It all began with a crusade to save cats. As a young girl growing up in Belgrade, Jelena Petrovic would travel the back yards of her neighborhood in search of felines needing first aid, especially those with ugly eye infections requiring a dab with a medicated cotton swab. At age 28 she still has a soft spot for tabbies and their kin, but Petrovic's worldview has broadened considerably thanks to a life spent observing humanity's foibles on three continents. Now dance is her tool for addressing circumstances, be they catastrophic or tiny. This weekend's premiere of "I Feel For You. I Really Do" at the Minnesota Dance Alliance's Studio 6A is no exception in its unforgiving satire of the political and personal implications of self-involvement.
"The pursuit of your own happiness is respected far more than helping others," observes Petrovic in an interview from her home in south Minneapolis. "This is leading to a world that is extremely fragmented between a small, elite group of people in the West who have access to prime information, and the extremely poor." Television, with its quick-fix news stories interrupted by commercials selling practically everything only exacerbates our wandering attention spans, she continues, adding that she doesn't exempt herself from the problem. "Our reaction to tragedy is removed. I wanted to make fun of myself, my dancers, upper-middle-class educated people who think they are involved but really aren't."
Petrovic's ire began with an unease at the workings of the consumer society, but as she began creating material and setting choreography with members of the Zenon Dance Company last spring, her general dismay assumed a more urgent and intimate tone. As NATO bombs began to pummel Serbia, and over the course of the 78-day campaign, Petrovic would repeatedly call her family in the former Yugoslavia. "It was life-changing," she recalls, her righteousness turning soft. "I've never felt, until then, like somebody really needed me in a very serious way. It was surreal to be so far away, in the country of the 'enemy,' surrounded by citizens of the 'enemy,' and making dances. A cluster bomb fell five minutes [by] foot from my parents' house, along the route I used to walk to school."
The demands of choreography paled next to Petrovic's panic, but she came to think she could do something about her worry, anger, and fear. "My art-making can serve as a vehicle for making statements," she explains. "But until now I hadn't done that. True, dances are always about something, but dance is not as specific a form of expression as language. The things you say are a bit more poetic or vague. You look at the things between the cracks." (Petrovic has worked as a translator and journalist and is an occasional contributor to this paper.)
As the war continued, Petrovic's work assumed a theatrical edge, with text propelling the choreography. This came to include the occasional profane word. "I love language very much, and I'm interested in the trashy poetry of swearing. Using obscenity is liberating, and we never allow ourselves that in dance. It's rarely aggressive or unclean or taboo."
True to that intent, Petrovic's band of performers go to often comic extremes as they cavort onstage, pitting themselves against one another, shouting, "Shut the fuck up!" at a budding poet, and generally reveling in bad acting mixed with movement. "I wanted to approach the language not as dialogue in a play but more like vocal choreography," Petrovic says, adding that she drew upon unison vocalization, varied intonation, and accents for texture. The result is a bit of vaudeville mixed with a dose of political commentary, and continuous activity onstage--not unlike our media-driven world.
Petrovic, who became an American citizen in September, has found a new direction for her work in the wake of the war at home. But she continues to explore pure movement as well, as seen in the second work on this weekend's program, "We Begin Standing." Set to a minimalist score by Steve Reich, the piece demands fierce concentration from the dancers. "It's really relentless," says Petrovic. "You can't lose your count, ever. It's physically and mentally really tiring, but it's also beautiful." The marriage of pure movement and music is purifying, she continues, and supports her interest in exploring the abstract.
"I'm interested in things outside of myself more than self-expression," she laughs. "I'm not interested in talking about my deep feelings. That's the Serb in me."