Alexei Viktorovich Fomkin, current artistic director of Tanzhaus at Moskvich culture centre, recently left his position as vice rector of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. One of his major achievements in his previous job was opening a master’s program for contemporary dance choreographers, the program that’s known for its radicality. We were interested in talking to Alexei Viktorovich about why this kind of program became possible in a ballet academy and what he is going to focus on in his today’s job.Translated from Russian by Yana Lebedikhina. Original text in Russian was published by ROOM FOR on the 27th of March, 2015.
Katya Ganyushina (KG): In Russia the opportunities for professional training in the field of contemporary dance are obviously very limited. The only program available is a master’s program of contemporary choreography at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, and it’s still vague what will happen with it (as the Academy’s leadership has changed). The fact that ballet is considered “our everything” in Russia is not of much help either. Even if there’s receptiveness towards contemporary dance, it’s seen as contemporary ballet at best. And very few pay attention to the fact that contemporary dance is a trend in its own right that has accumulated a lot during its history spanning over more than a century and that it possesses an array of knowledge which might be of interest and benefit to virtually everybody.
In this sense I see you as an example of a person who understands that. What makes it especially valuable is that you have a classical background. Yet not only do you see the importance of contemporary dance, but you also set up a master’s program in this field, and not just somewhere but in the Academy of Russian Ballet. How was it developed?
Alexei Fomkin (AF): First, it wasn’t just me. There were Tanya Gordeyeva, Sasha Lyubashin, and manager Denis Venidiktov. I admit that for one thing there’s some disappointment related to that stage of my work, and for another I’m glad that I left that educational institution and finally broke away from a very rigid system (that of my childhood) with the issues of a closed society that ensue.
I had been within that system since the age of ten. After graduating from the academy I had been working for thirteen years as a ballet dancer at the Mariinsky Theatre. And there at some point I realized I couldn’t go on like this anymore, that destruction was in store for me, because it’s impossible for me to immerse my life in ballet and theatre issues only. Fortunately, by that time the academy had become a higher educational institution and a ballet studies department had been established providing the most favorable academic environment. I was in the first batch of students, and as artists of the Mariinsky Theatre we were given every chance to study and get a degree.
Ballet studies is a peculiar discipline, with traces of isolationism and authoritarianism. In addition, it contains a lot of “theatre-related glamorous” stuff connected with interest to artists’ personal lives and audiences’ rapture. I think we live in an era of total blurring of boundaries (both personal and social), which enables ballet watchers to gain entry into the professional environment. The paradox is that the ballet community that had always been reserved all of a sudden started embracing balletomania eagerly (as ballet fans are always loyal and adoring), avoiding self-reflection. The compulsively announced aesthetic identity of Moscow and St. Petersburg’s ballet schools that has never existed is of the same origin.
But I’ll go back to my story… In 1999 I started working at the academy – first as a supervisor, than as head of the museum, dean, and after that as vice rector. At that time a very curious situation shaped up, when people with no background in ballet but with enormous experience in other scientific fields got involved in ballet. For example, vice rector for science Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Isakov. I benefited greatly from his experience when setting up the system of higher education at the Academy. I can’t say the ballet community (both inside and outside the academy) welcomed that. There was a strong resistance. But the most important thing we succeeded in, as I see it, is literally “pulling” into the academic space psychology, anatomy, physiology, biodynamics, sociology, contemporary dance and its theory. For the first time the educational system of that type paved way for a comprehensive scientific research.
As these changes occurred I realized that an alternative to the available training for choreographers ought to be found. An alternative to traditional training they offer at GITIS (the Russian University of Theatre Arts) or ballet academies. Tanya Gordeyeva happened to be around (she was doing a Bachelor’s degree at the academy), and so did Sasha Lyubashin (he was teaching contemporary dance at the dance department of the academy). Tanya Gordeyeva used to be a ballerina, student of Yekaterina Maximova, so she was somebody our system could acknowledge. And the four of us pulled it off. What we ended up with was “Research creative laboratory of composition of contemporary dance forms”.
I can’t say I was fully aware at the time what the program was going to be like. Later, after I immersed myself in it, I received loads of feedback including negative (why did you it, have you gone crazy, are you out of your mind). Now I see where they come from… What Tanya and Sasha are doing is a very specific form of contemporary dance, it’s more thought-intellect-movement than dance as it is, and certainly not ballet. The program is about boundaries: of one’s movement, of one’s experience. And it requires skills of reflection.
KG: The program sure is essentially different. As far as I understand it encompasses studying a lot of critical theory of the 20th century, and in my experience that’s quite a tough thing to grasp. If introducing somatic practices into such a reserved institution is already a profound change, then opening such a program is a revolution. This program does change thinking. It’s not about becoming a contemporary dance choreographer… How did you manage to make this revolution?
AF: That’s right, it’s about blowing away cobwebs, not about becoming a great choreographer. We managed to do it because first of all, rector Vera Dorofeyeva was helping us. She let us do plenty of things and didn’t bind us down. Besides, at the time in my position as vice rector I was part of Education and Methodology Association, virtually setting standards for choreographic education in Russia. When designing new generation standards, one of my tasks had been to find a form of standard that would include contemporary choreography. So that contemporary dance would be at secondary, at Bachelor’s, and at Master’s level. That’s what we’ve got: today contemporary dance programs can be done at all the levels of education. And the research program at the Academy became possible because a Master’s standard was set. It’s another matter that contemporary dance is out of trend again. Higher educational institutions and schools have capabilities for training contemporary dance performers and choreographers, but authorities do not provide state-funded places and do little to nurture the context… What I mean is even if you got training, where are you supposed to work? The environment in terms of audiences is not being formed either. Contemporary art is hard to comprehend, but people ought to be prepared for it…
KG: What will happen with the program? If it is shut down, can it be opened elsewhere, outside the Academy?
AF: Recent information tells us it won’t be closed, it will just get another name. The word “laboratory” must be too troublesome to the sensitive ballet ear… A new location means new issues to deal with. This program was tailored for the Academy because state-fund places were provided for it, and free tuition made quality selection possible. If we shift it to another location, all the costs will have to be paid by the students. That would be fee-based education. And it won’t be cheap.
KG: To what extent not cheap, to your estimate?
AF: Well, that needs calculation, but no less than 60 thousand roubles a term. And to keep this program the Academy will need a great deal of flexibility. Because even in terms of the inner environment the students taking this course are very conspicuous. And that’s often stirring at the unconscious level.
KG: And what’s going on here at Moskvich culture centre, what can be done and what’s exciting to be done?
AF: Here there’s also “an academy of Russian ballet” in a sense, but a specific one. Here, like at other culture centers, there’s a strong amateur tradition, the tradition of folk ensembles that often tense up because some changes occur. I don’t see why they should feel threatened though. I see extra opportunities for their development instead.
And here’s the concept we’ve got. On his trip to Germany director of the center Sergey Borisovich Shcherbakov visited the TanzHaus NRW in Dusseldorf, which was founded 30 years ago by psychotherapist and producer Bertram Muller. Captivated by the idea of the TanzHaus, Sergey Borisovich decided to do something of the kind here and made arrangements with Bertram Muller. Notable producer Margarita Moyzhes helps us a lot and contributes to our work greatly. We started from bringing teachers of various dance styles, holding an academic conference (online for now). In April we’re having the festival of workshops Dance Connection, with teachers Martin Puttke (methods of classical dance), Petra Kron (laboratory for choreographers), Raymon Zachary and Baba Takao (hip-hop), Sven Niemeyer and Stefanie Erb (contemporary and jazz dance). What’s of great interest to me is the workshop led by Martin Puttke, former director of Berlin School of Ballet. He supplies the methods of classical dance with neurocognitive, psychobiological basis, and he will be sharing it with teachers at the festival. And Petra Cron will lead a laboratory. Three choreographers will be selected to work with her. Petra will spend a week with them, six hours every day, along with a dramaturgist and a composer. They will show what it will come to here, at Moskvich, on the Big stage.
KG: So for now TanzHaus Moskvich just offers training?
AF: Well, yes. For now it’s an educational project. In April, when Bertram comes, we will be figuring out the concept and structure of Moscow TanzHaus further. I think everything will work out. But it surely will take time.
Alexei Fomkin is a notable expert in the field of choreographic training in Russia, master of educational sciences, graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, ballet dancer at the Mariinsky Theatre, ex-member of the awards panel of “Golden Mask”, former vice rector of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Currently works as assistant director at Moskvich culture centre and artistic director of TanzHaus.