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With no knowledge of modern dance, Olga Pona and her husband Vladimir began a company devoted to what they termed "visual theater."

ADF: Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater 

A Russian choreographer's attempt to come in from the cold

American Dance Festival
Russian Festival: Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater

click to enlarge We don't need no education: Olga Pona's Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater - PHOTO COURTESY OF AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL

It's been suggested that Olga Pona's choreography constitutes modern dance's version of outsider art. She began at the dawn of the 1990s in the eastern Russian industrial district of Chelyabinsk, 100 miles north of the Kazakhstan border. With no knowledge of modern dance, she and her husband Vladimir began a company devoted to what they termed "visual theater."

The problem? Outsider art and its sometime synonyms, naïve and primitive art, represent attempts during the last century of visual art criticism to categorize works whose origins lay beyond the culture of those doing the criticizing.

As descriptions, the words convey more than a whiff of privilege and the paternal. (Who but an insider can define the outside? Who besides the wise determines the naïve?) They also constitute potent examples of via negativa—naming what is by defining what is not.

The technique—call it definition by subtraction, if not demolition—isn't intrinsically sinister. In one expression, an artist chips at a block of marble to get to a form within. Unfortunately, in another, a xenophobe takes a hammer to obliterate a representation of (and by) the Other, to reaffirm what's really most important: Us, of course.

No matter how these phrases claim to honor the thing being described, they're reinforcing the values of qualities allegedly absent even more. Plus, defining something solely by what it isn't suggests at least a strange breach of the imagination.

But what happens when an artist embraces the term? Are they flipping or reclaiming the definition, as subcultures have done with words like punk or queer? If not, what is going on?

I have never read an artist's own biography so clearly detail her (presumably self-assessed) deficits in education, training and fundamental experience with an art form as Olga Pona has in the ADF playbill for her Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater.

The text goes well beyond the refreshment of candor (or the irritation of the disingenuous, for that matter). We read self-definition by demolition instead:

Pona "has always regretted she was never able to study contemporary dance." It "was not available in Russia, and there was no money to go abroad." Her initial artistic studies were "against regulations." After an arduous train trip, she missed registration for Russia's first American Dance Festival, but was "luckily ... allowed to watch." At least seven years pass before Pona "realized it is possible to make your own rules," and "that maybe there isn't just one contemporary dance which can be studied and followed."

Clearly, the words are part apologia. Too easily they can be interpreted as a preemptive injunction against heightened—or any—critical assessment.

They are also part boast. Their implicit claim: Since Pona's accomplishments occurred under conditions more extreme, they count for even more.

There's a problem if we grant either proposition. As humans, it's hard not to be touched by such autobiographical testimony. But on another level, professional dance (like other professional art forms) cares a lot more about how quickly artists catch up to—and then surpass—the current standards of excellence than what they had to overcome to get there.

Yes, this sounds heartless. Still, as a professional, I do endorse it—though I clearly hear an echo in its aesthetics of ends justifying means.

Now, who will publicly dispute it?

One thing is clear. Though it was prompted by duress, Olga Pona has become a better editor of her work. More development, however, is required.

Our weblog (www.indyweekblogs.com/adf) broke the story last week of dancer Maria Greyf's disabling hand injury in Prague, which mandated resetting Nostalgia for nine dancers instead of the original 10. Disaster struck again when the company reached Durham. As we went to press we learned dancer Vladimir Vdovenko broke his foot after Thursday night's performance. Nostalgia had to change again.

The result—believe it or not—was an improvement on the original 2004 version and the later, finished take on DVD.

Perhaps it was a reduction in the stage fog in the piece, or an increase in the lighting levels throughout it. Maybe it was the removal of clutter: dancers' lines only recognized as extraneous when they had to be excised. Or perhaps it was the added focus and tension of a cast negotiating a series of major, last-minute changes that gave Nostalgia a newfound clarity, energy and (at least in the early sections) crispness.

Not that all problems were solved by the possibly fortunate falls detailed above. Too much of this early exercise in contact improvisation still seemed, as earlier, like scattered, uncooked pasta; disjunctive lines and sequences set randomly on top of one another, with little eye for build or organic development. For its new-found strengths, the beginning sharpness had still dulled somewhat by the end.

There's also the matter of the emotion mentioned in the title. Where was it? Pona still has yet to learn the difference between stoicism and the emotionally null. In Nostalgia, and particularly in Pona's earlier work, 2002's Waiting, the dancers never emote. Instead, they pose, looking out into the audience for longer and longer periods. This trait repeatedly gives both the sheen—and shallowness—of fashion magazine photography.

At the start of Waiting, Pona's dancers try to sling off the past like so much peasant garb—only to find it's a lot harder to rid themselves of a culture's dreams, expectations and habits when it comes to gender. There's no shortage of striking imagery. Women in improvised headscarves suggest older women wiping hastily erected frosty windows; men in sharp black suits duckwalk before crouching at the feet of partially nude women whose heads are covered in cloth. Still, Pona's points seem repeatedly belabored in this earlier work.

As with Nostalgia, emotion and narrative are dispensed with at the start of her new work, The Other Side of the River. Its opening 15 minutes seem almost a self-consciously dispassionate catalog of contact improvisation moves. Indeed, their abstraction seems breached only when a disinterested man twice barricades the progress of a woman with the sweep of his arm, before later overcoming her objections, pushing back against his advances, by using the crook of his right arm to coolly lift her—by the throat—and move her into a desired position.

These moments are conveyed with the same absence of emotion as the deadpan consultation ("seduction" being hardly the appropriate word) of a prostitute (Maria Gerasimova) moments later, by two young, broke men (the agile Mikhail Abramov and Vladimir Vdovenko) who have improved their lot by ironing clothes in a hotel laundry—and then borrowing them after finding money in their pockets.

Their cross-stage navigation atop ironing board/skateboard combinations get laughs from the audience, but the resulting sexual slapstick (complete with one-sided cigarette breaks) misses when we don't identify fully formed characters before, during or after their adventures.

One brief exception occurs when a trio of women (Gerasimova, Svetlana Levova and Olga Sharova) pose, preen, lean—and topple—over one another in beauty ad simulations a bit too geeky, despite best intentions, to actually entice.

Pona belabors solo and group interactions after the first 40 minutes, in a work where the absence of emotional establishment, much less development, leaves most of her characters little more than action figures; good for a laugh, but little more.

The second half of the Russian Festival, with performances by Vladimir Golubev and Iguan Dance Theatre, came as we went to press. Our responses—and our interview with Iguan's Nina Gasteva, Michail Ivanov and Anastasia Kadruleva—will be on our ADF blog by the time you read this: indyweekblogs.com/adf.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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