“My dream was not only to make people applaud,” Mirjana Jokovic, director of performance at the California Institute of the Arts, told the students, “but also to pause, to stop, and to say, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ That’s what you did today.”
In 90 briskly moving and deeply felt minutes, the actors — half from CalArts, half from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts — revealed how facial expression and body language can communicate thoughts and feelings more potently than mere words. Some words were used, to interesting effect; perhaps the most vivid dialogue was an exchange conducted in Portuguese and much enjoyed by the mostly Russian audience.
“Look at us,” Denielle Gray, a 21-year-old New Yorker, said after the show. “We’re not Americans and Russians, we’re one.”
The CalArts students traveled here under a grant arranged by the U.S. Embassy through a mouthful known as the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.
The commission was set up in 2009 by President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to help further their goal of resetting relations between their countries. Military cooperation, nuclear security, counterterrorism and counternarcotics are among the commission’s better-known working groups.
But there’s also one devoted to education, culture, sports and media, and earlier this year the U.S. Embassy in Moscow used that vehicle to arrange for 10 Russian theater students to spend two weeks at CalArts, followed by a reciprocal visit here, on a grant from the State Department.
That’s how love got on the agenda along with arms control, becoming part of the reset of relations between two countries still uneasy with friendship.
“All politicians should see this,” said Yevgeny Kamenkovich, the Russians’ teacher at the theater academy, with a grand sweep of his arm toward the students.
The performance here, “Old Boyfriends,” began with a young man crawling across the stage, searching and longing revealed in every movement. Soon he was joined by about 10 couples, who moved around the stage in ever-new pairings, their faces and bodies speaking of attraction and boredom, excitement and weariness, faithfulness and deception.
In one scene, a woman moves up and down a line of men, drawing close, moving away, sometimes dismissive, sometimes regretful, a memory of loves lost but not forgotten. In the Portuguese scene, Paula Rebelo, a 21-year-old CalArts student from Rio de Janeiro, gets into a fight with her boyfriend at the movies, silent irritation with him erupting into rapid-fire complaints in Portuguese before the storm passes and they embrace, to the applause of the now-entranced actor audience who had been watching the movie.