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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free Arts Festival Fails To Rejuvenate Theater

The Baltiisky Dom Theater, a monstrous creation of Stalinesque architecture in a park next to metro station Gorkovskaya, is desperately trying to become a hip spot on the cultural map of St. Petersburg.

In Soviet years the theater bore the name Leninsky Komsomol, and even now the company and the repertoire remain about as attractive and imaginative as its old name. In the hope of revitalizing its image, the theater holds festivals -- at least three or four a year.

Indeed, the enormous theater, with its several halls and countless foyers and corridors, is well suited for multifunctional events. This was how the management and a few cultural enthusiasts saw the Free Arts Festival that the theater hosted on a recent October weekend.

The theater's inner spaces, which house marble staircases and columned balustrades but also include the very cozy Malaya Stsena hall, were filled for three days and nights with independent theater, performance art, paintings, film, video, fashion, music and installations.

But for all their independence, independent theaters are turning into look-alikes: All the productions are largely wordless, and all are set with timeless and unidentifiable scenery. Derevo, the longtime darling of the St. Petersburg underground, offered a rare return from their endless European touring to find that more and more of their ideas have been adopted by others.

All the visual art at the festival had to be the products of institutions. The curator of the art program, Timur Novikov, once a proponent of the most radical avant-garde, now trumpets classical traditions and "respectable" institutions, from his New Academy of Fine Arts to the sadistic Heavy Arts Center.

The film and video program did not have much that was new. Instead it seemed to want to assert the right of "necrorealist" Yevgeny Yufit ("Will") and Yevgeny Ivanov ("Nicotine") to draw upon Louis Bu–uel and Jean-Luc Godard, respectively.

Music took the auxiliary role of foyer entertainment. The avant-garde material chosen for the function was rough-edged and noisy.

The surprise, and climax, of the festival came from Sergei Kuryokhin, with his musical drama "Kolobok." The ever-provocative Kuryokhin took a stab at drama, with a performance in which he and conceptual poet Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov starred. This first foray into self-styled drama went beyond absurdism and parody in its charming but fascinating incoherence.

Altogether the festival looked somewhat outdated and amateurish. Fortunately the days when it took heroism to assert "free" art's right to exist here are gone. But the word "festival," whose meaning derives from "festive," is something these three days were not.