TRACES – Experiences of the Atelier ‘Authenticity of expression in the local context – The Post-Soviet Body’

Annette van Zwoll reflects on her experience of the Atelier ‘Authenticity of expression in the local context – The Post-Soviet Body‘, organised by Tanec Praha and European Dancehouse Network (EDN) in the framework of the Czech Dance Platform on 6-9 May 2018.

1993: My country Czechoslovakia became Czech and Slovakia’

These words light up on the back of the wall during the performance Swish by Czech choreographer and dancer Tereza Hradilkova. While skipping the rope, she shares the memories of her youth. A youth that started out by wearing the same boots as the neighbourhood kids and developed into a time full of birthday parties at McDonalds. A youth characterised by the transformation from a socialistic to a capitalistic system, from one country becoming two.

‘By being here, invited to write about this Atelier, it hits me: the only system I’m truly familiar with is the capitalistic system’

I’m Dutch, brought up in the eighties and visiting Prague and the Czech Dance Platform for the first time in my life. By being here, invited to write about this Atelier, it hits me: the only system I’m truly familiar with is the capitalistic system. Like it or not, it is somehow embedded in my bones, skin and brain, as my peers carry with them the traces of the system they are brought up in. The contemporary dance community exists by international relations and we often feel more connected to each other than we do to our neighbours, and sometimes that makes us forget that different histories have implications on current times and the future. But how and what are not so easy to lay bare.

Yvona Kreuzmannová, founder and director of Tanec Praha that organised the platform and the Atelier, explains that after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, mutual relations between the dance scenes of Central and Eastern European countries diminished. This Atelier reflects the need to “encourage a deeper knowledge of the very diverse dance scenes in Central Europe and neighbouring Post-Soviet countries.” Invited are representatives of the art scene of Slovakia, Hungary and Poland and – organized in close collaboration with choreographers Roman Zotov-Mikshin and Inga Zotova-Mikshina – artists from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

This Atelier reflects the need to “encourage a deeper knowledge of the very diverse dance scenes in Central Europe and neighbouring Post-Soviet countries.”

The participants are parted in two and my group starts the day with four seven-minute artistic introductions to the work of the invited artists. Katerina Ganushina, dance initiator from Russia, unmasks similarities and differences between us by relating spots in the space questions as ‘Have you worked / studied abroad? Where you ever part of a student / worker protest?’ It’s a light but telling game that exposes, among others, the different privileges we had. We all safely end up in the middle after answering the question ‘Do you love dance’. The duo Albert Albert and Alexandra Konnikova (Russia) show us wit and intelligence and trigger our imagination with their poetic presentation of them being bears. Olga Labovkina (Belarus) strongly performs her idiosyncratic moving language, embedding inspiration from psychosomatic practice. Anton Ovchinnikov (Ukraine) presents the most critical presentation by ironically comparing the national dish SALO – pork fat – to the Ukrainian dance context. SALO is universal and primary and satisfies hunger. Not having a taste of its own, it tastes like what you add to it. According to Ovchinnikov in Ukraine the additives usually contain heightened emotions, pompous costumes and easy access to comprehension, all in order to satisfy.

The latest generations adapt a different bodily approach by going abroad, sometimes coming back, but sometimes not. Artistic drainage is real.

With this thought-provoking input we enter the presentations of the Central East representatives of the contemporary dance field in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. They show us a multitude of video clips, emphasising the diversity in each country. I learn that Slovakia and Czech are still strongly connected and that within international contexts, Czech often promotes Slovakian dance as well. I learn that pure dance is sometimes used as a political act, to explicitly state that politics are in such bad shape, they can easily be ignored. In Poland, the scene always has to be prepared to fight for its existence – a concept we all seem to connect to on some level – and was developed by Polish choreographers coming home after studying abroad. The same goes for Hungary, where the approach of dance is still very much influenced by the Russian ballet history. The latest generations adapt a different bodily approach by going abroad, sometimes coming back, but sometimes not. Artistic drainage is real.

There is no such thing as a Post-Soviet Body, especially not in its external expression. But in this Post-Soviet time, some consequences of the Soviet Union still seem to linger.

For me, as someone without profound knowledge of these scenes, the Central and East dance scenes come across as diverse as any other dance scene. Throughout this little glimpse, I have not recognised a common theme, or a bodily aesthetic. I saw artists trying to find a form for what they wanted to express, and trying to impact audiences, and sometimes the system or politics as well. As stressed by the participants, there is no such thing as a Post-Soviet Body, especially not in its external expression. But in this Post-Soviet time, some consequences of the Soviet Union still seem to linger.

A tangible, practical but highly influential result of the history is the value that is given to contemporary dance and the structure arising from that. All countries seem to face the dominant idea that dance equals ballet, and that only ballet is worthy of support. That idea not only reflects a bodily ideology, but also directly results in a lack of infrastructure for the contemporary dance, in terms of subsidies, venues to show the work and support to build audiences. Every now and then, positive exceptions pop up, like the National Ballet of Hungary getting a contemporary choreographer on board. In Russia, the forefront of dance, including Albert Albert, Alexandra Konnikova and Katerina Ganushina are powerfully initiating collaborations and dance initiatives to find and develop the contemporary dance in Russia, despite the total lack of institutional recognition from the government. Olga Labovkina describes the contemporary dance in Belarus as a ‘pregnant body, that’s waiting for the due date to finally come’. There, the new generation is ready to give birth and to start the dialogue with its home country, as well as with Europe, but developments go slow. Anton Ovchinnikov is the most sceptical one. He not only finds it difficult to influence the audience and political perception of contemporary dance in the Ukraine, but also to engage his peers and colleagues to collectively fight for the art form. The constant threat due to Russia’s intervention, instable politics and poverty takes its toll and inflicts fear and passivity; not much room is left to impulse the contemporary dance scene. Central Europe seems to have more support but also they face the dominant approach of dance, the lack of dance houses and venues to show the work.

Living in the Soviet Union often meant acting some form of performativity

While of course no one wants to be defined and limited by the idea of a Post-Soviet body, Katerina Ganushina shows how the concept of performativity can give us some insights in the traces of the Soviet Union. As Ganushina explains, living in the Soviet Union often meant acting some form of performativity. The ideological system needed to be supported by the action of men, so people put on layers in the private and public sphere. The elections in the late eighties are a good example, since voting was purely performative and had no substantial impact. After the fall of the Soviet Union, layers were peeled off and artists quickly, like in a pressure cooker, started to develop their own language and forms of expression. Together with Ganushina, the famous Czech dance journalist Nina Vangeli stresses the importance of the history beyond the Soviet Union. For centuries, the act of metamorphoses has played an important role in the arts of Czech, as for example embedded in stories of vampires and werewolves. This influence is still sensible in the melancholy and self-irony often seen in Czech dance.

The borders of dance are not the political borders. On this Dance Platform and during the Atelier we came together as a community.

The borders of dance are not the political borders. On this Dance Platform and during the Atelier we came together as a community. But at the same time, we come from different countries, facing different problems, carrying different histories and experiences but also having different tools and means in hand to fight for the human right we believe dance is. On some level, our bodies and mind are moulded by our history, and this impacts the now and potential futures, on a personal, but also on a political and structural level. This Atelier bravely attempted to lay bare what is hard to lay bare, and not only made me less ignorant, but also triggered me to rethink the relation between my own history, the now and my future. By leaving space for recognition of ones own traces and for acknowledgement of others – without simplifying or identifying it, and without presenting easy solutions for complex problems – this Atelier reinforced the ground for a common future.

Annette van Zwoll

Annette van Zwoll is an independent dance dramaturge, text writer and international project developer from the Netherlands, living in Berlin. Among others, she is engaged with Bitter Sweet Dance / Liat Waysbort as artistic associate and works for Uferstudios: a site for contemporary dance. Her interests are broad, but she has a soft spot for topics like gender, age and cultural structures that influence our way of thinking. http://www.vanzwoll.com/

Picture: ‘Swish’ by Tereza Hradilkova