Isadorino Gore. Disability Knights. Photo by Victor Zhukov, 2015

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Strange Russian dances

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Isadorino Gore. Disability Knights. Photo © Victor Zhukov 2015
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What is happening in experimental choreography in Moscow and Saint Petersburg?

While Russian ballet is always on tour worldwide, Russian contemporary dance remains so unseen one might even doubt its existence. Redressing this imbalance, Springback writer Anna Kozonina has just published a whole book on the subject, Strange Dances: Theories and Histories Around Experimental Dance in Russia, with the support of the Garage Museum of contemporary art in Moscow. Here, she summarises its first chapter, on experimental dance in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the 2010s, as a way of opening a window onto this little known scene.

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Darya Yuriychuk, Ekaterina Volkova, Natalya Zhukova. Landscape for the Dead Dog. Photo by Margarita Denisova, 2018
Darya Yuriychuk, Ekaterina Volkova, Natalya Zhukova. Landscape for the Dead Dog. Photo © Margarita Denisova 2018

From Isadora Duncan to weird dances: a brief history of contemporary dance in Russia

Modern dance appeared in Russia in the early twentieth century with the explosive popularity of Isadora Duncan’s school, and governmental support for movement studies. It is no secret that the great ‘free movement’ creator gained her main fame in Russia, and later in the Soviet Union. Duncan gave concerts in Saint Petersburg and Moscow in 1904–1905 and immediately won the hearts of the educated Russian public: the local audience absorbed the ideas behind free movement with great enthusiasm. Duncan’s dances, celebrating the ideals of antiquity, the harmony of the carnal and the spiritual, freedom of bodily expression, and a certain hedonism, inspired many local movement experiments. Her followers established their own schools and dance groups, developed plastic art studios and amateur dance activities. Dance clubs multiplied even during the first world war and after the revolution: almost every city had its own dance studio.1

The Soviet authorities quickly acknowledged the disciplinary and ideological potential of working with the body. At first, the enthusiasm of the ‘free movement girls’ was supported, for example, by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar responsible for the Ministry of Education: these dances were affordable and democratic, did not require large investments, and could become a tool for educating a new Soviet citizen.

Isadorino Gore. Soviet Gesture. Photo by Evgeny Vtorov, 2018
Isadorino Gore. Soviet Gesture. Photo © Evgeny Vtorov 2018

But a few years after the opening of the Duncan’s School in Moscow in 1921, party leaders already considered her style a bourgeois threat. Cultural policy redirected attention to physical education and disciplinary bodily training, and Duncan’s experiments were replaced by ‘dancing machines’, and ‘scientific organisation of labour’ (Soviet versions of Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’). Individual bodily expression could not develop in the new reality of socialist machine-like culture. As theoretician Bojana Kunst said, if in the West ‘clumsy, still, expressive, lazy, dreamy, everyday and marginal movement is understood as an intervention of liberated singularity, in communist societies, such movement sabotages the whole social machine.’2 Conservative ballet became an official choreographic art – one reason for the tension that still exists between contemporary and classical dance in Russia. Until the 1960s ballet was not allowed to be modernised either: dance in performances had to be justified by the plot (the form was known as ‘choreodrama’). There would have been no chance for Georgiy Balanchivadze to become George Balanchine had he stayed at home: socialist art didn’t make friends with abstraction.

Contemporary dance re-emerged only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with the fall of the iron curtain and Perestroika, with the appearance of dance performers (and dance freaks!) who desired experimentation. Since then, several generations of choreographers have brought dance to the broader fields of contemporary theatre and art. The forerunners of the post-Soviet scene were diverse – including pantomime, amateur dance collectives, folk dance, and choreographic departments of cultural institutions – but rapid development started when Western dance techniques and aesthetics flooded into the country. Post-Soviet dance did not trust words, the very words of official culture and bureaucracy, which had been ‘performing’ Soviet everyday life for so long. The ‘truth’ was sought in the life of the body, so early Russian choreographers relied on bodily expression, reproducing the conceptual framework of modern dance.

The late 1990s and 2000s were the heyday of the Russian contemporary dance theatre. Kinetic Theatre directed by Sasha Pepelyaev, Olga Pona’s Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre and Tatiana Baganova’s Provincial Dances were popular with the audience both at home and on tour. Dance theatres appeared all over the vast country: not only in Moscow and Saint Petersburg but also in Chelyabinsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Yaroslavl, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and other cities. For theoretician Natalia Kuryumova, this was for many reasons. In Russia ‘the concept of “theatre” was long comprehended as a space for free thinking and experimentation; choreographic “heresies” were free to roam there’. In addition, ‘the synthesis of widely differing art forms did not demand virtuosity and artistic perfection from dance’. Finally, ‘Russians favored allusions to theatrical plots, as orality remains the main axis of Russian culture.’3

Olga Tsvetkova, Yana Isaenko, Tanya Podkorytova. Ghosts of Altufevo. Photo by concierge Edik
Olga Tsvetkova, Yana Isaenko, Tanya Podkorytova. Ghosts of Altufevo. Photo by concierge Edik

Dance theatre leaders developed diverse aesthetics, but all were united by a wider common approach. The shows would often feature well-trained disciplined bodies dancing more or less articulated characters in staged settings, supported by background music or sound design. It was essential to show the individual at last separated from the collective body. It was important to impress the audience with technical skills and ‘original’ dance languages. Moscow-based dance agency TSEKH, which appeared in 1998, gave impetus to the development of new dance in Moscow: it produced shows, conducted international festivals, and organised showcases and tours, so that Russian dance could be shown abroad. The field gradually started to collapse when foreign funds began to leave the country in the late 2010s because of political reasons, and important venues and festivals closed.

If the early 2000s were primarily associated with dance theatres built around choreographer-directors with a strong authorial style and a focus on creating a troupe, by the 2010s this smacked of conservatism. A new generation of choreographers, who today constitute the experimental dance scene of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, usually create pieces following a different logic. Their work is often based on a synthesis of seemingly contradictory approaches to dance and the body, the first connected with movement research and somatic practices, the second with theorisation, cultural and institutional critique. In other words, the body is not used as an instrument of expression, but perceived on the one hand as living matter, and on the other as a cultural artifact. Though the artists could rightly call this a crude generalisation, I propose it as a tool for understanding the new scene.

This scene is not big, but is essential in moving the Russian dance field forward. Among the most important dance artists are Alexandra Portyannikova and Daria Plokhova (‘Isadorino Gore’ dance cooperative), Tatiana Gordeeva, Nina Gasteva, Anya Kravchenko, Alexandra Konnikova and Alberts Alberts, Taras Burnashev, Anton Vdovichenko and Techno Laboratory group, Tatiana Tchizhikova and Anna Semenova-Ganz, Alexander Andriyashkin, Dina Khusein, Olga Tsvetkova, Asya Ashman, Katya Volkova, Natalia Zhukova, Darya Yuriychuk, Vik Laschonov, Vera Schyolkina, Alena Papina, Yulia Arsen, Marina Shamova; among grassroots initiatives, ‘Deystvie’ Laboratory and SDVIG community; and among curators, Katya Ganyushina, Anastasiya Proshutinskaya and Anastasiya Mityushina.

Somatics and criticism: a thriving union

When newly reborn Russia became part of the globalised world in the 1990s, there was little left for experimental choreographers other than to learn from foreign colleagues. Dancers strived for universality, technical skills and virtuosity, and presented their achievements to audiences. In the 2000s, other approaches started to proliferate in a scattered way, outside formal dance education. Little by little, the dance community started to immerse into somatics: Alexander technique, contact improvisation, Axis syllabus, peculiar forms of ideokinesis, Body-Mind Centering, release technique started to leak into festival and summer school programmes. For many, it was a revelation, as several post-Soviet dance pioneers confessed. Po.V.S.Tanze dance theatre’s co-founder Alexandra Konnikova (who had been previously worked with Sasha Waltz, among others) said she was shocked when she discovered that the movement could arise from bodyweight release, not just muscle contraction. The former Kremlin Ballet soloist and Kinetic Theater dancer Tatiana Gordeeva, who contributed a lot to the spread of somatic knowledge in Russia, said: ‘It was scary to allow “regression”, to lie on the floor and listen to the body’. The departure from the balletic vertical, the dissemination of somatics, and practices of anti-spectacular dance suggested reassembling the very understanding of the body. It started to be seen as the material Other, as something possessing irrational wisdom, decision-making ability, and its own will. No longer concerned with showing it off, choreographers became interested in looking at its liquids, fascial tissue, skeleton and cells (things which in other arts often appear as ‘abject’, but in dance constitute very common somatic practices). Though not everyone was immersed in somatics per se, the dance of the 2000s and 2010s was interested in ‘regression’ and fallings. Their main apologist, perhaps, was Olga Tsvetkova, a native of Yekaterinburg and a graduate of Amsterdam’s School for New Dance Development, and now a curator at V-A-C contemporary art foundation, who even created the performance Falling Alphabet in 2014.

Anna Pavlova in a Russian costume and an embryo. Collage from Ilya Belenkov`s ideokinesis laboratory ‘Tselom’, 2018
Anna Pavlova in a Russian costume and an embryo. Collage from Ilya Belenkov`s ideokinesis laboratory ‘Tselom’, 2018

On the one hand, in new experimental dance, disciplined bodies and ostentatious virtuosity have been replaced by softer movement research. At the same time, the world of dance theatre illusion – with its theatricality, spectacle and synthesis of arts – gave way to ‘anti-representative’ aesthetics in which ‘the extraordinary’ was found in the ‘ordinary’. For Russian dance, historically associated with the figure of the monarch and with strongly hierarchical structures of power (ballet in tsarist Russia, disciplinary bodily control through physical education and sports in the USSR), the permeation of such trends also had a deeper political meaning: the discovery of bodily vulnerability, a rejection of displays of strength and superiority, the development of sensitivity and empathy, the study of biopolitical forces acting on the body. (Russians, always seeking utopian communities, have also managed to turn individualistic somatic practices into means for creating collective performances – a story I cover elsewhere in my book).

On the other hand, the new scene did not turn into a closed dance therapy circuit, since its representatives were able to develop another skill: critical analysis of the processes taking place both in society and in the field of art. So the study of the body ‘from the first-person viewpoint’ (as philosopher Thomas Hanna defined ‘soma’) was enriched by a conversation about the body as a cultural artifact involved in the work of theatre institutions, identity and gender politics, and biopolitics in general. Choreographers also started to question the boundaries of dance and spectatorship practices. In other words, Russian dance began to deal with the general problems of contemporary art and culture, adjusting them to its local situation and means of expression.


Isadorino Gore. Disability Knights

Dance performances of the 2010s often balanced somatics with cultural criticism. In Disability Knights (2015) by Isadorino Gore, for example, performers moved in leg braces to explore the physical limitations of a traumatised body. The multi-part project, which began when one of the artists sustained a leg injury, started with somatic laboratories, in which participants investigated their experiences of wearing braces. Another part of the project was a series of interventions in different cities in front of big theatres (such as the Bolshoi in Moscow) before their shows. Though the artists were still in the movement research phase, these markers of disability appearing in front of temples of Russian dance art questioned the place of people with disabilities both in art and society in general.


The Garden, by Natalia Zhukova, Katya Volkova, and Daria Yuriychuk

Many feminist performances would use the same somatic-critical approach. In The Garden, made in 2018 by Natalia Zhukova, Katya Volkova, and Daria Yuriychuk (performed in Russia, Helsinki, Dresden and Berlin), three dancers put themselves into a greenhouse-like landscape, presenting their bodies as an erotic spectacle and dancing a sort of ritual dance or twerk – but on all fours, so that they resembled funny animals. Starting as a light, pleasant show, the performance gradually shifted into an uncanny sexual carnival in which they seemed to mate with plants and other sets and props. Repeating the same monotonous movement but in different strange positions, these sexy girls thus became dangerous creatures, undermining the borders between bodies and objects, the living and nonliving.

Daria Plokhova. Female Tool. Performance Night. Photo by Stas Pavlenko, 2019
Daria Plokhova. Female Tool. Performance Night. Photo © Stas Pavlenko 2019

In a solo Princess/Mermaid (first shown in 2017 in Russia, also performed in MDT in Stockholm), Daria Plokhova searched for womanhood beyond gender constructs. Concentrating on her bodily experience, she performed wave-like movements going from her legs through the body, crowned with a wave of hair. That ‘feminine dance’ then was suddenly performed backward – as if we were watching a video being rewound, not a live performance. Thus Plokhova destroyed the link between the ideas of the feminine and the natural: the dance of the wave was subverted by something perceived as technical. Dancing in skimpy shorts, she drew attention to her legs – another symbol of femininity and an eternal fetish. At first confidently staying on her feet, she then suddenly fell down, scrambling on her elbows and dragging her body as if she were maimed, or a mermaid. This mermaid tail then split, and she became a strange monster who crawled towards the audience, grinning and primping. Thus, working with the semantics of movements and gestures often perceived as ‘feminine’, Plokhova created ambiguous images calling stable identities into question.

The same formula can be found in the extensive project Performance Night, all-night parties featuring new dance pieces which regularly took place in SDVIG, a self-organised performing arts venue in St Petersburg. From critical twerk to divination sessions, from musings on the Soviet past to participatory practices such as shamanic shaking or pseudo-therapy – Performance Nights united somatic experience, artistic reflection and popular entertainment in an attempt to bring new dance out of the ghetto. The parties themselves became a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk which both created a space of extended sensuality and challenged traditional approaches to festival organisation.

Anastasiya Rebkalo, Aleksandras Krifaridi. On Kisses. Performance Night. Photo by Stas Pavlenko, 2019
Anastasiya Rebkalo, Aleksandras Krifaridi. On Kisses. Performance Night. Photo © Stas Pavlenko 2019

These same elements were developed by several projects and educational programmes which appeared in the 2010s. The most important include: the SOTA dance programme (2015–2017) curated by Dina Khusein, a native of Moscow and a Rotterdam Dance Academy graduate, which established essential connections between the dance and visual art scenes in Russia; a residency and reading seminars at ZIL cultural centre in Moscow curated by Anastasiya Proshutinskaya, a moment when dance entered into an alliance with cultural and performance studies; SDVIG space, an independent venue for performing arts established in 2017 and run by dance artists Anna Kravchenko, Anton Vdovichenko, Kamil Mustafaev, and Masha Sheshukova; and the ‘Artistic Practices of Contemporary Dance’ master’s programme, which opened in 2011 at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. That programme is really special: with no militaristic drill, it includes dance techniques, somatic practices, composition classes, contemporary philosophy, and art history in the students’ curriculum. From the very beginning, it has been supervised by choreographers Tatiana Gordeeva, Nina Gasteva, Alexander Lyubashin, and philosopher Alexander Montlevich. The phenomenon of ‘Vaganovka’ is very interesting: the ideological antithesis of ballet, that nevertheless shares the same building.

Tatiana Gordeeva, Ekaterina Bondarenko. Stop on a Winter Evening Near the Forest. Photo by Roman Kanaschuk, 2016
Tatiana Gordeeva, Ekaterina Bondarenko. Stop on a Winter Evening Near the Forest. Photo © Roman Kanaschuk 2016

It’s important to say that the somatic-critical union allowed for the proliferation of multiple forms of dancework. Audiences could expect anything: a ‘proper’ dance, a collective practice, a stand-up sketch, a set of instructions to perform on their own, a durational piece, a pseudo-therapeutic session, or a rave. Choreographers started to question not only genre limits but also the very idea of dance, movement and the body. The urge for such research included references to all sorts of ‘avant-garde’ Western as well as ‘mystical’ Eastern traditions: minimalist experiments of 1960s postmodern dance, self-reflection and the institutional critique of 1990s ‘non-dance’, participatory projects in museums, social choreography in public spaces, borrowings from oriental philosophy and so on. Russian dance overcame its boundaries; putting movements into sequences that would smoothly match with music in nice decorations was no longer enough to make a good piece.

Although there has been a shift in the understanding of contemporary choreography, Russian dance has not established institutions and schools to support the new movement. Anyone watching an experimental dance piece in Russia should understand: these people get very little, if any, infrastructural or financial support. Moreover, Russia is an authoritarian state, and cultural policy is directed to the preservation of heritage, not strategic planning for the future.

Experimental dance is, therefore, extremely marginalised – in terms of education, institutional support, funding, and representation at festivals. Today there are several mainstream festivals featuring contemporary ballet (Dance Open, Context Diana Vishneva), modern dance (Open Look), and contemporary dance classics like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Akram Khan (Territoria, NET festival), while experimental dance – which does indeed exist in Russia – remains almost without financial support. To survive, it tries to collaborate with visual arts institutions and create self-organised venues.

Anton Vdovichenko, Sofia Kolukanova, Kamil Mustafaev, Natalia Poplevskaya, Timofey Lavin. Irrational Body. Photo by Artem Uteshev, 2019
Anton Vdovichenko, Sofia Kolukanova, Kamil Mustafaev, Natalia Poplevskaya, Timofey Lavin. Irrational Body. Photo © Artem Uteshev 2019

The 2010s have also seen a convergence of dance and contemporary visual art in Russian capitals. Dance not only occupied museums and gallery spaces from time to time, but suddenly started to share similar topics and agendas with more elitist visual art. This wasn’t always the case. As theoretician and curator Ekaterina Dyogot wrote, Russian contemporary art, whose forerunners were underground artists in the 1970 and 1980s, originates from a very text-centric approach to art that was suspicious of the body as something which lacked meaningfulness and reflection. This was probably a reaction to socialist art representing the power of a collective body that repressed individuality. In contrast, visual art and new dance have more recently grown closer, as art developed an interest in materiality and the body, and dance became more theoretically articulate.

Who the hell is a dance artist?

The idea that it’s not necessary to have a classical or modern dance background to make contemporary dance pieces allowed people with different educations and experiences to enter the field. Visual artists, theatre performers, scholars in cultural studies, translators, managers and programmers started to try out dance and choreography. This liberalisation and conceptual shift pushed choreographers to question their sense of self. The term ‘dance artist’, pointing to concept-making rather than pure craft, began to pop up more often in public discussion. But who is a dance artist if not a person composing movement combinations? Works of the late 2010s give different answers.

Take Professional (2018), a lecture-performance by Tatiana Gordeeva and Ekaterina Bondarenko that began with the viewers performing small bodywork exercises in preparation for the piece. For the next hour, performers discussed different stereotypes about what an authorised dance show should be (meaningful movement, emotion, catchy choreography, costumes, background music). At the same time they conducted career ‘fortune telling’ sessions with Gordeeva as a ‘dance oracle’. The audience began by asking questions about their own professions, but little by little the performers started speculating more on their own jobs, their skills, vulnerabilities and insecurities, and professional plans for the next 20 years, acting out absurd scenes of job interviews. As the ‘dance oracle’, Gordeeva looked for the answers in her body, coming up with awkward word combinations which were ‘decoded’ by Bondarenko. Thus the whole conversation about ambitions and skills turned into magical and ironic practice. Career building turned out to be inaccessible to reason, a field of prediction and mysticism. This was both a tribute to recent Western trends of dance dealing with alternative forms of knowledge and magic, and of course a comment on the state of Russian contemporary dance, which mirrors the general situation of the precarious creative labour market.

Vik Laschonov, Vera Schyolkina, Dmitry Volkov`s. Imposture Lab. Photo by Ekaterina Pomelova, 2018
Vik Laschonov, Vera Schyolkina, Dmitry Volkov`s. Imposture Lab. Photo © Ekaterina Pomelova 2018

Another example from 2018: Vik Laschonov, Vera Schyolkina, and Dmitry Volkov’s Imposture Lab, a project about impostor syndrome in contemporary dance that invited people into a workshop-performance. On the surface, it looked like bodily training to help participants cope with the psychological discomfort of a new job (coming from other fields of activity, the artists themselves were ‘new to dance’). In fact, the laboratory consisted of absurd, ambiguous exercises designed to cast doubt on the ethics and pragmatics of self-development, with participants performing confidence-boosting movements including throwing imaginary fireballs, imitating authority figures from Donald Trump and Queen Elisabeth to celebrity Instagram cats, and learning dance combinations. It was the first work to recognise therapy and somatic training as important parts of the dance field – yet it also mixed ‘authentic’ practices with pseudo-techniques such as bizarre combinations of poses from Soviet monuments and American cartoons, which prevented us from seeing somatic practices as something ‘neutral’, outside politics. Imposture Lab is a nice example of how new dance uses creative movement practices as its base while also keeping a critical distance from them.

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Russian experimental dance has certainly developed both significant self-awareness and a sense of humour in the past few years. The new scene differs a lot from what audience sees at big festivals and, it seems, severs its connections to the canonical Russian dance heritage. Yet I sense a new tendency arising, with dance artists starting to look at their own, multiple roots – avant-garde, classical, amateurish and Soviet. In many new pieces, choreographers reflect on the post-Soviet body, ballet heritage and early modernist roots, overcoming the inferiority complex originating from the idea that they owe everything to recent Western dance trends. 

1 Сироткина И. Свободное движение и пластический танец в России. М.: Новое литературное обозрение, 2011. С.43–45.
2 Kunst B. Artist at Work. Proximity of Art and Capitalism. Zer0 Books, 2015. p.109.
3 Kuryumova N. Russian Contemporary Dance // European Dance since 1989. Communitas and the Other. Warsaw / New York: Routledge, 2014. p.151.


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Anna Kozonina’s book Strange Dances: Theories and Histories Around Experimental Dance in Russia has just ben published, and is available here:
shop.garagemca.org/ru/books/garage-publications/garage-dance/strange-dance-theories-and-histories-around-dance-performance-in-russia-37066.html

© Anastasia Mityushina
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