Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre / 2007-06-16

A Physical Depiction of Life in Russia 

“Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre” is a dance company that changed my perceptions of what Russian dance is, or is becoming. With perceptions rooted firmly in what I know of the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets, and even with the departures from that ballet motif I have seen as engendered in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s “White Oak Project”, the startlingly modern virtuosity and physicality of Chelyabinsk has taught me that there is another dimension of Russian dance. To me that dimension appears more like Chicago’s “Hubbard Street Dance” or “La La Human Steps” than anything my mind categorized as “Russian”. I am excited and pleased, and I hope the dancers survive the demanding physicality they put out there. 

The 2007 American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, NC is presenting a “Russian Festival”, which includes work by two Russian dance companies. One of those companies is “Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre”. On Saturday, June 16th, 2007 Chelyabinsk presented Olga Pona’s “The Other Side of the River”, a new work inspired by observing the lives of Russian citizens under communist rule in the mid 20th century. Set in three parts the work moved through the vicarious lives of laundry workers as they ironed tourists’ clothes, the experiences of three boys who engaged a prostitute, and the ever-present specter of death, which Russian males deal with. The work opened to pedestrian entrances of minimally costumed dancers who gradually took on movement that was at times torqued into almost tortured phrasing. That phrasing included intertwining male/female, male/male, and female/female duets. Multiple exits and entrances occurred throughout the dance, and almost always virtuosity was accentuated by one or more dancers being totally still, or simply walking. At times duets merged and became intertwined trios, quartets, and even quintets, all of which included lifts that were often sudden, high, and fearless. Even with the contact and mutual dependence the dancers in those couplings always seemed separate from any human emotion as displayed in face or body. A sound score of a low pulse and chimes was originally barely discernible and then slowly increased in dynamic as the kinetics of movement also increased. Slowly both music and movement dynamic returned to an almost minimal place, as one by one the dancers exited. 

Two male dancers entered with “ironing boards” - really tables on wheels - and irons. The dance rapidly became about those tables, interactions of those tables, of the dancers, and ironing clothes with “steam” irons that rapidly filled the space with smoke. That dance developed to include other dancers, as all donned and doffed the clothes they ironed, taking on dance personas those clothes engendered for them. Suddenly smaller wheeled platforms reminiscent of skate boards appeared as dancers scooted across the stage on them in any number of positions and pairings. The dance became playful, and for a short period the dancers seemed to relate to each other in ways other than that required by the movement phrasing. Gradually the dynamic of that movement, and the sound track declined, leaving four dancers - one woman and three men – standing left center, with two of them – one the woman – mounted on the shoulders of the other two and facing upstage. Slowly a disembodied table with vodka, glasses, and cigarettes on it entered from stage right and moved slowly to stop just downstage from and in front of the dancers. The supporting dancers poured vodka into the glasses, lit the cigarettes, drank and puffed on them respectively and offered them to the dancers on their shoulders. All partook, the glasses were returned to the table, and all on its own that table exited stage left. A quartet developed in which the woman became the focus of the three men. She was lifted, lowered, and intertwined into group phrasings that were often violent, that made her their object, and manipulated to their needs. Eventually the men (boys?) laid exhausted around center stage as she visited each of them in seeming efforts to determine if any potency remained. The two wheeled “ironing board” tables were brought back into the space, and an enthusiastic dance developed using them. Eventually a table was placed under each foot of the woman and used to ” walk” her to an exit stage left. 

Suddenly two men in brightly colored swim masks and fins were shot into the space from stage left on “skateboards”. Controlled by dancers in the wings they “swam” frantically for a few seconds before being pulled offstage as the sound track became all about loud breaths and flowing water. The scene was over in an instant and seemed disconnected from anything before or after it. 

A new dance, initially dominated by men, began. Groups formed and collapsed, at times moving coherently, but with no direct body contact. For several seconds a solo male dancer simply watched. Eventually a group formed down left and contact between bodies began. Three very kinetic duets developed and morphed into one equally kinetic trio. Once more the dancers seemed emotionally separated even when physically connected. The ironing boards reappeared and gradually all the dancers removed whatever clothes they had donned over their minimal, black, underwear-like costumes. They became still upstage as one disembodied ironing board stood alone with clothes stacked on it. Lights on the dancers dimmed and a bright front light illuminated the table as it slowly moved down stage, to eventually become totally still for many seconds before even that light dimmed to end the work. 

To say “Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre’s” dancers are competent is an understatement. They embodied Pona’s highly physical movement well and that was exciting. Program notes for the performance noted that Pona’s work is defined by that phrasing rather than by development of characters or any logical narrative. That simple statement let me into the work as an audience member. Ansgar Kluge’s lighting design ornamented the work without ever upstaging it, indicating a close collaboration between him and Pona. He unobtrusively guided the audience’s eyes, sometimes adding just enough front light to one of two duets to emphasize what Pona’s phrasing was saying. At other times he left groups of dancers in stark down light that created shadows in dancer’s eyes and emotionless faces. This was the last of Chelyabinsk’s performances at the 2007 ADF. If you have a chance to see them perform elsewhere grab it. You will not only enjoy what they do. You will also get insights in what it is to be Russian. 

Donald K. Atwood MFA, Ph.D. atwood@worlddancereviews.com 

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