A travel blog written between 27-30 September 2019 on research trip to Sarajevo supported by the University of Lincoln. Following up on theatre project I made five years ago called Bolero. More information here. Bolero was supported by the British Council and Arts Council England with co-production support from Nottingham Playhouse, Sarajevo War Theatre and Teatri Oda (Pristina). I am writing this in Sarajevo. It’s been five years since I last came to Sarajevo in June 2014, to show Bolero at Sarajevo War Theatre to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in this city. The show was inspired by Ravel’s Bolero and Torvill and Dean’s ice dance routine to the music at the 1984 Winter Olympics that took place here. It also explored how his music was inspired by his experience of war (he was lost in the woods outside Verdun for 10 days), something I have developed in the later works in The Ravel Trilogy, Concerto (2016) and Solo (2018). Bolero is a 15-minute piece that drives to an incessant rhythm like a train, it is a hopeful piece of music, a piece that speaks of survival, a piece that speaks of history. Now I am back, supported by the University of Lincoln, exploring the impact of Bolero and revisiting some of the places, the people and the stories which were involved in the show we made five years ago.
I have visited Sarajevo five times since 2012, always at different times of the year, in Winter, Spring, Summer and now Autumn. The colour palette changes but I am always struck by the compelling dynamic between its history and its present, its culture and its context. As I write this paragraph, I am sitting in the Old Town drinking a Bosnian Coffee in the shadow of the main mosque and have just visited an exhibition about Srebenica and the Siege of Sarajevo. The powerful and painful narratives that run through this city like the Miljacka river are reminders of how it felt to grow up in the UK in the 1990s and not knowing enough about the war that took place here. It took me one hour to fly here from Munich yesterday but during the Siege it must have felt a million miles away from the rest of Europe, a forgotten pocket of horrific conflict taking place before social media democratised, and problematised, communication. We touched upon these issues in Bolero as well as exploring themes of music and conflict, something I continue to explore in Concerto and Solo.I am writing this paragraph from the balcony outside the hotel where I am staying that used to be the Yugoslavian Airline building, and was the tallest building in the city originally. Surrounded by the mountains, I can only imagine how it must have felt to be up here during the Siege. I am looking down on the eternal flame at the end of Marshall Tito Street, the memorial to the resistance movement during the Second World War that is marked by bullet holes from the Bosnian War. One conflict over-writes another in a palimpsest of commemoration. Olympic logos are riddled with bullet holes too – now joined by McDonald’s logos (not there five years ago) – the capitalist over-writing the communist in a palimpsest of political ideology. I am now looking down the other end of Marshall Tito Street towards the Sarajevo War Theatre. Five years ago, I stood there for a photograph taken by Julian Hughes, when we thought we might use images of ourselves across Sarajevo in the show. Shortly after that, to mark the anniversary of the end of the Siege, a memorial took place to remember its victims and 11,541 red chairs were placed in rows down the road for 1km. At the end of the day, the Sarajevo Orchestra played a ‘concert for nobody’ to the empty chairs. Conceived by artist, Haris Pasovic, the event was called The Red Line, and we talked about it and showed video of it in our show because one of the devisers/performers, Jasenko Pasic, helped to put out the chairs.
I saw Jasenko yesterday and we went on a road trip to Tuzla where he was performing in another show. We spent 7 hours on the road and it’s the first time I’ve really been able to experience the Bosnian countryside outside of Sarajevo. We talked about Bolero and how it spoke to Nottingham audiences about their memories of Torvill and Dean and Sarajevan audiences about their memories of the Siege. At the same time, it aimed to share different cultural perspectives on both narrative threads. Bosnians played the British ice skaters. British performers told stories of surviving the Bosnian War. Today, while visiting the exhibition about Srebenica, I realised that we might have passed the site of several refugee camps, and the mass graves, on the way to Tuzla. The forest hides its secrets. Jasenko didn’t talk about it. But everywhere in this city you pass reminders of the conflict. Shell damaged walls. Bullet riddled facades. Pavements where the pockmarks have been filled with red wax to make them look like flower petals. They call them Sarajevo Roses. I wrote about all of this in Bolero. I also wrote about it for a chapter in a book called Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration, co-edited with my colleague Andrew Westerside. This chapter is called Making Bolero: Dramaturgies of Remembrance and it describes by experience of making the show and Sarajevo. Those memories are more vivid now. There is a Sarajevo Rose outside my hotel.
The first time I came here I met Jasenko shovelling snow from outside the Sarajevo War Theatre. I asked him if the theatre would be open for a performance of 1984 that night. He said he was one of the actors and ‘This is the Sarajevo War Theatre so we are used to worse than this’. The snow was cleared. The show did go on. And I invited Jasenko, Benjamin and Amila, who were in the show, to take part in making Bolero. We made the performance in Nottingham, Pristina and Sarajevo culminating in a premiere at Nottingham Playhouse in May 2014 and Sarajevo War Theatre the following month exactly 100 years to the day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Today I visited the City Hall, which wasn’t open five years ago. The City Hall, then the city’s library, was bombed on the first day of the Siege in an ‘act of memoricide’. Five million books were burned and their dust rained down on the city for the first days of the conflict. We tell this story in Bolero to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem. In 1994, during the Seige, the conductor Zubin Mehta was smuggled into the city to lead the Sarajevo Orchestra playing the Reqieum. We describe it as a requiem for 5 million books, a requiem for 11,541 people lost in the Siege. Where musicians too had lost their lives, their seats were left empty onstage. Like the empty chairs in The Red Line. Zubin Mehta had to walk across rubble to get to his podium and TV footage of the concert intercuts video of him conducting the music and the building burning.
City Hall is the place Franz Ferdinand was visiting on the day he was assassinated. He was shot a few minutes after leaving the building and there is a photograph of him shaking hands with everyone on the steps where I sat today. The bullet that Gavrilo Princip fired started the First World War and it still ricochets today. The building is linked to both conflicts and reopened in 2014, 100 years after the assassination with a concert by the Viennese Orchestra who played music inspired by the First World War, including La Valse by Ravel. I watched it live on TV in Sarajevo after the Bosnian Premiere of our show. Music, culture and conflict are intrinsically woven, or ravelled, together in this city and when I visited the mountain today and saw Olympic facilities covered in graffiti and bullet holes, the 1984 Bobsled track now overgrown and broken, I watched a family singing and dancing in a circle. An old man playing the accordion with his eyes closed. My Bosnian friend tells me it is the Colo, a traditional song. A song full of hope, a song of survival, a song of history…
Coda: I write this in the bar of Nottingham Playhouse – exactly one week since I arrived in Sarajevo. Nottingham is where my journey to find Bolero began. When I was 7 and I fell over outside a Fish and Chip Shop in Bulwell and got a black eye. My mum carried me home across the golf course and put some ice in an old tea towel. My Dad put the TV on and the old Black and White set fizzed into life. I heard the music before I saw the image. It was Ravel’s Bolero. Torvill and Dean were dancing to it on ice in somewhere very far away. They got the perfect score – six sixes – and red roses rained down on the ice. It was 14 February 1984. Valentine’s Day. I fell in love with the music and I have been following it ever since. That journey took me to Paris, to L’Opera Garnier, to Ravel’s house, to Ravel’s grave, to Sarajevo, to the Zetra Stadium where they danced. I left a red rose. Now I am sitting at the Playhouse where we showed Bolero five years ago. The journey to find Bolero continues…