The Rivers of Europe boat docked in Lom, Bulgaria. (Credit: Boryana Dimitrova Katsarova for the NYT)

Times-T-logoBUDAPEST — Growing up in the Bulgarian port city of Ruse, the Nobel literature laureate Elias Canetti recalled in his memoirs that “the rest of the world was known as ‘Europe,’ and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to Europe.”

Ruse was the final destination for Rivers of Europe (RIVE), a cultural project conceived to challenge the divisive mentality Mr. Canetti described. From Aug. 19 to Sept. 19 the RIVE boat, a floating exhibition and performance space manned by a crew of international artists, set off from Linz, Austria, stopping in 18 locations along the Danube with the idea of spreading a message of integration through art, music and dance.

“The Danube is the most multicultural river in the world,” said Barna Petranyi of Pro Progressione, a cultural agency that collaborated with seven other organizations on RIVE. “It passes 10 different countries, from the richest area of the E.U. to the poorest country of all Europe, Moldova,” he said.

Mr. Petranyi, a Budapest native, began putting together a team of collaborators in 2009 and raised a budget of 400,000 euros, or $500,000. Half came from a European Union grant, which will also fund a RIVE bus tour this month. More river trips are being planned for next year. Participants submitted their proposals in response to an open call and the RIVE ship carried as many as 25 artists and volunteers, who held daily workshops in public spaces and produced a contemporary dance show that took place at night.

At one performance here last month, the upper deck lights went out, plunging the dancers into total darkness. During the 25-minute piece, four sinuous white shapes were illuminated by spiky projections from the ceiling. A bass-heavy electronic soundtrack undulated beneath, sprinkled with beats, samples and effects created by watery wah filters.

A scene from the contemporary dance show. (Credit: Boryana Dimitrova Katsarova for the NYT)

“We are four beings that fight over and share the water,” said Elena Martino, an Italian dancer based in Germany, describing the number. After a series of sequences where the figures joust, cross each other, fall and jump back up, Ms. Martino lay in a corner, motionless, accompanied by melancholy melodies from a solo piano.

“There are moments of conflict and moments where we search, feel or connect, but somebody always loses because one wants to be stronger than the rest,” Ms. Martino said. “The unity of this piece is that everyone we meet can find their own story in it.”

RIVE was designed to reach rural communities as well as cities, bringing the artists to both new audiences and sophisticated ones. The boat cruised along Hungary’s northern border with Slovakia, which is delineated by the Danube at the industrial town of Komarom. It docked next to a bridge separating the two countries, where on the Slovak side the town’s name changes to Komarno.

The bridge separating Hungary and Slovakia at Komarom.

The bridge separating Hungary and Slovakia at Komarom. (Credit: Frederick Bernas)

For Claudio Magris, the author of “Danube,” a bestselling historical travelogue, this phenomenon of multiple names for one location reflects different “layers of reality” that characterize the “fractured mosaic” of settlements on the river.

“Sometimes people have no idea those towns are also Serbian, Hungarian or Romanian. They only know one layer,” Mr. Magris said. “The frontiers can be a bridge for meeting others, or a wall to refuse them.”

In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon amputated two thirds of Hungary’s territory as it broke up remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire defeated in World War I. A third of Hungary’s population became foreign nationals. Today, leaders of the Hungarian far-right channel historical animosity to rally support for a revisionist “Greater Hungary,” a practice that extends to the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

“Many Hungarians see their neighbors as enemies, but my generation simply cannot connect to this kind of hate,” said Balint Toth, 25, a designer on the RIVE team. “We cannot understand why we should keep bad relationships because of memories our grandparents have. We didn’t live these things.”

On a grey afternoon in Esztergom, a medieval town of about 31,000 people, the RIVE boat moored in the shadow of a towering hilltop basilica. Word of the performance spread quickly. RIVE organizers said that over the course of the journey, several thousand people visited the boat. After the show, the crew was invited to a bar with a makeshift music room in an underground cave, where music played until the early hours of the morning.

The next day, a participating musician, Kamil Sobiczewski, discovered that the same cave had been a hiding place for some 30 Polish Jews fleeing the Holocaust. “I grew up with war stories, but I’ve never been anywhere like that. On the other side of the door, people were risking their families’ lives to help,” he said. “It’s incredible — every place has a hidden history.”

A former police officer from Esztergom recalled volatile times after World War II, telling a story about a fisherman who was shot and killed in his own boat for inadvertently crossing the river border between Hungary and Slovakia.

“That’s exactly why this kind of project needs to happen,” said Tibor Nagy Grosso, a visual artist from the Hungarian community in Kosice, Slovakia, who also participated. “For me it’s very strange. In Hungary, I’m Slovakian, and in Slovakia, I’m Hungarian — so I’m from nowhere.”

Tibor Nagy Grosso’s installation on the RIVE ship. (Credit: Frederick Bernas)

Tibor Nagy Grosso’s installation on the RIVE ship. (Credit: Frederick Bernas)

Mr. Grosso collected sand at every stop on the voyage, using it in an installation that also included a microscope to study the samples, a fishbowl filled with tiny translucent polymer balls, and a malleable sandy substance that resembled modeling clay but never dried.

His goal was to create an experience that encouraged people to interact. “The idea is that everybody is playing with the same sand,” Mr. Grosso said. “The microscope shows it all has the same structure, even if it looks different. The sand traces the Danube.”

Down below the main deck, which alternated as both gallery and theater, the crew shared cabins and bathrooms without hot water — as well as daily tasks like cooking and cleaning.

For some, the boat’s constant movement caused confusion. “You don’t know where you are or what day it is,” Ms. Martino said. “You keep traveling and it’s like a kind of loop, a parallel world. It might be a shock going back to reality.”

Published by The New York Times, 10/7/14 – click here for original.