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Acts of healing a nation

In the dark days of Milosevic's regime, four women in Belgrade created theatre amid the destruction. Noel Witts explores their bid to help Serbia regain its sense of humanity.

Belgrade's sense of performance - honed by Serbians' black sense of humour - has often been used to lampoon the Milosevic regime unmercifully. Witness members of the public marching past the state television headquarters with eyes closed in 1992 in a protest entitled "The Strolling of the Blind", or the mass offering of bars of soap to members of the Serbian parliament "to wash their dirty tongues". But alternative theatre in Belgrade does not just serve as a weapon of protest. It has other roles: to remind people of their humanity in an era of mass suffering and to help them come to terms with Milosevic's dark legacy.

Dah theatre - the word means "breath" in Serbo-Croat - is the first independent theatre company to be founded in Belgrade. In the week that Slobodan Milosevic was taken away to the Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity, the company celebrated its tenth birthday.

It is a collective of four extraordinary Serbian women who have been creating theatre pieces throughout the Yugoslavian wars - pieces that have, through a collection of powerful ideas and images, attempted amid the destruction to remind people of their right to humanity, even implying that it might be possible to create a new life - if only for an hour or so - from the ruins.

Mostly, the shows have been performed outside the mainstream of Belgrade theatre life - on the streets, in the Rex Arts Centre (a converted cinema) and in courtyards and alleys. They have titles such as Gifts of Our Ancestors , Angels' Memories , Documents of the Times and Maps of Forbidden Remembrance , all indicating the company's concern with preserving what has been destroyed, and with finding a way of cleansing the audiences. In the words of director Dijana Milosevic (no relation), for ten years the company has "been making a cry of creation to coincide with the fall of Yugoslavia and the general destruction that followed... opposing destruction with creation".

Dah's first major piece was This Babylonian Confusion , in 1992, based on the anti-war songs of Bertolt Brecht and performed on the streets of Belgrade, when it was forbidden to mention the war in a city portrayed by the government as a paradise on earth. The company's next two shows, Gifts of our Ancestors and Zenith , were about the work of two Serbian artists - Momcilo Nastasijevic and Ljumir Mitic - both disapproved of by the regime. Then, in 1996, came The Legend of the End of the World , a kind of requiem at the time of the Bosnian crisis for all that was lost in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Moscow. Memories were displayed in scattered photographs, bombed libraries and mounds of salt poured out round the miniature town-square set.

Legend was the first piece to address the problems of real people living with war. The play addressed the company members' decision to stay in Serbia, their need to find a way of bearing the pain, to create some artistic meaning and to deal with problems through the creation of images on stage. While the regime denied any responsibility for the devastation and sought to complete what had been "disrupted" by the creation of Tito's Yugoslavia, Dah's work brought people together in defiance of Milosevic.

The company's activities also served to raise the question of what the role of theatre should be in war. Should it just be escapism or could it begin a process of healing?

Dijana Milosevic often takes her inspiration from little-known national literature or international texts that are able to connect the Belgrade audience with the outside world. As Belgrade begins the process of attempting to return to some form of normality, Dah has been invited to perform in the National Theatre. The piece is a collaboration with the US Seven Stages Theatre in Atlanta, called Maps of Forbidden Remembrance . It is a story about emigration, a burning issue over the past ten years of Yugoslavia's history and a fitting theme after the years of war and waiting. It also shows another role for post-Milosevic theatre - as a public arena in which the need for some form of national healing is recognised.

As Serbia recovers slowly, the main issues it faces are those of reconstruction and recovery, but not simply in the physical or political sense. The people need a kind of de-traumatisation. It is something theatre can go some way towards providing by embodying hope, showing ways forward and connecting with people. The role of Dah is therefore becoming even more crucial as the company evolves into a recognised part of the collective healing process that Serbia must undergo.

Like experimental theatre director Tadeusz Kantor in Poland, the company has shown that it is possible to create images that remain in the mind as potent symbols of opposition to oppressive regimes.

Noel Witts is a professor in the theatre studies department at Hull University.

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