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The Russia we don't get to see

The classical ballets are exported, but Moscow audiences are treated to charged work in a thriving contemporary dance scene.

November 17, 2002|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

BRYANTSEV'S experiments are only a small piece of the Russian picture. "There's a powerful movement toward contemporary dance now," says Sergei Korobkov, artistic director of Nations State Theatre in Moscow, which organizes dance festivals throughout the country. "Even in small towns, people are no longer living in ballet fairy tales."

The entrenched repertories of official, state-supported theaters often result in seasons that are 70% classical and only 30% contemporary, Korobkov says, "but when you look at the number of premieres, it's vice versa: 70% contemporary and only 30% classical."

Like a number of Moscow critics and dancers, Korobkov resents the fact that Eifman is the only contemporary Russian choreographer who is recognized in Europe and America at a time, he says, when "there are 10 to 15 very good contemporary dance companies in Moscow, Petersburg, the Urals and the far east" of Russia.

To Moscow dance critic and editor Anna Galaida, this new "explosion of contemporary dance in Russia" can be credited to the influence of foreign companies appearing in a series of festivals, beginning in the early '90s. "They educated and nurtured the audience," she explains. She also draws a distinction between modern dance and modern ballet, believing there is more serious interest in Moscow in the former right now than in the latter.

By consensus, Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet -- the best known dance institution in all of Russia -- plays no important role on the contemporary dance scene. Blame artistic conservatism, limited dancer versatility and recent managerial upheavals, plus ticket prices that are sometimes so high, critic Alexander Firer says, "that only tourists and flatheads can afford to go."

The dancers make news

At the Young Peoples' Theatre, across the street from the Bolshoi, a chamber ensemble misnamed Ballet Moscow is performing a two-part program confirming that Russian modern dancers are no less impressive than their classical counterparts. There are no traces of ballet in Paul Selvin Norton's "The Rogue Tool," which plays with cyclical structure, discontinuity, tricks of scale and ironic new vaudeville moves, while Natalia Ficksel's more conventionally focused "Don Juan Rehabilitated" uses contrasting duets to explore current gender attitudes.

Merce Cunningham technique, Pina Bausch dramatic strategies, Pilobolus gymnastics and a tradition of sophisticated Moscow stagecraft loom large here, but the dancers themselves are the big news: so accomplished and committed that they make even hand-me-down ideas compelling.

The choreography tonight may not merit international exposure, but when the next big thing comes along, they'll be as ready to dance it as any company anywhere. And, who knows? The next big thing could be taking shape in their minds even now.

As many of the dancers, critics and administrators repeatedly mention in interviews, Russians such as Sergei Diaghilev, Mikhail Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky changed ballet forever early in the 20th century. Afterward, only the imposition of an oppressive political system kept dance in Russia from following the modernist trends prevalent in Europe and America -- or developing home-grown alternatives.

"We were considered to be in the forward ranks of world dance and suddenly we found ourselves locked in one style," Moscow Stanislavsky dancer Erlykin says. "We have lagged behind and we're trying to catch up. And now we're making huge leaps, even if those leaps do not always take us where we want."


Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic.

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