Chapter 1 / Chapter 2

March 29 of this year marked exactly 10 years since we first appeared on the professional stage. This took place in the Liteyny Theatre. Understandably, we were nervous. Among us there were those who had never before performed on stage as a dancer. However, most of us had performing experience of some kind. As amateurs. What experience we did have was not that great. We were nervous not only because we were somewhat or completely out of the habit of performing. There was another, possibly even more important reason for our nervousness. And that was that this was the first ever performance of a Russian modern dance company in St. Petersburg and, as we later learned, in all of Russia. And there was even a third reason: from the very start of our work we knew that we were a REAL modern dance company. Prior to March 29 only we had known about this, but know it was time for the audience to see and understand this.

I am absolutely certain that there are those who will object and say that 5 or 10 years before our first concert, someone or some group did such-and-such…. I'm not going to dispute this. I simply want to explain what it means to be a REAL modern dance company, and then my presumed opponents (assuming of course that they agree with my reasoning) will be able to assess their own or someone else's experience more precisely.

I will not be delving into theory or history here. In this chapter I will be dealing with the facts that lie on the surface. When a thoughtful audience member trained to appreciate a certain type of choreography goes to his first modern dance performance, something pops out at him other than just the obvious differences from performances he has seen before. It is a quality that modern dancers and modern dance choreography have, not immediately perceptible, which can best be defined by the banal expression "something inside oneself". And in fact, if we examine this more closely, we see that modern dancers, when compared to any other type of dancers, are not trying to demonstrate anything for the audience. Their attention is usually directed at one another or within themselves. Finally we understand that they are dancing not at all for the audience. Of course, the expression "dancing not for the audience" is not entirely accurate in regard to a dance company that is performing in a theatre before a gathering of the public. So, we understand that dancing for the audience is of only secondary importance for modern dancers; but then primarily for whom or for what do they dance?

How dancers behave on stage depends solely on the choreographer. That, at least, is how it is with modern dance. There is no intermediary between the dancer and the choreographer (whereas in classical ballet a rehearsal director may figure in). Moreover, a contemporary dance choreographer is generally the founder and director of the company and, naturally, its ideologist.

So now, let's leave modern dancers alone for a while and talk generally about the people who compose dances. In my observations, there are two types of choreographer. The first type consists of those who begin composing a dance from a fable, a plot or scenario they themselves have invented, any theatrical or quasi-theatrical idea, or finally, even from the music, i.e. from whatever you like, just not from the dance movement itself, not from dancing. The second type consists of those who maniacally strive to create a choreographic TEXT. These strange birds begin each work with the composition of dance phrases -- phrases taken from their own, personal dance language, of course. Choreographers of the first type usually create dance performances or finished dances, while the second type creates choreography. The first type is what I personally call ballet masters, the second is what I call choreographers.

In the vast majority of cases, to which group a choreographer belongs is determined not by choice, but by whether the person is at all inclined to compose choreographic text. Inclination, understandably, has a lot to do with one's capacity and innate ability, which naturally can be developed. Probably no one would dispute that a choreographer who composes choreographic text must have a dance language, just like an author who composes prose or poetry must know the language in which he writes. A dance language is a complex phenomenon. It is not simply an alphabet or a dictionary, i.e. a collection of movement words. It is the spatial and temporal organization of dance units, it is the process of developing movement, it is the understanding of center and periphery, of stable and unstable positions, and a whole lot else. Academic rules never took hold in modern dance. There are no textbooks or a single set of methods that everyone must use. There is only the teacher, or more accurately, a multitude of teachers. Before you get the chance to be accepted into a professional dance company, you will study a lot and instill in yourself many different language systems. It is very fortunate if then you are accepted into a company directed by a choreographer whose understanding of dance is close to yours. Dancing for several years, you will learn this choreographer's dance language and, finally, will uncover within yourself the desire to work independently. By this time you will already possess your own dance language. It may be one of the dialects of a language you love, it may be the antithesis of your teacher's language, or it may be a completely original language - whichever it is doesn't really matter. What's important is the fact that you have your own language and are prepared to use it fully. But how? There is only one method - to teach the rules of your language to your dancers.

A dance language is indeed capable of becoming a completely self-contained system. When this happens, you are overcome with the temptation to delight in its sophistication and orderliness. You don't feel like changing anything. But the way things are in the world of modern dance, the process is considered more important than the result. Almost everyone senses the need to develop a dance language for the very purpose of keeping modern dance from turning into a system and dying. What's more, for many this is not at all a necessity, but rather a means of existence in the dance world. One might interject that systems are either open or closed, but these are only words. What happens in reality is that when you work a lot and fumble to find your own language, everything you do is organic and eventually works out. Though your dancers are still not satisfied, audience members already are. Of course, these are your average audience members, of which, alas, there are so many. They ask, and sometimes even demand, that you stay the way you were. But you feel that your technique is fettering you and so you reject it, smash it to pieces, and start over from scratch. Thus, you are constantly changing your language.

And so, you studied a lot, then you danced in a company, soaking up and analyzing the teacher's language, then founded your own troupe, discovered your own dance language, and began teaching it to your dancers. Finally, you have trained your dancers and, with their help (which means with the help of your language), have begun creating dances.

So now let's ask a question. What helps a language survive? And let's answer this question quite naturally. Communication helps it survive. If, for example, you have learned English, but have no constant communication and conversation in this language with any other person who knows English, your language will leave you. It's almost an axiom. It does little good just to study a language - you need to speak it. The place where choreographer and dancers communicate is the rehearsal space and the stage; the time when they communicate is during a daily or regularly occurring class, the setting of a new work, a rehearsal, or a performance before an audience. Modern dancers want to let the audience inside their circle of communication. To do this, they take specific actions: they make their company classes open to the public; they perform in schools, galleries, museums, and on the street. They try to avoid orchestra pits, which separate the audience from the dancers. If modern dancers continue their communication during a performance before an audience, then the latter is compelled to direct its energy, imagination, and intellect toward the dancers. All other forms of stage dance do just the opposite; they splash their energy out at the audience and set up a distance across the orchestra pit, a distance that the audience cannot possibly bridge. The alienated audience member is left only to marvel at the dancers' mastery, to shout "bravo", and to applaud a long time after the performance has ended. Since you have a program in your hands that describes to you the content of the performance, there is no reason for you to engage in any mental activity, all the more so since there is nothing which you might contemplate. All you can do is marvel, shout, and applaud, assuming, of course, that you're not just an incidental observer.

And so, during a performance the dancers continue to communicate in the language of dance, forcing the audience to meet them halfway, and this vector (from the audience to the dancers) is the only means by which they (the dancers) can be understood. This is why the audience, which stands outside the ritual circle, is simply obliged to step inside that circle, in order to join in the ritual.

It is quite obvious that communication leads to understanding. And understanding, in turn, strengthens one's interest in, and love for, the object of communication. If a choreographer works continuously on his or her own dance language, then despite its apparent unusualness or strangeness, this language acquires the characteristics of orderliness and organicness, which a thoughtful audience member ready for active participation (dialogue) cannot help but sense.

Now I will return to the question I posed at the very beginning of my perhaps not entirely focused exploration: why do modern dancers dance in the first place? And I will answer this as follows: to establish paths of communication. The first of these paths is between the dancers themselves. They "converse" in their own dance language and their stage conversation is nothing more than a continuation of the studio conversation they were having. The second path is between the dancers and the dance objective which the choreographer has set before them. The third is between the dancers' intellect and their bodies' physical features (or more specifically, their physical abilities). The fourth is between the context and the music (or whatever substitutes for the music, even silence). Finally, the fifth (but by no means last) path is between the dancers and the audience. Only secondarily do modern dancers dance for the audience, because if they dance primarily for the audience, then no paths of communication will be established. I am completely convinced of this. And let me add that if the dancers follow through and fully realize the idea of using dance to communicate, then they dance for the audience not in the second place, not in the third place, but NEVER. And if these dancers are representing a dance troupe, then this troupe is a REAL modern dance company.

I know for certain that some readers of my commentary will want to ask me, "What exactly is the difference between your 'real' modern dance company and one that is not 'real'? After all, if you work outside the framework of the official doctrine, if you do not drift along with the current, if you, working without money or support, are not in any line to get hand-outs, and finally, if you are creating something new and have your own audience following, then isn't all that already justification enough of your activity?" I do not dispute that all this is true. I am prepared to support any dance company and any choreographer that works in opposition to the SYSTEM. But I am a practitioner, not a theoretician. And as a practitioner, I can say the following: if a choreographer is not working on her own dance language and choreographic form, if she thinks of herself only as a "ballet mistress" and is not in shape enough to teach her own technique class, if she cannot compose a 16-count phrase that at the very least demonstrates some kind of internal logic, if only her own internal logic, then such a choreographer, regardless of what kind of experimenter she may be, is simply weak and is not sufficiently professional. And if, in addition, she easily replaces her dancers without much thought, if the troupe she directs is always performing at festivals and competitions the goal of which is to determine winners and give them awards, then such a choreographer either mistakenly believes herself to be a modern dance choreographer, or, as is customary to say in such situations, is intentionally misleading the public.

Though they may use different terminology, there are certain choreographers who deserve our respect. For example, rather than "modern" they may call it "contemporary". In principle this is a suitable term. It is possible, for instance, to have no interest at all in the history of modern dance and its ideas. It is possible to know nothing of Yvonne Rainer's Manifesto. This is where I will leave it for now, because in my next commentary I want to talk about that very document. And also about the concept of "dance theatre", about the training and forming of dancers, about dance festivals, about children and teenagers, about America and Europe, and in general about anything that comes to my mind.

Thank you for your attention.
Sasha Kukin, September 2002

Translated by Louis Saletan (Houston, USA).