There was an air of excitement for the premiere of Hang in There – the sold-out night also marked the choreographic debut of interdisciplinary artist Tsveta Doycheva. Her first project explores a complex topic – the long-lasting trauma of gender-based physical violence. According to the program, it aims to “verbalise” the daily routine of trauma and to analyse, distill and conquer it. The topic was promising but the severity of the work proved a challenge to the performers, eager to convey to us the same intense emotional experience they undoubtedly grappled with during the creative process.
While the lights slowly drew us in to the tableau onstage, the piece opened to the sounds of a melancholic guitar fragment arranged to form a slow pulsating beat. The four female dancers Adelina Zhelyazkova, Isabel Mitkova, Tsveta Doycheva (the choreographer) and Yanitsa Atanasova slowly took turns coming downstage, confronting the audience and showing off for them at the same time. Clad in matching sheer white pants and nude tops, they evoked a procession of vulnerable bird-like creatures. In the space between hunched shoulders and a slow foot rising to relevé, their bodies contracted with delicacy. The beauty of this languid section was punctuated by limbs unexpectedly turning in to form haunting, almost menacing shapes.
After an excellent beginning, the work unfolded into hit-and-miss sections underlined by distinct beats and soft pastel lighting in different hues. There was a purple tableau of turmoil that showed a quiet struggle between two dancers intertwined like pretzels. After a sparse floor section, one dancer swiftly wrapped her legs around the shoulders of the other like a backpack, the limbs wrestling each other but the scene goes nowhere. Structurally speaking, it seemed Doycheva wanted us to sit and just contemplate this experience.
At its best, the piece evoked for me Bronx-based Jasmine Hearn slow-burning evening-length work shook (seen at Danspace in New York) with its witchy and deliberate meditation on the body and its ability to access repressed memory. But in Hang in There, without sufficient choreographic structure, sometimes the dancers rather got lost in the carefully crafted moods of the overall production. For a piece with four dancers, it felt like the potential for interaction and shared experience was not fully realised.
The standout moment was a solo by Adelina Zhezlyazkova that is, like many good things, difficult to narrow down into a style. Robot-like, she moved through a simple back-and-forth arm movement while stopping, reversing and punctuating her flow to an unsteady beat. In that single simple gesture, she evoked a person striving for regularity with the memory of the body disrupting and distorting her every attempt. The excellent costumes by Doycheva and Theodora Vukodinova were embellished with flowers pressed upon the dancers’ skin, referencing quiet, feminine, strength but also doubling as bruise marks.
Overall the movement was successful, if the work was held back by the lack of structural and choreographic conflict to really channel the strengths of such arresting performers into a strong, socially engaged, work. When working with sensitive topics, the danger of overt abstraction or representation can always be there, and this work veered on the side of the undecipherable at times. But perhaps this is too much of a lofty goal in a first work and something to strive for in future works. Tsveta Doycheva’s debut was a solid one and she seems an important new choreographic voice on the slowly evolving Bulgarian contemporary dance scene – the softness and vulnerability of her work is something to look forward to.
Hang in There is part of Stage Derida’s 2020 season and will be performed again February 13th and also later in the season. Part of the proceeds will go towards helping women and children victims of domestic violence.