This Middle Tennessee University Professor Took Her Dance Students to Russia

Assistant professor Meg Booker in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square. Photo courtesy of Booker

When Valentina Ryazanova from the People's Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) invited me to bring students to perform in the Moscow 2017 Isadora Duncan dance festival, I knew that I had to make the trip happen. As a university dance professor, I want to provide my students with unforgettable and inspiring experiences. I have made numerous research and performance trips to Moscow in the last 10 years. Here was an opportunity to introduce Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) dancers to a vital art scene in a major global capital. RUDN provided our visas, room and board. A research grant from MTSU covered our remaining expenses. Our trip was in two phases: immersion in early 20th-century dance, followed by exploration of contemporary training practices and performance.

The first few days of our journey were dedicated to rehearsals, workshops and performance, as part of the festival. My London-based colleague Julia Pond, with whom I co-direct the Duncan Dance Project, met us in Moscow for the event. We danced Duncan's iconic Dance of the Furies and Bacchanal, as well as a selection of Brahms waltzes. We led a Duncan technique class, and we took classes in Musical Movement, a Duncan-inspired movement practice developed by a group of Russian dancers after seeing Duncan's 1904 performances at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Valentina Ryazanova (Musical Plastique Studio "Isadora") and Aida Aylamazian (Heptachor), two direct-lineage Musical Movement practitioners, led the master classes.

Middle Tennessee State University Dancers Ginny Whaley, Amber Jordan and Rachel Miller in costume for the festival. Photo courtesy of Booker

The remainder of our trip was spent taking technique classes, including ballet, contemporary dance, contact improvisation and butoh. Studios offering open classes for adults are prevalent in Moscow these days. Classes are often mixed level, with trained professionals taking daily class alongside adult dance enthusiasts. Many studios offer classes in a variety of styles, and drop-in class rates are comparable to rates in other major cities, 500–1000 rubles, or $10–20. Class sizes are relatively small, averaging around 10 students, and we received individual feedback and adjustments. Several of the teachers also made the extra effort to instruct in English, which was appreciated.

Group after Aida Aylamazian's Musical Movement class. Photo courtesy of Booker

Three studios stand out as relatively easy to find and accessible for American dancers: Tsekh, Zil Cultural Center and Dance Secret. Tsekh features a full schedule of both contemporary dance and ballet classes, as well as conditioning and somatics. Tsekh also offers a summer program in July with faculty who are highly recognized European and Russian working contemporary dance artists. We took two classes with Alexei Narutto, who is also working as a contemporary dancer with Balet Moskva. As a teacher, Narutto was approachable, engaging and very clear in his instruction, demonstration and corrections. His class was release-based and included quite a bit of floor work. The students were so excited by his first class that we adjusted our original schedule to fit in a second one. Tsekh is a good 15-minute walk from the Belorusskaya Metro station, and we gave ourselves plenty of time to find it. I definitely recommend an international data plan so that you can use GPS to navigate the city.

Isadora Duncan's Bacchanal. Photo courtesy of Booker

Zil Cultural Center, about a 10-minute walk from Avtozavodskaya Metro, is a striking example of 1930s constructivist architecture and offers a variety of classes, including ballet, contemporary dance, hip hop, folk dance and social partner dancing. Although the programming at Zil has more of a community center focus than professional training, the faculty are visible local artists, and there is some crossover between faculty at Tsekh and at Zil. The Zil Cultural Center also features a large theater (more than 800 seats) that is a great venue for concert dance. At Zil, we took a contemporary class with Daria Plokhova, who partners with Alexandra Portyannikova in a performance project called Isadorino Gore. Plokhova's class, which began with three minutes of jumping, was also release-based, with an emphasis on floor work and somatic awareness.

Outside the Zil Cultural Center. Photo courtesy of Booker

Dance Secret, about a five-minute walk from the Park Kultury Metro and just down the street from Yandex (think Russian Google) and Leo Tolstoy's house museum, is primarily a ballet studio. Run by former Bolshoi dancer and academy faculty member Ilya Kurylev, Dance Secret offers several levels of ballet classes and hosts a boutique performing company, booking classical dancers for private events. Kurylev is an exceptional teacher with a great sense of humor and high standards for his adult students. He explained aspects of his pedagogy as he was teaching class, including his emphasis on a Cecchetti fifth position and alternating challenging and easy exercises.

Dance Secret Studio. Photo courtesy of Booker

Class with Ilya Kurylev at Dance Secret. Photo courtesy of Booker

In addition to classical and contemporary classes, we had experiences with contact improvisation and butoh. I'm grateful to my friends and colleagues Petr Andreev, Russia's first certified Feldenkrais practitioner, and Irina Sirotkina, a prolific dance theorist and scholar, for their contacts and recommendations. Moscow has a thriving contact improvisation community, and we went to a jam at the Sarasvati Yoga Center on the Old Arbat. There are often several combinations of classes and jams weekly, with many experienced practitioners. We also organized a private butoh workshop with choreographer Anna Garafeeva. Garafeeva trained directly with Min Tanaka, a student of Tatsumi Hijikata, and she gave us several exercises with powerful imagery, as well as the challenge to transition from lying to standing in 10 minutes.

Bolshoi Theatre, MTSU Dance Students Amber Jordan, Rachel Miller and Ginny Whaley. Photo courtesy of Booker

In addition to taking class, we saw three distinct performances, ranging from site-specific work to contemporary dance and classical ballet. The first concert we saw, after the Duncan festival, was Balet Moskva's Every Direction is North. Danced by seven men and choreographed by Karine Ponties, the piece won the prestigious Golden Mask award. This concert was a highlight of our trip; the continually unfolding movement was mesmerizing, strong and unreservedly fulfilled. The site-specific work Territories of the Body, facilitated by Dina Khuseyn, curator of CODA (Contemporary Dance Laboratory), was performed in a basement space at Solyanka Gallery, a free event as part of a citywide Museum Night. This piece made a strong impression on the students, since they haven't seen much live experimental performance. One of the students' favorite moments was an audience-participation opportunity for a dancer to rhythmically respond to a volunteer's heartbeat. At the Bolshoi, we saw a 1965 Yuri Grigorovich ballet A Legend of Love. Any Moscow dance journey must include a visit to the Bolshoi Theatre, and I was excited for my students to see a Soviet-era ballet with high production value. Buying advance tickets online was not so easy and necessitated several phone calls with Bank of America's customer service. Nevertheless, advance reservations are essential, and matinee prices, while still expensive, are roughly half the cost of evening seats.

Ginny Whaley by promotional poster at Bolshoi Theatre. Photo courtesy of Booker

Dance is a vibrant lens through which to examine the cultural relationship between Russia and the United States. Cultural exchange, especially through dance, is an important platform for sharing ideas and inspiration. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to give three MTSU dancers a glimpse of dance as a cultural force in Russia, and I hope to offer more university dance students this opportunity in the future.

Dancing outside of the Bolshoi Theatre. Photo courtesy of Booker

Outside Christ the Savior Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Booker

The group outside St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square. Photo courtesy of Booker

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