Russian Rites of Passage
Russian Festival featuring Provincial Dances Theatre and Kinetic
How interesting that Tatiana Baganova's two works, one the revised premiere "Les Noces (Svadjebka)," the other the five-year-old "Maple Garden," felt both unapologetically new and yet firmly implanted in the roots of her Russian-trained forebears, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska and the Ballet Russes groundbreakers who, for a decade, experimented and shocked dancegoers with bold ideas executed stunningly nearly a century ago. While not a descendent of the Ballets Russes tradition, Baganova is a choreographer willing to experiment, yet she also one who finds ways to link herself to the groundbreaking ideas of her Russian experimental forbears. Her two works were the most exciting on the nearly three-hour long Russian Festival program presented at the American Dance Festival. At Thursday's opening-night program, due to visa difficulties, Baganova's company presented just "Les Noces," with two fewer dancers. By Saturday, with all dancers present, the evening proceeded without a hitch.
Baganova, born in the Urals, trained in Moscow, has been working with the Provincial Dances Theatre in Ekaterinburg, since 1990; for a decade she's served as principal choreographer, bringing her sublimely surrealistic dance theater works to life with just eight dancers and collaboration from set, lighting and costume designers, who, not quite the rivals of the Diaghilev era, work in remarkable synchronicity to create visually exciting stage pictures that leave captivating afterimages of near painterly result.
The magical realism that inhabits Baganova's works lends a lovely feel of primitive mysticism to "Les Noces (Svadjebka)," which she revised for this season's ADF. The work uses the Stravinsky score and recalls some of Nijinska's motifs from the 1923 work. The betrothal and preparatory events leading up to the wedding, of course, recall the original. The nine dancers wear the pale, gray-white layers of Victoria Mozgovaja and Larissa Kravtsova's draped costumes and caps like holy acolytes, their faces washed pale, mask like beneath Andrey Pleshakov's sharp white lighting.
The score rumbles and erupts, of course; Stravinsky's rhythms coursing through one's veins like the nervous bride on her wedding day, a jitter with anticipation, fear and awe at the unknown. For Baganova the community is as essential to the marriage as the bride and groom, for their union represents the future propagation of the group. We see vignettes of private preparations—a man fluffing pillows, the bride having her feet washed—within the bisected set fashioned by the choreographer and Mozgovaja.
A linked chain of dancers crosses the space, disappearing behind panels and reappearing again—adding to the sense of the contained community celebrating the betrothal. The movements capture the primitivism of Nijinska's "Les Noces": flexed footed walks, hands head at ears and rhythmic bobs of the dancers' heads. The men, some bare-chested, parcel out a run of flying leaps, but much of the movement remains contained near the body: like the little skittering walks, flat-footed bourrees really, that the women use to traverse the space. Also reminiscent of Nijinska, the dancers each wear a long single braid—Nijinska's bride wore those two extravagantly long brown braids—and when the bride's hair is shorn harshly with a knife stroke, it marks her passage into adulthood and maturity. Baganova has crafted a ritualistic work that marries primitive folk motifs to surreal contemporary stylistic choices in a seamless fashion. Her "Les Noces" seems as right as the original.
Her "Maple Garden" features images as strong and as compelling, simple yet unknowable at the same time. A bare tree, a floating woman—part demon, part angel, perhaps—and a company of dancers that generate tableaux of striking simplicity and evocative memory. Part fairy tale, part Grimm's nightmare, "Maple Garden's" series of vignettes hints at a distant past when women—here in modified knee-length hooped skirts (by Olga Pautova and Mozgovaja)—are captured and hung on that sparely beautiful maple tree by their hair. Funny, momentarily for some in the audience, the work, which uses music by the underground group Die Anarchistische Abendunterhaltung! and the Moscow Art Trio, feels like a puzzle. Does Baganova really mean to hang women by their hair and make them skitter-walk on their knees? If she does, then why are these images compositionally so beautiful yet emotionally so raw. And when couples pair up, are their duets sensual or sordid, fanciful or forced? Are the ladies willing? It's so hard to tell. Baganova needs not supply the answers; she puts forth the problems for viewers to sort out. In the end, "Maple Garden" is lovingly planted, its fruits sour and sweet.
Kinetic, a ten-year-old company founded by Alexandre Pepelyaev to produce his 'experimental' works, presented two pieces, neither on par with the thoughtful, wise and imagistically rich materials Baganova fashions. The smaller work, "Snow," a duet by Taras Burnashev and Tatiana Gordeeva - choreographed by Burnashev and Daria Buzovkina - has its moments of interest and fun. Elfin Gordeeva enters on wooden skis while Burnashev unfurls a silky movement monologue of spirals and breath-infused walks. Their later tango, after Burnashev disrobes, becomes a playfully insouciant game of hide and seek, for Gordeeva, now ski-less, always seems to cover her partner's most private parts.
An ADF commission and world premiere, Pepelyaev's "Mixed Doubles" closed the program with an inscrutable, lengthy treatise in experimentalism. Pepelyaev, a one-time circus choreographer, had his hand in every aspect of this work: the choreography, the sound and video mix, the costume and lighting design. The only thing he didn't do was dance. Theatrical vignettes and video, projections of color blocks, color-coordinated full-length overcoats donned and flung, and music from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," never relate or connect. The movement, too, remains a mish mash of contemporary stylistic borrowings. "Mixed Doubles" in Pepelyaev's program note claims to play some sort of post-modern game of chess, or Russian roulette. He says his dancers relate "to different performances taking place at the same time, … their chance of rescue depends on the speed of their reactions to the situations they bump into" Ultimately, it's the viewers who need rescue. "Mixed Doubles" is an experiment that fails to make a point, a statement or even provide images that stretch beyond video trickery. How disappointing.