All we know of ourselves is just a certain little surface and there is a whole under-earth of complexity to us that, by definition, keeps out of our sight. It is actually absent to us. It comes through dreams.
– John O’Donohue

– still from Heights, concept and execution Svetlin Velchev

Today’s online meeting is with choreographer and visual artist Svetlin Velchev, who has been living for many years in multicultural Amsterdam. Through this text, we will try to get closer to his specific movement language, to the vivid choreographic signature that defines him, and to the explicit understanding of the existential themes he deals with. Our starting point and mirror, in which we will take a close look at ourselves, are his two screendance artworks – Heights and Depths, with a little more emphasis on Heights in this article.

Both art works can be considered as continuations of each other and also as two art works with “life of their own”; they are aligned, but at the same time they keep a distance from each other; they complement each other both in their independence and in their coherence, because they are not parts of a whole, they are the whole itself.

We as humans think and divide the world into years, clearly and definitely outlining times of peace and times of war, eras of cultural revolutions and technological growth, periods of pandemics and economic crises… This is how we explain exact phenomena and processes; we move together in the social space and we feel part of something bigger that holds the vessel of life.

We as humans think and divide our own lives into years, and among them, we can again clearly and unequivocally identify moments of happiness and joy, moments of grief and sorrow, events that have led us to success, and those that have failed us. This way, we gain experience in our life stories, we build ourselves as individuals, and assume our position in the world.

And just as life for the individual and for the community is never ‘’a plain surface’’, the screendance artworks of Svetlin Velchev deal with this duality and polarity, and in their framework we build our personal and public life. Heights and Depths are a minimalistic interpretation, a microcosm that plays with the reflections of these two peaks, mapping our lifetime. The continuous shifting of these dimensions, the sequence in which we encounter them, the experience that the acts of ascending and descending give us, determine the dynamics and rhythms, scenes and atmospheres in the two screendance art works.

Can we reach heights without first descending into the depths? Can we push ourselves away from the deep and find ourselves suddenly in the high? Can we go through the depths lightly, knowing that it won’t be our last time, and can we hold on more firmly to the heights, knowing that it won’t be for long? It seems to me that it is exactly through Svetlin Velchev’s choice to separate the two art works, rather than to present them as part one and part two of the work, that we reach the nuanced and ambiguous answers to these naturally arising questions.

It is also interesting that both artworks were created in the second half of 2019, only half a year before the advent of COVID-19. If we place them in this context, they can be read as a strong artistic premonition of an unprecedented impeding polarity in the world, because 2020 forced us to rethink our identities, to render urgent decisions of a most mundane and basic nature, and to move as confidently as possible in an utmost uncertain time. And it is precisely because of this compactness and concentration of feelings, we jumped vigorously, and still do, from moments of absolute exaltation or heights – in which we see the crisis as the best opportunity to initiate new principles for us and for the world, to embark on new journeys which are more faithful and true to our inner worlds, and which are in connection with the common good of humankind; to moments of absolute deadlock or depth in which we are lost, with no ground under our feet and without a clear horizon, in which our hope is diminished or has almost left us.

These two screendance art works are by no means a replica of the pandemic, but by reading them at this very moment we can perceive them as a reminder that this uncertainty, this polarity, this duality in the world is rather our permanent state of life, and it is not reserved only for times of emergency and global crisis. Our constant task is and will continue to be, to learn to navigate our own way of moving between these two extremes.

The choice of the titles is significant – instead of naming them – Ups and Downs or Highs and Lows, (the moments of “good and bad” / “strong and weak”), Svetlin Velchev chooses much more poetic and abstract names – Heights & Depths, which, mostly on the negative side, act more leniently, and as if they hid a stronger promise to swim through the darkness than to be trapped in the dark.
In both video works the mirror plays a crucial role. It is an ancient symbol associated with rituals and practices, directly and figuratively, tied to self-knowledge. However, it is also an a instrument that serves as a sign with which we can relatively easily portray the concept that this too shall pass:

it is delightful – but it shall pass,
it is exhausting – but it shall pass,
it shall stay behind me,
and it shall come upon me, and it shall pass me by,
and it shall come to me and leave me,
and I shall take it with me, and let it go.

Svetlin Velchev boldly moves on the mirror, dances with the mirror, and befriends the mirror surface to such an extent that we forget that it is his “modest” perimeter of movement and we begin to perceive it multidimensionally as the homeland of all his inner births and deaths. The mirror is his battlefield, the baptismal territory in which you declare yourself and stand before the world, but also through its territory you are immediately, and always, directed inwards towards yourself again, and again, and again…

The choreography in Heights is somewhat soft and helps us feel the “thin ice” on which Svetlin moves. There is something very intimate about this screendance, despite the harsh urban cityscape and despite the grayish daylight. Everything beyond what is happening in the mirror-territory – in which we occasionally manage to see the blue color of the sky – everything else from the world around us is somehow raw, rough and technical – cracked concrete, unwelcoming metal structures, rain puddles. However, the feeling of soaring in the heights is not lost in the outer landscape. On the contrary, it emerges and stands out much more vividly because of it.
The viewer retains the poetic feeling, thanks to the infinitely gentle composition for piano Swan Cloud, which contrasts to the outside world. The composition sounds from the beginning of the work and fades smoothly at the end. Deprived of sharp turns, of definite climaxes and “replaced” by the silence in the final shots, it is in absolute sync with the choreography and creates a feeling of much wider internal volumes of body movement on the screen.

The other element that helps us to read the work as depicting the ups and downs of our life is Svetlin Velchev’s partnership with the drone camera. Here the technique is not used to document the dance solo; rather it is invited to be an equal partner in the dance solo. It is this shared movement between the physical body on the ground and the technological body in the air that creates an extremely interesting vertical encounter, a place of enchanting togetherness and a point of eager longing.

Heights plays along the lines of these two atmospheres of sliding – horizontally and vertically – and makes us relax into the embrace of our own perceptions and feelings about the fate of the heights in our lives. I like the way the body is not exalted at any moment and how it quietly and meekly returns to itself at the end of the screendance art work to rest, to take a breath and continue its journey, this time towards Depths.

Svetlozara Hristova is a culturologuist, art manager, artistic collaborator, author of articles in the field of contemporary dance and theatre, co-organizer of the Moving Body Festival and RADAR Festival Beyond Music.

Miryana Mezeklieva (1987) graduated in Cultural Studies at Sofia University Kliment Ohridski. Since 2008 until today she has been working as a translator of feature films and series for dubbing mainly for the channels of Nova Broadcasting Group.

This material was created within the project “Translation on air” – a rubric dedicated to dance for screen or screendance. Every month we invite the professional and amateur audience, tempted by this intriguing symbiosis between cinema and dance, to join our readings, conversations and discussions with active practitioners in this field choreographers from the country and abroad.

The project “Translation on air” is implemented with the financial support of the National Fund “Culture” under the program “Audiences” 2020 and the program “One-year grant” 2021.

Videography and references:

Heights short film

Depths short film

Online conversation with Svetlin Velchev

O’Donohue John, “Walking in Wonder”, Convergent, New York, 2018

Borch, Christian, “Architectural Atmospheres”, Birkhäuser, 2014

Hristova, Svetlozara and Sotirova, Ana-Maria, For the field of screen dance: the meeting of dance with cinema, Dance Magazine, issue 2, 2020.