Social Choreography: The “Black Wave” in the Yugoslav Slet

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Ana Vujanović (2013)

Slets were a form of mass events that were staged in socialist Yugoslavia on a variety of occasions. The most famous and spectacular slets were staged on the Day of Youth, every May 25th, at the Yugoslav People’s Army Stadium in Belgrade. The slet was the central and final event of every Day of Youth, preceded by the Relay of Youth. The Relay was a form of ceremonial mass run organised every year beginning in 1945 and involving thousands of youths, who would run for dozens of miles across Yugoslavia, carrying a baton with a birthday card for Josip Broz Tito, the president of Yugoslavia.[1] In 1957, upon Tito’s suggestion, his birthday was made the Day of Youth and Tito’s Relay was renamed the Relay of Youth. Still, for the rest of his life, until 1980, he remained the “birthday boy” of the Day of Youth – every year, he received the baton, along with the card, and occupied the place of honour at the stadium.[2] This direct association of Tito’s birthday with celebrating youth seems odd, given that at the time, he wasn’t young anymore, not even at the beginning of the tradition – in 1957, he was already 65 – so could not really symbolise youth. Of course, the association was made for other reasons, which take us directly into the history of the slet and its social functions. First of all, it is well known that Tito seriously counted on Yugoslavia’s “youth” and tried to forge a direct link between them and himself, and that he used his speeches to interpellate them as those who would eventually take over and continue down the same path, where their elders – Tito’s own generation – were obliged to stop. But that couldn’t happen just like that. To continue down the path of revolution, which included labour as well as defensive warfare, Yugoslavia’s youth had to be healthy, strong, and physically and spiritually cultivated and robust. And the spectacular self-performance of a slet was the best way to show just how strong, cultivated, and robust they were.

Slet is a noun of Slavic origin, signifying a landing flock of birds and their assembly on the ground; before it came to denote socialist mass events, it was applied to a similar type of rallies organised by the Sokol (Falcon) movement in the 19th and early 20th century. The movement was initiated in Prague in 1862, by philosopher and art historian Miroslav Tyrš, as a national revival movement, meant to facilitate the Czechs’ liberation from Austria-Hungary. Thus originally a nationalist movement, it soon spread across other Slavic-populated areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became a transnational (Pan-Slavic) movement of emancipation and liberation. In the SCS Kingdom and Yugoslavia, the movement became especially popular under King Alexander, whose son, the future King Peter II Karađorđević, was made the national head of the Yugoslav Sokol movement. The King supported the movement, in both symbolic and real terms, by building sokolane (gymnasia), because he recognised the movement as an ideological tool of his centralist policy of an integrated Yugoslav identity. What is important to emphasise about Sokol slets in relation to the later Day of Youth slets is their mass character, on the one hand, and on the other, their amateurism. Although the Yugoslav Sokol movement was disbanded after the Second World War and remained so for a long time, the Sokol tradition of holding relay races and staging slets to honour the sovereign was maintained, although its ideology changed.[3] In addition to the Sokol movement, the prehistory of the Day of Youth slet should also include the 19th-century Turnverein gymnastics movement, initiated by gymnastics educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in Berlin in 1811 and reaching its full momentum around the revolutionary year of 1848. Although the movement had a rather turbulent history, we might say that members of the Turnverein were ideologically close to the Sokols, on account of their nationalist matrix – the founding of clubs and festivals devoted to gymnastics in order to facilitate the unification of the Germans, as well as their physical and moral empowerment. A third line in the genesis of the Day of Youth slet leaves this romanticist framework and binds it, by way of the relay race, to an ideologically different 19th-century movement: the Olympic revival. In contrast to the Sokol and Turnverein movements, its ideology was extremely internationalist and concerned the whole of humanity, but its forms of an organised rally and a relay race (featuring the Olympic torch, or a baton), which still feature in today’s Olympic Games as a global sport and media event, bring it close to Sokol slets.

In the early 20th century, the Day of Youth slet had another two ideologically opposed predecessors: the communist rallies and parades of the Soviet Union and similar Nazi events in Germany. Although neither could be easily linked to the socialist ideology of Yugoslavia, the Day of Youth slet was indebted to them for its ideals of youth, strength, and physical and spiritual culture and persistence as an embodiment of the revolution and a public performance of collectivism. Furthermore, the rhetoric at the Day of Youth slets and even Tito’s speeches delivered on those occasions seldom strayed from the vitalistic worldview introduced by Chernyshevsky in his novel What Is to Be Done?, whose “new man” inspired Lenin so much that he lent the same title to his own famous pamphlet. In addition to adopting this vision of a new man, who becomes a subject of the revolution by realising his physical and then also spiritual potentials, it is also worth mentioning that the same worldview prescribed sports as part of culture, in the post-revolutionary fervour of the USSR. That is how fiskultura (physical culture) came to be promoted, as preparing the Soviet youth for work and defence, which in turn resulted, thanks to Proletkult ideologues, in massive participatory events that stood somewhere in between sports and the arts – not unlike the Sokol slets.[4]

At the end of this brief historical overview, let me just note that the ideological differences separating these different kinds of slets were great (nationalism, internationalism, Nazism, communism), whereas their formal similarities define the slet as a collectivist and egalitarian performance of any social agenda that seeks monolithic social support ‒ the more so, the better ‒ because it rests on mass choreographies and performing in unison. Therefore, en générale, it would be difficult to articulate any aesthetic ideology of the slet that would be more specific than collectivism and egalitarianism.[5] As I have already noted, the similarities were the following: the idea of a physically and spiritually cultivated and strong man as the bodily carrier of social change, epitomised in the young bodies of gymnasts and fiskulturniks (physical culturalists); the ideas of collectivism and egalitarianism, embodied in mass, participatory performances; and an awareness of the aesthetic aspect of ideology, epitomised in public performances of sports, the arts, and the rhetoric of a specific socio-political agenda. But still, it seems to me that there remains a whole series of questions to address, regarding the syntax and semiotics of a particular slet, in relation to other slets and its own social environment, so that we may draw a politically relevant conclusion from their mutual differences and relations. If it was collectivism, then what kind of collectivism, founded on what, and collectivism in what terms? If it was the realisation of revolutionary aims, then what revolution, when, and in what society? And so on. Without addressing those and similar questions, I’m afraid that the slet en général, with all of its variations and their points of contact, may not tell us much about either itself as social choreography, or those social choreographies that it promoted and rehearsed.

To be precise in my analysis, I will single out, from many years of research, the Day of Youth slets, focusing on the one from 1987 and the break brought on by the last slet, held in 1988.[6] The Day of Youth slets may be taken as an illustrative example of social choreography, because they explicitly demonstrate – by virtue of their publicity, massive scale, and repetitiveness – how “ideology is inscribed directly into the body”. However, though illustrative, this example by itself cannot ultimately explain the work of social choreography. Namely, the slet paradigmatically demonstrates the performance of ideology in public space, first of all in terms of promoting and rehearsing the state ideology, but remains silent regarding its “aesthetic continuum”, i.e. relationship with the social order in which it is realised, or the bodily practices serving to internalise and socially realise that ideology. Therefore, in my analysis of the two final slets, I will pay equal attention to the choreography and its performance, in their specific contexts. That way, I will try to show the following: that the slet as social choreography did not show the Yugoslav society as it was but as the Yugoslav state sought to present itself in public space, as the model of the social body, and that the performance of the slet, as a dynamic system of gestures that embodied that model, was also the site of its collapse, where illegible moves and non-gestures emerged as an embodiment of a “choreographically unconscious” slet, a manifestation of the socialist state’s inability to become one with its own society.

At the same time, I want to clarify the theoretical grounding of this procedure. Hewitt devotes a lot of attention to analysing bourgeois gesture, defining it as legible and communicative movement, a movement that is linguistically articulated, that is, according to Agamben, “embodied communication” itself (Hewitt 2005, 83). However, he does not juxtapose the bourgeois with proletarian gesture, arguing, in fact, that the very notion of gesture is a bourgeois notion and that therefore there is no such thing as proletarian gesture (Hewitt 2005, 80). But I would say that although gesture may be a bourgeois concept, Hewitt’s conclusion is still premature, because it does not follow that there is no such thing as proletarian gesture, even if the notion may have been “borrowed” from bourgeois discourse. The societies of real socialism were extremely ceremonialised, their ceremonies ranging from mass ideological spectacles to everyday practices, at school, at work, in the media, etc., and generated an abundance of recognisable and conventional gestures. Without them, the allegorical quality of the slet, to be discussed shortly, could not work, because it wouldn’t be legible, or, conversely, it rested on the assumed existence of referential gestures in social life. Another aspect of my analysis concerns “stumbling” as a non-gesture. The main thesis of Hewitt’s study of gesture – with reference to Balzac – is that stumbling, as a loss of gesture, emerges as an explosion of gesture beyond the borders of legibility. However, if walking, as gestural self-representation, is preceded by stumbling, then stumbling itself forms the very beginning of the language of gesture. Finally, it reflects the work of social choreography because that not-yet-gesture, that “stumble over the threshold of social mediation […] marks not just the moment of nature’s transition into culture – as in Rousseau, the somatic expressive gestures discovering their communicative value – but any moment at which one cultural order, perceived – or no longer perceived, in fact – as natural, makes place for another. (Hewitt 2005, 87)

Besides demonstrating the youth’s potential to bring forth an even better future, the Day of Youth slets also promoted the idea of brotherhood and unity in multiethnic Yugoslavia and the legacy of the People’s Liberation Struggle: the struggle against fascism and socialism as the state agenda. In addition, they were also Josip Broz Tito’s birthday celebrations, although his life and achievements were relatively seldom the topic of the tableaux vivants at the stadium.[7] Rather, he marked them with his own figure and “observed”: from a huge portrait mounted onstage and, in life, physically, from the place of honour at the top of the stand, as the personification and guardian of those ideas. Syntactically, they resembled baroque festivals – and in that regard, I agree with Branislav Jakovljević, who links them to baroque rather than to romanticism (Jakovljević 2008) – in at least two ways. The dramaturgy of an event based on a combination of various disciplines, genres, and media (gymnastics, dance, music, slogans, and a military parade) is fragmentary and comprises a series of items, sometimes amalgamated into “blocks”, i.e. thematic or generic wholes (1987: military parade, Glumište (open-air theatre), folk dances, the thematic block “A Bomb in My Chest”, etc.). Furthermore, and more importantly, the procedure with which the slet generated meaning was allegory, a characteristically baroque form of expression. In that sense, what the collective body performed at the stadium could be interpreted as a “mass ornament” (Kracauer 1995), because it appeared to be a condensed expression of the people’s experience, its self-conception, and that of its own history. However, allegory – as described by Benjamin, invoked by Jakovljević – should not be grasped as merely a convention of that expression but as the very expression of the convention. Therefore, the mass ornaments of a slet are a developed order of representation, whereby a tableau vivant is not only a conventional and static signifier of a notion (the five-pointed star as a symbol of communism), but also carries a “deeper”, dynamic meaning, a whole story about a social subjectivity and its history (the history of the development of socialism, the political significance of the idea of brotherhood and unity, key battles and places in the People’s Liberation Struggle, the history of the League of Communists, the story of the Yugoslav People’s Army and its origins in the partisan movement, and the like). However, the mode of its ideological operation is circular, because to “read” a tableau vivant as an allegory, i.e. to grasp its unobvious meaning, one must precisely be part of the community, the “linguistic collective”, whose assumed expression it is. Only then does the grasped meaning become affective and ideology receive its performative character. Another feature of the Day of Youth slets were the masses of performers (around 8,000) and audience, including those present at the Yugoslav People’s Army Stadium (around 60,000 spectators) plus several million at home, upon the introduction of live TV broadcasts. In line with the ideas of participation and egalitarianism, performers included various kinds of young people: schoolchildren, students, workers, athletes, Pioneers, folk dancers, Gorani,[8] scouts, and soldiers from across the country. In performing terms, this dancing mass of nameless bodies was amateurish (and quite un-virtuosic), which meant that the borders between the performers and the audience were porous and the latter – if it was a younger audience – were interchangeable with the performers. This aspect constitutes a significant difference between the Day of Youth slets on the one hand and Nazi parades and Prague Spartakiades on the other, and especially the mass gymnastics of North Korea’s Arirang games. In that sense, the slets were indeed an exercise in social emancipation, because these events, the state’s greatest, were performed neither by virtuosi, trained to perfection, nor by prominent individuals, but by ordinary people for ordinary people. That, however, did not jeopardise their ideological performativity; rather, it enhanced the circularity at the basis of their ideological operation. Admittedly, I must add that, contrary to the idea of participation but in line with the idea of young, healthy, and strong bodies as the carriers of the revolution, there were no disabled or any other kind of “other” bodies among the performers. I am inserting this remark not just out of political correctness, but also because it shows that the slet was basically a rationally choreographed performance of the politically conscious of the Yugoslav state and that therefore, strictly speaking, did not engender Kracauer’s “mass ornaments” after all.[9] Furthermore, this remark also problematised the ordinariness of the “ordinary man”, relied upon by numerous emancipatory cultural-artistic and social practices, introducing the argument about the preceding ideological treatment of ordinariness itself, coming from an authentic and unrepresentative reality.


In many ways, the slets of 1987 and 1988 were different from all previous slets, above all because in these two events, the socialist social choreography collapsed and disappeared right in front of the Yugoslav public. They were held, respectively, seven and eight years after Tito’s death, in the midst of an economic crisis in Yugoslavia, at a time when the relations between its constituent republics were growing ever more tense, during the political rise of Slobodan Milošević and his “anti-bureaucratic revolution”, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the wars that followed. With the benefit of hindsight, at least on the face of it, it seems inexplicable that these were official events sponsored by the state.

The 1987 slet was preceded by a scandal provoked by the adoption of an ironic proposal for that year’s Day of Youth poster, submitted by the Slovenian group called New Conservatism (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and based on an appropriation of The Third Reich, a painting by Nazi painter Richard Klein. However, the Slovenian artists changed the painting’s ideological features, replacing the Nazi flag in the muscular youth’s right hand with a Yugoslav flag and the eagle with a dove. A lot has been written about this case and it is not the topic of the present text, so I will leave it here with an open question: did the switch of symbols really change everything, rendering the ensuing scandal just a hysterical reaction on the part of a paranoid establishment, or did the very aesthetic of the image, with its politics of the body, carry an ideological burden that linked, rather disturbingly, the Yugoslav socialist system with that of Nazi Germany? Be that as it may, shortly before the start of the relay, the poster was replaced with another one, this time featuring a green leaf against a red background, with a red five-pointed star emerging from it and “biting” into the leaf (which presumably symbolised youth) – another source of confusion – while that year’s baton was a cumbersome Plexiglas cone with eight red drops on the top side – which were later interpreted as drops of blood and thus announcing the Yugoslav wars.

The show itself, framed by this ambivalent iconography, was a hybrid, confusing, and washed-out socialist spectacle that conflated pop culture, folklore, the problems of everyday life, and revolutionary rhetoric.[10] The title was a rather un-revolutionary cry – Upalite svetlo (Turn On the Lights) – with no explanation as to who was languishing in what kind of darkness or who was supposed to turn on the lights, presumably because it was meant to be clear, following the circular code of sapienti sat. The stadium featured a stage set painted in blue, with pop-designed billboards showing scenes from youth life (ranging from sports to rock music), as well as personal graffiti sprayed on it by the event’s participants during the show. The two TV commentators kept referring to it as “alternative”, probably to highlight its contemporaneity and absence of socialist iconography. Nevertheless, a portrait of Tito was still there, this time, even – after a considerable hiatus – not a civilian portrait but one of Tito as a guerrilla fighter, complete with a titovka, the side cap worn by the Yugoslav Partisans. One after another, the stage hosted singers and groups performing the pop hits of the time: “Seobe” (Migrations) by Kerber, “Za treću smenu” (For the Night Shift) and “Stari orkestar” (The Old Orchestra) by Đorđe Balašević, “K-15 (Radnička odmara se klasa)” (The Working Class on Holiday) by Prava kotka, “Bomba u grudima” (A Bomb in My Chest) by Džakarta, etc. In addition, there were also populist songs to remind the audience of brotherhood and unity, such as “Hej, Jugosloveni” (Hey, Yugoslavs) and “Cijela Juga jedna avlija” (All of Yuga, One Playground), and the revolution, such as “Nije sloboda sa neba pala” (Freedom Didn’t Come out of the Blue).

slet 1987.

slet 1987.

While the creators of the show clearly insisted on professionalism, modernity, and technical innovation,[11] the washed-out quality of its socialist social choreography could be noted already in the tableaux, which for the most part comprised ideologically weak symbols: a field of flowers, a four-leaf clover, and a migration scene, with two little houses, clouds, and birds “flying south”. However, the slet would not have been so hybrid and confusing, if its kitsch choreographic storybook had not been interrupted by a Yugoslav People’s Army performance, “Armija naša narodna” (Our People’s Army) composed by Kornelije Kovač and performed by Jasna Zlokić, Mišo Kovač, and Dado Topić. Even though the Day of Youth slet had been demilitarised over the preceding years and there was an agreement with the Army that it would not perform by itself, which meant that, for instance, already in 1979, the audience watched soldiers carrying Pioneers, who were stuffing their guns with flowers (Grigorov 2008, 114‒115), this time, the Yugoslav People’s Army performed alone. Fully armed. And well-trained.

slet 1987.

slet 1987.

The audience did not find it disturbing; the performance of “the soldiers of the Sun” and “the army of peace”, as the Army styled itself, thrilled the spectators and they benevolently chimed in with the goose-stepping soldiers, singing and clapping, and thus extending the Army’s performance onto the stands. And soon far beyond the stands, too.

However, what is most conspicuous is that the performance of the choreography of the slet – except the performances of the Army and the folk ensembles (sic!) – was unusually sloppy, resulting in faulty, crooked, and failing tableaux vivants, which made one grateful to the TV commentators for their explanations, “translating”, for instance, the chaos on the pitch as “a field of flowers”. This aesthetic commentary affirms what Hewitt suggests in his analysis of gesture when he highlights stumbling as a step out of gesture and thus its basic instance. This illegible move is the non-place of gesture, a negativity wherefrom the gesture itself is read as such and thus points to the work of social choreography.

In this way one may especially view the “bodily techniques” of the performers themselves. A production practice often used in TV broadcasts of the slets was to alternate between close-ups and extreme long shots. The practice was not new; Leni Riefenstahl had used in her Triumph of the Will to show the monumentality of the tableaux at Nuremberg, both in terms of individual performing zeal and the performers’ commitment to the idea. At the same time, the socialist slet’s programme treatment of its performers’ physicality proceeded along the following lines:

The sophisticated distribution of the bodies at a stadium literally turned human beings into symbols and letters creating [a] spectacular mass body language. This language had its grammar, its technique, how to create in Foucault terms “precisely legible and docile” bodies. First, such technique concentrated on [the] individual body, breaking it down into the smallest analytical units – movements of body parts. By the help of rhythm these parts were then recomposed according to the mathematical and geometrical considerations. […] The organizers of mass gymnastic displays created a special grids [sic], “tableau [sic] vivants”, and assign [sic] every gymnast an exact place on the intersection of abstract axes x and y. A gymnast standing on his mark at the stadium was no longer part of the natural community, but became an analytical unit, which could be directed, controlled and analyzed from one center. (Orsolya and Roubal 2001)

None of this was the case in the 1987 slet. Close-up, the bodies of the performers are no longer analytical units or text.

slet 1987.

slet 1987.

The performers look “private”: they are confused, with chewing gum in their mouths, giggling and poking into each other; they perform the choreography absentmindedly, mechanically, or each in their own way; at times, even, some of them seem lost, because they don’t know what they’re doing; finally, there is no revolutionary fervour on their faces – no convention of expression or expression of the convention of ideology. Of course, that explains the flimsiness of the tableaux, clearly visible in the long shots. Still, the TV crew probably did not intend to be critical; rather, their implicit critique results from their mechanic documenting of the state of affairs, mixed with populist sympathies for the performers, whose privacy was out of joint with the socialist striving to abolish the privacy of private life and make it public. When Dušan Makavejev, back in 1962, made one of the famous films of the Yugoslav Black Wave, Parada, this documentary was considered a serious critique of society because instead of the central event of that year’s Mayday Parade, where everything worked like a charm, Makavejev recorded the shabby backstage of workers and other performers, where their bodies ceased to be textual and the socialist gesture was falling apart precisely in this manner. Since in 1987 that backstage became the main stage, I would ironically dub this slet and the following one the black wave of the Yugoslav slet.

The collapse of the socialist social choreography in the 1987 slet was also aided by the TV commentators’ rather ambivalent comments, as well as aphorisms shown on the scoreboard (invisible to the TV audience and therefore occasionally read out by the commentators). They are mostly critical and ironic with regards to the show itself, as well as the larger social reality, and therefore sound as though they were the immediate voice of the people, whilst, in fact, representing the state television:

TV Commentator 1: The countdown is on. What is it? The working class is counting. What are they counting? They’re counting what remains of their wages this month and wondering: we could go to the seaside, but how? And if we have to, can we? … I will go to the seaside, though maybe I won’t, I’m an optimist, mother…

TV Commentator 2: Right, that’s exactly what the display’s saying: “I’m an optimist, because it won’t do like this anymore”.

There are two key points in this regard. One concerns the two commentators’ comments accompanying the folk dance “Kakvo kolo naokolo” (What a Dance All Around), which opens the first block of the slet, under the ominous title of “Bomba u grudima” (A Bomb in My Chest). The music, comprising motives from various national folk-music traditions of Yugoslavia’s many constituent nations and nationalities,[12] was based on the dance “Brankovo kolo” (Branko’s Round Dance) by Serbian romanticist composer Josif Marinković, a musical setting of the poem “Đački rastanak” (Schoolfriends’ Farewell) by another Serbian romanticist author, the poet Branko Radičević, while the choreography comprised a medley of round dances. As the lengthy and tumultuous dance reaches a crescendo, the two TV commentators seek to match it with a counterpoint of their own. They openly read it as a symptom of growing nationalism and criticise the performers for splitting apart and dancing in eight separate national round dances, instead of one, common Yugoslav dance:

TV Commentator 1: As you may see, the dance started together. … But something’s happening.

TV Commentator 2: Right, what happened to that harmonious dance from the beginning? Why are they, one by one, slowly drifting apart?

TVC1: There, Serbia’s on its own now, then Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina… One by one, the republics and the provinces are drifting apart.

TVC2: Why are we dancing in eight different round dances? Why are we… why are they dancing to their own nationally recognisable melodies, and not together?

TVC1: It seems we’re not united, as we should be. … This dance is a warning about the current situation.

This whole cacophony – who’s speaking and on whose behalf? – is further enhanced by the aphorisms sprinkling from the scoreboard, such as: “Svaki nacionalizam jednako je opasan, čak i naš” (Every nationalism is equally dangerous, even our own) and “Ima toliko raskrsnica, a putevi nedostaju” (So many crossroads, but so few roads). Besides speaking out on the “open secret” of growing nationalism in Yugoslav society at the end of the 1980s, the commentators and aphorisms also insist on the economic and political crisis of the time. A striking example of introducing this topic into a state rally is the block “Glumište” (Open-air Theatre). And not just on account of the commentators.

“Glumište” emerges as a chaotic Diderotesque theatrical agglomerate, comprising a large number of characters from various social strata, “from the beggar to the prince”, and costumed in line with their respective time periods (“the history of Europe”).

slet 1987.

slet 1987.

In terms of its critical content, the most striking part of the block is the item titled “Stari orkestar” (The Old Orchestra). Ballet choreographer Lidija Pilipenko’s choreography was atypical for a slet and similar mass events meant to be observed from a great distance and high above, because it was actually a theatre ensemble scene. So, while the dancers were performing courtly bows and various dances individually, in pairs and small ensembles, no mass ornament could be seen on the pitch. Meanwhile, the eponymous song by Đorđe Balašević addressed an old orchestra that won’t leave the stage, even though it keeps playing the same meaningless song, “tra la la la”. Balašević’s song was a reference to Yugoslavia’s then political elite and one-party system, in which veteran cadres of the League of Communists routinely turned a deaf ear to the problems of Yugoslavia’s social reality. But “Glumište” performed all of that as fiction, as a theatrical play within the slet. Their performance was based on the procedure of “a play within a play”, which – being art, i.e. fiction – allows one to say the “truth” without bearing the consequences. That protective aura was further enhanced by the historical imprecision of the time period depicted, which rendered “Glumište”’s statements timeless and therefore commonsensical in their universality. Once again, the TV commentators sought to up the tension, but this time by concurring with what was being performed on the pitch (TV Commentator: “And, of course, an old orchestra that needs to be replaced.”) and finally by taking up the chorus “tra la la la”, in their commentary on the following aphorism: “Sve je prolazno, posledice su trajne” (Everything is ephemeral, only the consequences are permanent). However, when the two commentators take over the “tra la la la” chorus, it leaves the fiction of “Glumište” and becomes real. And that is exactly its effect. To get this mechanism going, “Glumište” as a play within a play makes havoc in the representational order of the slet, which, whilst projecting Yugoslavia’s society, seeks to be its expression, which takes us back to the domain of allegory and the non-gesture of stumbling. The procedure of “Glumište” is cynical, because this play within a play treats the slet itself as theatre, exposing the truth of “the emperor’s new clothes”. “Glumište” is therefore “stupid” and won’t read the allegory; it abandons its allotted slot in the assumed linguistic-ideological community – which the slet treats as both the referent and addressee in reality – and appears from someplace else, in the midst of the allegory. This way, as fiction within fiction, “Glumište” finally catches up with the reality, showing that the slet doesn’t. This procedure points to the final step required to complete the circularity of the slet’s ideological work, precisely because “Glumište” does not perform it: not only does one need to be a member of the ideological-linguistic community to read the allegory, which is its assumed expression, but also, at the same time, to become a member of that community, one must know how to read the allegory correctly. From the perspective of this “civil disobedience” on the part of “Glumište”, it is interesting to note that its illegible noise, in terms of the lack of a mass ornament, may be understood as a basic instance of mass ornament in Kracauer’s sense – the mass of people itself, their unstructured corporeality, whose unawareness of the expression of convention legitimises its utterance as an authentic expression of the hitherto unrepresented people. The procedure of “Glumište” is also familiar from history, as that of “the king’s fool”. And the fool’s cynicism relies on blackmail: I’m the fool and therefore you won’t take me seriously (I don’t belong in the order of reality); but if you break the contract and do take me seriously (that I am the voice of reality), then you’re a fool yourself. Therefore, “Glumište” was difficult to criticise without thereby acknowledging the fictional character of the slet itself, which is precisely what subsequent critiques ended up doing.

Still, at the end, there remains a far-reaching question, concerning which we may only speculate in the present analytical framework: was it reality that the collapse of the 1987 slet’s choreography opened? What was that reality? Was it an authentic expression on the part of unrepresented citizens? Or: wherefrom was it generated, whose voice was it that “Glumište” put on the public stage? What both Hewitt and numerous Marxist theorists before him have generally pointed out in this regard is that it is a fallacy to search for some immediate truth, reality, or authenticity in what shines through a crack in a gesture or ideological framework, because, as Karl Popper might say, even before contesting a hypothesis, we usually already have another one up our sleeve.


Thus, that illegible non-gesture, which had emerged through the cracks in the 1987 slet, acquired its intelligibility barely a year later, which saw the last Day of Youth event, this time without the relay race, which had been discontinued in the meantime. That year, the slet at the Yugoslav People’s Army Stadium took the form of an artistic dance performance, with a single heroine. The pop-culture-oriented authors of the 1987 slet, the script writers Slobodan Vujović and Žarko Čigoja and director Mihailo Vukobratović, were replaced by well-known theatre makers: the 1988 slet was directed by Paolo Magelli, choreographed by Damir Zlatar Frey, and the main role was performed by Sonja Vukićević, a ballet dancer and modern dance choreographer. The slet was based on an adaptation of Uro boros, a professional play produced by the Novi Sad Cultural Centre and performed the previous year, with much success, at the Budva Theatre City festival in Montenegro.

The event began with an inspired speech by actress Ivana Žigon, celebrating some of the great figures of 20th-century theatre (from the avant-garde to Wilson) and free human spirit. Then, the stadium was plunged into darkness, broken only by countless torches roaming across the pitch. This was followed by a dramatic and dark dance performance in the genre of a stadium-sized choreo-drama about destruction and regeneration, life and death. With her ascetic, dance-athletic body, wearing a white dress, unshod, and with her long, unbound loosely swinging hair, Sonja Vukićević, with much expression, performed the figure of a torn individual, struggling against various obstacles and herself, but still not succumbing in the end.

slet 1988.

slet 1988.

Even though the pitch was crowded with performers,[13] she completely dominated the scene, which turned the 1988 slet into a dance solo, of gigantic proportions. The entire choreography and the entire set, with especially effective focused lighting, were mobilised to single out, for the first time in the history of slets, a single body from the anonymous dancing mass. Throughout the event, that body kept running relentlessly, up and down the pitch, drenched in rain, crossing a sea, to emerge at the end, literally battered and exhausted but still standing, on an elevated platform in the middle of the stadium, surrounded by people in semi-darkness, organising themselves in concentric circles around her.

The play’s historical context was less than precise; the symbolic order of the slet renounced contemporaneity and its aesthetic primarily evoked a medieval kind of atmosphere, with the performers costumed to look like serfs from feudal times. Those 9,000 other performers were thus given the (quasi-)tautological role of the people qua people, while only one virtuosic individual was singled out from their midst, exceptional and exempt. It was a syntactic and symbolic collapse of the slet ideology of “All together now!”. Thus, if the 1987 slet might illustrate Renata Salecl’s claim that in socialist Yugoslavia no one eventually believed in socialism anymore, but everyone believed that everyone else still believed (Salecl 2010, min. 8.05-9.50), the 1988 event shows that a year later no one shared that belief either, not even the state itself. Still, one should not view that collapse as that of ideology in general and a transition into a post-ideological and post-historical era. On the contrary, stripped of the kind of ideological propaganda that we witnessed in the preceding years, the 1988 slet merely used more subtle artistic devices to promote individualism as the new ideological matrix.

slet 1988.

slet 1988.

Before discussing that individualism, I will briefly address the aspect of the artistic. As I mentioned at the outset, in post-revolutionary USSR the concept of fiskultura facilitated the transfer of sports into culture, which was, according to O’Mahony, a sort of legitimisation of mass, working-class culture, as opposed to bourgeois, elitist culture and its glorification of the arts. The socialist slet – from the Spartakiades, via mass gymnastics, to the Day of Youth slets – thus emerged as an ideological spectacle with a strong insistence on the aesthetic, but aesthetic in its basic sense and therefore not necessarily artistic. Indeed, one had to be rather careful and deft in balancing the artistic, to enhance the ideological affect and effect, but without straying into bourgeois elitism, l’art pour l’art, or decadence. In 1987, with its theatrical block, “Glumište” opened a crack in this aesthetic order, which in 1988 gave birth to an artistic dance-theatrical play in lieu of a slet. From the politico-ideological perspective of the collapse of socialism and revitalisation of capitalism in Yugoslavia, or the collapse of its proletarian and revitalisation of its bourgeois society, it is symptomatic to compare this turn with an ostensibly advisory but really obligatory lecture given by Kim Jong-il in 1987 to the organisers of mass gymnastics on the eve of Prosperous Juche Korea, a mass rally to mark the Day of the Sun, Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Here are some excerpts:

Our mass gymnastics are a mixed form of comprehensive physical exercises, which combine high ideological content, artistic qualities and gymnastic skills. […] The revolutionary content of the theme of a mass gymnastic piece enhances its ideological and artistic qualities and its educational significance. […] When told to adopt new forms each time they create mass gymnastics, the creative workers try to make and use artistic hand props and equipment, instead of gymnastic hand props and equipment. In consequence, gymnastic performances lack vigour and driving force and are beginning to resemble art performances. From now on, gymnastic hand props and equipment must be designed and used for gymnastic formations. […] To all intents and purposes, backdrops and music are needed to add relief to the performances of the gymnasts. Subordinating music to the movements of the players will avoid the tendency of mass gymnastic performances becoming like a dance or an art performance. […] If too much of it is used as gymnastic music, the mass gymnastic performance may become an art performance. This is not good. […] The major shortcoming of this work [Prosperous Juche Korea] is that it resembles a dance and an art work. (Kim 1987)

Back to the individualistic matrix of the last Yugoslav slet. That the individualism of the 1988 slet was an ideological category every bit as much as collectivism had been is an important thesis regarding the social choreography of contemporary dance, based as it is on emancipating the individual body (even though this emancipation is considered inherently anti-ideological). In addition, this thesis, more specifically and contrary to the common view, links it with capitalist rather than democratic society. I have already written about this, so here I will reiterate some of the argumentation:

Accordingly, [the] “emancipation of the individual” (attributed to democratic societies) is not reverse to ideology (imputed to non-democratic regimes), but its guiding principle. And its reverse on the other ideological side is “collectivism”. The former concept is specific to capitalist societies and basically derives from the economic principle of private ownership, as its ideological foundation. The latter was adopted from the socialist-communist ideological vocabulary, and refers to its milestone concept of public ownership. […] Therefore, what we encounter in capitalist societies is a history of contemporary dance as a high art practice of [the] emancipation of the individual – rendering a singular autonomous subject through [the] liberation of the individual body, expressiveness, creativity, and authorship. On the other hand, in socialist countries such practice was perceived as a bourgeois luxury – what was required was a socially and economically efficient collective – being replaced by dance as an “all together now!” activity, and [the] nearly anonymous cultural practices of rallies, parades, amateur or folk dances etc. […] Metaphorically speaking, a-professional-Western-contemporary-dancer is an ideal image of an independent, well-educated and accomplished self-entrepreneur, while an-Eastern-mass-of-(semi-)-amateur-performers is a projection of a Workers’ Council wherein each voice claims equal importance and value in a workforce structure that belongs to all of them (in fact, to the whole society). (Vujanović 2008, 39‒40)

However, if we understand the choreography of the 1988 slet as an allegory of the ideology of individualism, then, as before, we must move to its more specific social level.

slet 1988.

slet 1988.

My key claim, with which I conclude this analysis, is that the allegory here is ambiguous, because it demands to be read at once in two seemingly contradictory ways. According to one of them, following the collapse of socialist collectivism and its notorious particularism, the allegory celebrates the very notion of a free and independent individual (which, presumably, anyone could be, in his or her specificities, thus as a singularity of a plurality) whereas according to the other, it rehearses a new collectivism based again on particularist self-sacrifice and ultimate support to a prominent individual (but which one?). This politics of the body belongs in a new social and ideological chapter in the history of Yugoslavia, but first, it retroactively enquires about the social (dys)functionality of the Day of Youth slet. Namely, the social function of the slet was to constitute, by performing and rehearsing socialist collectivism, the identity of the new social subject, able to preserve the legacy of the revolution and continue down the revolutionary path toward communism. That kind of performativity of identity, Judith Butler has written, certainly requires more than one performance: it requires long-term repetitiveness. And that is precisely what slets did, along with many other similar events and rituals in Yugoslavia’s ceremonialised society. In addition to adding physical culture to the curriculum starting in primary school, every year for 30 years, the slets publicly performed, rehearsed, and trained young bodies to take up the identity of future socialist Yugoslavs. However, the 1987 slet revealed that identity as flimsy, porous, socially not grounded (anymore), only to be replaced, already in 1988, by an entirely different model: that of a prominent individual surrounded by the masses. The question is what happened to that social body that had spent 30 years training for an entirely different picture of the world: how did it change shape so quickly, or was it ever shaped at all? The only certainty is that the breakdown of its aesthetic continuum was performed in a spectacular way in the 1987 and 1988 self-performances of the state, when a new identity, with all the ambiguity of a symbiosis between an individual and the colourless masses, acquired its social grounding – in the emergence of national leaders in each of the six republics and the growth of nationalism as anchors of identification for those citizens who assembled around them; this new identity would mark the social reality of Yugoslavia in the ensuing period.


Works Cited:

  • Cvejić, Bojana and Ana Vujanović. Public Sphere by Performance, Berlin: b_books, 2012
  • Grigorov, Dimitar. “‘Računajte na nas’: ‘Odlomak’ o Titovoj štafeti ili Štafeti mladosti”. Godišnjak za društvenu istoriju  1‒3, 2008, pp. 105‒137
  • Jakovljević, Branislav. “Ručni radovi – estetsko nasleđe ’68.”. Teatron 142, 2008, pp. 26‒40
  • Kim, Jong-il. “On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics”, 1987, (15 October 2013)
  • Kracauer, Siegfried. Mass Ornament, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995
  • Manojlović Pintar, Olga. “‘Tito je stena’: (Dis)kontinuitet vladarskih predstavljanja u Jugoslaviji i Srbiji 20. veka”. Godišnjak za društvenu istoriju 2‒3, 2004, pp. 85‒101
  • O’Mahony, Mike. Sport in the USSR: Physical Culture – Visual Culture, London: Reaktion Books, 2006
  • Orsolya, Danó and Petr Roubal (eds.). Bodies in Formation: Mass Gymnastics under Communism, Budapest: Open Society Archives at Central European University, 2001, (15 October 2013)
  • Salecl, Renata, “The Paradox of Choice“, a lecture given at the RSA, July 8, 2010, (15. October 2013)
  • Vujanović, Ana. “Ne sasvim zapadna, ne baš istočna plesna scena (o savremenoj plesnoj sceni u Srbiji)” / “Not Quite-Not Right Eastern Western Dance (On Contemporary Dance Scene in Serbia)”, in Bojan Đorđev (ed.), Raster #1: Godišnjak nezavisne izvođačke scene u Srbiji / Year book of the independent performing arts scene in Serbia, Belgrade: TkH, 2008, pp. ??‒??

Translation from Serbo-Croatian: Žarko Cvejić Published in English and Serbo-Croatian as Ana Vujanovic, “Social Choreography: The ‘Black Wave’ in the Yugoslav Slet (The 1987 and 1988 Day of Youth)” in TkH no. 21 “Social Choreography”, 2013.

PDF available here.

[1] “The most massive was the 1952 event, when over 1,550,000 Yugoslavs relayed tens of national and local batons for some 80,000 miles.” (Grigorov 2008, 109)
[2] The Day of Youth continued to be celebrated even after Tito’s death, under the motto of I posle Tita – Tito (Even After Tito – Tito).
[3] The question of how and why that was possible opens the far-reaching issue of the relevance of social choreography unless we move our analytical focus beyond choreography as a phenomenon, to its aesthetic continuum in context. On the (dis)continuity between Sokol and socialist slets, see Manojlović 2004, Grigorov 2008, and Jakovljević 2008.
[4] Hence the following announcement in a resolution of the Russian Union of Young Communists, promulgated at the Third All-Russian Congress of the Soviets in 1918: “The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential element in the overall system of communist upbringing of young people, aimed at creating harmoniously developed human beings, creative citizens of communist society. […] Today, physical culture also has direct practical aims: (1) preparing young people for work; and (2) preparing them for military defence of Soviet power” (quoted in O’Mahony 2006, 15).
[5] For instance, 1928 saw the First Workers’ Spartakiad as opposed to the “Western” Olympics, which turned the slet from an ideological playground into a battleground of opposing ideologies. (see O’Mahony 2006, 30‒37)
[6] My sources comprised integral footage from the Programme Archive of TV Belgrade.
[7] They usually emerged in the form of Tito’s “signature”: his epaulets, actual signature, the key years of his life, etc.
[8] Members of an eponymous youth organisation dedicated to preserving and expanding Yugoslavia’s forests – Translator’s note.
[9] Which are characterised by unconsciousness, thus: “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. […] The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things” (Kracauer 1995, 75).
[10] See an earlier and rudimentary analysis of this slet in Cvejić and Vujanović 2012, 69‒70.
[11] In the 1980s, the likes of Paja Kultura [Spasoje Grdinić] were replaced by a new generation of young writers with modern ideas, for whom so-called professionalism came first, whereas personal aspects and emotions were incidental. […] Žarko Čigoja keeps stressing the technical parameters of this event. The former script writer asserts that the show had its producers, music editors, choreographers. (Grigorov 2008, 115)
[12] In Serbo-Croatian, narodi i narodnosti. According to its constitution, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprised six constituent nations (narodi) – the Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Macedonians, Slovenes, and Montenegrins, each of whom formed a majority (in some cases, though, only relative) in their own constituent republic (federal unit) – and a number of nationalities (narodnosti; in effect, national minorities), including, most prominently, the Albanians, Hungarians, and Italians, among others, scattered in some or all of Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics – Translator’s note.
[13] According to Vukićević, apart from her partners onstage, she was accompanied by another 9,000 youths. She told me that when I interviewed her for Tigrov skok u prošlost (A Tiger’s Leap into the Past), an exploration and video archive of Serbia’s dance scene, co-authored with Saša Asentić, Belgrade, 2007 (20 October 2013).