Exclusive interview with Aja Jung: “In 20 years I have brought Belgrade at the centre of the world dance stage”

From March 7th to April 10th, 2024, the Belgrade Dance Festival will mark its 21st anniversary, an accomplishment hard to imagine when the festival started, in a city with a limited ballet tradition and in a country then at the beginning of a very complicated (and still ongoing) economic transition. This year a total of 19 companies from 14 countries, with over 30 choreographic productions, will be presented in Belgrade and Novi Sad: an impressive programme which will convey in Serbia some of the most innovative choreographers and talented dancers of the world.

In the interview with Serbian Monitor, founder and director of the Belgrade Dance Festival, Aja Jung, talks about the Festival’s vision and the challenges, the results and the complexities in protecting and promoting a cultural enterprise that has become part of her identity. 

This year, the theme of the Belgrade Dance Festival is “Impeccable Differences”. What guidelines did you follow in selecting the performances?

Under the slogan “Impeccable Differences”, we will see 18 dance companies from all around the world: New York, Sydney, Florence, Paris, Belfast, Tel Aviv, Cesena, Grenoble, Adelaide, Reggio Emilia, Shanghai, Belgrade, Wiesbaden, Vancouver, La Valetta… Every author is unique, coming from different cultures, educational backgrounds and circumstances, thus every performance will be new and special. Besides that, this program is truly different from everything around us. Precious in bringing beauty, energy, emotions, and moments to remember. Talented and dedicated people will always make a difference. In every profession, no matter of time, place, difficulties, or situations…

The 2024 edition’s guests include Yoann Bourgeois (on March 7 and 8) and Radim Vizváry (on March 19 and 20) who have revived the circus and mime traditions. In recent decades, how much has dance tradition affected these performances?

Yoann Bourgeois, a wizard of kaleidoscopic talent and an author who constantly breaks down the boundaries between the most diverse art forms, is coming to Serbia for the first time. Between the 7th and 8th March the Belgrade Balkan Cinema will open its doors 6 times, and each guided tour through the famous installations will be followed by 100 people. Tickets here: https://belgradedancefestival.com/lokacija/bioskop-balkan?p=82&i=179

Dance is today the most open art form. All categories and all kinds of hybrids are welcomed under its umbrella. This openness and willingness to accept, makes contemporary dance very rich, if you compare it with any other art. One can find great music, all kinds of visual arts, fashion design, architecture, video works, new technologies, interesting trends, and superb virtuosity in a dance performance. Besides that, we are lucky that we have finally reached the moment when the borders between ballet and contemporary dance are crashed. Today, every ballet dancer needs great contemporary technique, to be part of the ballet company. Most opera houses have changed their repertory a lot, while we are witnessing that physical theatre, street dance, hip hop, new circus, acrobatics, and all kinds of non-verbal works are conquering main stages all around the world. Surely, it is always a matter of quality. I am personally impressed with the variety of dance techniques and artistic tools, but I also insist on the highest quality. This year, you will see Yoann Bourgeois, Radim Vizvary, Herve Koubi, Gravity and Other Myths, as well as one amazing work of Damian Jalet… It would be probably impossible to present these works 21 years ago. Dance has changed, as well as our Festival. But, the most important –  our audience has changed a lot, and we need to run forward to meet with them.

When he was appointed director of the Corps de Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the famed Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, who will present the dance piece “Ballad” with the MM Contemporary Dance Company on March 16 and 17 at the Terazije Theatre, said that he did not consider himself “a contemporary choreographer, [or] an academic choreographer, simply a choreographer.” Does it still make sense to distinguish between contemporary and classical dance today?

Finally, the two worlds came together. It is so true that ballet choreographers do not exist in the 21st century. We are obliged to keep this rich and beautiful heritage and tradition as a living museum, at the highest level of performance and style, with amazing décor and costumes. But, please allow me to say that Mauro Bigonzetti, as one of the most famous choreographers in Italy and abroad, is the best representative of pure dance with most ballet attributes. The dance requires both strong classical technique, but also a lot of contemporary dance experience. His movement is demanding, constant, and extremely linked with music, and – what I personally like – Mauro will always insist on beauty and emotions.

MM Contemporary Dance Company will be on the 16th and 17th of March at Terazije Theater proposing A Ballade, choreography by Mauro Bigonzetti and Elegia, and choreography by Enrico Morelli. Photo Tiziano Ghidorsi. Tickets here: https://belgradedancefestival.com/en/location/pozoriste-na-terazijama?p=90&i=194

This is so needed in our times. I am pleased to say that I have managed to bring and present his works many times in Belgrade and Novi Sad. With Ballet of Teatro alla Scala, several times with Aterballetto from Reggio Emilia, Introdans from Arnhem, and now with MM Contemporary Dance Company. And, it is always a huge success.

The story of the Belgrade Dance Festival is an inspiring one – from its first edition, which left you with a mountain of debt, to becoming a major international institution in its field. What are the personal and contextual factors that helped the Festival to turn around and overcome its first, difficult years?

Sometimes, I think it was wiser to stop after the first edition. But we are here now, after 20 years and more than five hundred choreographic works presented! Serbia is not an easy country for arts, especially not for dance. Before we created this Festival, dance in Serbia was totally unknown, and on real margins of everything. It was the fantastic program and our crazy persistence to present this program, that started focusing the attention and gathering the audience. Bringing dance right to the centre! Now, one can imagine how many decision-makers, ministers, mayors, sponsors, and directors of different institutions we had to talk to and try to convince them to come and see the performances and become friends. Also, it is important to understand how much the political and social circumstances were changing in our country, but also everywhere around. No matter what, the Festival was constantly growing, pushed by the constant competition with other European festivals, who always had their budgets, offices, theatres, secured salaries… For me and my small team, every edition was a huge challenge, performed on two stages: international and local. And, I am aware that I have created wonderful international events in my country, but I also know that I lived for it and with it – every day. No vacations, no weekends, no holidays. In return, I received a lot of joy, as well as a lot of pain. And, this is how it is until today! 

You have been criticized for the fact that the Belgrade government has allocated funds for the Festival, a fact presented by some politicians as scandalous when all over the world it is only natural that State authorities help cultural institutions and events. How would you explain to a Serbian citizen that funds allocated to culture are not worth less than funds allocated to public health and education?

On the 25th and 26th of March at Dusko Radovic Theater the dance company Dewey Dell from Cesena, Italy, will perform “The Rite of Spring” by Teodora Castellucci, a performance that enchants the audience as if it were a cinematic fairy tale by Georges Méliès, thanks to the skill of the performers, the sonic juxtaposition between Stravinsky’s score and digital creations, the objects, the anthropomorphic prosthetics, and the simple but evocative scene that combines archaeological and contemporary imagery. Tickets here: https://belgradedancefestival.com/lokacija/dusko-radovic?p=95&i=205

It is hard to change the mentality and wrong traditions. In Serbia, culture and arts are sometimes considered as a decoration, and not as a real need and important value. On special occasions or important dates in the calendar, one can expect an opera singer to perform the anthem, some dancers to act as a scenography, a few musicians to play a melody… This is the perception of the arts for the last fifty years, and none of the festivals can change this, I am afraid. But if the Belgrade Dance Festival has its audience, it means that we do something good. I was always fighting for the best program to be presented in my city and in my country, as well as I was trying to make my city and my country important in the whole world when it comes to dance and performing arts. Results are obvious and could be also measured. In flights, hotel accommodation, transportation, restaurants, income for the theatres, as well as in international promotion and marketing… This Festival provides multiple returns on the investment to the City and Ministry of Culture… And, it is important for the country. Many countries would love to have one Belgrade Dance Festival.

Your strong relations with France and Italy were ratified by your appointment as a Knight of Arts and Letters of the French Republic in 2016 and the Order of the Star of Italy in 2018. What did you take from these two countries with great choreographic traditions and what do you also think you transferred to them?

I am extremely honoured to be the recipient of these two recognitions. France and Italy: who would not be inspired? During my entire career, I had the huge privilege to work with so many important artists and people, as well as institutions from Italy and France. And, I am really happy to be able to continue. One can see that the program of my Festival is also very much focused on Italy and France, but there are also many other projects we are developing together every day.

Sidney Dance Company: “ab [intra]” journeys through the intensity of human existence, exploring our primal instincts, our impulses and our visceral responses. The music fuses lush cello concerto with ambient electronica and the exquisite dancers occupy a visually arresting ethereal world. Photo by Pedro Greig. On the 5th and 6th of April at Belgrade National Theater, tickets here: https://belgradedancefestival.com/en/location/narodno-pozoriste?p=97&i=208

What advice would you give to a very young person who wants to become a dancer in Serbia?

I am in contact with young people at my Ballet School in Belgrade. I give them advice, we travel together, I follow their progress, I share their dreams to become artists… They are very special to me. My School is working in close collaboration with several important ballet institutions from Italy, thus our students are following different programs in Florence, Verona, Napoli, and Lecce… but also Italian ballet students are coming to our School in Belgrade. At this moment we have a few students from Bologna on special scholarships, who will also attend performances at the Festival.

“No one knows what the body can do,” writes Spinoza in the Ethics. But maybe the dancers and choreographers know its potential.

Sure. The body is amazing. And it cannot lie. Maybe this is also one important reason why dance is so popular today. We are all tired of too many words and too many lies.

What dreams does Aja Jung still have for the Belgrade Dance Festival?

You will see some of my dreams becoming true, already at the 22nd Belgrade Dance Festival… The problem is that I do not dream for too long. Every good dream is immediately progressing into a project and realization…

Aja Jung

At sixteen years old, Aja Jung received a two-year scholarship from the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. During her training in New York, she simultaneously attended the Juilliard University, the Neubert Ballet Institute at Carnegie Hall and the Broadway Dance Center.  

Back in Europe, she represented choreographies in Serbia, Greece and the United States, while performing in more than 30 countries worldwide.

In 2003 she founded the Belgrade Dance Festival which, since its founding, has presented over 500 choreographic works, with an average of 20.000 spectators and around 100 accredited local and international journalists in each of the last editions.

In 2009, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia, she established in Belgrade the National Foundation For Dance to improve artistic dance education and production in Serbia.

She lives and creates in Belgrade, is married, has two daughters and speaks English and Greek.

This post is also available in: Italiano

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