2D Dance. This is how to celebrate. Performance’s “And Suddenly, the Swans!” review

02/07/2021

Anna Kozonina

The review was written as a part of the project 2D Dance where foreign authors assessed video recordings of several Latvian dance performances. 2D Dance is an experiment that studies if dance is a readable form of art when put on the screen, and how local choreographers’ work can be perceived by authors who know little or nothing about Latvian dance. Reviews will be complemented by online conversations with the authors of the articles and the works’ choreographers in question. The 2D Dance project’s primary goal is to develop and underline communication differences between communities in different countries, developing the ability to talk about the art of dance, gaining an international outline, and promoting Latvian artists’ recognition.

Dance performance “And Suddenly, the Swans!” is a collaboration of choreographers, social workers, and ordinary residents of Burtnieki region in Latvia who came together to speak and dance not only about freedom and feeling of belonging but also about the social and the personal. It questions the official celebrations and boldly replaces them with collective rejoicing where real people and their stories take the stage.

A spacious assembly hall: white walls, bright lights, elegant chandeliers resembling the empire style, a small stage, and serpentine of chairs that are evenly distributed throughout the space. Although nobody is clapping, the hall is filled with shouts and ovations. A ghostly presence of the crowd and the nation appear from the loudspeakers and covers the space with waves of sound. “Dear Latvian folk in any country, city, and in the wide World…” “Dear Latvians! Good evening! Greetings on this celebration!” The voices of historical recordings of different years emerge and dissolve forthwith in the ephemeral shouts of a crowd. “Dear ladies and gentlemen, dear Latvian folk in near and far countries, in Latvia and in the wide World!”. While loudspeakers shout, we hear the sound of the first radio transmission signal: “Hallo, Latvia!”

Performers of different ages and bodies appear from the audience, stand up from their chairs, and enter from the hall’s open doors. Some are coming in pairs carrying the hand-made-like rugs. Two women march with a carpet as if holding the national flag. 

“Good morning, comrades! Let’s begin the morning routine!”, the ghostly voice from the loudspeakers commands. “Stand and straighten your body, march in the rhythm. Hold up the body straight, look ahead, chest extended outward. Perform strenuous strokes with your arms”. The gymnastic workout starts with light stretching and goes on with typical exercises that would seem familiar to each inhabitant of a post-soviet space: simple steps forward and back with arms going up and down; deep squats on the left leg, then on the right, inhaling — exhaling; stretching on the floor — the leg goes up and should be touched with a straight arm. Some performers remember these exercises from the 1970s.

But if you recall the pictures of mass sports parades or gymnastics of the Soviet times, you’ll probably notice: this scene has nothing to do with them. Instead of evoking a well-coordinated collective body image, the performance presents individual corporeal interpretations of the standardized commands: some awkward and clumsy, others excessively enthusiastic. This very juxtaposition of anonymous orders of the state with their personal understandings, interpretations, and fulfilment permeates all the parts of “And Suddenly, the Swans!”. The government’s widely broadcasted voices, the power and technology are passed and processed through the personal and family stories, and come out embodied in heartwarming movements — vulnerable, touching, unconfident, and sincere.

“And Suddenly, the Swans!” was made in 2019 in collaboration with the region of Burtnieki social service and became part of the larger project “My freedom and belonging”. It emerged over a year through several laboratories in which social workers and non-professional performers from vulnerable social groups were involved in different movement and performance activities guided by a team of theatre and dance professionals: Agate Bankava, Agnese Bordjukova (choreography), Inta Balode (idea and curation), Laura Lapiņa, Linda Krūmiņa (scenography), Laima Jansone, Alans Stouns (music), Ieva Grundšteine (informal education ). The project took place within the 100th anniversary of Latvia’s independence. “The Swans” premiered on the Independence Day celebration event in Matīšu tautas nams, the local house of culture, which had just reopened after around 30 years of abandonment. Thus, the performance can be seen as a bold suggestion to replace the past’s formal gatherings with a celebration that would start with real people, their needs, and stories. That’s why it develops integrating more and more documentary material (the name of the piece comes from one the participant’s story). So, having such a contemporary dance piece (touching and rather critical at the same time) on Independence Day was quite a radical decision for a small village’s culture house.

Physical exercises performed according to the male voice instructions are then followed by a strange workout conducted by a woman. “Now we have warmed up thoroughly. Therefore, the 7th exercise: let’s heat up the national economy! One, two, three, four — warm up, warm up”. The voice then suggests integrating Latvian and Russian societies, promoting national demography, and, in the end, following the dreams. Being embodied in naive and childish movements, these commands lose their seriousness and look ironic. From the very beginning “The Swans” pushes together the social and the personal while unveiling the gaps between these two layers of living. This theme is quite typical for the post-soviet space, but “The Swans” explores it gently through documentary materials and participants’ tales. Hence, the old and even hackneyed topic gains volume. The dialogue of a spoken word and a real life occurs in almost every part of the piece: the movement itself becomes the commentary and reflects the embodied ideology.

In one of the performance’s episodes, we hear a fragment of the political speech on freedom. “The freedom of the individual is determined only by the freedom of the other humans”, states one of the liberal truisms. It’s then followed by personal statements from the participants and the audience. They share their understanding of freedom by writing them down on paper sheets and putting them into bulletin bins commonly used during elections. “My freedom is my slow-paced mornings and my slow drinking coffee time”. “My freedom is my holidays”. “My freedom is the sun, the sea, and the wind”. “My freedom is to go on a trip”. A woman shares her family’s story of “freedom” from the Soviet governance, describing the difficulties of privatization, unemployment, and the bitter feeling of unsafety at work, which came together with the newly-gained independence. “Freedom may feel very different”, she says sadly. 

“The Swans” gently drifts towards a romanticized ending as participants come together to make a huddle which resembles a densely packed ship with passengers waving goodbye to those who stay on the pier. The commands and the voices of personal stories dissolve in live music performance and collective singing, whilst gymnastics and wandering are replaced by gentle dancing. The emasculated official gathering only shows itself through the loudspeakers’ ghostly sounds, jet never fully conquers the space. The stage is gradually being captured by real people.

Anna Kozonina is a dance critic, researcher, and curator based in Helsinki. Since 2015 she has been observing the Russian contemporary dance scene with a focus on emerging dance artists and multidisciplinary projects that bring together dance, performance and visual arts. Since 2017 she has been reviewing pieces by various European choreographers. As well as obtaining an MA in Political Science and Linguistics, she studied performance theory at the National Centre for Contemporary Art, and contemporary dance in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. She is currently giving lectures on dance and performance theory in Russian cultural centres, curating educational programmes and writing about dance for a several art magazines.

Image: a rehearsal process of the performance