A conversation with Sanja Mitrović

We meet with Sanja to get insight into the “making of” Demeter Calling and the inspiration behind it.

Demeter Calling has been defined in various ways: from theatre to opera to concert/concept performance. How do you perceive these or any other labels to define your work and how would you situate it in your oeuvre so far?

To a certain extent all these descriptions are useful reference points, but none captures the project completely. This fluidity is important to me as an artistic principle. In my previous practice I was also working with montage, combining elements from different creative disciplines – documentary and drama, moving image, performance and dance. So rather than some kind of a clean-cut, purist form or genre, my inclination is towards hybrid, “contaminated” forms as better equipped to speak to the messiness and complexity of the lived experience against the interminable march of history.

Previously I have been working with documents in different ways: staging personal stories of the performers, working with professionals and non-professionals, staging re- enactments, mixing reality and fiction. Demeter Calling is a step further in my research on how to present real life-based material on stage. Music became an important part in this process. I was interested in the relationship between music and document, in particular how to integrate music as a theatrical “tool” to translate documentary material. In the so-called documentary theatre the question tends to arise whether the story is being told authentically. The focus on music helps alleviate doubts about the relationship between the material and performers. Music acts as a connecting medium. The audience is able to feel it more directly than they would a story or a speech, and the performers are also able to dive into the narrative in a new way. Thanks to singing they can claim a new space of freedom where they are still themselves,
as well as part of the stories they embody. They no longer appropriate these voices like classical actors would; their bodies become “channels” for these voices to appear.

From another perspective, Demeter Calling is also my attempt to find a meeting point between a classical text and contemporary stories. For the script I collected and interpreted contemporary stories of women from different parts of the world, some of whom I met and spoke with personally, others public figures from the research which was conducted as part of the process. They include environmental and human rights activists, mothers who lost their children due to political conflict and social inequality, as well as those who are unable to meet multiple expectations – of mothering, parenting, caregiving, nursing, homemaking – through which femininity is traditionally defined, patrolled and measured up against.

How did the process of collecting and selecting those women and their stories go?

During the research with dramaturge, writer and lecturer Tunde Adefioye, we looked for stories of women who had a particular relationship with their children, especially those that reflect the extremes of motherhood. We wanted to consider the personal relationship with a child in a broader socio-political context. We studied books and articles, various different sources, and tried to understand what stories found echoes in other stories. In this way we would discover connections while keeping geographical variety and a range of socio-political contexts in the profiles of women. On the other hand, we also had to think about what makes sense dramaturgically. So at a later stage I sat down with dramaturge Sara Vanderieck to narrow down the choices from this wealth of material. In the end, we used the myth of Demeter and her daughter Perspehone as the dramaturgical connecting thread in the piece.

From the beginning I was inspired by a visit to Elesfina in Greece, the site of Eleusinian Mysteries through which the cult of Demeter and Persephone was celebrated. The initiates of the cult were recruited from all walks of life, the secretive and elaborate rites they underwent aimed at, in words of one classical writer, gaining “the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope." A solitary visit to the excavation site made me think of how this relates to lives of women today.

I was interested in contemporary voices and a tension between the classical myth and stories that are not far removed from us, for example an environmental activist, a woman who was diagnosed with postnatal depression, a mother who abandons her child in order to defend her husband’s honour, etc. I wanted to create a sense of timelessness interwoven with individual lives of women, the relationship between mother and child, and how they all question patriarchal interpretations of womanhood. In line with my ongoing interest in the use of music in theatrical context, at one point in the process I decided to translate these stories into a series of songs.

Eventually, Demeter Calling arrived in the form that could, perhaps, be described as a contemporary music ritual, still seeking answers on how to go through life with dignity and determination. It is almost a kind of a trance, suspended in a continual ebb and flow between imaginary rituals and a pop concert.

The story of Demeter is rooted in Greek mythology. In traditional Greek theatre we would expect to find a singing choir that would guide our emotions as spectators, define it even. In Balkan folklore we see a similar phenomenon where several women's voices are collected to sound as one. This pattern has been used successfully later in both pop and rock bands from the early '70s (think Abba or Yugoslavian rock bands). What do you find to be the strength in the united female voices and how did these classical and traditional forms of performance influence your choice in music and vocals?

Pop music articulates aspects of everyday life as a shared and often highly emotional experience. In theatre, this is reflected in the presence of various popular formats – from the choirs of Greek tragedy to opera, vaudeville, cabaret and American music theatre, as well as the influence of popular music on modernist avantgardes (for example, Brecht or Genetl).
Personally, I was always drawn to the vocal traditions of Balkan folklore and the collective aspect of this practice. It is something which was close to me since early childhood through my grandmother who was from Herzegovina. At the same time, pop music has always been a hugely formative influence for me, still plays an important part in my life, and for a long time I was waiting for an opportunity to make a project which might connect these two rich vernaculars. I also still often remember Serbia in the 1990s when pop music, dancing and partying served not only as an escapist route out of the suffocating reality of social collapse but also as a form of résistance to an oppressive regime.

In Demeter Calling, the key was collaborating with composer Marija Balubdžić, who approached each narrative not only as a study in musical dramaturgy but as an opportunity for joyous experimentalism. As the starting point we decided to use elements of folk music from various Balkan regions, especially those which, like you say, emphasize the power of united female voiles. Subsequently Marija transformed them, often beyond recognition, into bursts of mesmerising electronic pop, like chart topping hits from another dimension. The intricate arrangements and vocal lines, the elaborate dynamic between choral singing, individual lead voices and backing vocals, reflect the Greek tragedy’s consideration of the relationship between private and public. While staking its territory on the cutting edge of contemporary, Marija’s score embodies the echoes of the ritual and the ceremonial which are central to the overall atmosphere and tone of the show. Initially, I also wanted to work with a female DJ in order to explore the relationship between live music performance and already existing recordings. In the end Marija collaborated with Siniša Mitrović, my brother and assistant director, on arrangements which brought the compositions to blossom into uncanny hybrids of dance, pop and experimental.

I mentioned how the show oscillates between more performative elements, which we thought of as a kind of invocation rituals, summoning the voices of women whose stories are told, and aesthetics of a pop concert with all its visual signifiers. For this aspect I was delighted to work again with Ivana Kličković on costume and Giacomo Gorini on set and lighting. With bold designs each of them propelled Demeter Calling into a dreamlike, hallucinatory state in which the music is embedded. Some of the elements are purposefully exaggerated, playing with the stereotypes of femininity, glamour and spectacle, while staying close to the territory of performance-oriented concerts, like those by artists such as CocoRosie, Björk, The Knife or Peaches.

Choreographic elements are treated similarly. They’re fairly reduced and simple, referencing the language of pop concert and music video, but still more prominent than in my previous work. Looking back and considering my background, which started from classical ballet as a child, to contemporary dance and physical theatre during my studies, I realise that perhaps it is no surprise that music and movement are present in Demeter Calling to such an extent. They have been present in my other works as well, but previously I did not use them systematically as the main methodology in the treatment of documentary material.

The women-only cast is an interesting starting point to rework the not-so-feminist myth of Demeter. Why choose this specific story?

You are right, the myth of Demeter and Persephone could be read through a misogynist lens, with women portrayed as subject to the will of powerful men, their rebellion merely serving to reinforce the patriarchal order and relationships of dominance. But, like most myths, we could look at it from a different angle. What was important to me in this story was female strength, solidarity and the refusal to simply accept the fate decided for them by others. Demeter firmly confronts the injustice she and her daughter have suffered, she takes radical action against it and, from the position of limited possibility, carves out a space of resolution, which is not ideal or world-changing but which sustains female agency in a male-dominated world.

In Demeter Calling we propose that Demeter and Persephone are not helpless victims or tragic heroines, but strong women who actively decide how to cope with the predicament they find themselves in. It is their decision to create seasons in order to mark periods when they are together and apart, to celebrate moments of reunion, and even to initiate human race
in the sacred rites of maintaining life on Earth through agriculture. They turn the situation of aggression and restriction into one of new possibilities. Similarly, the contemporary stories of women in the show are, for me, examples of resisting the roles imposed on them and reclaiming, from a state of exhaustion, breakdown and extreme emotional and existential upset, a space of potential rebirth and reinvention.

Motherhood and suffering is used as an underlying theme in the myth of Demeter to explain the seasonality of nature. In the traditional gender stereotypes the woman's body has been synonymous to emotions and nature. How do women use their voice to interplay with these labels of womanhood?

It is pretty stereotypical but in most cultures Earth and nature remain defined as female. Obviously, the myth of Demeter and Persephone contains a proto-ecological message about how gender inequality and violence against women lead to the devastation of our planet too. It is a story of a mother whose distress at the loss of her child assumes such proportions that it imperils the survival of the entire human race and life on Earth. However, the songs in Demeter Calling challenge the conservative idea that woman is defined primarily as a mother. They amplify the moments in which the ideal of femininity crumbles, the cracks begin to show and things turn sour. The unexpected and complicated aspects of the relationship between mother and child are brought forward, reflecting the perpetual state of struggle as a precondition for endurance and survival.

Why did you choose to bring stories about pain and suffering to the centre of Demeter Calling?

Female heroines in popular culture are typically glorified through positive aspects. I wanted to offer another side to their characterisation – one of pain and hardship, because life is beautiful but it is painful and difficult as well. It ties back to Greek tragedy too, and my own heritage with its tradition of joyful and cathartic singing burdened with heavy content, like in the so-called sevdalinka songs, which are considered the Balkan equivalent of blues and soul.

I was also thinking about murder ballads, both from the tradition of modernist theatre or pop artists such as Nick Cave, as a way to translate difficult topics into a more accessible and popular format, which make it easier to engage with. Of course, the compositions in the show are not typical 3-minute pop standards. They use and reference this form to play and experiment with it. But the language is not that which is normally used in pop songs, in some cases there are extended spoken word passages as well, so it is a hybrid between pop and performance.

What connects all of the women whose stories are shared on stage is that they find themselves at a point where it is almost impossible to mobilise new hope, energy or dreams. However, in each story you realise that they create a new space and move on, even if that space is limited. Perhaps this is through political or activist work, or a decision to change the way they have been living so far. These are small acts of courage and strength which each woman undertakes, just to find a new space for herself.

A work with such a feminist foundation like this one is likely to trigger some personal recognition or even a special bond between actors and yourselves during rehearsals. How did the cast interact with the story and their characters in the beginning of the rehearsals and how did this evolve along the way?

My previous productions were often rooted in close engagement with different communities and social groups. In addition to working with professional performers, this meant collaborating with participants who previously had no theatrical or creative experience. The creation came about through dialogue, from the process of discussion and exchange, rather than an existing script. Based in a sustained contact and exploration of performers’ biographies, this method was conducive to maintaining tension between the individual and the collective, and intrinsic
to an approach invested in exploring the influence of historical processes on private lives. After a number of productions that I realised in this direction, I felt an urge to explore other ways of treating documentary material on stage, which is also part of PhD research which I am currently conducting.

In Demeter Calling I aimed to take a different path by treating documentary as fiction and fiction as an ambiguous future document. I was curious how the material from real life, i.e. the stories of women, could be transformed into pop songs and relate to the fictional element of myth which is transmitted from the radio, like a strange news broadcast from the future. I very much enjoyed thinking through the intricacies of such dramaturgical structure with different timelines running in parallel and occasionally overlapping.

Going back to your question, the biographies of performers were important for the casting. The fact that we are four very different women is essential. Magda Ral, the only native Belgian, is a single mother whose relationship with her son is very moving. She has an interesting life story and less experience as performer than the rest of us. For example, she never sang on stage before. Ana Naqe is a classically trained opera singer, with Albanian heritage. Kathy Sey is a soul and jazz singer, dancer, television and film actress who started a band with her sisters when she was 15. They still perform together and have released three albums. I personally did not have any formal musical training but have previously directed and performed in works in which music was an important component. So one of the biggest challenges, musically, was to bring together and unify our four very different voices. Of course, each one of us has a personal connection to the stories, as mothers, sisters or daughters, which colours our individual performances. Most importantly, the performers are meant to act as conduits, calling forth and channeling voices of women whose stories are being told, rather than representing them or “playing” characters. This is where the power of music comes into play. We simply offer our bodies to all those others to speak and move through us, learning from them how to live life, not only observing it but actively participating in it.

Is that the reason why you chose to participate yourself on stage as well?

My own participation in the piece was one of the initial ideas of the project because I wanted to be around other women, part of the creative process, and share these stories together on stage. I am very thankful to my fellow performers for their generosity, trust and dedication along the way. An interesting aspect is the fact that, like I said, we all come from different backgrounds – some with more, some with less experience in theatre and performance, others in singing – and this non-uniformity adds, to my mind, a richness of nuance and identification. Each of us had her own journey of finding a way how to relate to the content and how to perform it. The challenge amidst such diversity was creating a sense of collectivity between the four of us, our own small community. One way to achieve this was, for example, by starting each rehearsal with a focused warm up as a group, a kind of an internal ritual if you will. This sense of a collective “we” as women, of something which transcends mere individuality, is crucial for the tone and philosophy of the show.

What feeling do you hope Demeter Calling will evoke with the audience?

The fact that these stories are told on stage is already important because they are shared and heard. I don’t expect people to identify with each and every one of them, or to relate to them in the same way. However, each one of us is someone’s child, and this is something personal, instinctive and emotional that everyone can connect to. Ultimately, my hope is that the audience will be moved by the combination of auditory and visual sensations, so they can feel the stories maybe more than rationalise them, like you do when you go to a pop concert. I am aware that this is a very stylised framework which might create an obstacle for some, with its play on artifice and distance, while for others it makes it easier to engage with the gravity of text and topics that are explored. I guess that is normal, they coexist as different possibilities in which the work could be experienced and read.