By Olga Dolina
Sometimes it happens to experience written in the stars-like situations. When you wake up one rainy November morning and realize that hustle and bustle of Latvian culture festivals is long gone, and you want something more than just an everyday routine. I woke up having a clear wish to dive into the energy of a huge metropolis and wondering how great it would be to escape to Moscow or St. Petersburg. It has been a while since I last experienced this particular vibe of our neighboring country combined with the most enjoyable feeling of wandering and loosing yourself in corridors of the most beautiful museums and metro stations.
Apparently, somebody up there heard my wish and there I was. Next day I have heard of an opportunity to participate in a one-week long Laboratory of Dance criticism that took place at the 5th international festival of contemporary choreography “Context. Diana Vishneva 2017”. True interest for dance – as long as remember. Ability to write in different languages – my everyday job already for a while. Russian visa beautifully placed in the middle of passport. Spare time and aspiration – those small pleasures of freelancer life. All I need is there and ready to go to improve professional and cultural experiences.
Context Frames that Expand
Over the past years, founder of the festival and creative director, worldwide acclaimed prima ballerina Diana Vishneva has developed a strong platform for a representation of the world’s contemporary choreography in Russia. Context festival has succeeded to widen a comprehension of contemporary dance language and to educate its spectator, who originally has been used to grand “Bolshoi-style” academic ballet. The main goals of the festival are to connect spectators with the most relevant ballet tendencies, help them not to get lost in the labyrinths of contemporary choreography, to grasp its essence, to get acquainted with the variety of trends. Alongside live guest performances festival includes educational program: “Context speaks” lectures, creative meetings with choreographers and dancers, workshops for stage photographers and critics, screenings of ballet backstage and biographical films. Nevertheless, the main focus of the event is on the future of the contemporary dance – an evening of young choreographers “Context Lab”. (www.contextfest.com).
Every year Context program of Moscow and St. Petersburg is rich for names of must-know choreography masters and their companies’ must-see performances. In festival’s short history it has already witnessed acclaimed works of Mats Ek, Hans van Manen, Marco Goecke, Ohad Naharin, Ji?í Kylián, Maurice Béjart, Martha Graham, Angelin Preljocaj and many more. No doubt, that Context, alongside Diagilev P.S. is a great annual opportunity to witness all the masterpieces of choreography gathered in one place. This year Context brought fragments from Wayne McGregor’s, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s, Aleksey Ratmansky’s stagings, German“Gauthier Dance” and American “Bodytraffic” companies, special production of Spanish choreographer Gojo Montero for Perm ballet company, as well as NDT. Special evenings were dedicated to era of Sergei Diaghilev. In “Ballets by Igor Stravinsky” evening three modern and recognizable Russian choreographers Viacheslav Samodurov, Vladimir Varnava and Alexey Miroshnichenko staged “The Fairy’s Kiss”, “Petrushka” and “The Firebird” respectively. The Gauthier Dance brought to Moscow its passionate ballet “Nijinski” that is worth to highlight further.
Evening of “Stravinsky ballets”. “Petrushka” choreographed by Vladimir Varnava. foto: contextfest.com
A week without sleep, an inspiration for a year ahead
A Laboratory of dance criticism lasted for 7 days and took place in a cozy and well-situated Documentary film center (DFC) in Moscow (www.cdkino.ru). Our workshop leader, educator, encourager and an inspirational role model was Vita Khlopova – a researcher of contemporary choreography, guest lecturer in Russian Academy of Theater Arts (GITIS), journalist, author and scientific editor of a series of books on contemporary dance. Two years ago, she created an internet platform on 20th century dance called “No fixed points” (www.nofixedpoints.com). There, in a well-structured and easily understandable way any dance interest can find summarized and in-depth knowledge about worldwide history of ballet, its personalities and performances. It also offers a mobile library and online courses. Anyhow, this project not only is helpful for all dance lovers, professionals and amateurs, but also surely is a great idea to develop, for example as similar educational and dance popularizing platform in countries like Latvia. Another helpful resource for improving dance vocabulary was Arzamas.academy cultural education project and one specific course. A well-described series of lectures and video lessons dedicated for how to distinguish iconic styles of 20th century main choreographers.
Vita Khlopova . photo: contextfest.com
All in all, in criticism laboratory there were six of participants. Everybody except me were theater students from both Russian capitals and one 17-year-old bright mind school graduate, who was simply out of competition. All as one – inveterate theater and dance lovers, “young and rebel”, each of us with individual creative writing skills to be sharpened and critical thought to expressed. It has truly been an interesting and challenging from the very beginning: to dive into Russian theater’s world insides, backgrounds and its reflecting media specifics.
Backstage of Context Laboratory of Dance criticism. Guest lecture of the Le Monde dance critic Rosita Boisseau; Diana Vishneva’s talk to choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Foto: Olga Dolina
This “express school” of dance criticism has been organized the following way: 3 days of theory, 4 days of practice. 7 classes resulted in 7 critical articles. First, we discussed how to and how not to write, where to write, and why to write. We talked a lot about dance criticism etiquette, structure and difference of texts, how to prepare ourselves for watching the performance, research to be done before and after the show. As unoriginal as it sounds, the main and summarizing point will remain the same: the context. We even had a joke, that we should probably exclude the word “context” from our vocabulary after festival ends. Anyway, this knowledge of contexts, constant self-education, quantity (at best – quality) of seen performances have a decisive role for good article. Two more classes were dedicated to leading 20th century ballet directions and choreographers on European and American dance platforms. Neoclassical ballet, free dance, modern dance, ausdruckstanz, post-modern dance, contemporary dance: how to identify, distinguish, and reflect these concepts in writing.
In the last day of festival, one is allowed also to joke around: memes about the tough life of dance critic starring Vaclav Nijinsky, are made by my colleague from the lab. Foto: Polina Remneva, Greta Mavica
The second part of our agenda was much more intense: performances in the evening; late night and/or early morning review writing; then afternoon meetings and intense discussions; afterwards – guest lectures and again, shows in the evening. No time for lunch breaks, but tea with bagels has never tasted better in my life. Still, somewhere in between I managed to pop into couple of exhibitions and enjoy pre-holiday hustle of beautiful Moscow.
It has been a while since I have experienced such a marathon of writing. Nevertheless, reviews turned out to be condensed and sharp, because of the short amount of time I was supposed to focus on the problem only. First ideas and impressions are sometimes the most exact ones, and they often get lost in between the lines of big long-reads. In the “context” of every other article, we had different tasks, other accents. For example, we wrote for our perfect magazine, or, on the contrary, for media that is “uncomfortable” with our personal style. Within discussions we were searching for our stronger and weaker sides of writing that we can improve. As to me, I am still trying to reach this passage “from Tolstoy to Chekhov” – to write in shorter sentences.
One of the most memorable and valuable experiences was a lecture of Rosita Boisseau – a main dance critic and researcher from Le Monde newspaper. A woman of infinite energy, she shared a very straight and clear story of her more than 35 year-long professional success and secrets of everyday work. Using this opportunity, I would like to share my notes on her advice:
- Say NO to bad mood. Forget the words “like” or “hate”. Watch the show without prejudice. Use the principle of “smart anger”.
- Respect the choreographer and his work.
- Write down absolutely EVERYTHING that you see, think, and feel during the performance.
- During the performance, never relax even for a moment. As a critic, unlike a usual spectator, you are at work.
- Even if you are bored, remember that even a tiny detail can develop an idea. Detail can indicate the whole.
- Empathy and emotional intellect are popular again.
- Find a key to decode a choreographer’s language and bring in your interpretation of it.
- Dance is a language. In contemporary dance, you are the one who invents the words for describing the action. They must be precise. It is hard, but exciting.
- Don’t do too much of descriptions and retelling, try to create a vision.
- Within the concepts and genres, you have to constructively highlight the strong and weak parts of the show.
- Try to use a principle of kinesthesia: look at the show with your whole body, project movements of dancers on to yourself. Watch and try to remember your feelings.
Notebook, pencil, coffee – the main instruments needed for a week critic’s marathon
My Top 3 Choreographical Impressions
During four evenings of the Context showcase, I have experienced a whirlpool of diverse emotions. Probably impossible to cover them all in one article, but still certain memory flashbacks of mine could create the right atmosphere.
- Evening of young choreographers. There has been a perceptible gap in development between the post-Soviet territory’s and Western contemporary choreography’s trends. In just over 25 years it seems extremely hard to catch up with this whole breakthrough of the 20th century modern choreography. Is it possible/needed at all? What direction does Russian contemporary directions evolve in? This is a hot topic of several scientific conferences for years ahead. My review of that evening had title “Reward cannot forget”. A full stop must be placed according to each spectator’s individual critical opinion, who has seen the show. Laboratory and open space for experiments are the key words that determine the format of the “Context Lab”. Moreover, none of the choreographers can reach the top without experiencing trials and errors. All in all, it was an evening of very well crafted (artistically less thought, through) performances, with original ideas, origins of individual style and solid movement technique.
The winner of the Contex Lab 2017 young choreographer’s competition: Olga Lobovkina from Belarus in her performance “Air” Foto: contextfest.com
2. Opening Gala concert. I still keep two duets in my memory and heart. First, Wayne McGregor’s “Witness”: ten-minute long pas de deux, both an eternity and blink of a moment. A duet of 54-year-old ballet star Alessandra Ferri with German Korneho as a manifesto to the capabilities of profound woman’s body with especially powerful shades of artistry.
54-year-old Italian prima Alessandra Ferri in duet with Herman Korneho in Wayne McGregor’s “Witness”. foto: Nikolaj Krusser
Second, a choreographic story by celebrated Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with soundtrack of Woodkid: “I will fall for you” is a strong and touching story of break up, which is better to see yourself in this atmospherically set video.
Nevertheless, the final performance of the evening stole the show with its sharp and dramatic fusion of contemporary ballet and classic elements, vibrant accents in body plastics and daring dramatic solutions. In choreographic style of Spanish enfant terrible Goyo Montero (principal choreographer of Nuremberg Ballet), temperament, together with perfectly trained precision of dance and dramaturgic line, is represented equally strong. Especially for the “Context” festival and dancers of Perm National Ballet Montero has staged the piece entitled “Asunder”. Framed into a rare balletic combination of Wagner and Chopin music adaptation, it was an existential story about a force of the crowd, idea of collective body, over-reality dimensions and delusive fragility. Vertiginous geometry of corps de ballet, mosaics of quartets and duets, followed by the duels of soloist and groups with high jumps and dynamic wavy elevations. Everything is performed as filigree as anxious emotional tension is. There are motives of game, duplicity, reflections. A fake finale is staged in a tricky scenic solution, so the spectator is totally twisted around one’s expectations. The reflection of the theater hall is projected deep into the background of the stage, and dancers, standing with their backs to the audience, do their révérence clearly to somebody else. Something goes wrong and later, in the real finale, a soloist rips down a transparent laboratory-like membrane attached to the proscenium… “Asunder” was my strongest ballet experience in a long time, one with oppressive reflections and a bitter but thrilling aftertaste.
3. My discovery of “Context” 2017 is Marco Goecke’s and Stuttgart “Gauthier dance” company’s full-length ballet “Nijinsky”. It is not only a 10-scene biographical ballet about the symbol of an epoch – Vaclav Nijinsky, but also an overwhelming philosophical strike of creativeness and madness. Black background, white square of stage floor. Scenography reveals itself in a dramaturgy of light, minimalistic details of props and red colored accents. 1 hour and 20 minutes of non-stop madly high tempo choreography. Challenging, detailed, precisely executed from fingers to toes, although mostly only the top parts of the body are involved in the dance. Sets of repetitive, distracting and sharp movements, convulsive and shaky, in contrast to flowing hand and finger lines are trying to catch this seemingly speeded up musical fluency of Chopin and Debussy.
A scene from ballet “Nijinsky”. Photo: Regina Brocke
In the end, physical visualization of the “inspiration from outer space” feeling, that is both Diaghilev’s and Nijinsky’s characters’ kind of an alter ego, leads to a neurotic and tragic mania. The pattern of a complete choreographic scheme is introduced from the very beginning, with no other development planned. Still, the paradox of Marco Goecke’s work is in the ever-new combinations of movements, which are highlighted with details from classical ballet. Moreover, there is pantomime and expressive playfulness of faces-masks; oriental art fight motives and highly energized body plastic; variations of contraction-release Martha Graham’s style; and reference to Nijinsky’s iconic side flight from the “Afternoon of a Faun”. Maybe, underneath this slightly mannered and over-bright, yet original choreography, imagery, hyperactivity, and probably over-emphasized homoerotic message, the spiritual depth of the main character-icon, the transcendental dimension of Nijinsky is fading. Nevertheless, Nijinsky is no longer just a name – it is a myth, a symbol that belongs to the world’s ballet culture and to everyone who got one way or another inspired by his art. Thence comes a diverse range of interpretations and artistic searching from the variety of choreographers.
Title picture: Context. Diana Vishneva 2017. Waiting for the highlight of the festival: Gauthier Dance performance “Nijinsky” by Marco Goecke. Foto: Greta Mavica