1 December 2016

Plovdiv2019 & IETM Valencia: Crossing Hills, Crossing Centuries

By Liz Pugh, Creative Producer


Getting under the skin of a city – Plovdiv (Bulgaria) and Valencia (Spain)

Beneath the streets of Plovdiv lies another city. The frayed edges of Roman roads, Thracian temples and fragments of other ancient civilisations are visible under my feet. At least seven eras of power have shaped this city, which reveals its archaeological riches whenever anyone digs a hole. Now, the team at Plovdiv2019 is inviting artists to help shift the city’s gaze to the future, and prepare for its time as a European capital of culture.

We glimpse seats from the ancient Roman stadium which seated 30,000 people to watch chariot racing, and the amphitheatre is still regularly filled with audiences of up to 7000. They are no strangers to spectacle here in one of Europe’s oldest cities.

And spectacle is one of the reasons for our visit – to explore how our training school that brings together artists and creative practitioners from five European countries might be shaped to suit Plovdiv’s particular landscape. We talk of islands in the river and the seven hills; of kukeri – the traditional players who dress as beasts to drive away evil spirits – and music technology. We hear modern European tales of exodus, and local medical schools packed with immigrants from the UK in search of a cheap education. Easyjet flights from Bulgaria to UK are full both ways, as we exchange young people who want cheaper education with young people who need to earn better money.


Georgi, a cultural anthropologist, gamer and Rastafarian, leads us up and down the three highest hills while talking of his passion for history. As we walk, he shares his encyclopaedic local knowledge in the manner of an MC, another of his skills. The day before, we had visited the three small hills in the old town, overlooking the river. Now we were walking past Tobacco City, where many of the USSR’s cigarettes were produced, to the first of three bigger hills – Dzhendem Tepe (Youth Hill) – which we stomped up and down, barely pausing for breath at the top.

From up here we can see clearly the shiny new shopping mall built on the site of the invisible seventh hill…removed during the Soviet era so its rock could be used for construction. The scars of political change are overlaid by a new tattoo on the skin of the city.

By contrast, the Island is an empty green space adrift in the shallow river: a sanctuary for wildlife – particularly birds and snakes – amid rumours of unsavoury human activity. We talk with artist Petko Tanchev about using the island as a poetic fulcrum on which to balance the journeys of enquiry which the School of Spectacle will facilitate for a week in October 2017.

The vocabulary of “spectacle” is something that we (at Walk the Plank) are always working with and against. We are trying to use the word itself with care, clarifying in respect of scale and context to avoid a mismatch between audience expectation and the reality of what can be created, given the time and money. But I hope that however we end up working with people in Plovdiv, the impact of what we will do together is nothing short of spectacular.

plovdiv4Plovdiv’s hills & subterranean Roman ruins


Coincidentally, 2 weeks earlier I was queueing outside the Bulgarian Consulate in Valencia with a friend, Sii, as she voted in their presidential election. Bulgaria has made votingcompulsory, so we had taken time out after the IETM meeting so she could cast her vote.

IETM offers regular members meetings which create a platform for debate for those interested in the issues facing contemporary performance across Europe. The current high number of British delegates is probably indicative of the need that many of us in the UK now feel to reach out to our European colleagues.

The meeting took place in a neighbourhood, El Cabanyal, that is undergoing change, but one where artists are working alongside local residents to try and shape the inevitable gentrification. I went on a fascinating architect-led walk around another area, Russafa, originally a hamlet outside Valencia’s walls. It was another great way to meet a city – avoiding its homogenised city centre, and only visiting its neighbourhoods. A way of noticing what’s beneath the surface, much like seeing Plovdiv’s subterranean civic worlds while walking to the top of each of its hills.