The awesomely energetic Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater performs three intense dances by Olga Pona in two programs this week at the American Dance Festival. That this troupe from a Russian industrial city east of the Urals exists in an internationally successful form is due in part to the American Dance Festival's activities in Russia and to Pona's participation in the ADF's International Choreographer's Commissioning Program. Her work "Nostalgia" was first sketched with student dancers at ADF in 2004. The finished work, which was developed with the support of German dance institutions, received its US premiere on the 15th, as part of the troupe's Program B.
The work (maybe a trifle long) is set in a birch forest, with upright "trees" and a pair that have fallen to an angle, forming a huge X through the stage space. Twice a video screen rolls down and video images of birches (in summer, then winter snow) fill the background. The dancers, who are preternaturally limber, like contortionists, perform many movements that create X or V shapes from their bodies, echoing the angles in the set. There is a sense of conflict and opposition, of forces drawn together and then repelling. The dancers pull or push against each other's resistance — which is also their support. They also leap, roll and tumble; they leaf, lift and spin, and there are many inversions. The piece is about memories of village life — but also about how memory works, how nostalgia stretches and inverts it.
Second on Program B is another US premiere, "Waiting." Despite its title, it is not a whit too long, and it is very amusing. Everyone can recognize waiting, even if the Russians may have raised it to an art. The peasants wait for communism to improve their lives; then they wait for Capitalism to do the same. They wait for spring; they wait, and wait, and wait. They wait without impatience, stoically, just showing a little ennui now and then. But they are not just sitting around waiting — they are dancing in a way that makes the audience wish their wait would never end. They make do with only the most minimal props, most of which are costumes that go on and off. In a late scene, the women pull their tops over their heads, making themselves sphinx-like. Their bodies are so beautiful and powerful, while their faces are covered and inscrutable. It is haunting to see the Sphinx dance.
Program A, which opened the engagement on June 14, consists of Pona's new work, a single one-hour piece titled "The Other Side of the River." Not lugubrious, but dark, with a wide melancholy streak and a savage humor, "The Other Side of the River" is more theatrical than the two shorter works on the alternate program. No sentimental mist clouds this choreographer's vision of the state of life in her time and place. She brings her young people on in minimal clothing and with their angular postures, gymnastic actions, and elastic extensions builds a portrait of disaffected youth longing for work, love, and beauty to replace the insolence and depravity that ward off their despair. On the other side of the river they must have those good things, in the city, in the rich hotel, in the West.... The next scene puts us in a resort laundry, where the workers try on the clothes and the lives of the rich and fortunate (to a bossa nova beat in strange Russian lounge music!). There are some fantastic visuals here, with the rolling ironing tables and madly snorting steam irons skating around the space. The skating theme continues with the dancers using four-wheeled, pivoting skateboards in very exciting ways before, as they must, all dreams end and the fancy clothes must be shed before crossing over that last river to death's dark bank.
Between the choreographer's relentless clarity and the dancers' phenomenal physicality, Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater makes very smart work that communicates cross-culturally without a single word spoken.