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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strength to Strength

There are stories that linger. Stories that give you no peace. Stories that must be wrapped and closed in order to move on. The story of the School of Dramatic Art over the last three seasons fits every one of those categories. The 2007-2008 season marked a turning point for this theater. From here on out the past is gone. The future has come.

When two years ago Anatoly Vasilyev was removed as managing artistic director of the world-famous School of Dramatic Art, a theater he founded in 1988, it sent shock waves through the Moscow theater community. The move forced old friends and colleagues to choose sides, often landing them on opposite sides of the barricades. Some claimed that Vasilyev's unorthodox ways of running his theater made him an unfit manager. Others argued that this world-renowned artist achieved so much for the very reason that he did things in his own, unusual way. The move made the Moscow Culture Committee look vindictive, heavy-handed and greedy: This was the organization that fired Vasilyev in order to take away from him the historic building and stage on Povarskaya Ulitsa and turn it over to one of their own pet enterprises, the Open Stage Project. The move made Vasilyev, an often abrasive and aloof, though brilliant, artist, look like a martyr. It made the new puppet administration, people having nothing to do with theater at all, look like marauders and mercenaries. When this administration was replaced by people with a theater background, it made them look like opportunists dancing on Vasilyev's metaphorical grave. They now were in charge of the theater's gorgeous plant on Sretenka Ulitsa, a unique and compelling piece of theatrical architecture that was devised by Vasilyev and his designer Igor Popov. Vasilyev, in protest, went into voluntary exile in Europe where he has remained more or less permanently ever since.

In a word, the affair was a mess. Moreover, the way it was handled -- or, more precisely, bungled -- will always be seen as a mess. The conflict between Vasilyev and the city authorities was long and obscurely complex. There is little doubt the director baited the bureaucrats knowing full well that, in the Russian tradition, battles between artists and functionaries always make the artist look good. And there is no doubt that the bureaucrats began slashing and burning, knowing full well that, in the same tradition, it is always the functionaries who win.

But this is all history now. Spilt milk. Water under the bridge. Bitter as he may be on the outside -- he has claimed that after this experience he will never work in Russia again -- Vasilyev himself embraced the outcome. He publicly encouraged his former pupils and colleagues to stop battling the changes and to go on with their professional lives, thus propelling his former theater into a new era. Rather than dying a grisly death, as some might have expected, the School of Dramatic Art has emerged in the last year or so as one of the most intriguing and diverse theaters in Moscow.

Former pupils of Vasilyev, who rarely if ever had the chance to show their work publicly when their teacher was in charge, have emerged from the shadows. Alexander Ogaryov has produced two fascinating shows -- a meticulous rendition of Arseny Tarkovsky's tale called "The Miracle of the Goldfinch," and a challenging performance piece called "Little Russian Songs," based loosely on texts by Nikolai Gogol. Last season, Igor Yatsko not only took over as the theater's new artistic director, winning that honor because of his long and close relationship with Vasilyev, he staged his first major production as a director. This was a massive and inventive interpretation of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus." Boris Yukhananov, one of the rare Vasilyev graduates who was given the honor of opening a show while Vasilyev was still at the theater, this season continued to explore his nonconformist muse with a three-day, semi-improvisational production titled "LaboraTORIA: The Golem." Other artists contributing to the theater's repertory include the directors Dmitry Krymov and Igor Lysov, and the choreographers Min Tanaka and Konstantin Mishin.

Vladimir Lupovskoy / For MT
The School of Dramatic Art was designed by Vasilyev and Igor Popov.
Krymov's position was especially awkward. He was invited personally by Vasilyev to establish his own studio within the theater, and he did so with great success. Krymov's productions of "Auction," "Donkey Khot," "The Demon: The View from Above" and others have garnered international attention. For him to have refused to continue working at the theater would have meant destroying what he had created. To remain meant struggling with a moral dilemma -- would that be an affront to his mentor? In September, Krymov added still another acclaimed production to his studio's repertory by staging an inventive adaptation of Andrei Platonov's story "The Cow." Moreover, the show opened on the large stage on Sretenka Ulitsa, a place that, with rare exception, had always been reserved for Vasilyev himself. It was a poignant moment, and it was still another sign that things had changed.

The fact that Yukhananov has carried on working at the School of Dramatic Art is noteworthy. He was one of the most vocal opponents of the new administration, declaring repeatedly that he would not collaborate with those who had usurped Vasilyev's power. When asked about his change of heart, he indicated that it was natural. "Vasilyev told us to go on and keep the theater alive. That is what we're doing," Yukhananov said.

Yukhananov is far from being alone. During the early stages of the conflict, when it was not certain that Vasilyev would be removed for good, there was great solidarity among the theater's directors and actors. Ogaryov, as if in an attempt to exorcise demons that still haunt him and his colleagues, incorporated the drama of Vasilyev's ouster into his production of "Little Russian Songs." As the show wound down, portions of an interview Vasilyev gave recently were performed by actors as if it were a dramatic dialogue. In it, Vasilyev declared null and void the theater that once had existed, then offered what amounts to an exhortation to his former company to set aside conflict and get on with the business of making theater. "I want to say, 'bon voyage,'" he states. Spoken by his former actors in a show by a former student on a stage where Vasilyev used to work alone, it confirmed that one era had ended and another had already begun.

Indeed, if sailing has not been exactly smooth since the theater was put in the hands of new managing director Alexei Malobrodsky, the atmosphere recently has grown calmer and the creative spirit stronger. While many Moscow theaters chase success through the usual avenues of pop-oriented shows with TV-star-driven casts, the School of Dramatic Art still values experimentation in an effort to create cutting-edge theater. Oddly enough, perhaps, it is a fitting legacy for a house founded by one of the world's most respected theater artists.

In the end, I seriously doubt the people who took it upon themselves to wrest the School of Dramatic Art out of Anatoly Vasilyev's hands will ever be hailed as heroes. Perhaps, like Goethe's Mephistopheles, they can say they are part of "that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good."

As for the good that has come of this complex and often maddening situation -- it is now there for all to see. Down the road, historians will write books about what really happened and why. In the meantime, we are fortunate that the School of Dramatic Art remains one of this city's most distinctive playhouses. It could have happened otherwise.