Letting It All Go

A Bulgarian dance-theater group excavates the inner depths

“During the regime.” “After the regime.” I heard these expressions a lot during a 2004 gathering of critics from Eastern European countries that had been part of the Soviet Union. Since Russia touted ballet as art for the masses, a contemporary dance tradition often began only after liberation, or resumed after a long hiatus, although in some countries experimental theater never entirely vanished. Our sessions took place in Budapest during a small festival of new dance works, and I was struck by how many of the participating choreographers were testing how extreme emotions altered the body and how the body in all its states—ill, damaged, aroused, enraged, insensate— became a gestural tool for probing dark feelings and urges.

Delta, a 2006 work by Satores (Bulgarian director Petar Todorov and Slovenian choreographer Gregr Kamnikar) and their Arepo Group, shows us three women at a liminal place in their lives where the sense of impending death is strong, and the river of life confronts the engulfing sea. There’s no sophisticated badinage, as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Satores’s work, under an hour in length, is billed as physical theater, and in three long solos, the women encounter their primal selves. The only words they speak all evening are yelled into a cell phone borrowed from an audience member when the piece begins. Hobbling, crawling, staggering, snarling, moaning, and screaming, they seem to be trying to vomit up the emotional residue of their lives. Satores does its creative work at the Pro Rodopi Arts Centre, established by Todorov and his wife, Desislava Petkova Mincheva-Todorova, in Bostina, Bulgaria; recorded folk music, played at top volume, cuts in and out of the performers’ ordeals.

One by one, the three run howling into the four-sided arena; the last to arrive, and the eldest (the well-known Bulgarian actress Toni Pashova), lugs a suitcase, from which she produces three little wooden stools. Mincheva-Todorova is the first to erupt into action. Wearing drab shorts and shirt, her hair in a braid, she twists, grunting and gasping, into extreme positions, strains to hold them, then explodes and hits another (she’s the only one of the three with obvious dance training); in the second part of her solo, she’s slower and more controlled, looking out at us and beyond us, bending backward as if the sky’s pressing down on her.

Pashova, dressed in a white shirt and dark man’s suit, one foot shod only in a red sock, plunges into one enigmatic, terrifying state after another. A small, plump woman in her early 60s, she can mesmerize an audience simply by standing on one leg and sliding her eyes around. But she also dredges up orgasmic noises from some deep inner well; she sobs, attacks her stool as if to gnaw on it, marches around the space, and stomps around like a bent old woman, expelling a stream of gibberish. The other two watch.

The actresses treat these tantrums as finite; once finished, they retreat to their stools. Although they may sit close to one another or respond minimally to what they see, each remains solitary. Lyudmila Tsoneva Miteva is the most dressed-up of the three. Her long gloves match her beige satin evening gown; her high heels sparkle; she has a filmy red stole. But her blond hair is unkempt, and one breast keeps falling out of her low-cut bodice. She begins her solo breathing heavily; those gasps morph into sounds that evoke a cow lowing in distress. With her stool inverted on her head, stumbling around, she looks not unlike a horned beast. She drags herself under one spectator’s folding chair and bangs on its seat. He grabs her hands, smiling embarrassedly, and she gives him a grateful little kiss as she bolts away to crawl, growl, and lash the floor with her hair.

The vocal noises are extraordinary, gut-wrenching. You wonder how the women will be able to speak afterward, but they end Delta silently and movingly. Shoulder to shoulder, hands linked, with Miteva’s stole covering their faces, they perform a very gentle, minimal version of a Slavic folk dance: step, cross, step, together, lift a foot, step again. . . . They keep going, in synchrony, while raucous voices sing in English to a driving rock beat; I can pick out lines like “I stand before my maker” and “crucified like my savior.” The lights dim very, very slowly. I’m still trying to understand my responses to Delta. Something seems missing in the structure: three outbursts and then, with no transition, a quiet acceptance of death. I wanted to know more about these women. The performances are astonishing, riveting, but the constant over-the-top behavior and unremitting desperation induced in me more horror than sympathy. Most of the time I felt removed from the three, as if I were watching some strange, unfathomable, unknown species instead of sisters under the skin.

 
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