Svetlana Ulanovskaya: “Contemporary Dance: No Cultural Outings”

How to understand what happens on stage if the bill says “plastic experimentation”? Art historian and dance critic, teacher, researcher, project curator in contemporary dance, answers these questions.

There was an incident in Minsk when a teacher brought a group of schoolchildren to the show of a famous Belarusian experimental choreographer. In a moment one of the artists appeared nude on stage. The teacher wrote a complaint and for a while the performance was not shown. Following this incident, the following phrase appeared on theatre bills: “No Cultural Outings”.

Should schoolchildren be taken to an experimental staging of plastic theatre? Dance critic and contemporary dance researcher from Belarus Svetlana Ulanovskaya believes such performances require viewers who are prepared. “Many go to the theatre for entertainment and leisure. Contemporary dance offers a completely different way of communication”. 

Contemporary dance for you is a research subject and serious personal activity. How did you get into this art form?

It was completely unexpected for me, as my education has nothing to do with dance. I graduated from a music school as violinist and conductor. In my last year, I saw a contemporary dance performance and fell in love. My impressions were so powerful that I decided to pursue a different profession and engage in dance research. I would carry a notebook everywhere and kept a diary of dance observations.

At first, I would try to pin down my impressions, describe the representation that I saw in dance. I read a lot of different books on dance. In Belarus, there’s a problem with finding such books, so I acquired most of the books in my library in Russia and Europe. Contemporary dance criticism is more developed abroad than in Belarus. There is even competition among critics.

What is contemporary dance about?

Initially contemporary dance was about contemporary man. This is the “fixing” of the present – here and now – when the dance becomes a kind of scanner of psychological, social, political processes taking place in the life of modern man.

Is this relevancy, topicality present in Belarusian contemporary dance?

Many works by young Belarusian choreographers, in my opinion, are characterised by infantilism and banality of concept, reduced to melodramatic collisions and indistinct reflections on the “self”. Today in the contemporary dance of Belarus, the following situation is observed: good technical form is demonstrated by virtually everyone, whereas concept, meaningfulness (not to mention originality), personal expression are noticeably  lacking. There is a lack of interpretation of vital, uncomfortable themes, work with the social, political context, and not just the world of personal feelings and experiences. Naturally, I’m not talking about everyone, but it’s a prevailing trend.

Perhaps this is why the general public is not interested in this form of art.

Contemporary dance, as an experimental practice, can’t bring together the general public and can’t perform to a full house.

Your curatorial project is called Theatre+Body. What does this title refer to and what are the goals of the project?

Theatre+Body is an educational project. It aims to create in Belarus a non-formal educational platform in the sphere of contemporary theatre practices and performance, presentation of current theatre techniques, remaining outside the context of the academic educational process.

The project was initially conceived for two target audiences: dancers and actors. We wanted to bring together these two groups of professionals. After all, actors at the Academy of Arts follow a fairly conservative curriculum. As a result, many graduates of creative universities don’t know what performance, contemporary dance, post-dramatic, physical theatre are.

The boundaries of theatre and dance, as separate art forms, are levelled today. For example, at theatre festivals, there are usually many dance performances. The body becomes the primary source of meaning and exploration in many artistic practices – theatre, dance, performance.

Marina Dashuk, theatre manager and director of the plastic theatre KorniagTHEATRE, is project coordinator along with me. Within the framework of the project we plan to invite foreign specialists – famous choreographers, directors, theatre researchers, who will work with the Belarusian audience.

What is performance?

It is an interdisciplinary concept that combines different art forms. Performance is, first and foremost, a presentation practice, and act of performing, actions, events, executed by the performer before the public. Not necessarily on a stage platform. For performance, the body, time, space and an audience are required. Dialogue is of paramount importance, taking place during the meeting of the performer and the public, arising with it and through to it.

You say that the goals and objectives of your project is a creative experiment. But experiment is something with an unknown ending…

Indeed, the project aims to develop creative experiment, the introduction of innovative theatre and psychophysical practices. We want to expand the personal opportunities of professionals and contribute to their involvement in contemporary trends.

Are there problems in our society that, in your opinion, get in the way of accepting art forms and creativity relating to the body? Viewers could feel uncomfortable looking at the body, especially when the dancers are nude…

Of course, there are taboo subjects. The majority of viewers of repertory theatre are brought up with productions in the academic style, or shows created in the entertainment/cautionary aesthetics. Many go to the theatre for entertainment and leisure. Like getting hooked on a series: sit down, forget about your problems, do not think, switch off, be moved by a beautiful love story and return to one’s reality. Contemporary theatre, including dance, offers an absolutely different way of communication, unusual language, absence of linear narrative and coherent development of action.

The nonverbal language of plastic shows can become a stumbling block between the choreographer and the viewer, as well as the primacy of the body, which is deprived of its intimacy and offers itself in the public space. Contemporary dance teaches viewers to get rid of their personal stereotypes, templates. I am certain that contemporary dance or plastic theatre performances require internal renewal on the part of the viewer, an open state of body and mind.

You discuss the shows with the audience in a direct discussion. Why? How many people stay for the discussions?

The main goal of the discussions is communication. These meetings are initiated for the sake of dialogue. This dialogue has an educational purpose: activate the analytical thinking of viewers, bring them closer to understanding contemporary theatre and art.

Usually, less than half of the viewers stay for the discussions. Sometimes, virtually all the viewers stay, as happened, for example, during the performances of the Open Forum of Experimental Physical Theatres PlaStforma Minsk 2016.

I start the discussion, as moderator, and then we pass the mic to the audience who ask questions or share their impressions. The protagonists are artists, the creators of the show and the audience. Viewers like the fact that their opinions matter.

What questions are most often posed?

“What is the show about?”; “What did you mean?”; “What did you want to say by that?” Very often the question “What is the show about?” is expressed with resentment and irritation.

What is the reason for this aggression?

There are many reasons and they have a systemic character. They include:

· Lack (with rare exceptions) of shows with contemporary aesthetics in state theatres;

· Overlooking contemporary theatre practices in the educational process;

· A new artistic language deprived of any recognisable reference points;

· The performance going beyond the habitual frame of entertainment and “comprehensibility”.

Contemporary art offers a different perspective for perception. It requires involvement and intellectual effort from the viewer. The viewer often finds himself in an uncomfortable situation, when the stereotypes of his perception narrow the aesthetic horizon and hinder understanding and acceptance of the theatre performance.

What the viewer sees goes beyond the expected and predictable.

Do physical performances have a script, plot?

A scenario, not always. Plot too. There can be no linear plot development in contemporary dance. As for performance, what matters here is the moment of the presence, the here and now, the intensity of communication, inclusion in the overall process of both artist and viewer. Performance actualises the process, its situational development, and not the result.

What kind of an audience do performances gather? Where are performances held?

The lack of venues for presenting experimental shows is one of the most long-standing, pressing problems of Belarusian theatre space. The shows of the Forum of Experimental Physical Theatres PlaStforma Minsk 2016 were held in various venues in Minsk – the Railway Workers’ Palace of Culture (not only on stage, but also in the foyer), the Republican Theatre of Belarusian Drama, National School of Beauty, exhibition halls of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts. Almost everywhere, certain difficulties arose relating to space organisation, placement of technical equipment and devices necessary for the presentation of a specific show. Unfortunately, the majority of theatre platforms in Belarus are not capable of coping with the technical riders of modern productions.

Contemporary dance performances are not conceived for a broad audience. One of the most suitable and widely used spaces in Western theatres is a “black box”, a mobile space that brings closer the stage and the viewers and can be transformed depending on each individual performance.

What accompaniment is used in contemporary dance productions? Which music, settings? What does the viewer hear and see? What costume, clothing are used?

Music in the traditional sense is absent altogether. Choreographers today treat all the diversity of the auditory world, often creating the sonorous space of the performance using sounds that occur in the process of performing – the sounds of the artist’s body, his panting, interaction with various objects.

The costumes of dancers are another topic. There are many specificities here and individual solutions. Often contemporary dance choreographers work with the representation of the “daily body”. When the dancer almost doesn’t look different from the viewers and is performing in simple, neutral clothing that focuses the attention on the body. Or even without clothes. As the famous Polish choreographer Mikołaj Mikołajczyk says, “the nude body is also my costume”.

Do you agree with that contemporary dance today in Belarus is an elitist art form?

I think that the notions of “elitist” and “mass” have long lost their relevance. This is art that requires a thinking viewer, one willing to be transformed, change in the process of perceiving the performance. The main thing is the readiness to transform, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, even bodily in the process of the personal “ego” coming in contact with what the artist is conveying.

What needs to be done so that contemporary dance is better known in Belarus?

An educational platform is necessary, one that would include various contemporary theatre and dance practices not only in the formal but also in the non-formal educational process. To date, only the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts is preparing specialists in the sphere of contemporary dance – a few years ago, a corresponding department was opened in the faculty of choreography. Also, a unifying centre is sorely lacking that would coordinate the actions of choreographers, collectives, artists, represent and promote the interests of the dance community, fulfil informational and research functions. Similar organisations emerged after 1989 practically in all post-Socialist countries, including the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre, Dance. Prague in the Czech Republic, Derida Dance Centre in Bulgaria, The International Dance and Performance Centre TsEKh in Russia and many others.

In Belarus, the “dance community”, just like in the 1990s, is made up of lone enthusiasts.  

10 facts about the history of Belarusian physical theatre from Svetlana Ulanovskaya:

1. The conventional starting point in the formation of new Belarusian dance is 1986, the year of the founding of the folklore theatre Gotsitsa under the leadership of Larisa Simakovich. Gotsitsa is the first dance theatre in the history of Belarusian choreography.  

2. In the early 1990s, a number of experimental dance collectives appeared, differing in form, thought, their understanding of the body and physicality:  

  • Dmitry Kurakulov’s contemporary choreography group TAD, 1993, Grodno;
  • Alexander Tebenkov’s Gallery dance theatre, 1994, Grodno;
  • Inna Aslamova’s contemporary dance group Quadro, 1994, Gomel;
  • Anastasia Makhova’s studio of contemporary dance Parallels, 1996, Vitebsk.  

3. It is worth noting that the first contemporary dance groups in Belarus emerged and developed away from the capital and its dictates of traditional academic ballet and folk/concert dance.

4. In the 2000s, a new generation of choreographers and groups appeared:

  • Diana Yurchenko’s Contemporary Choreography Theatre and Studio, 2002, Vitebsk;
  • Dmitry Zalesskiy and Olga Skvortsova’s contemporary choreography theatre D.O.Z.SK.I., 2005, Minsk;
  • Olga Labovkina’s dance theatre Krakuli, 2008, Minsk;
  • Olga Skvortsova’s SKVo’S Dance Company, 2012, Minsk; among others. 

5. Interest in the body, the search for experimental forms for physical expression appeared even earlier in the theatre art of Belarus. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, around a dozen studio collectives appeared whose creative activities are characterised by various forms of physical and pantomime theatre.

6. However, from the variety of physical theatres of those years, only one has survived to this day: Vyacheslav Inozemtsev’s InZhest theatre, 1986, Minsk. Among the new bright representatives of physical theatre in Belarus, it is worth noting Evgeniy Korniag’s KorniagTHEATRE, 2010, Minsk.

7. In 1987, the first festival of contemporary choreography is held in Vitebsk, initially as a “Youth sees breakdance” and later in 1990 as the All-Union Festival of Concert and Folk Dance Belaya Sobaka and from 1993 the “International Festival of Contemporary Choreography”.

8. In 2017, the Festival of Contemporary Choreography will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The Vitebsk festival has become the first contemporary dance festival in the post-Soviet space. Marina Romanovskaya is the festival’s initiator and art director.

9. In 2013, the Open Forum of Physical Experimental Theatre PlaStforma Minsk was launched. Vyacheslav Inozemtsev is the forum art director. 

10. 18-19 February, 2017 Minsk will host the V Open Forum experimental plastic theater "PlaStforma Minsk-2017".

Other interesting stories: