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Russian choreographer Tatiana Baganova was the first to introduce American-style contemporary and modern dance in her country in 1994 through a Moscow-based workshop by the American Dance Festival (ADF). She spoke with Dance ICONS about her challenges.
Dance ICONS: Can you share with us how you developed as a choreographer.
Tatiana Baganova: I started dancing at age four. In Russia they had these kindergartens and I remember very well when I started dancing, I used to create a lot of dances that were stories. In the kindergarten, I was in the older kids’ group and I was asked to go to the younger kids’ group. Instead of reading them stories, I would tell them my own stories that I made. I actually recall trying different things and making dances while I was in ballet school. At that point I was about ten years old.
ICONS: So you’ve been creating, telling stories through movement, through your body, since you started dancing.
TB: It just happens that you’re in a sort of creative process at all times. You’re probably born with a certain disposition or character traits where you’re in this mindset or this lifestyle where you go into creating.
ICONS: You studied choreography. What part of this creative process can we provide tools for to support that innate creativity, to support the creative mind and muscle? What elements, what tools, what factors, helped you to choreograph?
TB: We have a piece in our repertory that is a fairytale and it has a lot of musical and singing components that the dancers have to learn, so these types of early experiences continue and stay with you and develop you. Once you’re done and finish your education, you should seek out those kinds of collaborations that will help you develop and get you some creative experience. It helps you to be more open and gives you more information. Then you can decide if it’s necessary for you or not.
ICONS: What part of the creative process can you learn through an educational program? Here at ADF there is a choreographic component in the school. You studied at a choreographic institute. What parts of choreography are innate and what parts can be taught to a young artist?
TB: I think the art is both mental and [physical]. I had experience with different dance techniques and I put them together to craft my own vision of what choreography should be. So it’s been influenced by the people I’ve worked with and by the techniques I was exposed to as a dancer.
It’s necessary to know at least the basics from other disciplines, especially the visual arts -- the composition of the painting, lighting design, the basics of drawing, stage design -- so all of those arts experiences are necessary to become a choreographer. But I think everybody knows this.
ICONS: Ballet is the culture’s dominant art form and has been for generations. You were an early participant in the birth or rebirth of modern dance in Russia. Can you tell us about the state of modern dance in Russia and at home in Yekaterinburg?
TB: It happened this way. In 1992, Russia was still a closed country. ADF came to Moscow that year, and started a series of seminars. I had the chance to study there in 1993 and ‘94. After that I got to work in Europe -- I was invited to a festival in Paris, a competition, and a new works competition. That is how it just began to happen for me.
In Russia, it is still a difficult situation for modern or contemporary dance. It’s contemporary, not exactly modern, because modern dance is a part of contemporary dance. Usually there is only a small group of people in Russia who are interested in contemporary, even contemporary art, not just contemporary dance. But we do have a small group of people who are interested in it a great deal.
If we look at the size of Russia, the number of people who participate in modern dance is very small. The dancers sort of migrate: They stay with a company three or four years and then migrate to another one. Our company is municipally funded from the city’s budget. If I’m taking new dancers, I’m often not pleased with their level or their education. I don’t think the level of education for dancers in Russia is very good.
ICONS: Not very good because it’s mostly ballet?
TB: Yes. And it’s not serious because here there is no special government money or support for contemporary dance, for artists to explore these new directions. Even in the universities and institutes, contemporary dance is just a club, a group of people who support it, but there is no formal academic department for contemporary dance in Russia.
Even though I started in a ballet school, I wouldn’t call myself a ballet dancer. These days ballet is being influenced by different styles and is becoming more contemporary. When I started dancing, I was breaking away from my ballet studies to create my own works.
ICONS: What did you learn in these early experiences at ADF that changed your work?
TB: The knowledge of the different methods of working your body, the organization and somatics of the body were taught, which was important because in Russia, previously, that information had been closed off to us. So that is what I learned first. Later, I further explored those ideas in Europe. I studied different classic modern techniques as well.
I got a lot of information in one place at one time; it was both fully mental and full body awareness. I notice that my body and my mind are always ready to absorb new information. That’s my personal trait. Later, with new information, I started to select what was most interesting to me from all that material, handpicking. Today, I work closely with each new dancer who joins the company to form the dancer in the way I like him or her to look on stage, both physically and mentally.
ICONS: What advice would you give a young person who wants to become a choreographer?
TB: For me, that is not the question. Each person must feel inside the real need to live and create. I create because I feel like this. I create because I breathe. I create because I live. Of course, when a theater invites you as a guest choreographer and you have constraints they establish because it is their production, you work within those limits. And, again, this is where the creative process comes out. It’s not like you can sit down and say, ‘I’m creating a piece that’s one hour.’ This is why I do my own work with the company infrequently, because there has to be an internal dialogue of why it’s interesting, why is it this way.
ICONS: What are you working on now?
TB: The last time I staged my own choreography was in 2013 at the Bolshoi Theater when I staged “The Rite of Spring.” Since then the work I’ve been doing has been collaborations with other people -- designers, directors, producers in the theater.
We are working on a new piece. The working title is: “Objective Reality Given to Us in Our Perception.” It will premiere in November and it’s based on the fable “The Dragonfly and the Ant” or “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” I’ve been working on this for a year. I read a lot about dragonflies and ants and I got very different and new information about social and mental systems. For me now it’s a question of character: The person who is very light, very natural is a person of arts; and that person is not needed in the system of the ant where everything is rational, predetermined, structured, very strict. This is a very philosophical question because it highlights the clash of society and the individual.
ICONS: What would you say to your younger self?
TB: I would say, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ But young people, they’re not afraid. Also, I would say, ‘Try to be open.’ For example, when I go with my young daughter to see something new, she says, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ I think there should be more involvement from the parents to open the minds of their children with more visual information, more good quality music and literature to encourage creativity.
ICONS: What can be done to promote modern and contemporary dance in Russia?
TB: Something needs to change, something needs to be addressed at the governmental level. But I’m not the type of person to fight those battles on that level.
I fight my battles on stage. And even when you have constraints and limits on your work because of this situation, it brings out the creative process in you.
More About Tatiana…
Tatiana Baganova’s choreography is mysterious, capturing the imagination with evocative and other worldly images that seem to draw inspiration from ancient mythologies and life in contemporary societies. Although she doesn’t deal in narrative in the traditional sense, she frequently infuses her choreography with a hint of a story arc, often drawn from literary inspirations from novels, poetry, fables and folk tales or her own whimsical ideas. The Washington Post wrote: “Baganova’s images shift as smoothly as clouds on a windy day.” As choreographer and artistic director of Provincial Dances Theatre in Yekaterinburg, Russia, which she co-founded with director Lev Shulman, she is a leading figure in the contemporary dance scene in Russia.
Tatiana is a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Culture as a choreographer and teacher of choreography. In 1999, she participated in the International Choreographers Commissioning Program (ICCP) at ADF in Durham, N.C., which she called a turning point in her creative life. Tatiana has premiered five works commissioned by the festival, including “Wings at Tea,” “Post-Engagement,” and “Sepia.” “Maple Garden” won the 2001 Golden Mask award in Russia for best choreography and best production. Her 2000 staging of Igor Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” also won a Golden Mask and has been called “the first icon in the new Russian dance.” In 2013, Baganova was invited by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow to stage Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” as part of the international project “Century of The Rite of Spring/Century of Modernism.” Her work has been produced in the U.S. many times and most recently in the summer of 2016 at the Joyce Theater in New York.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, and the arts for Dance, Dance Teacher, Montgomery Magazine, The Washington Jewish Week and other publications.
Photography credits: Daria Popova, Elena Rezvova, Provincial Dances Theater
Content Editor: Camila Acquista, Dance ICONS, Inc. 2016 ©