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A blog post written by Michael Bird, the British Council’s Regional Director, in response to Bolero at Sarajevo War Theatre.

It’s 28 June 2014. It’s the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated the First World War. I’m in Sarajevo, where this event took place.

I’m here with Graham Sheffield, the British Council’s Director Arts, for the Sarajevo premiere of Bolero, which the British Council is supporting, by writer, live artist and theatre maker Michael Pinchbeck.

1.

It’s 14 February 1984. Michael Pinchbeck is a kid in Nottingham. He falls over and gets a black eye. His dad carries him home, his mum puts a bag of ice on his eye, and she turns on the TV. He sees two skaters from Nottingham dancing on ice in Sarajevo to the music of Ravel’s Bolero.

To this day, when he hears the music, he remembers his eye hurting and the ice melting.

2.

Ravel composed Bolero in 1928, 10 years after the end of the First World War, its rhythm inspired by the gunfire on the Western Front where Ravel served in the French army.

8 years later, in 1934, the British Council was founded to counter the rise of fascism in Europe.

Torvill and Dean won the figure skating gold medal at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984.

8 years later, the stadium where they skated was bombed, the seats were used to make coffins and the stadium became a morgue.

3.

Michael Pinchbeck’s Bolero connects the First World War and the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, Sarajevo and Nottingham, Torvill and Dean skating to Bolero and Ravel writing it, Mozart’s Requiem and Radiohead’s Creep, and much else.

Six actors, from the UK, Germany and Bosnia & Herzegovina, explore these connections.

These connections began with conversations. Our regional Director Arts Gregory Nash connected our colleague in Bosnia & Herzegovina Amila Lagumdžija and Michael Pinchbeck. Amila connected Michael and Nihad Kreševljaković at Sarajevo War Theatre. Michael connected Nihad and Giles Croft at Nottingham Playhouse.

4.

It’s 24 April 2014. I’m in the British Council’s headquarters in London. I’m doing a talk on our work in my region for London colleagues. I don’t want it to be just me, and I don’t like standard PowerPoint presentations. I want colleagues in London to hear different voices, and I want the message to be our people. Larisa Halilović, Director Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Michael Pinchbeck tell the story of the collaboration that’s produced Bolero.

As I write this, I remember my eyes pricking with tears, my heart filling with pride.

5.

Michael’s story is his story. But I have childhood memories like his. We all do. They’re universal.

It’s last Sunday. I’m sitting in the Sarajevo War Theatre, following the interconnected stories of Bolero and connecting with stories of my own. I’m in 1974, singing in Britten’s War Requiem in Winchester Cathedral. I’m in 1994, presenting War Requiem at the St Petersburg Philharmonia for the Leningraders who endured 900 days of siege. I’m in 1979, discovering the music of Ravel for the first time. I’m in 1992, standing at the grave in Arras of the poet Edward Thomas, who was from the village in England where I grew up, and who was killed in 1917. I’m in 2010, visiting Sarajevo for the first time.

Graham Sheffield is sitting three seats away. I’ve tried to tell him what Sarajevo means to me. I’ve tried to explain that it’s both terrible and inspiring. But what I say won’t mean much to him. He’ll discover his Sarajevo, and he does. As I knew they would, I see the power that this city and this show exert.

Bolero has travelled from Nottingham Playhouse to Sarajevo War Theatre. It will go on to the ODA Theatre in Prishtina. Graham thinks it should go on to many other places around the world.

6.

Torvill and Dean’s Bolero is over. The judges award perfect sixes for artistic impression. This has never happened before (and it’s never happened since).

Michael Pinchbeck’s Bolero is over. The six actors hold up six placards with the number six. The audience stands to applaud the actors and the actors applaud the audience. Our empty seats are red, like the chairs on the stage which stand for the 11,541 red chairs which were lined up on Sarajevo’s main street in April 2012 to mark 20 years since the start of the war and the 11,541 lives lost. They filled 100 trucks and took 6 hours to line up in 825 rows stretching almost a kilometre. 643 of the chairs were small, in memory of 643 children.

Image: Maria Gloria Harvey

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