by Sarah Lupton
Olga Pona’s robotic marionettes—er, dancers—took the stage last night in Reynolds Theater for the U.S. premiere of The Other Side of the River. And if there was any question about what Russian modern dance looks like, this performance cleared it up.
“Russian life is very rough,” she explained during the post-performance discussion. “It’s not polite.”
The strong, linear movements of the Chelyabinsk dancers are proof that this truth manifests itself in all aspects of Russian life, including art. The dancers exhibited complete discipline in their movements, executing each sequence with mechanical fluidity as individual units that collided and combined before separating again.
In fact, this theme of roughness repeats itself throughout—from grungy cigarette smoke to a sexual experience with a prostitute.
The story is based on two poor village men working in the laundry room of an expensive hotel ironing the clothes of Western travelers, which is one of the few signs they see of “the other side of the river,” or of a different life. They try on the Western-style clothing as an attempt to further understand that outside world.
“So, [in the beginning of the piece],” Pona jokes, “they are naked because of nothing to wear!”
Pona’s own story is an example of the difficulty of living in a communist province in Russia. She never even came into contact with dance until after high school. Today, her dance company still doesn’t have their own stage in Chelyabinsk. And she was never able to study contemporary dance.
“I want to see more art,” she says eagerly, regretting that traveling with the dance company doesn’t leave much time to see other performances.
Yet, it’s obvious that her seclusion from other dance influences is what makes her choreography so striking. She creates pieces completely on her own preferences, from selecting sequences for particular dancers to choosing the music.
She will show two other pieces during the ADF: Nostalgia, which was first sketched at the ADF in 2004, and Waiting.
“‘Waiting,’” she explains sardonically, “because the Russian people are always waiting for something better: better life, better president, better weather…”
Pona uses strict, controlled motions in her choreography, but she does not feel such rigidity in terms of artistic freedom in Russia.
“I do what I want.”
Well, it looks good to us, but that does explain a lot…