Derida Dance Company
Sofia, Derida Dance Center
27 May 2019
In a retrospective May-June season that launched Derida Dance Center’s brand new Stage Derida in Sofia, Bulgaria (a former TV studio refashioned into a black box), the company presented artistic director Jivko Jeliazkov’s past choreography alongside works by emerging Bulgarian choreographers and other frequent collaborators.
Jeliazkov’s dance theatre work caries a signature kind of dark splendor. His pieces consistently impress with sharp attack and sinuous contortions, both stunning and effective as framing devices for social commentary and psychological exploration.
Zen Play is an evening-length piece that first premiered in 2015 but was revived for the season with the company’s current lead dancers Gergana Ilieva and Vasil Zelyamov alongside original cast member Marion Darova.
The piece opens with a deranged nurse figure (Ilieva) hovering over two prostrated patients in white translucent hospital garbs (Darova and Zelyamov). She makes her way around the space with jerky isolations of the body, a pair of white heels shuffling along. She clenches her bare hand into a claw and suddenly draws the hand towards the exam table. The other two dancers launch from the floor, impressively landing right on the exam table before rolling off and waiting for her next command.
To a new audience, the rigor of the choreography might seem overwhelming at first. To give the audience time to make sense of it, Jeliazkov takes the time to develop themes and sections, sometimes allowing a fragment to linger before introducing a new surprise. He uses estrangement from natural human motion to great effect to create tension, drama or fear, and surprisingly, here the grotesque takes on a funny, camp sensibility.
A sense of logic in the movements starts to emerge. Jeliazkov’s movement phrases are built as a precise score of isolations and micro-movements of the face. Ilieva takes the nurse’s automaton demeanor and runs with it, evoking a sense of dread for anyone witnessing this excruciating game of cat and mouse across the stage.
As she marches on ahead tending to her patients, their bodies begin deteriorating and malfunctioning, and the absurdity of the piece heightens. She takes a break from the two patients to pick her nose. The three characters move center stage in a contest of grotesque face choreography, sticking out tongues and bulging eyes. Composer Ivan Shopov’s quietly creepy score adds a comedic edge to the violence on stage.
At one point the pace slows down to a crawl while Ilieva continues to mock the bodies of the other two, sprawled out on the floor. Dissatisfied, she puts on a pair of soldier-like gloves and seats the two bodies at a table, manipulating them into a caricature of a stereotypical heteronormative couple. This harkens back to Bulgaria’s recent tension between embracing progressive European gender politics and reconciling its ex-Soviet values, the nurse regurgitating what she knows best.
Through the estrangement of the movement from the way human bodies ordinarily move, the piece hints at outside forces manipulating our internal impulses. And by witnessing it, Jeliazkov sets up the audience to ask an important question: how are we all complicit in perpetuating a society that mistakes tradition and authority for virtue? And how do we break out of it?