BITEF Teater, Belgrade, premiere 15th October 2022
Miloš Isailović’s dance performance uses movement and the poetic power of the human body to give life to the lines of George Orwell’s allegorical novel, Animal Farm
Published in 1945, Orwell’s novel demonstrates the ease with which society can slip into terror and totalitarianism. Instead of more straightforward dramatic adaptation, Miloš Isailović and dramaturg Bojan Đorđev use movement to explore Orwell’s themes. The performers on stage become pigs and sheep – those who rise up from the mud to impose terror on others, and those who live in obedience and fear. This distinction is clearly visible in the way they navigate the stage – the sheep move on all fours, while the those playing the pigs can be heard quietly grunting – and the small details of their performance, such as the slight swaying of the characters’ heads. –
The piece opens with a dynamic dance sequence characterized by uniformity and togetherness – all the actors stand together on the stage forming perfect columns. The costumes worn by the actors, designed by Selena Orb, are also identical: white linen give the impression of a typical farm atmosphere. The choreography is completely synchronized, giving the impression that only one person is dancing and not seven members of the BITEF dance company. Irena Popović Dragović and Nikola Dragović’s music is also very dynamic; in the beginning it’s very dramatic, aggressive, almost pagan in nature, then it takes on a more mystical overtone, and in the end, it sounds epic and sublime.
Andreja Rondović’s scenography is characterized by its simplicity. In the beginning, the audience can see a bunch of wooden slats scattered around the stage, a wooden trough and two buckets. This will transform throughout the performance and finally take its final form is one of the best segments of the piece.
The piece is shaped by movement. A group dance takes place three times on stage and it is extremely dynamic. It seems as if the actors are running in place, as if they have the desire to escape the stage, but they always invariably return to its centre. Dance segments featuring two actors are more frequent and resemble a pantomime inside which the actors are trying to verbalize their actions on stage, but they always end up silencing themselves by putting their hands over their mouths. Although there were many such details, at times, I failed to fully absorb the suggestiveness of the dancing on stage. I could not always understand the actors’ body language, and I would define this as the main weakness of the performance.
In the beginning, these dance segments have undertones of warmth – an optimistic desire for intimacy and closeness. As the end of the piece approaches, they become more and more brutal, until finally they evolve into the terror of the proud over the weak. The traces that this conflict leaves on stage, in this case, water, are erased by one of the bystanders in the scene. Tyranny is presented as insurmountable – in such a system, the victims can only assist the tyrants by clearing up after them and paving the way for more victims.
The auditory elements of the performance are very carefully put together – although nothing changes visually, it is clear when day has replaced night because the sparrows are replaced by hooting owls, which greatly enhances the ambience and creates a holistic experience for the audience.
The performance has a visual continuity, but also there is continuity in terms of the development of the roles that the characters hold within Orwell’s allegory. The slats that are scattered everywhere in the beginning are slowly used to build a tall structure that closes in more and more as the play progresses and will eventually come to resemble a cage for all the sheep.
The scene that left the biggest impression on me was one in which all the actresses are standing with their heads bowed over the trough while one of the male actors (who is later revealed to be the leader of the pigs) holds a bucket of water over their heads. They are waiting for water, as a symbol of life, to be given to each of them individually. However, they can’t find the courage to drink it when they receive the chance to do so – instead they resort to drinking and washing themselves with the dirty water from the trough, the one that is intended for everyone. One of the actresses stands out – she stays over the trough and waits for the fresh water, but even then, when she comes forward as a brave individual, she is let down – the male actor pours water next to her head instead of in her mouth. This scene illustrates the duality of the totalitarian regime in a nutshell – those who are not brave and do not possess individuality are sheep, but those who think they will profit from behaving differently are also still sheep in the end.
Though almost completely devoid of dialogue, there is one scene in which a few words are spoken by the actor who represents the leading pig – in that short scene the symbolic, satirical process of marking the sheep with the slats that are normally used for building the tall structure is used to determine their belonging to the farm managed by the pigs. The words uttered by the pig-actor have no meaning by themselves, but the way they are spoken and the context in which they are spoken, indicates his dominance and his sarcastic attitude towards the sheep who lose their individuality, who become nothing more than numbers.
Towards the end of the performance, the tall structure made of slats is completed by those who are imprisoned inside it. In this way, the way in which dictatorial regimes are constructed is eloquently illustrated – they are built precisely by a lack of courage and critical thinking within a society, whose inhabitants eventually become prisoners of their own (in)action. The sheep try to destroy the structure with their bodies and leave the space, but they fail because it is too strong. The atmosphere of the performance reflects their powerlessness as the tyrant pig observes them from outside of the walls of the structure. The ending is a question mark, it remains unresolved and in that sense it is like the question is being asked of the audience: What position do you occupy in the society in which you live?
Concept and choreography: Miloš Isailović//Music: Irena Popović Dragović; Assistant: Nikola Dragović//Dramaturg: Bojan Đorđev//Scenography: Andreja Rondović //Costume: Selena Orb//Sound design: Aleksandar Jaćić//Lighting design: Dragan Đurković
Ana Ignjatović-Zagorac, Ivana Savić Jaćić, Branko Mitrović, Jakša Filipovac, Staša Ivanović, Nea Janković, Maša Anić
For tickets and further information, visit: Teater.bitef.rs
Mirela is a student of comparative literature at the University of Belgrade. Since 2020, she has been writing literary criticism for the Bookvica.net. She is a lover of books, theatre and rainy fall days.