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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Breaking Russia's Old Dance Mold

Takako Asakawa, in Moscow to coax classically trained Russian dancers into modern dance shapes, has come to a frustrating conclusion: "I cannot understand the Russian mind."

"They have a square and they stay in it," said Asakawa, a former soloist with the Martha Graham Company. "It is very hard to break through that square."

That is why Ardani Arts Management, who sposored the American Dance Festival in Moscow two years ago as part of its effort to bring modern dance to Russia, chose to invite Asakawa. She is giving master classes this week to professional ballet dancers at the Renaissance Ballet Academy and to students at the New Humanitarian University.

"It is a pity that we don't have any understanding of modern dance in this country now," said Viktoria Pavlova, executive director of Ardani.

In the world of dance, the Soviet Union, steeped in the classical tradition, was notorious for its rejection of modern dance and the artistic experimention that it involves. But that legacy may change, however slowly, in the new Russia.

Natalya Nesterova, president and founder of the New Humanitarian University, which houses both a school and a university that train students in all aspects of dance, said the institution invited Asakawa to give classes as part of its program to include modern dance, which in the West is part of any professional ballet dancer's training. One reason she founded the school two years ago, she said, was to provide an arts education broader than what the Bolshoi academy offers. This is the first time the school has had master classes by representatives of a leading contemporary company.

Asakawa, who is originally from Japan, was a principal dancer beginning in the 1960s in the company founded by Graham, the late American teacher, dancer and choreographer who was among the pioneers in modern dance. "Semiretired," Asakawa teaches at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Juilliard School.

The Moscow students at the first New Humanitarian school class, who had had no experience with modern dance, were a little leery of the alternative movements demonstrated by Miki Oihara, who came with Asakawa and is a soloist in the Martha Graham Company. The students winced in exasperation as they were told to realign their backs from their stiff classical postures, or to contract their abdomens and curl their hips forward in singularly modern positions. Often they burst out laughing as they extended one leg behind in otherwise familiar arabesques, but had to reposition their arms into what seemed to them an awkward "V" overhead. But Asakawa was pleased with their efforts. "The younger students are much more interested in the technique than the older ones," she said. "They are more open to new things."

Asakawa and Oihara faced the most difficult challenge when dancers from the Renaissance Academy, a Moscow-based classical ballet troupe known for its alternative repertoire, refused to remove their shoes for the master class. One of the fundamental principles of the Graham technique is to "communicate" with the floor, which requires dancers to dance barefoot and use the ball of the foot to feel the floor.

True to the Graham style, Asakawa is not attempting to impose a system on the students but to encourage a new form of expression through their bodies. "Graham's greatest contribution to the art was that it was not a system that got stuck in one time," Asakawa said. The system "can be passed from generation to generation, but the technique changes with each body."