Dancing across barriers in the Balkans

Miracle in the Balkans: The political power of dance

Fargnoli (front) leads dancers in Mostar: The ultimate challenge in a divided city.
Fargnoli (front) leads dancers in Mostar: The ultimate challenge in a divided city.

Suppose you took 30 people from three different cities and created one modern dance work? What would happen?

What if those 30 people were youths from cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia?

Suppose most of those young people had never visited these other cities since the war between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in the mid-1990s.

Finally, imagine such a collaborative dance work presented in Sarajevo, Mostar and Belgrade.

This is what Ashley Fargnoli, a 27-year-old American dancer originally from Philadelphia, accomplished this year when her work, Three Notes, was presented at The Performing Arts Academy in Sarajevo, The National Theater in Mostar and the REX Cultural Center in Belgrade.

Three suffering cities

The decision to select dance participants from these three cities was designed to serve a social goal as well as an artistic goal.

Sarajevo, of course, is the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina and suffered the longest siege in European history during the country's war. Today, the city is mostly rebuilt and is ethnically mixed.

Mostar is known as a "divided city" in the south of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since the war ended in 1995, Mostar's vast majority of Bosniaks live on the city's east side while the Croats live on the west side. The famous "Old Bridge" figuratively connects the two groups.

In Serbia, Belgrade is home to a mostly Serbian population and is a cosmopolitan center in the Balkans.

Logistical challenges

As an American artistic director of another dance company working in the Balkans, I had the opportunity to follow Fargnoli's project during its final week of rehearsals and performances. I was immediately struck by the project's ambitious size, as well as by this young dancer's ability to gracefully balance the cultural sensitivity, logistical challenges, and artistic goals of her piece.

Three Notes is a 30-minute, multi-media dance work that was created through a series of video exchanges over the course of two months between dancers and youths working in Sarajevo, Mostar and Belgrade. Fargnoli encouraged her participants to express themselves and improvise before she set parts of the choreography.

The final work consists of three movements. The most powerful section is a series of small groups enacting their impressions of three words: action, equality, and communication. Each group is comprised of dancers from one of the three cities. In the third and final section, all the dancers join together in two concentric circles, representing the harmonization of their experiences.

Three days to rehearse

Shockingly, the 30 participants had only three days to rehearse together. For more than half of the young dancers, this was the first time they had ever visited Sarajevo. At first, some of them were afraid to come because of the war stories they had heard or myths about the city's security today.

But after only 24 hours together, the dancers were creating bonds among themselves and appointing people as tour guides and local hosts for sleepovers. The same process occurred when the group traveled to Mostar and later Belgrade.

Fargnoli brought this unique project to fruition through the support of individuals throughout America and Europe, via an on-line fund-raising campaign.

Popcorn in the rain

As an observer, one of my strongest memories is watching one of the Belgrade dancers bid a tearful goodbye to one of the Mostar dancers while eating popcorn in the rain at the Serbian bus station. Witnessing these dancers share an experience on stage that bonded them in their social lives was one of the most powerful moments I've seen in the dance world.

I often ponder how something like a plié or pirouette can truly build friendships and connect people beyond geographic, cultural and historical boundaries. Dance can be about double tours and grand jêtés"“ but it can also be about learning how to get along with one another.

We shouldn't neglect the power of this medium in our diplomatic tool kit.♦

To read a related comment by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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