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The Yaroslavl Effect

In the heart of Russia, dancers from East, West and in between discover what unites them--and what keeps them apart. by Lizzy Le Quesne 5 December 2002 For nine days last summer, dancers from Russia, Central and Western Europe, and the United States met amid the dusty and polluted faded glories of Yaroslavl, Russia, for performances, workshops, and discussions. This was the perhaps unlikely setting for Art of Movement 2002, the fifth International Festival of Contemporary Dance on the Volga. The biennial festival aims to boost understanding in the field of independent contemporary dance between states previously separated or thrown together by the Cold War. The festival is jointly run by the Yaroslavl-based Russian Association of Contemporary Dance and Performance, headed by Alexander Girshon, and Link Vostok, founded in 1989 by American Lisa First and currently based in Minneapolis. This year, there were several American companies, several Russian and, for the first time, a handful of non-Russian Europeans: groups from Austria, Poland, France, Slovakia, and my group from Prague.

Andrea Woods? Souloworks

Andrea Woods' Souloworks
Photo by Alexey Oleynikov

Moving from East to West, from Russia to America, it seemed the dance work grew progressively less directly emotional, less melancholy. As a British artist in Prague, I had already clearly perceived a fascination with and belief in the need for narrative or at least clear emotional and psychological content in the dance I have seen from this region. In Britain things are certainly more formalist and abstracted, and in the United States even more so. America gave modern dance the structure of technique, and still today much of the dance it produces is largely about that. And yet in Yaroslavl there were so many unexpected overlaps in the uses of technique or design or music or in the presentation of the body. Nevertheless, a number of the Russians and other Europeans found most of the American work overly shallow or banal, and much of the Russian work appeared strangely rough at the edges and naive. The young Czech dancers--performing new work I made during my year as British Council Artist in Residence at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts--looked both ways with consternation. From their position of flourishing development poised between East and West, they want to be impressed and challenged on every front (technical as well as in terms of meaningful content) and have little time for perhaps subtler or still incipient values.

The crisis or positive explosion in which contemporary dance finds itself today was in evidence across the board. There were clear similarities between the more provincial or traditional groups from the United States and from Russia--they tended to be large ensembles of uniformly or similarly dressed dancers, and to give decorative and synchronous pieces. The technique base from which they sprang was similarly conventional: jazz-influenced "modern" (already considered classical) dance.

The expression of this technique, however, was somewhat different. The Russians (Kannon Dance, for instance) were still incredibly purist and impressive, their ballet heritage and discipline evident, their timing and unison work immaculate, while American groups such as Andrea Woods' Souloworks and Cathy Young Dance Company were freer and more released in the body and had a celebratory tone to their work.

More progressive work from the major American cities and from Moscow tended to come from smaller groups, one or two people focused upon more peculiar content. Personal trauma was paramount, though dealt with in very different ways. The American "alternative" work from New York's Scott Heron or the female duo Hijack from Minneapolis, for example, tended to be a comic, ironic, intellectual--generally postmodern--look at human issues, so different from the deadly serious dark poetry of the Russians and in fact all the Europeans. The Russian work was derived from mime or a more dramatic heritage and tended to employ theatrical images and to be poetic and melancholic. Notable was the Moscow group Performance Trio (one of whom, Alexander Girshon, is Russian curator of the festival). They presented two moving pieces. With great sincerity, a lilting melancholy and subtlety, they performed isolated moments from a couple's personal story gone slightly out of control. Beginning with a girl quietly powdering her face, this piece ended with her powdering the legs and arms of her partner and with him shaving hers. Girshon's solo work involved a man in his late 30s dancing with a headless Barbie doll.


One of the festival's many achievements was simply to reveal the great divides that still exist between countries once caught up in the Cold War--even within the tiny, distinct field of independent dance art--and the importance of the small steps taken at the grassroots level toward rapprochement.

In dance today, the principal disputes center around the issues of technique and content. Both are redefining themselves now as the art form struggles free of both classical ballet and the 20th-century American modern dance model. Put simply, Western dancers have a world of new technical developments at their fingertips that lead them toward more formalist work. There is an astute understanding of pure form, of pure movement quality and work that explores the anatomical or sensual nature of the human body. With a skeletal focus, contemporary technique is understood to be expressive of the body itself, an increasingly relevant issue in today's globalized and technological world, where mobility makes us ironically ever more aware of the physical nature of our existence. One can trace this movement at least as far back as its conscious roots in New York in the 1960s, when Trisha Brown made a solo dance entitled The Mind is a Muscle. The newest developments in this area are looking at other inherent formal qualities of dance such as light, environment, and essential sounds of the body or space.

Performance Trio

Performance Trio
Photo by Alexey Oleynikov

Central and Eastern European dancers, on the other hand, have not had access to the latest developments in technique until very recently, if at all. Many Russian dance artists did not have a strong technical background unless it was through professional ballet or folk dance training, and therefore improvisational techniques made dance more immediate and accessible to them. Their work tends to be focused on poetic theatrical images and narrative or representational emotional content. There is less interest in and comprehension of formalist approaches.

Very few of the Americans at the festival attended the workshops of the European participants, perhaps believing they had little to learn. Some of the Central and Eastern Europeans saw the Western dance as shallow, academic and pointless. The theatrical Central and Eastern European work has a certain glamour to the Western eye, but it is also very difficult to make the leap of faith necessary to understand and enjoy a world of myths and symbols. An amateur-looking set or costume device seen through formalist eyes is an affront, but to the viewer who understands the code and uses this merely as a signpost to associated ideas, it functions very differently. The roots of modernism and its fundamental effect on modern art were never allowed to really take hold in Russia after the communist revolution and this is still visible today.


Central and Eastern European dance artists are fast becoming well trained in the newer techniques that did not exist in their countries only a few years ago. Slovak dancers trained in Bratislava are more advanced in this than the Czechs, presumably due to their close proximity both to Vienna, a hub of contemporary dance, and to the early openness of Hungary. And one can see a true blending of the two approaches creeping into the region. In Yaroslavl, duWa Dance from Slovakia (now Prague-based) and Lublin Dance Theater of Poland showed a clear marriage of contemporary technical knowledge and a certain level of abstraction with expressionist, personal statement. The Slovaks focused on their gay relationship and the Poles on idiosyncratic, individual movement vocabularies, specific to each dancer. The cult of the individual is being fought for and is still a predominant theme in Central European dance. Only last year did the 11-year-old Prague annual festival of new dance, Konfrontace, change its second name from "Festival of Progressive Personalities."

Inner Laws by duWa Dance, along with the two pieces performed by the American duo Hijack, provided a fruitful comparison of two ways of doing dance. Both duos are homosexual couples and both express this in their work. Jaro and Tomas of duWa simply wanted to emphatically and seriously express their desires on stage; the American women worked with irony, humor, and a sidelong look at love itself without focusing on gender. There is a brash naivete, sincerity, and self-confidence in the work of duWa that is both captivating and somehow dreadfully naive to the Western eye, and there is a cool analysis and intellectual comedy in Hijack's work that many of the Europeans found thin and dry. Both pairs worked with essentially the same technique base of anatomical contemporary release work, though again, dealt with it in different ways. duWa were interested in flashy movement and articulations of the body (typically influenced by the European choreographic genius William Forsythe), where the women used much humbler and more pedestrian movement. A basic difference between putting the weight of the work on emotional sincerity or intellectual play was clearly apparent. Hijack's work undoubtedly had a strong emotional content and duWa presented sophisticated choreography and structure, but both the focus of the maker and the vision of the viewer were colored by their cultural bases.

A practical aim of the festival is to engender "cross-cultural collaborations" between various artists during the festival. Exchanges of ideas and information happened in Yaroslavl, though on a more modest scale than one might have expected. A daily seminar on dance writing led by the American critic Wendy Perron was well attended. The most interesting and genuinely cross-cultural partnership brought together the Californian Ray Chung, a leading light of the prevailing contact improvisation technique, and the Russian Andrej Andrianov of the Saira Blanche Dance Theater in Vienna. Both are improvisers, though clearly Chung has a far stronger technical base where Andrianov is more interested in psychological storytelling. The duet did not work particularly well. They were speaking two different languages at the same time and one felt that the audience was with either one or the other--laughing loudly with Andrianov's absurd acrobatics or entranced by Chung's skillful, delicate movement quality. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating cultural meeting.

The festival served to reveal the different issues and approaches currently running through contemporary dance: the crisis of technique, only now being answered, and the question of content. Dance as a physical, visual art can be formalist and abstract, though by being made on and with the human body it can never be fully so. There will always be psychology and sexuality and politics alongside space and color and rhythm. The two ideological ends of the medium seem to be based at two geographical poles, West and East, and evidently to blend in the center.

Beneath the dance issues and the cultural differences in Yaroslavl there was a parallel, more mundane culture shock. At the end of the festival, when our kind hosts came to see us off on the bus to Moscow, Nadia, the Russian festival organizer, beamed warmly and said to the young Czechs, "So how did you feel here in Russia? Don't you feel some Slavic brotherhood with us? Are we not all the same people?" The girls looked sheepish and smiled shyly. They didn't know what to say. They want to travel and work somewhere that is in their eyes glamorous and advanced. Of course, it is always easier for the big bad guy to be magnanimous than the victim. Neither party in our case was one or the other, but their histories are not so very far behind them.
Lizzy Le Quesne is a British artist and cultural writer living in Prague.
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