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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Modern Dance Festival Has Lows and a Few Highs

Moscow choreographer Sasha Pepelyayev has reflected on death and he has come to the following conclusion: It's bad.

That was the banal message of Pepelyayev's "A View of the Russian Grave from Germany," presented during the "Two-Way Traffic" festival of modern dance, which ended Monday.

Sponsored by the British Council and Moscow's Theater of Nations, the festival featured two companies each from Russia and Britain in diverse programs of varying quality.

Pepelyayev's thanatopsis, performed by four dancers, including the choreographer, opened with three dancers sitting in chairs as the blindfolded protagonist, portrayed by Tatyana Gordeyeva, made her way tentatively to center stage. After some folksy dance interludes, the clunking of a wooden bell, and the repeated intoning of the words strashno (terrible) and uzhas (horror) from a text by contemporary author Dmitry Prigov, the tables turned: The trio wore the blindfolds instead.

Yep. Death is awful from any perspective and so was Pepelyayev's piece. A winsome figure in red pigtails, Gordeyeva made what she could of her role, projecting a feeling of vulnerability. She and fellow members of Pepelyayev's Kinetic Theater executed the amateur choreography with ease. During the festival Pepelyayev showed another work, "The Violators of Disorders," which might as well have been titled "Scenes From the Loony Bin." The visions begin and end, appropriately, in a fog. The dancers were seized by collective coughing fits. They made airplane noises, slapped themselves and howled. Someone wearing rabbit ears came and went. In the back, a man babbled about his adulterous wife, a theme echoed later by an adolescent choir. A boy in a green wig performed a walk on coffee mugs, one of the many unintentionally hilarious moments in the piece, which was performed with deadly seriousness by the Yekaterinburg Contemporary Dance School.

The mayhem of "Violators" was occasionally interrupted by the arrival of a cigarette-smoking ballet teacher who ordered the unruly throng to perform classical steps. The kid with the green hair then stole her cigarette.

And so perhaps "Violators" is meant to convey the earth-shattering message that modern dance is a rebellion against classical ballet. In a news conference Monday, however, Pepelyayev himself could not enunciate the concept behind his work. No matter what his ideas were, the bizarre antics of "Violators" could not conceal the work's flimsy choreographic underpinnings, a primitive combination of Modern Dance 001, aerobics class and thrashing movements.

Oh, well. Even if Pepelyayev's efforts were uninspiring, at least the search for new directions has begun in Russia, a country long isolated from the currents of modern dance.

Pepelyayev's pieces were presented on double bills with the Charles Linehan company of London. Linehan's trademark is understatement. Even something as unambiguous as a handstand takes on a quality of suggestion. When the dancers come into contact with each other, the connections are faintly portrayed, as if in watercolor. The beauty of Linehan's atmospheric works is in details f the flicker of a wrist, the undulation of a torso, a pause.

Performed by two women and two men, including the choreographer, the strongest of the Linehan repertoire presented was an excerpt from "The Secret."

While the work was set to Latin music punctuated by the screeching of jungle birds, Linehan appeared to draw his inspiration from tai chi, with its meditative quality, rather than the Latin/Amazon sounds. The incongruity worked to effect. Rhumbas were sinuous without the swiveling of hips.

A second Linehan piece, "Rialto," had the detached feel of a tango. Here, as in the other two works, the dancers' faces were expressionless, allowing the movements to speak for themselves. But Linehan's language was not so eloquent that it did not require musical accompaniment. In "Numbers, Stations," Linehan had the dancers move to the broadcast recitation of numbers. The steps quickly became monotonous.

"Two-Way Traffic" began last Wednesday with British choreographer Wayne McGregor's "The Millennarium," a contemplation of the intersections of technology and human movement.

McGregor and his small Random Dance company are excellent, articulate dancers. The choreographer possesses the flexibility of a rubber band and the impulses of a lightning bolt. But after an initial, riveting solo by McGregor and 20 minutes of ensemble work, the choreography of "Millennarium" had run out of things to say.

Screens projecting images of a sunlit sea, a radar screen and a flattened EKG came across as gimmickry. What made the piece unbearable were the sounds of machine-like droning, objects dropping, and loud, high-pitched squeaking.