I witnessed the end to the Milosevic era
‘So what’s your proper job?’ That’s the first thing many people ask, when I say I am a dancer. It is a career, sometimes viewed as a hobby, ’something on the side’, or even with its’ shadier connotations! It appears dancing is still not taken seriously by the public at large.
After a decade touring with London based, Random Dance Company, I have witnessed many aspects of the profession. At best, jetting off to perform in theatres across the world. At worst, trying to wake up a tired body, perhaps in the wrong time zone, when everyone I know and love are fast asleep on the other side of the globe. But the most interesting and unacknowledged fact, is the great cultural exchange achieved through dance.
During one period, we were nicknamed ‘The War Zone Dance Company’, as we were often invited to trouble spots, or supported by The British Council, to perform in less wealthy countries. At times, I felt unsure about touring to these hot spots. Sometimes for my own safety, but also for the relevance of dancing, when people were surely rebuilding their lives. One trip to the Balkans, changed my perspective completely.
From the tour bus, my first sight of Kosovo, was UN tents and helicopters, evidence of the passing war. Tanks lined the outskirts of the city, whilst off-duty soldiers still wandered, dog tagged within. Each country’s UN peacekeepers had taken responsibility for an area of reconstruction. Britain, being present in Pristina, had appointed a company from Manchester, to restore electricity, so a comforting swarm of Northern accents floated past my ears, at every corner. Any danger seemed to have passed, despite the city taking longer to repair than human spirit. The stadium was a blasted, charcoal mess, although not unique in its’ destruction. But amidst this ruin, was a lively city, full of activity. Young people, hanging out in the sprawl of cosy bars.
First night, at the theatre, and the auditorium was about to burst. Backstage, we were full of energy, ready to share the excitement. People sat in the aisles, or on the steps leading up to the stage, sometimes so close, I wondered if someone might leap up, in a moment of rapture, and join in. That evening I began to comprehend, how important it must be, for life to go on as usual. For the citizens of Pristina, to feel that theirs was a country, people still wanted to visit. It was all confirmed, by a rapturous standing ovation. The cheer, the comments in the street, so much warmth as we made our way to the hotel.
At dinner that night, there was the usual eclectic mix of hosts. I was sitting opposite two well-built men, Lirak and Fatos, who seemed comfortable enough to answer my questions about the war. It was much later, that I was told these men were local heroes, and I can still see their stoic faces sitting across the table from me. Every now and then we would be comically plunged into darkness, as the power failed. “Come on lads!” I thought our Manchunian boys.
Fatos, told me of his flight to Barcelona, after his attempts to report the events of the war, were welcomed by a blow to the legs, with the butt of a rifle, and his camera confiscated.
Lirak, however decided to stay. Already famous in the country for his acting contributions, on the very stage we had just performed, he was the target of several death threats. He told me, he wanted to stay and fight, but something in his voice told me to leave it at that. I assumed it was an emotional subject.
Just a few hours later, I had my backpack on, and was walking through ‘No Mans Land’ en route to Belgrade, via Macedonia. After a lot of paper shuffling at the border, we finally persuaded the guards, we were a dance company, and not election saboteurs. It helped, that by a genius stroke of luck, our show was being televised right there in the office, and we could point out all familiar faces, from screen to reality.
Now on Serbian territory, I was surprised to find hostilities towards the British, stretched only as far, as the impending Leicester/Red Star Belgrade, football match, and not our part in the bombing.
I never knew who won that match, but it was evident that Milosevic could not win the election. That night, it was the talk of the city. We were taken back to the hotel, and warned to stay in, but I could never miss a moment like this. I continued to watch the news, until our manager went to bed, and crept out, to see history in the making. A confusion of the broadcasts, told local channels Milosevic, was ahead, and through an American channel, I could see he was loosing.
It was with this conflict of numbers, that half a million people took to the street, in support of opposition leader Kostunica. I found myself being drawn along with a crowd of protesters. At first, this calm sea of bodies, flowed through the city, but eventually people began to scale buildings. Peaceful protest was becoming the dangerous dance of revolution before my eyes, and I knew I had to get back to the company.
The next morning, as I was safely on board a flight to London, the TV station was alight. Milosevic had been defeated, and he fled Belgrade.
Just a few weeks later, my head was still full of thoughts about that tour, and the papers full of news in former Yugoslavia. I was leafing through some old papers, when a familiar face stared back from the pages of a Guardian article. It was the stoic face of Lirak, ex-member of the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA). Continuing to read, I discovered, this actor, father, husband, had been part of the guerrillas in the hills. He was pictured in full combat gear, rifle in hand, and spoke of army tactics and losses, during the war. All of the things he chose not to tell me at dinner, that night in Pristina.
It is that tour, which often gives me perspective. Wherever we have travelled, we have been well received, but never with such warmth as in those various ‘hotspots’.. It makes me feel proud to be a dancer, as art, and the freedom to express ideas, could never have more relevance than now.
Claire \ A Dancer from Wayne Mc Gregor, London.