Susan Broili

Olga Pona brings her quirky vision to an ADF workshop

Olga Pona, 45, uses the phrase "beautiful, with love," as the students at American Dance Festival rehearse her dance, A Little Bit of Nostalgia, late one afternoon last July.

As part of the festival's International Choreographers' Commissioning Program (ICCP), Pona, who is founder and artistic director of the Chelyabinsk Theater of Contemporary Dance in Russia, worked with 10 students for five weeks to create a piece for the festival's performance lineup on a program shared with Miguel Robles of Argentina and Tom Shimazaki of Japan.

For dancers at ADF, being chosen to partake in the ICCP is a coup. This past summer, 200 of the 275 dancers enrolled in the six-week summer course auditioned for the three participating choreographers, and only 36 made the cut. In choosing students for her dance, Pona said she was looking not so much for brilliant dance technique as interesting personalities and different body types. "For me, it's more important to bring people to the stage than to bring a unison ensemble," she said.

The students who got to work with Pona expressed an affinity for her loose, postmodern style that allowed them to both use their technique and let go of it. "There is an ease to the movement. It isn't contrived. It has a humanness," said 20 year-old Juan Aldape. "She allowed room for us to bring a part of ourselves to the piece."

During the choreographic process Pona asked each student to create a movement phrase, which she later incorporated into the dance. She also used students' voices in the sound score. "We were told to scream our names while thinking of our parents' voices," said 20 year-old Marcela Giesche. The calling of names became frantic when the score changed from rustling wind to the rumble of military tanks used to evoke a sense of crisis as well as history.

The birch forests of Russia provided the initial inspiration for Pona's dance. The set consisted of stylized birch trees made from white PCV pipe marked with black electrical tape. Dancers swung, perched, and twirled on these trees suspended above the stage or secured to it. "There are feelings of nostalgia because it's my landscape," Pona said. "At the same time, it could be an urban forest. When people go through life, it's like in a forest. They don't know what will happen. They get lost. Sometimes, they take risks."

Pona grew up in the small village of Novotroisk in the Orenburg region. At 16, she went to Chelyabinsk in the south Ural region to study engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in order to learn something useful for village life. But she never returned to her village. Instead, at age 21, she discovered dance. She studied ballet and folk dance at the Chelyabinsk Institute of Culture, graduating in 1985. In 1992, still living in Chelyabinsk, she happened to see a television broadcast about the American Dance Festival offering classes in Moscow. She traveled by train for two days to get there, only to discover that the ADF classes had been going on for a week. Too late to enroll, she observed classes. Once home, she formed a dance company and continued to explore modern dance. Today, Pona's 15-member group performs throughout Russia and Europe. Her choreography awards include Russia's Golden Mask Award and Belarus's International Festival for Modern Choreography Award [see "Belarussian Roulette," DM, October, page 59].

The ADF created the IGCP as an outgrowth of its International Choreographers' Workshop begun in 1984 as an opportunity for foreign choreographers to immerse themselves in modern dance. "We want our kids to have the experience of working with other cultures and vice versa," ADF director Charles Reinhart said.

The ICCP experience can even lead to a job, as was the case with students who performed with choreographer Shen Wei in the program from 2000 to 2003. Former ADF students were among Wei's company when it gave three sold-out performances at the festival this past summer.

For 21 year-old Alice White, the experience of working with Pona proved to be a turning point. "I wasn't sure I wanted to pursue dance as a career," she said. Now she knows she will.

Susan Broili, a journalist with The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., has written about dance for almost 30 years and contributed to DANCE MAGAZINE for over a decade.

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