For Russians Tired of ‘Swan Lake,’ a Contemporary Alternative

For Russians Tired of ‘Swan Lake,’ a Contemporary Alternative

At least one of her picks has gone on to make his mark: Vladimir Varnava, the first winner, in 2013. Now 29, he is considered one of the most promising young choreographers in Russia. This year he created a ballet, “Yaroslavna. The Eclipse,” for the Mariinsky, set to a score by the Soviet composer Boris Tishchenko.

Mr. Varnava is an interesting case; a dancer and choreographer who comes from the very fringes of Russian culture. He grew up in Kurgan, a town in the Urals, on the border with Kazakhstan. “Imagine a town that was all about agriculture and had a factory that produced tanks for the army,” he said between festival rehearsals. “But then, after the war, there was less demand, and it was slowly decaying.” He started out at a small studio run by a young couple; the wife had some ballet training, the husband was a folk dancer. Their inspiration often came from television and music videos.


Members of Gauthier Dance in Marko Goecke’s “Nijinsky” at the Mossovet Theater in Moscow.

James Hill for The New York Times

“We were inspired by some Western tendencies, like Michael Jackson, or shows like ‘Riverdance,’” he said. “It was all patched together.” But there was no connection between what he was doing and the larger world of contemporary dance. It wasn’t until he saw a video of a production by the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj on YouTube, he said, that he realized what he was missing. He went to Paris to study for a year.

Mr. Varnava’s work was featured as part of a triple bill of Stravinsky ballets — all by Russian choreographers — at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater, a house of moderate size. (All three works were performed by the Perm Ballet.) Mr. Varnava tackled the well-known ballet “Petrushka.” His staging was imaginative and musically sensitive, the action set in a circus where the wobbly-kneed protagonist vied with a cartoonish strongman for the attentions of a Carmen Miranda-esque beauty.

The Stravinsky evening turned out to be a high point of the festival, thrillingly theatrical and choreographically rich. The opener, “The Fairy’s Kiss,” was like a pop-up children’s book version of a ballet, complete with a colorful windmill and puffy storybook clouds. Filled with stomping folk dances and lively pointwork, the choreography had an unmannered, almost naïve quality.

The style suited both the story — about a boy who falls in love with a local girl but is spirited away by a fairy — and Stravinsky’s music, which draws liberally from various Tchaikovsky melodies. The choreographer, Viacheslav Samodurov, was once a Mariinsky star, and Ms. Vishneva’s partner. (Third on the bill was a kind of dance-history pageant by Alexey Miroshnichenko, set to the music of “Firebird.”)

Not all of the festival programs were satisfying. The opening gala was hit or miss, and a premiere, by Goyo Montero — the festival’s first commission — relied on well-worn clichés of contemporary dance. A semiabstract evening-length work about Nijinsky by Marco Goecke proved repetitive and so narratively opaque that it required spoken text to clarify the stage action.

But there is hope for contemporary dance in Russia. A new generation of dance makers, little known in the West, is clearly on the rise, encouraged by festivals like Context, and choreographic workshops at the major companies. Ms. Vishneva’s efforts are creating momentum. And her ambitions continue to grow. Soon, she hopes to expand her operations beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg: “We have been talking to people in Yekaterinburg and across Russia.” Considering what she’s accomplished so far, the odds would seem in her favor.

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