Flash Review, 9-30: 'Echoes from Home'
Iordanova preserves the mystery
By Nicholas Birns
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Birns
NEW YORK -- Elissaveta Iordanova's "Echoes from Home," performed by her Elea Gorana Dance Collective August 14 at the Fourth St, Theatre as part of the 15th International Fringe Festival, started with an arresting choreographic situation: Two dancers, Susan Thomason and Dawn DiPasquale, standing, at equidistant points on the stage, taut, expectant, poised to spring into an action that was not immediately manifest. This set the tone for the entire performance, comprised of two pieces, which, even though they had strong, eminently comprehensible, and at times eloquent narrative strands, also retained a sense of mystery -- indeed, something more difficult: a sense of both mystery and delicacy. It is hard to maintain nuance and spirituality at the same time -- I recalled a couple of other performances in this same theater that failed this test -- but "Echoes form Home" succeeded splendidly.
Contributing to the work's success were the costumes, designed by Margarita Gavrilova, Mariana Raykova, and Kirrisi Veleva, that combined elemental colors of white and red and suggested peasant dress, while also possessing overtones of spiritual or ritualistic vestments. This is no accident, as the first part of the piece, "There and Then" was intended, according to the choreographer, to suggest Bulgarian peasant life of two or three generations ago, and to evoke its attunement to primal spiritual rhythms. But Iordanova's aesthetic is not just that of local color or folk-lore, although she does use rural traditions and practices to elicit certain spiritual resonances in dance. The work evidences syncretic and international influences -- more obvious in its second half, "Here and Now" -- and a certain restraint both in the movement and the music. The dancers do not gyrate ecstatically over the stage in the manner of "Le Sacre du Printemps," and there is no violence and little chaos or irrationality. Instead of rousing, lyrical folk songs, most of the music, especially in the first part, depicting rural traditions, is percussive rather than melodic. Stoyan Yakulov's drumming is at times just a background trickle, at times more assertive and declarative, but throughout it provides ripples of sound that keep one alert rather than lulled. When more melodic music arrives, it is haunting and slightly otherworldly, pierced by the kaval (a variety of flute) of Theodosii Spasov, which expresses a sense of beauty as well as a sort of tender challenge, half in elegy of a time now gone or remote, half in a kind of summons to the purity and mystery of such a life.
As Iordanova states in her program notes, though one might assume Bulgaria is simply a "Slavic country," the Bulgars themselves, who gave the land their name when they conquered the territory in the late seventh century, were from Central Asia, and they intermarried with the Slavs and Thracians already there, the latter group resembling the ancient Greeks. Thus Bulgarian culture along with its Slavic and Christian layers has both an Asian and, as it were, Dionysic side, both of which one can diagnose in the music and general tone of Elea Gorana's performance. "There and then" specifically evokes the customs of a mountain village ("Gorana" suggests "mountain" or "forest" in Slavic languages, as well as being the name of Iordanova's grandmother, while "Elea" was the name of Iordanova's original company in Bulgaria), and the traditions of the women of that community (the dancers in the first part are all female). As traditions are passed on from grandmother to granddaughter, as a wedding renews and reaffirms the ritual ties of the community, as people live in harmony with the cycle of fertility and of the seasons, the audience is left to infer a narrative just behind the action, Iordanova's evident intent as a choreographer being not to be overtly mimetic but to use dance to indicate, rather than directly depict, such moments and ways of life. Indeed, much of the connotation comes by way of the ceremonial poise and reserved pride that the dancers present: we know these are moments important to the and their community and that are to be taken seriously and with gravity. The red sashes that intersperse the women's white gowns and are tossed around joyously as part of the wedding are vivid symbols with multiple significations: life, blood, love, birth, death, desire. These primal qualities cause the eye to gravitate to the dancers; every action, and the pulse of movement becomes tantamount to a fully realized tableau. The use of tarn reminds us of women's daily work, yet the red thread interpolates a resolutely solemn and mystical aspect.
The second half of "Echoes from Home," "Here and Now," also tells a story, but the very different one of a contemporary Bulgarian woman -- presumably Iordanova herself -- and her immigration to the global metropolitan center. We are taken out of nature into history, out of timeless ritual into recorded, political time. Iordanova tells her own story in dance. It begins in 1968, as indicated by a voiceover, in parched circumstances in Communist-era Bulgaria, amid family desperation and turmoil. It proceeds to Iordanova's emigration from Bulgaria in the late 1990s and her arrival in the New York arts world in the 2000s. A voiceover even provides a all-too-true aphorism uttered about the narrow reach between disabling silence and foolish self-promotion in the New York arts world. But this is no mere musing on a successful iteration of what V. S. Naipaul called "the enigma of arrival." Iordanova suggests a sense of bewilderment and expropriation, a sense of loss as well as gain. The gain is evident in the performance itself. Though the musicians and costume designers are Bulgarian, most of the dancers are not, and indeed include such non-Bulgarian presences as Edwin Bratwhite and Mee Jung, both of whom energize "Here and Now." The contemporary world offers an opportunity for art to traverse boundaries and for idioms like Bulgarian folk dance to be intertwined with balletic and modern dance gestural languages. Ingeniously, Iordanova uses the loosely balletic choreography of the second half both to suggest a greater freedom and a certain loss of meaning and solidity. Dance can depict migration better than any other form because there actually is migration on stage, even if only from one side of the performance space to the other, but we see the joys and risks of actual movement, understand movement as something that requires effect from and gives inflection to the body. One of the cliches from the 1990s that has somehow survived all the recent global crises is that migration is an unequivocal good, an acclaimed substrate of global cosmopolitanism and hybridity. Iordanova's depicted journey from mountain to metropolis, from folk drumming to the jazz-influenced semi-ecstasy of the latter part of the score, is frank in presenting both positive and negative aspects of her odyssey. Elea Gorana's dance projects a generous, open availability, yet also firmly maintains an air of adamant mystery. This is a mystery, Iordanova suggests, we might do well to preserve in today's world, even though we can never go back to the primal, rural past.
Nicholas Birns is a literary and cultural critic living in New York. His web site is www.commitmenthomepage.org.