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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dancers Dream of Life Without 'Swan Lake'

Large male ballerinas dancing on their pointes in bright pink tutus tend to be a minority on the Russian ballet scene. But as experimental ballet companies continue to grow -- even entwined and seemingly naked dancers are no longer considered a novelty.

In his recent production based on Ivan Bunin's "Dark Alleys," choreographer Edvald Smirnov has both. Striving for an innovative approach to dance, he seems willing to accept almost anything as long as it is not another recitation of "Swan Lake" or "The Nutcracker."

Smirnov and his troupe of 14 dancers have set up what they call a "creative laboratory" to bring new life to Russian ballet.

Joined last year by two other even more experimental groups, Smirnov formed the Center for Contemporary Choreography to set up a united and organized medium for avant-garde choreography.

While one of the groups -- Ballet Gennady Peschanny -- features choreography with elements of acrobatics and gymnastics -- another, led by choreographer Yelena Bogdanovich, is more adventurous and abstract than Smirnov's troupe.

"I prefer psychology and feelings to concrete subjects," said Bogdanovich, "I try to awaken emotions and happiness and sadness."

Bogdanovich took her dancers to the December 1994 International Ballet Competition in Paris, where she was widely acclaimed for two productions -- "Tango" and "Parallel."

Smirnov, whose troupe is called the Russian Chamber Ballet Moscow, often focuses on adaptations, albeit indirect ones, of literary works. But Smirnov has learned that the marketplace is not ready for exclusively contemporary programs from Russian companies. Nestled eighth on Smirnov's list of upcoming performances is "Swan Lake." Reminded that this was the one show he said he would never perform, Smirnov rolled his eyes with an embarrassed shrug, insisting that it was an unavoidable compromise for the benefit of foreign hosts.

"They smile and say 'Yes, how interesting' when you tell them what you're doing," Smirnov said, "And then they say, 'But do you have Swan Lake?'"

Complaining bitterly that foreign companies seem to automatically link Russian ballet with the classics, Smirnov said that as a result, corporate funding does not often go toward contemporary works. He said that his company would not survive without government subsidies.

But even if publics both at home and abroad seem more keen on the classics than in anything more original, Smirnov has no regrets.

"The most important thing is how interesting something is," he said, "I'm so sure that what we're doing is right that I'm not worried."

"Dark Alleys" -- Smirnov's most recently premiered work -- is a portrayal of helplessness and destruction that overcome a quest for light and happiness. The new work, set to music ranging from Rachmaninoff to exotic flutes, ends with ecstatic passion, death and insanity. Among the few lighter notes are the production's bright colors.

While some critics have regarded Smirnov's work as a reflection of almost apocalyptic fears as an unstable Russia nears the end of an even more unstable century, Smirnov has been quick to dismiss their views.

"What's happening in Russia is irrelevant" in his choreography, Smirnov said.

The companies of the Center for Contemporary Choreography are striving for their own distinctive identities within the realm of modern dance. Explaining that modern dance has only been taught in a few Russian ballet schools for two or three years, Bogdanovich said there was no way it could reach Western standards so quickly. "Russian modern dance may not be as expressive as in the West," Bogdanovich said. "It's more classical, but it's also softer and more spiritual. But it will take years before it's really defined. We're about a quarter of the way there."

Smirnov describes the innovative efforts of Russia's contemporary choreographers to those of the great classical masters such as Mikhail Fokine and Marius Petipa. "It's they who make up the base on which we stand," he said, "Those are our roots. But in a way we're trying to do what they did, because what they did was new, too."

The Center for Contemporary Choreography's March performances include the Russian Chamber Ballet Moscow's presentations Thursday and Friday of two one-act ballets, "In the Space of Love" and "Graphic Ballet." They will be danced at 7 p.m. at the Central House of Culture for Railway Workers (TsDKXZh), 4 Komsomolskaya Ploshchad. Nearest metro: Komsomolskaya. For future performance schedules, call 231-8271/9515.