A Bridge Through Time:
'Garofita Pietrii Craiului' Festival Returns to Brasov
It’s sunny day in Brasov and I’m stood in a white marquee in the centre of Piatra Sfatului. Dancers from all over Eastern and Southern Europe amble around me - young people dressed in the traditional costumes of their respective nations. To the side is the stage which they are to take to in just a few moments. Some talk to each other excitedly, some practice the trickier parts of their routines, some sip nervously on bottles of water whilst others meanwhile seem lost in the blue screens of smartphones. The costumes are simple yet colourful - maroons, reds, whites, olive greens and pastel blues, all embroidered with laces of golden thread. A large man bumbles past with a very skinny clarinet. He looks decidedly less enthusiastic.
This is the Garofita Pietrii Craiului, the annual festival of traditional dance held in Brasov that has been coming to town over the last 9 years. Named after the elusive pink flower that resides high up in the neighbouring Piatra Craiului mountains, the event brings dancers from 6 nations - Romania, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzgovina, Hungary and Croatia - together for a day of spectacle and showmanship. The festival aims to promote integration of traditional European cultures within modern ways of living - in a world where modernisation and globalisation are increasingly placed alongside communities that have existed for hundreds of years, Garofita aims to keep local traditions alive and well in the collective imagination and identity of Romanians and Europeans at large.
'These traditional dances are like a bridge: not only between nations, peoples and individuals - but a bridge between our past and our present'. Adrian Valusescu, the festival organiser, is adamant as to the importance of the festival and its connection with the local people. 'All the People involved in this are enjoying it,’ he asserts ‘it's something that comes from the inside and makes them happy'.
A native of Brasov (he describes the city as a 'magnet' that has drawn him back time and again, despite having lived away for a number of years), Valusescu seems enraptured by his home city when we sit down in a cafe on Michael-Weiss street, a stone's throw away from the central square where the festival will soon take place. He is positive about the festival this year despite the financial difficulties that have plagued the event since 2008. 'The big crisis came and we had to reduce down.' he laments 'I would have liked to have an orchestra with vocal and instrumental soloists and to have eight, nine, maybe ten groups'.
In spite of this, however, he is delighted with the dedication of the dancers and staff who consistently help make the event a reality - particularly the considerable number of young dancers involved. 'I'm very glad that most of the young generation in Romania are very interested in things like this' citing that they are drawn to traditional dances out of 'curiosity' for their heritage and as a way to 'travel to new places and explore new cities'. On the other hand, he is also quick to note that folk dancing isn't for everyone - 'My son is 18 and isn't interested in traditional dance. He prefers going clubbing with his friends!'
Backstage at the festival, the reality of these claims becomes clear. Most dancers range from 16-22 in age, and I am pleasantly surprised by their dedication to the craft and desire to perfect their skill at performing dances that were first conceived generations ago. When asked what drove her interests towards folk dancing, Anca (22) from Romania responded that ‘I enjoy the group, we have a very nice team and our teacher is very special’ adding that the young people involved don't feel obligated to take part but do so 'because they enjoy it'. Another Romanian dancer, Israti (17), felt his participation was part of a popular effort to preserve a dying tradition. He felt the issue had a political bent - ‘Our leaders don’t really promote tradition’ - and bemoaned this fact as the impetus for a Romanian identity that is 'slowly fading away'
When at last it came time to watch the dancers perform, their enthusiasm and skill was evident. The various nations presented a broad palette of dances: some staid and formal, some more rambunctious and acrobatic. There were spectacles from both the court and barnyard - the Romanian group careened around the stage in pairs before breaking off and launching into a fully-fledged rural-stomp, two Hungarian men dualled out their skills in a kinetic dance that involved rhythmic slapping of the feet, knees and thighs and a group of older Ukranian women performed the genteel 'Grandma's Dance' with flailing pocket handkerchiefs galore. A highlight of the evening was a Croatian comedy dance, in which a cocksure landowner attempts to solicit the attentions of two women at once, who see through his plan and walk away in disgust (only to inexplicably both come running back to him seconds later). The display is varied, exciting and - given the collective age of the dancers involved - youthful and energetic.
Watching from the crowd, I am reminded of something that Adrian brought up in our conversation a few hours before: 'Dance has accompanied man throughout all of his history, from the first moments of social organisation'. When one sees these dancers perform, it becomes clear that this is an organisation that intends to live on, and that the small yet passionate group of people behind it all are doing everything they can for it to stay that way.