Provincial Dances Theater
American Dance Festival
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

August 1, 2016
Maple Garden, Sepia

— by Jerry Hochman

The tem “avant-garde” can mean different things to different people, and is subject to the vagaries of differing locations (what’s avant-garde in the U.S may not be considered that way in Europe) and, obviously, to the passage of time. A common denominator, to the extent there is one, may be that the particular artwork is different from whatever the norm may be, perhaps in a way that’s considered iconoclastic and innovative – and also that it may appear to be a little, or a lot, weird.

The program presented Monday night by Provincial Dances Theater is avant-garde in the truest sense of the word. But unlike many avant-garde dances that may exist only to spread its creator’s message, to shock an audience, or to display new and different ways to contort dancers’ bodies, the program that PDT presented is not only different, but mesmerizing – a visually stunning and remarkably polished assemblage of images that, despite its strangeness, works. One doesn’t have to like, or even understand, the two dances on the program. All that is required is to let the manifestation of the choreographer’s imagination wash over you. These are stunning, albeit unusual, pieces of work that may not be to everyone’s taste, but should be required viewing for anyone who thinks he or she has a taste for fine performance art.

Provincial Dances Theater arrived at the Joyce Theater Monday night under the auspices of the American Dance Festival, presenting two pieces, Maple Garden and Sepia, that were incubated at the ADF in North Carolina, and that subsequently premiered in the company’s native Russia and thereafter presented around the world (including, again, at ADF in North Carolina a month ago). Founded in 1990 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and located in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, the company is known for its avant-garde contemporary dance and for the award-winning creations of its Artistic Director, Tatiana Baganova.

Both Maple Garden and Sepia are concept pieces driven by Baganova’s artistic vision rather than by a particular choreographic style. Accordingly, the choreography is subservient to the concept, but that doesn’t mean it’s inferior. On the contrary, although not ground-breaking forms of movement, the choreography enhances the concept and moves it forward, without drawing attention to itself by its quirkiness or style. And, with exceptions (seeing dancers running backward, pumping arms, etc. are obvious punctuations that don’t necessarily carry an emotional component and are there for visual effect), the movement flows from the inside out. It’s not Graham, or Bausch, but the emotions that the movement expresses spring from the gut and are delivered though movement alone rather than by facial expressions (unless the expression itself is a manifestation of the concept, as in Maple Garden). But however you categorize or describe it, Baganova’s movement quality is continually varied and interesting (particularly in Sepia, where there’s more of it), from individual solos to groups of men or women or both, and combinations in between.

Additionally, I’ve rarely seen a small company like this so completely and advantageously, in complex dances, integrate staging with lighting, sets, costumes and special effects to create a unified whole that is as fully realized as these two pieces are. The productions of both are striking examples of dance theater, avant-garde or otherwise.

All this being said, these are weird dances.

Maple Garden hits a viewer like a cross between a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and Hieronymus Bosh’s Garden of Earthly Delights, illustrated by Salvatore Dali, and with a gaggle of zombies thrown in. It’s beautiful at times, grotesque at times, and concurrently funny and horrifying.

Initially choreographed in 1999, the piece opens onto a page from an off kilter fairy tale in a different reality. A bare tree sits upstage right, illuminated by soft overhead light. A woman in a reddish dress holding a lantern sits on a tree limb. It’s a beautiful, if a bit strange, scene. Then more women appear, hopping around the stage, and a man carrying a butterfly net (the butterfly net in Jerome Robbins’s The Concert on steroids). After several attempts, the man captures one of the women – who thereupon drags him off into the wings instead of the other way. So it goes.

The woman in the tree (who initially looks “normal” – as opposed to the other members of whatever tribe this happens to be, who wear heavy, garish makeup – is eventually freed when one of the dancers cuts the string that connects her to it. “Cutting connections” is one of the continuing, and not quite explicable, themes that run throughout. Also running throughout is a darkly sexual tension, with women pulled and pushed and lifted and touched in strange but not necessarily unwelcome ways (and the touching – hands introducing themselves to a partner’s body – is mutual). The women, costumed in dresses that have some sort of bustle under their skirts, seem voluntary participants in this – enjoying the attention, even at times controlling the interaction. At one point, a duet of sorts, a man and woman (I think the woman in the tree, perhaps being initiated into the tribe’s mating rituals) interact, accompanied by pre-recorded sounds of the woman’s sighs of passion. At another, women appear to sit on and cover men’s heads while the men lie stomach down on the stage floor, and the men thereupon use their legs to push the combined body offstage as if the pairs represent some bizarre bestial mutation.

This strange frenzy yields to a more ominous series of images, as the men control the women’s positioning as if they were objects, and eventually attach the docile women to the tree by their hair (wrapping their hair – wigs – around tree limbs). Then one of the women, one who had been silently screaming after being so hung, is “released” – not from the tree, but from her hair – the wig remains on the tree. One of the men thereupon positions himself under the woman’s wig and emits a silent scream – and the stage gradually goes black.

So what does this all mean? Who knows. Forget about what it means, if anything. The dance is more than a series of images, but it’s the images that linger in the mind even if you don’t know exactly why they’re there.

Sepia, choreographed in 2010, is a more profound piece of work, although it doesn’t appear to carry a message like Maple Garden (whatever that message may be). Like Maple Garden, it’s very strange, but although ‘weird’ is relative, it’s not as weird as the initial piece on the program.

Sepia is inspired by Woman in the Dunes, a novel by Kōbō Abe, which was subsequently made into a film. But the only thing Sepia seems to have in common with the book is the concept that sand, an element of life, is relentless. Like the passage of time and forces that draw people together, there’s no way to escape it – and this all-consuming and relentless sand has the power to cleanse and create; to attract and repel.

Baganova has expressed this as a sort of purification process. Here, unlike, say, Bausch, who had her dancers maneuvering on and through mud, there’s mystery and sensuality to yielding to the advancing sand. The designer of “decorations and costumes,” which I take to include the set, is Anastasia Sokolova, who dances with the company. In their vision, the sand is not only evocative of sand dunes (using paper to simulate the sand dunes – don’t laugh; it works), but a medium of sensuality. The extraordinary opening image (based on these two pieces, Baganova does great opening images) has a jumbled stretch of plain wrapping paper, crumbled to look like a dune, and slowly a woman’s extremities (hands; feet; a head) emerge from the ‘dune’. But this “woman” stretches the length of the paper dune – which spans half the stage. Obviously it’s not one woman. Eventually the women in the dune (under the wrapping paper) separate, carrying pieces of the crumbled sand/paper with them.

The stage is populated, from above, by hanging vials of sand. Like huge, feminine-shaped egg timers, they mark not only the passage and inevitably of time, but also time’s feminine side. From time to time, the dancers – first the men, then the women as well – release the sand from the vials, one by one, as if showering in it; purifying with it. The movement and interaction has a sexual side, but here, although somber, it’s not dark.

As much as I enjoyed the outrageously beautiful images that Baganova creates in these pieces, I have one complaint. The dancers (six women, four men) are not identified in the program. The logical explanation is that Baganova believes that they’re fungible – it doesn’t really matter who the dancers are. And to an extent that’s correct – these dancers fill preconceived roles without altering them, as if they’re automatons. But they’re not. The dances include solos and duets, which should be credited, and a few even had discernable stage personalities. (One woman, who danced wonderfully in her solo in Sepia, seemed particular vulnerable and uncomfortable getting sand dumped over her head, but, like the others, maintained a stoic demeanor throughout. I wanted to toss her my umbrella.) Not to identify them in a discernable way is unfortunate, and to me disrespectful.

Short of that, these dances reflect an effort to create something different, but to do so in an artistically refined rather than ideologically belligerent way, and they illustrate how far at least some things have come in Russia since dissolution.  If the company tours in your direction, an extra effort should be made to see them.  Provincial, in English, means local or of limited scope.  While it may have a different meaning in its Russian translation (or may simply be a reference to the theater being in one of the “provinces” instead of Moscow or St. Petersburg), there’s nothing provincial about Provincial Dances Theater.