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Contemporary Dance in Russia - TSEH Festival

by Stuart Sweeney

December 2005 -- Moscow, Russia

The early 1920s spawned a golden age of avant-garde art in the Soviet Union and today we can still savour the Constructivist paintings of Kasimir Malevich and the cutting-edge films of Dziga Vertov and Grigori Kozintsev.  Dance, however, is an ephemeral art form and we have little or no record of Soviet modern dance from this period, after Stalin swept away Soviet radical art in the 1930’s. 

The 15 years since the end of the Soviet Union have seen a renaissance and Russian contemporary dance makers are now a familiar site at festivals around Europe.  In Tallinn, I enjoyed Sasha Papalaev’s razor sharp, dance theatre take on “Swan Lake”.  Drawing on the political manipulation of the ballet classic by Soviet leaders, it went on to win a Bessy in New York.  In Bytom, Poland, Contemporary Dance Theatre Incluse, from Kaliningrad, performed Natalia Agulnik’s "Deportations", an eloquent and moving account of the expulsion of the German population from the city in the second half of the 1940s, with resonances for today’s deportations. 

These positive experiences made me keen to learn more about the current state of Russian contemporary dance and the 2005 TSEH festival in Moscow provided an ideal opportunity with both well-established and fledgling choreographers, selected by Artistic Director, Sasha Pepelyaev.

Olga Pona’s Chelyabinsk Theatre of Contemporary Dance presented “Nostalgia”, described in the programme notes as a recollection of “childhood, carelessness and happiness”.  With the image of a birch forest providing inspiration for the set, vertical and angled “trees” form a framework for the performers.  From the moment the first dancer enters and measures her strength suspended from one of the trees, the fluent movement of the company in their meetings and games is always compelling and Pona has that knack of making her dancers look very good.  While satisfying as abstract dance, the confidence and dynamism of the company provided me with few of the promised echoes of childhood. 

A second work from the same stable was “Audrey”, choreographed and performed by Maria Greyf, from an idea by Olga Pona.  Greyf was one of the most impressive dancers on show in TSEH and the shared fascination with Hepburn gave birth to an intriguing cameo.  Moving light as a feather around the stage, Greyf recreated the gamine presence of the film star, seen in the opening and closing montage of images from her films.  The distinctive choreography showed much promise and “Audrey” would form an accessible element in dance programmes further afield.

In “Flies”, performed by State Theatre of Nations from Moscow, choreographer Faruh Niyazali explores mental anguish with his two expressive dancers, Anna Abalikhana and Dina Khuseyn.  First, we see a solitary woman struggling with an unidentified trauma and irritated by the eponymous flies.  As her desperation reaches a climax, she throws herself from a window, but the suicide fails and the scene shifts to an authoritarian mental institution, where a second character, a nurse, also faces problems.  Theatre forms a strong influence on Russian contemporary dance and in “Flies”, the intense performances and angular choreography, highlighting the mood of despair, made me keen to see more of this group. 

Humour was another strand running through the festival and “Popupgrade” from Iguan Dance Theatre (St. Petersburg) featured two break-dancing newspaper readers with occasional visits from a hip-hop ballerina on pointe – a first for me.  If the structure of the work was unclear, there were enough jokes to keep a smile on my face almost throughout.

A feature of the Russian scene over the past two years has been Dance Traffic, a collaboration with artists from East Africa, organised by the Center for International Theatre Development and funded by the Ford Foundation.  A seminar took us through the various elements of this major project, which included strong support for an arts centre in Nairobi and an exchange of choreographers.  Two of the resulting productions were on show in the festival; Aleksandra Konninkova and Albert Albert journeyed to Nairobi to create “Fifth Season” with the four dancers from Joka Jok Dance Company.  Onstage in Moscow, the African performers established a great rapport with the audience and the strong base of their indigenous dance style shone through.  A serene final scene lit by paraffin lamps created an effective change of mood, but overall “Fifth Season” had the feel of a work-in-progress - perhaps unsurprising, as it came from a mere four-weeks of workshops. 

Heading the other way, Juliette Omolo travelled from Kenya to Chelyabinsk to work with the Colony of Unstrict Dance.  “Kutoka Wapi” tapped into the ensemble skills of the company of ten women to produce a polished, abstract piece.  In particular, the opening section for three dancers, repeated at the close, generated shapes that lingered in my mind.    

After the festival I talked with Elena Tupyseva, the Director of the TSEH Dance Centre, about the current state of Russian contemporary dance.  Finance remains a major problem and companies struggle to obtain funding from state or municipal sources and other avenues are not easy.  This is exacerbated in Moscow by the high cost of living and scarce, rehearsal space.  Thus, regional centres such as Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg play an important role and Sasha Pepelyaev told me in an earlier interview that it was easier and cheaper to create work in neighbouring Estonia than in Moscow.

Another concern are President Putin’s planned controls on overseas NGOs, which could impact on the work of important funders such as The Ford Foundation.

All things considered, it’s a small miracle that contemporary dance survives in Russia and I saw artists with strong technique, and choreography that made refreshing use of ideas from theatre and psychology.  If some of the 19 works on show needed sharper focus and several were too long, increased resources to enable a full germination period could provide an answer.  I hope this born again art form survives and receives the recognition it deserves to enable full development in the years ahead.

This article first appeared in “Dance Europe” Magazine  

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