetheless follows.
During the last several years, Serbia has often been assigned the label of the most polluted country in Europe. According to OBC Transeuropa’s research, the Serbian political elite is unwilling to spend funds received from international agencies on environmental protection. The quality of air in big cities is regularly hazardous and Belgrade is periodically every winter the worst city on the globe regarding air quality, overtaking even capitals like Beijing and New Delhi. When the cold air and fog come down, the toxic air can literally be seen while every breath becomes harder. The Kostolac B thermal power plant, for example, emits 14 times more toxic substances than legally allowed. Another comparison – the same power plant emits more sulphur dioxide per year than all thermal power plants in Germany combined.
One could ask how the issue of the environment was not central to the discussion in Serbia for so many years. The reasons are complex, but they have to do with the society where climate change and environmental problems are not denied, but ignored; citizens at least sometimes see the negative effects on their lives, but they’re told that a country so small and on the periphery of capitalism cannot achieve any meaningful change in its immediate surrounding, let alone try to change the course on global warming. And as president Aleksandar Vučić would cynically say, the air pollution is worse because of economic prosperity and higher standard of living.
A Glimmer of Resistance
But resistance to the state-supported ecocide has been rising for years and it finally culminated in 2021 and 2022 in perhaps the most massive protests the country has seen in the last 20 years. The protests demanded action on wider ecological problem, but they were specifically focused on the lithium mining project of the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto that would devastate soil, water and air in western Serbia, and on the proposed expropriation law that would give the government power to seize private land and give it to investors. After intense blockades of roads in almost every bigger city in the country, the government conceded, withdrew the law and at least for now halted the Rio Tinto project. Public discussions on ecological issues continue and they have found their way into the April 2022 general and presidential elections campaign, even though the government has a grip on media and the legitimacy of the last several elections has been widely disputed.
The question arises of what the role of mainstream institutional theatres is in all this? Hardly any shows with ecological themes have been staged, but the 2021 edition of BITEF, one of the most significant international theatre festivals in South East Europe, dedicated a large part of its program to eco-theatre. In practice, this means that since Serbian theatre is mostly ignoring eco-concerns, a festival must “import” international performances in order to engage in this field.
Thematically most directly connected to the subjects of the protests was the performance from the main program Climactic Dances by the Chilean-Mexican choreographer Amanda Piña. The performance starts with the author’s fierce monologue on how the mining company Anglo-American is exploiting the lands on the Andes in Chile, where her grandmother lives. The result is the sacrifice of nature and the dehumanization of miners’ lives. But Piña doesn’t stop at this particular case, she explicitly condemns many other multinational mining companies, one of them being Rio Tinto. The rest of the show is a combination of video installation and a minimalist abstract dance of multiple performers that can be metaphorically linked to the slow, monumental evolution of the mountains.
The festival showcased several more prominent examples of eco-theatre, including the dance performance Traces by a world-renowned choreographer Wim Vandekeybus. But perhaps the most thought-provoking piece was Philippe Quesne’s Farm Fatale, an absurdist, grotesque and paradoxically both estranging and empathetic performance about a group of scarecrows that lost their jobs due to multinational corporations and now are running an alternative farm where they endorse green politics, hippy-style. The show makes an ironic critique of naive and passive-disguised-as-pacifist green movements, even though we learn to identify with scarecrows because they are essentially human. But no matter how poignant this critique is to most global green movements, only several months later Serbian protests against Rio Tinto and the expropriation law proved that ecological actions can be radical, effective, and peaceful.
In Harmony with Nature
It is no secret that institutional theatres are inert when it comes to important social questions and new artistic approaches. For example, the first performance in Belgrade after the start of the refugee crisis in 2015 to deal with this subject was only in 2018 – Stvaranje čoveka (The Creation of Man) at Atelje 212. Similarly, BITEF has been showcasing avant-garde and innovative works for decades, only for those approaches to be implemented in domestic theatres gradually, slowly and with a delay. One can hope that the recent ecological uprising and the last year’s BITEF selection will leave a mark on the programs of institutional theatres, but until then parts of the independent scene will be places where the education on ecology will continue to play out.
Two eco-theatre festivals for children and young adults are the best examples of these artistic-educational practices. One is the “Mater Terra” festival in Belgrade, organized every November by CEDEUM (Center for Drama in Education and Art) and partner organizations, and the other one is the Festival of Ecological Theatre for Children and Youth – FEP, held every August in Bačka Palanka, near Novi Sad.
The two festivals share the same aims of encouraging ecological practices, but they are also good examples of different approaches to eco-theatre. While the “Mater Terra” festival presents shows performed by children and young adults and created at school drama sections or youth theatres, FEP is a festival of professional theatres aimed at young audiences. “Mater Terra” is a non-competitive festival that emphasizes discussions and exchanges of thoughts regarding the presented shows, while FEP has two juries, one professional and the other composed of children 4-14 years old.
“Mater Terra” is not only a festival of ecology, but also of the “ecology of the soul”, meaning that it promotes healthy relationships between children, youth and their surroundings. Because of this conception, the 2021 edition of “Mater Terra” showed that young people and their mentors are perhaps more interested in these themes of healthy human relations since none of the shows from the program (although there was a smaller number of shows due to Covid) dealt explicitly with the issue of the environment. On the other hand, FEP is conceptualized so that all shows in the program must deal with themes of ecology.
Regardless of the differences, both festivals show a humane and responsible approach to the environment. During the post-show discussions on “Mater Terra”, Sanja Krsmanović Tasić who is also the artistic director of the festival, asks everyone present to sit in a circle so they can be equal. She also places a plant in the center, so it can absorb the human energy, but also to remind everyone of the importance of these beautiful green beings that make our lives possible. FEP is, on the other hand, a very peculiar festival since it’s held in Bačka Palanka that doesn’t have only a theatre house, but also no cinema or museum. But the town does have nature reserves, parks, the River Danube, lakes and other natural wonders and it organizes all its activities in these natural, healthy environments.
A Call for Radical Change
While institutional theatres, as representatives of the dominant part of our society, are still stuck with the delusion that the human culture is above nature and that environmental concerns have no place in art, parts of the independent cultural scene have not only started to explore eco-problems, but created practices that benefit both nature and humans. But the clock is ticking and the approaching avalanche of climate disasters won’t wait for us slowly make up our minds that the well-being of Earth is more important than our economic profit. A much wider theatre scene must look up to the massive protests that elicited some positive change in Serbia, but the eco-movements must also engage in even more radical actions. Climate justice won’t be given to us by our elites, only we can fight for it while the window is still (barely) open.
Main image: Dah Teatar Dancing Trees Photo: Djordje Tomic
Borisav Matić is a critic and dramaturg from Serbia. He is the Regional Managing Editor at The Theatre Times. He regularly writes about theatre for a range of publications and media.
He’s a member of the feminist collective Rebel Readers with whom he co-edits Bookvica, their platform for literary criticism, and produces literary shows and podcasts. He occasionally works as a dramaturg or a scriptwriter for theatre, TV, radio and other media. He's the administrator of IDEA - the International Drama/Theatre and Education Association.