Thistles and Sunflowers

Review by By Iliyana Nedkova

If you took part in the Edinburgh Marathon during the weekend of 27-29 May 2022, you were part of the biggest mass participation sports event in Scottish history! If you took part in the Thistles & Sunflowers marathon of films and music, dance and drama, poetry and pipes at the same weekend, you were one of the hundreds of history-makers participating in the first ever festival in Edinburgh cross-pollinating Scottish and Bulgarian cultures! If you attended Thistles & Sunflowers as a TDFS member, you were to remember the three unique festival weekend events blending in traditional dance cultures from the lands of thistles and sunflowers – The Physics of Sorrow, Dance Fusion and Balkan Ceilidh.

We opened the festival with The Physics of Sorrow – the Scottish premiere on the big theatre screen of five short films from the last ten years by the Oscar-nominated Bulgarian-Canadian animator and political activist Theodore Ushev. Dubbed as Ushev’s long-overdue retrospective, the programme was topped and tailed by two uplifting screen dance animations Demons (2012) and Sleepwalker (2015). Missed all nine festival screenings over the Thistles & Sunflowers weekend? Watch Demons on Vimeo here to delve into folk tales of dancing creatures painted directly on 50 vinyl records, galloping to the catchy rhythms of Bulgarian musician and composer Kottarashky and his Rain Dogs band. Feel the pulse of the surrealist poem Romance Sonambulo by the Spanish bard Federico García Lorca coming alive in Ushev’s ode to joy Sleepwalker set to Joan Miró-inspired abstract imagery and Kottarashky syncopated Opa Hey trad music. Watch on Vimeo here.


We closed the Thistles & Sunflowers festival weekend with TDFS co-commission Dance Fusion and got people dancing with the Balkan Ceilidh. The evening was preceded by welcome notes of our special guests, including H.E. Mr. Marin Raykov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria to the UK who spoke of the significance of the festival marking 24 May – the national day of the Bulgarian Cyrillic Alphabet and cultural heritage within the framework of Scotland’s Year of Stories, while Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and Founding Director of Thistles & Sunflowers festival partner Bilingualism Matters highlighted the importance of bilingualism across our lifespan.


Building on their first momentous encounter facilitated by TDFS during Edinburgh Fringe 2021 and extended during TDFS new festival Pomegranates 2022, the Scottish Highland dancer Alexis Street and Bulgarian folk dancer Ariana Stoyanova choreographed and presented Dance Fusion – a series of newly-fused solos, duets and ensemble pieces for nine dancers and two musicians. They drew on the parallels between Scottish and Bulgarian folk dance traditions, regional variations and stories with live harp and Scottish bagpipe accompaniment by Tsvetelina Likova and Robert Burns. Enjoy two snippets of the dance fusion finale as captured by H. E. Mr. Marin Raykov and published on the Bulgarian Embassy official website here.


The energetic tonic of the Dance Fusion was just the stimulus for the Balkan Ceilidh. Fortified by bites of specially baked traditional Bulgarian sweet bread dipped in honey, all Thistles & Sunflowers guests were on the Ceilidh and Horo floor at the Storytelling Court and danced the night away with artists and stories from the lands of thistles and sunflowers, including the Ceilidh and Horo callers extraordinaire Caroline Brockbank and Ariana Stoyanova, accordion player Colin Garvin, kabagaida virtuoso Rossen Kissiov and the Laid-Back Community Choir. The first ever gig of this choir led by the Thistles & Sunflowers festival artist Yana Aleksandrova was at the Balkan Ceilidh and featured Върви, народе възродени/ Go Forth, You People Now Reborn – the Bulgarian all-schools hymn, aka the alternative anthem of Bulgaria. Watch this unique bilingual arrangement on YouTube here.


The Thistles & Sunflowers dance finale guests were able to alternate their Balkan Ceilidh and Horo dance steps and let our guest storyteller, the cognitive neuroscientist Thomas Bak tell us why bilingualism matters. “We are not strangers. We are all of our Art. We are all sunflowers and thistles.” were the last words with which we wrapped up the Balkan Ceilidh in the spirit of the migration of poetic magic from Thistlesland to Sunflowersland. These words by Jim Mackintosh – one of the two featured festival poets, were performed live by the festival storyteller Yana Aleksandrova. Enjoy them set to the botanical images of Jenny Haslimeier – the award-winning artist also featured in the poetry trail exhibition inspired by the realism and metaphors of those same thistles and sunflowers.   



Thistles and Sunflowers festival ran 18 May – 11 June 2022 at Scottish Storytelling Centre  – a spotlight on stories and artists from the lands of thistles and sunflowers – curated by Iliyana Nedkova and Daniela Dimova-Yaneva specifically for the perfect stage and screen of the Scottish Storytelling Centre at the perfect timing – Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022. An initiative of the Bulgarian Cultural and Educational Centre Scotland with Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland as one of the festival partners. Further details:


Images by Anna Dobreva. Courtesy of the Bulgarian Cultural and Educational Centre Scotland