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Through the Body, to the Soul

The work of a special Uzbek theater company forces spectators to recognize that the inner life of dancers with disabilities may be wider than their own.

by Dengiz Uralov 12 September 2013

TASHKENT | For 10 years, performers with disabilities have expressed themselves in dance alongside professional dancers and actors at Visage Movement Theater in the Uzbek capital.

 

Visage was founded in 1982 as a conventional modern dance company. Founder and artistic director Lilia Sevastyanova began inviting people with disabilities to perform in 2003, several years after her first contact with a physically disabled dancer at a workshop in France. “She did all the exercises sitting on the floor, because her legs were atrophied,” Sevastyanova said. “I decided to give her a solo scene in our performance. The result was amazing, and I was inspired to try it in Tashkent.”

 

The troupe has since grown to embrace around 40 performers, including four under the age of 14. Among them are people with physical and mental disabilities: children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and Down syndrome, with various disorders of the musculoskeletal system, blind and deaf people. Professional dancers and actors contribute their time to Visage for free.

 

The theater has no permanent stage or regular source of funding, and puts on all its shows free of charge. The company receives no money from the state. Instead, sponsorship must be found for each show, sometimes from a foreign embassy or foundation, from the Orthodox Church in Tashkent or local business people.

 

Visage’s performances rely heavily on improvisation. The repertoire currently includes about a dozen pieces, Sevastyanova says. A new performance about young people with disabilities entering adulthood and seeking points of contact with the wider world, Uninvented Portraits, premiered 21 August in Tashkent.

 

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At the end of September Visage will make its third appearance at the Proteatr special theater festival in Moscow. In December the company will as usual mark International Day of Persons With Disability, this year with a show called Out of the Depths I Have Cried to Thee at the Academic Russian Drama Theater of Uzbekistan.

 

TOL spoke with Sevastyanova and dancers Alexandra Plotnikova and Ruslan Ergashev about changing audience attitudes to Visage, the techniques it uses for productions that include performers of varying abilities, and the relationships between professional and amateur dancers.

 

 

TOL: Your theater is unusual. Is the process of creating performances involving dancers with disabilities different from the usual kind of theater?

 

Lilia Sevastyanova: Making our shows is a lively exchange of ideas, feelings, and experiences. I realized long ago that a director cannot impose his fantasies and ideas in our case. It’s more important for us to "push off" from a particular person, his abilities and talents.

 

Alexandra Plotnikova: All our shows are about ourselves. They're created from what is born in our inner world, in our soul. Our dreams, experiences, world views, opinions and thoughts. Movement helps us to express everything. The movements are born from us. I go deep into myself, hear my partner, and try to feel the theme we're improvising around. We improvise at every rehearsal, and we film interesting segments with a video camera. Like beads on a string, we collect the best improvisations, which are then arranged in the performance.

 

Ruslan Ergashev: Our performances are based on the individual. The main task is to speak out freely. To talk about what you're interested in and what you worry about. About problems, the main things in the world that bother you.

 

LS: It's impossible to show a blind dancer what “dance” is or explain to the hearing impaired how to dance to the music. A person with cerebral palsy will not be able to repeat the movements of the choreographer. But it's possible to encourage the dancers to express themselves through artistic gestures, feelings, experiences, aspirations. Thus, our choreography is not pre-composed; it's born in the process of dance improvisation in which interaction among dancers is embodied in the "speaking" gestures and movements.

 

 

I'll give you an example – the story of Valera, a young man with severe cerebral palsy. At his first rehearsals he used to dance in a wheelchair. Then, during a process of improvisation, he touched his partner, Olga Ostanina, and all of a sudden, looked up from his wheelchair and stood up, leaning on some stairs. This rising up and subsequent duet with Anton, a professional actor, became the highlight of the performance Improvisations From Life.


TOL: How has the attitude of audiences to the theater changed over time?

 

LS: When people hear about a play involving people with disabilities, they may have associations related to their experiences with people with disabilities in everyday life – people in wheelchairs or blind people with a cane. But we can change that perception if we can highlight the personality of every person with a disability. To bring the public to understand that their soul is rich and generous; that they have the brightest talents, they are kind, with sincere hearts and pure thoughts. We just try to give it a lift with our language of art.

 

AP: I remember how before a performance in December, I was really afraid that only a few spectators would reach the venue, as it was very cold and snowy. But today we're faced with another problem – how to squeeze in everyone who wants to see our show. I can't forget one old woman who came on stage with a big bag of apples and handed them out to everyone. They were such delicious apples! And we have volunteers who are always ready to help out backstage during the show.

 

RE: I’ve been working in theater for about three years. I’ve noticed that in the past the audiences were different, colder. But now people are coming with the knowledge that the play will involve actors with disabilities. They're ready for it.

 

LS: Audience members often point out that although in the first few minutes of the show you pay attention to the "features" of the performers, later you don’t notice it; the dialogue between the stage and the auditorium develops "through the body" of the dancers to the souls of the audience.

Another scene from the 21 August performance of “Uninvented Portraits.”

 

TOL: What brings dancers to join your theater?

 

AP: The doors of our theater are open to all, there are no restrictions. People know about us and come because they need it. Often because of the lack of friends. I came to the theater because with my illness – I have a progressive form of muscular dystrophy – I always need moderate exercise. My mother suggested that I try joining an integrated theater. We went to their show, I think it was I Dream That I Am Walking. And I had no doubts. The next week I went to a rehearsal. And I’ve been here more than seven years.

 

LS: Many children with disabilities come to us after they hear about the theater from friends or from the media, or from doctors who send their patients to us for rehabilitation. By the way, one neuropathologist, after watching our performance, said, "Medical methods can’t achieve what you are achieving through art."

 

RE: I'm a professional actor, but for more than three years I’ve been coming to rehearsals here in the evenings after work. This is an amazing theater, where I realize that for me, too, the possibilities are not unlimited, and though my problem is not physical, but somehow maybe spiritual, I still feel a unity with the rest of the cast. I get a terrific boost of energy from them. We are accustomed to thinking, “He's disabled, it's hard for him, look, he’s in a wheelchair. ...” But he has a desire to work 10 times stronger than a healthy dancer! He can be envied. And we, the healthy, are often lazy, it's difficult for us to come to rehearsals. But here in the theater we meet blind Oksana, who comes to the rehearsal through the whole city taking three different buses. Alone, without help.

Viktoria Gordiyenko and Yevgeniya Zemtsova in “Uninvented Portraits.”

 

TOL: How does the theater affect the life of the dancers?

 

RE: For example, our dancer Valera. He can't talk to us in the usual sense, because he can only answer "yes" or "no." But he is 29 years old, he has a rich inner life. And the only way for him to open himself up to others is to dance. And you change yourself when you stand next to Valera. There's a girl, Yulduz, who can't hear. But she has such heightened senses, the sense of a partner, a sense of responsibility. She hears and feels the soul of others. She is an amazingly responsive partner – and you begin to learn dance from her!

 

AP: More than once I have heard from the doctors that my situation can’t be improved, but the lessons I’ve learned in the theater proved that it's a lie. I started to learn about my body. The theater for me is a dialogue with like-minded people. It united us and became a second home where you're always welcome. Movement improvisation, dance is a good way to find psychological relief. The moment when you are on stage and the audience stands to applaud, when you see their happy eyes full of tears – at that moment I feel wings, I realize that what we are doing is important for these people no less than for us.

TOL: What are the challenges for the theater now?

 

LS: The main problem is that Visage remains my "own thing," and I have the responsibilities five or six people would normally take. … We are sincerely grateful to all the organizations, good people, volunteers who provide invaluable support to our educational and artistic programs. But we hope that the time will come when we will have a specially equipped rehearsal hall and stable funding so as not to be constantly thinking about where to find the money to keep the theater running.

Dengiz Uralov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent. Photos by Aydar Burnayev, courtesy of Visage Movement Theater.

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