Three Russians Moving Beyond Classicism

June 27, 2007

Russia is changing and so is the dancing. The “pure” Russian ballet that we know and love is opening up to contemporary influences, and the modern/postmodern scene is thriving. Last weekend I saw the work of three Russian dance artists who are making a difference: choreographers Olga Pona and Yuri Possokhov, and ballet superstar Nina Ananiashvili (well, not exactly Russian, but Georgian).

    Olga Pona sprouted from Chelyabinsk, a city near the Ural Mountains that has no tradition of dance as an art. In the early 1990s she traveled for two days and nights to Moscow to take workshops offered by the American Dance Festival. Since then she has become a leader in the contemporary scene in Russia; she is a master of imagistic dance theater. Last week she brought her Chelyabinsk Dance Theater to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven and showed two pieces: Waiting and The Other Side of the River. Both revealed a poetic take on everyday life, studded with strange or beautiful vignettes. In one scene in River, two men each hoist a dancer on their upper back. Thus bent over, they try to drink and smoke, then hand the glass and the cigarette to their human burdens atop them. It’s funny and poignant in its trappedness. In a post-performance dialogue (that I moderated), Pona said, “It’s nothing special for Russians” to smoke and drink. When an audience member asked if she would do a dance based on freedom in the future, she said, “For me, just to be able to choreograph is freedom.” She had originally gone to Chelyabinsk to specialize in tractors.

    At Jacob’s Pillow I watched a rehearsal of the Ballet Program led by Anna-Marie Holmes (the “students” are already members of companies like Atlanta Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Norwegian National Ballet.) In just four days, Yuri Possokhov, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet, had made Turceasca (meaning Turk in Romanian), a delightful eight-minute piece for the gala. He gave the 22 dancers earthy folk dance steps sprinkled with classical vocabulary. They dug into the floor in a way I rarely see in ballet, and they linked arms like in Zorba the Greek. The guys had a hand-shaking-by-the-ear motif that was fun and vibrant. This piece is a gem, and I hope it has a future life.

    Nina Ananiashvili, the Bolshoi and Kirov dancer who also dances with ABT, has been leading the State Ballet of Georgia since 2004. (To learn more about her renovation of this company, read Elizabeth Kendall’s story in our June issue.) The mixed bill the company performed at Jacob’s Pillow showed three periods of their artistic life: excerpts from Petipa’s Don Quixote, Balanchine’s Mozartiana (1981) and Trey McIntyre’s Second Before the Ground (1996). Surprisingly the piece that fared best was McIntyre’s, as it brought out a playfulness from the dancers. What impressed me was not just that they were able to do an American ballet (the music is Kronos Quartet’s collage of African-based music, though none of the movements looked African-inflected), but that they loosened up and took risks.

    In the (rather odd) arrangement of Don Q called Don Quixote Grand Divertissement, Ananiashvili and Sergei Filin were superb: sure-footed and charismatic. Just the way she lowered her eyes at him was worth the ticket. But after the adagio part of the pas de deux, the two disappeared into the wings to allow the younger dancers to show their jumps and turns. They were all fine (with Lali Kandelaki doing continuous double fouettés), but we hungered to see more of the two stars.

    One thing hasn’t changed in Russia: A great dancer is still a popular hero. Since I had an extra ticket, I brought with me the young desk clerk from my motel whose name is Natasha. She got to meet Ananiashvili before the performance, and got her autograph afterward. She was incredulous at her good luck. She kept saying, “My mom won’t believe this; she just won’t believe it.” I got the feeling that Ananiashvili means as much to young people in Russia as Brittany Spears or A-rod do in this country. This is one aspect of Russian culture that I wish would migrate toward us.