Body as archive
Before our trip, I always believed that modern dance was a relatively new import to Russia, and one that was still trying to gain a foothold in its cultural landscape. With its angular lines and challenging themes, the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky is sometimes described as some of the earliest “modern” dance, but his work, which all premiered on the stages of the Ballet Russe in Paris, never made an impression on the Russian ballet at home. Seeing the bare feet, flowing skirts, and skipping style of Isadora Duncan was said to have transformed prima ballerina Anna Pavlova’s dancing, but her technique and individualist rhetoric never penetrated the halls of the venerable Vaganova school. While modern dance had made appearances, Russia’s devotion to the principles and practices of ballet have long defined its dance aesthetics.
Developing the genre in the US of the 1930s, the first generation of modern dance pioneers were flirting with socialism, and a strain of early modern dance artists were using the form to communicate messages of collectivism and community. However, the ethos of modern dance, with its championing self expression as its guiding principle, made it seemingly incompatible with the political climate and cultural practices of the early Soviet Union.
When I met with the director of a contemporary dance school in St. Petersburg, then, I was curious to ask what had attracted him to the form and how he had become involved in establishing its practice in Russia. I assumed his answer would involve the American Dance Festival programs first held in Moscow in 1992, which I knew had jump started a number of companies outside of the major metropolitan centers. While everyone was excited by the opportunities offered in the ADF workshops, he explained, his university training had provided his initial interest. Since this was counter to what I knew of both modern dance history and university study in the USSR, I probed further. He proceeded to tell me about how Pauline Kroner, a noted American teacher and early dancer with Jose Limon, had taught modern dance classes at the University of Physical Education St. Petersburg in the early 1930s. When Stalin’s policies made it impossible for her to return to the country to teach, her students continued to explore movement ideas that she had shared, eventually developing their work into the practice of “artistic gymnastics” (aka rhythmic gymnastics). These dancers continued to explore the possibilities of the body introduced by Kroner, developing the physical ethos and initial skills in a form that spoke to their cultural traditions. So, when the ADF programs re-introduced modern dance to Russian dancers, many of the participating dancers already a physical knowledge and kinesthetic history of modern dance’s beginnings imbedded in their trainings and practices.
Although I had not known about this tidbit of modern dance or Russian history, this story is further confirmation of one of my most foundational beliefs about the power of dance. Dancing reminds us that the body is its own archive, housing knowledges and histories that always inform, and sometimes contradict, the narratives we are so often told.