Ivo Dimchev’s solo show Som Faves (2009) is deceiving all over. I might have avoided his Montréal premiere during the ARTDANTHÉ mini-festival if I hadn’t known better. The Bulgarian artist, performer and teacher is the founder of Humarts in Bulgaria and Volksroom performance space in Brussels. Thanks to a word-of-mouth recommendation, I was at Théâtre La Chapelle in November to witness the cunning and wealth of this maker’s wild imagination.
The advertisement of Som Faves gave me mixed feelings. A promo photo shows the huge mouth and red face of a kneeling man in a full-throttled yell. A scrappy blonde wig flies up at his temples; a claw-shaped hand clasps at the space in front of his mouth. Everything about his stance describes trauma.
I’ve grown wary of pieces that rely on violence to create feeling in me. Perhaps this is because I am a sprout of the Generation of Entitlement (read: tantrum) or just that I watch too much TV, but as soon as objects begin to fly about in a choreography — dancers yelling, music mounting to whip everyone into a frenzy — I start to tune out. Likewise, I would have turned the page on Som Faves only I noticed that his anguish was directed at a porcelain figurine of a cat.
Despite initial appearances, Som Faves is a piece of refined craft. The white-faced kitty only begins to hint at Dimchev’s humour and tender generosity. I spoke with him briefly after the performance: he is soft-spoken and anything but violent. The yelling and the bloodletting on stage are decoys. In the finale of Som Faves, Dimchev cut incisions on his eyebrows with a razor. Lacy blood poured down his body. “Relax,” he said, as his insides fell out of him. The gesture was delicate, but nevertheless a cliché, and soon an attitude of critical detachment crept over me. Precisely at that moment, the heavy soundscape of the vignette cut out and Dimchev bowed his head. With a quiet “thank you,” he wilfully broke the sensational framework of the scene. Not a drop of red sullied the tidy set. The tiny cuts on his face lost all of their life-threatening symbolism.
Dimchev is able to transfuse the most imposing scenes of Som Faves with this kind of simplicity. Humour plays a big role in disrobing the dramas. I fell off my seat laughing a dozen times, notably in the scene from the photograph when Dimchev pleads with the cat: “Why don’t you eat my food?!” He cried this repeatedly, over dirgeful music, tormented by this serene creature. Gestures of his eyes, changes in his body posture, minute tweaks of the tacky sounds coming from his synthesizer keyboard invited glee during these most grotesque propositions. But Dimchev is not a comic — he is a performer who skilfully twists facts to indulge a richer fiction.
Each part of Som Faves both squashes expectations and bolsters imagination. If you are as wired as I am, you might have mouthed the title as I first did: sawhm fah’vez. Pronounced like this, the piece took on foreign weight, a brainy authority. However, Som Faves is simply som[e] fav[orit]es, either written poorly or parading — for those who wish – as the Emperor’s New Clothes. In the familiar children’s story, the emperor pays a fortune to a tailor for a sexy idea and everyone is charmed by its fantasy. A child spoils the fun, calling the emperor a fool and advising his entourage to value economy over imagination.
But what is the value of a story sapped of creativity? Dimchev’s character begs that we embrace that foolish imperial spirit, and reimagine the fable. Forget conservative mistrust of the intangible: the emperor’s invisible clothes are a beautiful fiction embellishing an equally beautiful and true nakedness. Both the emperor and his audience understood this.
Dimchev deliberately undresses each of his actions on stage. His character sheds one drama in order to assume a counterpoint. In doing so, the puppet-strings of his make-believe land are exposed to his audience: he is at once clothed and nude. Dimchev, mid-performance, questions outright what his performance actually is. Now behaving as the precocious child, he asks whether the material of Som Faves fulfills its promise. This is the central drama of the solo; does the form suit its content? At one moment, Dimchev, in his shockingly dove-like falsetto, actually crooned a poll to the audience: “Is this a song or choreography?” The room was fairly divided.
Dimchev is critical of the collective concern we hold for appropriately branding and packaging art. Contemporary artists — facilitated by technologies — have adopted a Big Bang model of creativity with no limits on form, tangible or ephemeral. That explosion, neither good nor bad in itself, sweeps many artists into a rush of production that is overthought and under-felt. Blame governments grants, hungry markets, or audience expectations.
Dimchev warns that within the glittering swirl of this vast art world lurks the danger of being lured into a black hole: believing that “the trappings” of stuff is enough. So Dimchev plays the tailor too. He tempts us to “respect art!” He preaches the phrase louder and louder, wielding a thrift-store painting of two women in bonnets above his head. At the height of his impassioned mantra, he concedes that if we don’t, not to worry, “there’s nothing wrong” with us. In his universe, we are free to choose in what we believe.
Ultimately, when it comes to deciding how to label what Dimchev does on stage (song? dance? performance art?), the audience is left to consider if it even matters. Somehow Dimchev manages to wriggle free of those labels. They bear little on the world he invents because its realness is embodied in him. Dimchev masterfully manipulates the truth with the physical metamorphosis of his trickster character; his carriage and execution sew the fabric of the whole together. I felt all the richer for having been played his fool.
When we listen to stories, we suspend our disbelief for a time. That dreamtime of art is specially reserved for irrational thoughts and an investment in feelings — whether one is giving away money, time or blood in the transaction, as Dimchev suggests in a preamble to Som Faves. The emperor offered his whole body as a canvas for his subjects’ imaginations. Ivo Dimchev is such a nobleman.