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Interview with Sasha Pepeljajev

by Stuart Sweeney

March 2004

Sasha Pepeljajev is an internationally acclaimed dance theatre choreographer from Russia and a year ago made a version of “Swan Lake” with Peeter Jalakas of Tallinn’s von Krahl Theatre. After excellent reviews from New York and elsewhere, Pepeljajev talks to Stuart Sweeney about his background and how “Swan Lake” was made.

How did you become a choreographer?

As a teenager I studied normal theatre and then dance, mime and movement. After school I did a mix of things including working in the theatre and studying at architectural college and the Theatre Institute in Moscow. Then I did a lot of different things around Europe including teaching theatre dance classes.

I moved back to Moscow in 1993 and started Kinetic Theatre, and for five or six years we were an experimental group absolutely free from money and the material way of life. We made around ten short works, always with a mix of text, dance, visual things and acting. In parallel with this, I was working in many theatres in Russia and abroad, making choreography and directing drama pieces. So it was a process rather than a single step to come to choreography. I am not a choreographer for dance, dance, dance pieces. Rather, my area is the combination of different things; you could say total theatre, but I am afraid of big titles.

What were your early choreographic influences?

I never specifically studied choreography. However, I was always interested in movement, graphics and ideas of space as well as music, rhythm and acting. In modern dance I was lucky to find a field where all these things crossed. Some influences for me at an early stage was the work of Henryk Tomaszewski, the Polish mime artist, and seeing Bejart’s “The Rite of Spring.” When I came to the West I was eager to see Wim Vandekeybus, Pina Bausch and all those people.

How did you come to make your “Swan Lake”?

For some time I was thinking that it would be interesting to make a piece for a general audience, including those who never go to dance. That is why our “Swan Lake” has a complicated set, video design and a cast that includes actors. For me the result is very positive and although it has been performed several times here in Tallinn over the past year, people still have a big interest to see it.

Political themes are important in your “Swan Lake.” Is this an area you have explored before?

Not really - for myself I don’t believe that theatre should reflect politics directly. The starting point was “Swan Lake” as a cultural myth of the 20th century. You know it only achieved popularity in the Soviet period, and this ballet about absolute beauty worked very well for the Communists with its story about hopes and betrayals. It’s not by chance they showed “Swan Lake” continuously on TV during the attempted putsch against Gorbachev in 1991. At the same time there were tanks in the streets, and for me it was a sign of life as absurd theatre.

Maybe there are political reflections in our “Swan Lake,” but 12 years later, when the Communists have become a myth, we can look at this period through art. In the time of my parents’ generation there were idealistic dreams but also hopes and frustrations. These ideas are expressed through the two main women, who are not Odette and Odile, but representatives of the people from those times. I remember sitting in a cheap café in Tallinn and looking up and seeing that it was called “Odile” and it amused me to find this character in such an unlikely place. Of course, she was betrayed as well by her Father, and the idea of betrayal and using people was a basis of the piece and everything was built around these ideas.

Instead of one Prince we have the three Communists, who try to convince the swans that they can become human, but in the end it doesn’t work. In the second part of the work there are mainly solos, and for me this represents self-expression and eventually it is this that breaks the energy of the three “Princes.”

Why did you decide to make the work here in Tallinn?

I couldn’t have made a work on this scale in Moscow, as I didn’t have any funding and at that time I only had three dancers. I started having talks with Peeter about two or three years ago, and I suggested we bring together actors with dancers. I had been thinking about “Swan Lake” ever since the putsch and Peeter said that he had discussed a similar idea with some colleagues.

When Tallinn’s Kanuti Gildi Saal was established as a dance space, the project became more practical. I used it to film an earlier work, so I knew the space. Knowing Peeter was also important as it is hard for me to collaborate, and although we had some difficult moments it went very smoothly. He looked after the video and I developed the choreography, but from an early stage we discussed how they would link. When we had a rough version of the whole work, we sat together all the time so we could combine the various elements smoothly. For a complex piece, it is also vital to have a good technical crew, and I knew that was possible here, but not in Moscow.

Was it hard developing and rehearsing movement with the actors?

We had already worked together, but it still took a lot of time to make all the physical material look good. With another theatre company I would never have tried. I have had bad experiences with Russian theatre groups, as they have to work hard with daily performances and haven’t time to train.

One local reviewer wrote about the meaning of the work to “the children of the Revolution.” Is this experience necessary to understand and appreciate your “Swan Lake”?

Maybe people in the West won’t pick up all the ideas, but I don’t think that matters. Overall I was trying to get an artistic and human story, and for this you don’t need specialist knowledge.


Originally printed in Dance Europe, March 2004

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Edited by Lori Ibay

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