Russia makes room for contemporary dance – Fifth International Festival of Movement and Dance on the Volga
Cross-cultural festival in Yarostavl breaks the ballet barrier Cabbage soup, quaint streetcars, and magnificent, green-domed basilicas might be what most Americans would remember about Yaroslavl, an ancient city northeast of Moscow. But those of us who participated in the Fifth International Festival of Movement and Dance on the Volga in August 2002 were struck by the rich diversity of contemporary dance drawn from Russia and Eastern Europe. Americans from Minnesota, California, Tennessee, and New York performed, led workshops, and engaged in cross-cultural collaborations. Although the tram ride was not guaranteed to deliver us from the hotel to the theater any faster than walking, the three-ruble (ten-cent) ride over corroding pavement reminded us that we were in an entirely different time and space.  But the dancing put us all on common ground. Modern dance, jazz dance, and Contact Improvisation abounded. Companies from Russia, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Poland gave performances, workshops, and talks. The Russian students–about 200-plunged into workshops led by Americans in jazz, hip-hop, and modern. A band of at least ten translators facilitated the flow of communication. Participants and audiences filled the 750-seat theater and a smaller one for seven evenings.
Lisa First, the American organizer, came to Russia and fell in love with it in 1989. A dancer and a practitioner of Alexander Technique, she had read an article in DANCE MAGAZINE about the American Dance Festival’s program in Moscow (see “Durham on the Moscow: The American Dance Festival in Russia,” January 1993, page 54). By then, she says, she had met soul mates in Yaroslavl and started to plan for an exchange: “We already had the idea for a festival. It happened simultaneously. The doors were opening.” Her partners in Yaroslavl have been Alexander Girshon, a dancer and improviser influenced by experimental theater, and Nadia Pushanetsky, a folk dancer turned economist. They inaugurated the festival in 1993 and continued to hold it every two years. Last summer, it was overflowing with twenty-one companies and fifty workshops.
The Provincial Dances Theatre from Yekaterinburg led off the festival with Maple Garden, a surreal evocation of romantic relationships. Six dancers gave masterful performances, supporting strange and beautiful (if occasionally sexist) images: A man wiggled toward a woman’s face and, with his mouth, pulled a long string out of her mouth. Another woman approached with a pair of scissors and snipped the thread that bound them. A bare-branched tree, artificial fog, and eccentric costumes helped create a bleak, mysterious landscape.
In contrast, a group of spunky girls from Siberia called Second Parallel Dance Workshop skipped and jumped and played pranks on each other in Six Milk Drops. For example, one girl sat on a chair; another sneaked up behind her and grabbed the chair, leaving the first girl sitting strong in midair–a possible metaphor for self-reliance.
Local dance star Anton Kosov, a gaminlike creature of astounding versatility, contributed a solo that strung together jazz, ballet, and break dancing, complete with voguing, popping, and locking.
Slinky dancing came from the three men of Contemporary Dance Theatre, from Chelyabinsk, in Expectation. Loose-limbed in black suits, they slithered and sliced in choreography that looked like a cross between Stephen Petronio and Bob Fosse.
Far, Far Away, by PO.V.S. TANZE from Moscow, combined the brainy energy of current European dancemakers like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with the grounded martial arts of capoeira. The piece sparkled with witty and inventive choreography and included a riveting solo by Alexandra Konnikova.
From St. Petersburg came Kannon Dance Company with Songs of Komitas, choreographed by Artistic Director Natalia Kasparova, a powerhouse of a dancer. The cast moved through ingenious partnering with exceptional fluidity.
Saira Blanche Theatre, the Moscow-based group that started the first Contact Improvisation Club in Russia, presented a duet consisting of two tall, gangly men named Oleg Soulimenko and Andrej Andrianov. As though in a talk show, they sat comfortably in armchairs. But instead of alternating talking, they alternated moving. They would each get up from the chair to do something–and that something became increasingly odd. They gnarled themselves into crazy knots, and got stuck in bumpy subversions of Contact Improvisation.
Britisher Lizzy Le Quesne with five dancers from Prague showed a minimalist piece that progressed from walking to leaning to falling, and finally to dragging and carrying, allowing a keen sense of pathos to creep in.
The Americans contributed smooth ’50s-style jazz dance (Cathy Young Dance from Minneapolis); wry and methodical duets (Hijack, also from Minneapolis); a languid, catlike exploration of a table and chair (Ray Chung of San Francisco); and an exuberant site-specific work on the banks of the Volga River (by Julia Ritter, who teaches at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts). Scott Heron (from New York and Tennessee) made a gloriously ridiculous solo wearing pointe shoes and a leotard with underwear sticking out. In Sweet Willie Mae, contributed by Andrea Woods’s Souloworks (from New York), the dancers, oozed, sassed, and bounded to the blues music of Big Mama Thornton, and brought down the house.
Capping off the week was a giddy evening of collaborations. Soulimenko paired with Chung in a nutty but entirely logical improvised duet, and the joining of Hijack with Heron resulted in a wonderfully madcap exploration of the theater environment.
Three companies collaborated on a piece inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. While members of Poland’s Lublin Dance Theater and duWa Dance from Slovakia slashed through space, Alexander Girshon and Anna Garafeeva of Performance-Trio moved together as if in a dream. The men hoisted Garafeeva onto a high ledge, where she, resembling one of Chagall’s floating women, pulled petals from a flower and watched them drift to the ground.
The last piece, masterminded by Irina Dolgolenko, turned everything on its head. Dolgolenko, a strong dancer from Moscow who had given classes combining jazz and something close to Limon technique, invited local dancers and critics to re-create moments from the week. The result was a wacky lampoon featuring dolls, newspapers, and rolls of tape. The physical humor transcended linguistic and cultural differences.
Festival-goers could bear witness to the flourishing of contemporary dance in ballet-rich Russia. All this activity sprouted in the last ten or fifteen years, a reflection of the political and artistic thaw since the breakdown of Soviet rule. Before, Russians had little access to contemporary Western influences. But in the last few years, Russians have been exposed to Western dance on TV, in theaters, and through visits by American dancers such as Rick Odums (now based in Paris), Christine Dakin, Irene Hultman, Jeanne Ruddy, and Bill Young.
“Russian contemporary dance now is in the moment of transition from teenage enthusiasm to mature, confident acting,” observed Girshon.
During this transition, approximately ten annual or biannual festivals have sprung up in the former Soviet republics. Vadim Kasparov, executive director of Kannon Dance Company and School, said, “This is my favorite festival because of the spirit of collaboration.”
Wendy Perron, New York editor of DANCE MAGAZINE, lectured and led discussions, at this festival. Her participation was sponsored by Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund.
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