Soňa Jakubove interviewed by Plamen Harmandjiev
Soňa Jakubove’s project “Footsteps of Resilience” will examine how dance professionals produced their work in Central and Eastern Europe during the communist regimes. Using the oral testimonies of different artists who were active during that time, she aims to build a multifaceted history of these old pioneers of new dance.
Plamen Harmandjiev: Soňa, can you tell me more about your project “Footsteps of Resilience?” What is it about and how did you come to this idea?
I’ve always found it interesting that contemporary dance is a bit more challenging for our audience. They almost don’t have any relationship to it, and I’ve always wondered why that is and how can we change it. I believe that, among other reasons, it is related to our history and us being a post-communist country and the conditions in which dance professionals worked. Slovakia was without a solid background for dance performers for a very long time.
During the Startup Forum we had to choose one performance and create a project around it. I really loved Figuring Age by Boglarka Börcsök and Andreas Bolm, which tells the stories of elderly dancers and recollects their memories. It presents a Hungarian perspective, in which I saw a lot of similarities to my country. My project, on which I am working with Malý Berlín and Michal Klembara, will be about exploring dance and its conditions under the former regime, how connected everything is, and about differences between neighbouring post-communist countries.
PH: You will work with the personal stories of dance artists active during the communist regime. What made you decide that you want to give them a voice, and why now?
SJ: Similar to the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, before the Slovak elections in September 2023, populist and anti-democratic parties were gaining support. I believe it’s more important than ever to constantly remind ourselves what freedom means and how fragile it can be. It is important to talk about the previous regime, about the position of artistic freedom and possibilities that artists had. Many people have forgotten it or never knew what it truly meant.
PH: How did you research those people, and how did you decide which stories to tell? What obstacles came along with it?
SJ: I started with contacting professionals from the modern dance scene. Miroslava Kovářová, who also nominated me for the Startup Forum, helped me a lot. She is one of the most prominent professionals in the field and is behind Bratislava in Movement, the oldest festival for contemporary dance in Slovakia. She gave me the first hints and names, I also read through many of the publications from that time. At first, people were telling me they didn’t remember much, but I realised that after you build certain trust and meet in person, they would open up.
Regarding the obstacles, it’s difficult to reach the people outside of Bratislava. Now I am trying to find those artists, because they are missing from those publications.
PH: How do you structure your process? Where do you begin, and how do you decide what should follow?
SJ: One of the conditions of the Startup Project was to choose one performance which we saw at the 2023 Spring Forward Festival in Dublin. As I mentioned, I really liked Figuring Age and started thinking about the role of dance in the regime, the ageing of dancers and performances, but it in the beginning that was too broad, and I had to focus on local performers. The oral history research will be with dancers from Slovakia, but I would like to also organise a panel discussion with dance professionals from neighbouring countries where they can add their perspectives. Now I am focusing on the research and will see how far it will take me.
PH: Are you interested in a certain dance form or in the socio-political conditions in which these works were created?
SJ: I am interested in modern and contemporary dance, but I also already see a lot of similarities between us and other post-communist countries. The timing, however, is often different. It would be interesting to see what started here in the seventies, and what was going on in Hungary during the same time, and if it is completely different, to ask why? Was it due to political pressure or something else?
PH: What day-to-day struggles are you facing?
The day-to-day struggles were ordinary things like finding the best date for the performance. It took more than two months because the performance has a very busy schedule and once we had a date there was an issue with the venue. I wanted to show it in Malý Berlin, but we found that the space is too small. Another option was the theatre in Trnava , but unfortunately this would be too expensive. In the end we will collaborate with another two venues in Bratislava and I believe that thanks to this we can reach a much wider audience than we thought at the beginning of the project.
PH: Where would you like this project to take place? In Trnava or in the capital, Bratislava? The larger city will allow more people to see it, but contribute to the centralisation of cultural events in the capital.
SJ: It will be a combination of both. I don’t see it as taking it away from the small city in favour of the capital. We are so close, it is just a 30-minute train ride. I realised that this would be beneficial for some parts of the project. As you said, we will be able to reach an even larger audience, as well as many of the dance professionals who are based in Bratislava.
For me, some parts of the project should be in Bratislava and others should stay in Trnava. I am in contact with the School of Contemporary Dance here. The project is not only about oral history but also about ageing, and I can imagine workshops with the students on this topic.
PH: Why did you decide to work with oral history as a research method?
SJ: It is fascinating to meet those people and to talk to them, but also remembering is a big topic by itself. Who is remembering what, and what did they forget? What was more important for one person and less important for another? It is a much more personal approach.
PH: What does the collaboration with Boglárka Börcsök and Andreas Bolm look like? How do you communicate and plan things together, especially being based in different countries?
SJ: We are talking about the performance and everything related to it. It is challenging, because there are some specifics we have to figure out, like for example, a space with all-white walls when all the venues we can work with are black boxes. Also, planning something in Bratislava, while based in Trnava comes with its challenges as well. But they are very open to talk about different possibilities, so I am confident that we will find good solutions. So far, we keep everything via e-mail and later on we will have a video call, but now my focus is on the research and everything around it.