«Dance that’s out of this world: Turin’s Teatro a Corte»

«Dance that’s out of this world: Turin’s Teatro a Corte»

Italy may have struggled to establish a contemporary dance scene of its own, but every year its cities pour love and money into their summer arts festivals, many of which offer platforms to a wide range of international choreography.

Typical is Turin’s Teatro a Corte, whose feisty dance programme this year runs the full gamut, from the UK’s Ballet Boyz to Kitsou Dubois, a French choreographer whose work is based on research into the physical effects of zero gravity.
The story behind Dubois’s installation is fascinating. Over the last decade she and various artists have been allowed to accompany trainee astronauts on the parabolic flights that acclimatise them to weightlessness in space. Clowns, visual artists, acrobats and dancers have all come back with new vocabularies for free-floating, tumbling, disembodied material (also with hilarious stories of how to cope with the gut-wrenching nausea; not for nothing is this type of flight known as the «vomit comet»).

Back on the ground, however, the most interesting thread of this year’s festival must be its focus on Russia’s emerging contemporary dance scene. It’s ironic that classical ballet, Russia’s most famous and fabulous dance product, started out as a hybrid, created from the best of French, Italian and Danish influences. By contrast, the country’s contemporary dance culture has had to construct itself in virtual isolation from the west: its choreographers had to wait until the late 1990s, and the break-up of the Soviet Union, before they could seriously engage with ideas from abroad. Even now, from the evidence of the Turin programme, it’s clear how hungry for contact that culture still is. Indeed in one piece, Punto di Fuga, a collaboration between the Russian company Dialogue Dance and the Italian company ZeroGrammi, the idea of contact is literally embodied in the work.

It’s a piece for four men, structured almost like a board game, in which the dancers compete to establish their personal territory on stage. In a silence broken only by the men’s own passive-aggressive comments («prego», «spasibo»), their grunts and their exhausted breaths, moments of naked antagonism emerge as they pit their wits and bodies against each other: a duet that ends with one man held in a brutal neck lock, an elegant solo that elicits raucous mockery, an intricately patterned ritual of good manners that ends with all four men whipping out pretend guns and shooting each other.

The dancers are fluid, funny, intent – and the surreal quality of their engagement is underlined by the venue in which they perform, a neoclassical former salon, whose peeling plaster and crumbling bas-relief seem haunted by ghosts from a former era. The whole event has a spooky, timeless quality that’s a touch Tarkovsky, a touch Fellini. But stretched over 50 minutes, Punto di Fuga (it’s still a work in progress) lacks a sufficiently dynamic structure to sustain its length. The choreography’s reliance on deconstructed gesture, on a minimalist vocabulary of movement, also has a slightly retro feel, given that this is territory that has been mined for so long elsewhere.

But the Russians – maybe reacting against the opulence of their dominant ballet culture, certainly reacting to the lack of money – do seem attracted to bare essentials. In a much smaller venue within the Cavallerizza Reale complex, Tatiana Gordeever, formerly a ballerina with the Kremlin State Ballet, turns a critical, satirical eye on her previous career in the duet New Geometry, which she performs with Evgeniy Pankratov. These two performers are comically contrasted – Gordeever with her cornflower-blue eyes and birdlike physique, Pakratov a dark, shambolic bear of a man. The duet is structured like a lesson, with Gordeever tutoring Pankratov in her own innately, graceful style. Sometimes it’s funny: she performs an exquisite scrap of Petipa choreography, he keeps falling backwards, hard. But as ballerina meets clown, other personae break into the mix. Gordeever accommodates her body to starker, blunter, more grotesque forms of movement and, offering little snippets of English, Italian and Russian as she dances, her voice veers disconcertingly between little-girl breathiness and a harsh, witchy rasp. She seems to both love the ballet inheritance in her body and also turn against it, while Pankratov tries to learn from her howls, and roars in atavistic frustration. It’s a wildly bonkers piece, made watchable by the charismatic personalities of its performers.
Olga Pona’s Continuous Interruptions, performed at Turin’s Teatro a Corte festival Atomic art … Olga Pona’s Continuous Interruptions

But by far the strongest Russian presence of the weekend was Olga Pona and her company Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre (CCDC). It’s hard not to view their work, titled Continuous Interruptions, through the lens of the dancers’ own life stories. Chelyabinsk, where the company live and work, has been dubbed the most polluted city on earth, having suffered a series of appalling atomic accidents from the late 1940s onwards, courtesy of a nuclear weapons factory nearby. The worst, a nuclear waste storage-tank accident in 1957, produced radiation levels seven times those of Chernobyl – yet astoundingly the city was allowed to keep functioning and its inhabitants kept in ignorance of the lethal toxicity of their environment.

Pona herself moved to Chelyabinsk in the late 1980s when she was 15, first to study tractor engineering, then to train as a dancer. You have to admire the stubborn determination with which she pieced together a contemporary dance style of her own, when all that was available to her were a few pirated videos of western work; even more so her decision to remain in Chelyabinsk once the terrible truth about its past started to emerge. Alongside the other inhabitants of the city, all determined to ensure that life goes on, that businesses and families thrive, Pona is on a mission to create art out of this terribly damaged city.

The heroism and the poignancy of the mission are qualities that shine through her work. Superficially, Continuous Interruptions is an abstract piece: its vocabulary a muscular, sculptural fusion of ballet, street dance and contact improvisation; its structure accommodating deftly crafted contrasts of scale and dynamic. The 13 dancers, dressed in street clothes, are beautifully trained, but what makes them riveting is the eloquence and alertness that transforms physical action into a live human event. One woman makes a gesture of poignant appeal, holding out her palms at hip level; three dancers lying on the floor with their faced turned ecstatically upwards seem to be staring at falling stars. As in Punto di Fuga, there are some sections where the structure doesn’t support the weight of the movement, and – as in Punto di Fuga – the austerity of the staging is an issue. With no visual design beyond simple lighting, and with a soundtrack of bare electronic buzz, this 60 minutes of pure dance is a more challenging watch than it should be.

Yet, as a remarkable documentary titled Tankograd reveals, it is amazing that this company are able to produce anything at all: their productions are created on a shoestring, and most of the dancers have to work second jobs to survive. What they and Pona might do with a decent level of funding would be wonderful to see.

Text: Judith Mackrell, Guardian, July 2011

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