U.S., Russian actors connect without words

June 14, 2011

Words — troublesome things — too often make enemies, not friends, and then, just when we need them most, fail us. So two dozen Russian and American theater students, not knowing the same language anyway, decided to create a mostly wordless play about love and desire, pairing off and breaking up, searching and longing.

Their performance, produced in just 11 days, premiered Sunday night to the universal idiom of appreciation — exuberant and sustained applause.

“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.

The CalArts students arrived June 1, dropped their bags at the academy dorms and began rehearsing that afternoon under the direction of Oleg Glushkov, a young dancer and choreographer who helped the actors develop their story line and learn how to move together.

With only 11 days to work — performances were June 12-14 — they wondered what they could accomplish. So the wild applause from a full house at the 400-seat theater, called the Theater Center on Strastnoi (an old Moscow boulevard), left them relieved and exhilarated. As the audience left, they gathered in an upstairs lobby, where they sipped wine, toasted with the help of translators and marveled at what they had done.

The first three days were hard work, Glushkov said, “then we had fun.”

They began developing a story line, said Tatiana Williams, a 24-year-old student from San Luis Obispo, Calif., when they sat down after a difficult warm-up and began telling stories of their own breakups.

“They were hard stories,” said Williams, who said her traditionally Russian first name actually came by way of Africa.

“We all shared and opened our hearts,” said Rebelo.

“They told true stories,” said 22-year-old Alexandra Kustin of Atlanta, “and allowed them to be retold. That’s bravery.”

The students started to get to know one another in Los Angeles, but it was their arrival in Moscow that got the CalArts students deeply engaged. “Now they’re telling me they want to come back and spend a year in Moscow,” Jokovic said. “That’s why I keep telling them, ‘You have to travel.’ ”

She hopes to bring the groups together for performances in California, at the Cal­Arts Center for New Performance, perhaps, and on to New York, Paris, Belgrade. They could become a troupe, young people unencumbered by the baggage of their elders (“I hope they will not grow old too fast,” she said), making a difference in the world, and Jokovic cannot bear to think of it stopping with Tuesday’s performance.

“Art is there to transcend conflict,” she said. “Art can transform. I would like to see this go all over the world.”

It was 10:30, and dusk was settling over the pastel buildings of old Moscow, red church towers wearing gold domes, the skyscrapers of the modern city rising in the distance. Their teachers were sending the students back to the dorms, where they would rise early for a visit to a museum before putting on another performance.

“Love,” Kamenkovich proclaimed. “Love,” he boomed, voice fervent, toasting the actors one last time.

“I propose to drink to love because love is the one thing that never ends.”

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