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Analysis & Opinion
02.08.10 The Infinite Orchard Of Legacy
By Elena Rubinova

It might be too early to discuss the results of the “Year of Anton Chekhov,” which will run till the end of 2010 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Russia’s divine playwright, but it’s a good moment to have a look at the results of the ninth Chekhov International Theatre Festival, a two month theatre marathon (May 25 to July 30) which closed Russian capital last weekend. Its large-scale jubilee program featured major productions of Chekhov by theatre directors from Europe, Asia, North and South America, but the best works of Russian directors and co-productions were not overlooked either.

The numerous premiers and star-studded productions of the ninth Chekhov Theatre Festival mirrored the diversity that defines Chekhov’s work by addressing the many strands of his creative output. Drama and choreography companies from 14 countries brought 24 stage versions of Chekhov’s plays and productions devoted to him. Since the first Chekhov Theatre Festival in 1992, the event has established its place on the international theatre scene and gradually became an essential summer stopover for the cultural life of Russia and beyond.

Many of the shows are commissioned and co-produced specially to premier at the festival, which has garnered a reputation for being innovative and even provocative. “This year’s edition turned out to be the most difficult out all the previous forums,” said Valery Shadrin, general director of the Chekhov Theatre Festival. “We had to find an approach to show Chekhov because his plays continue to be staged frequently and enthusiastically in Russia and abroad, so it seems difficult to say something new. It was very important for us to show not only drama, but also new genres that would interest the audience. I am happy to say that the festival proved to be sincere and modern in spirit,” he concluded.

In Chekhov’s world there were multiple perspectives, and this is probably one of the reasons directors of all stripes so often transform his works into genres that the author himself could hardly have imagined. Not in his wildest imagination could Chekhov have envisaged that his love for fishing, one of his favorite past times, would inspire Swiss director Daniele Finzi Pasca, the author of a “theatre-circus,” to stage a spectacular and heart–felt performance entitled “Donka” - a Russian word for a special kind of fishing line. The performance, which the director called “a lyrical message to Chekhov to invoke reminiscences about him,” was a huge success in many cities across Russia and will tour internationally after the festival.

The new stage versions of Chekhov's plays brought to Moscow this summer fell into roughly two categories: performances based on Chekhov's work by Asian and European choreographers and dramatic versions of various plays as seen by contemporary theatre practitioners. Most foreign directors tackled Chekhov's original texts with a differing degree of freedom, mixing stories and characters, at times offering combinations where the original Chekhov could be read only in between the lines. Some Russian productions like “Chekhov Gala,” directed by Alexei Borodin of the Russian Academic Youth Theatre, were more delicate with the literary original, but all strived to project Chekhov into the present day. “Chekhov is so precise in his plays and stories that he has no mercy for his characters. We have to understand that today we are exactly the same. If the audience feels that, we have hit the target,” Borodin said.

The most radical foreign directors saw in their attempts to tame Chekhov’s texts a chance to tackle Russia’s dramatic 20th century history and project social problems touched by Chekhov into the modern day. That was the case for Frank Castorf, artistic director of Berlin’s “Volksbuhne” theatre, who is known for his post-dramatic re-workings of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Bulgakov and Dostoevsky. His radical new staging of Sebastian Kaiser’s “Nach Moskau, Nach Moskau,” an adapted version of “Three Sisters” and the novella “Peasants,” opened the festival. The same route was taken by Teatro en el Blanco, an inventive theatre company from Santiago (Chile) with a unique artistic language. Their original play “Neva,” written and directed by Guillermo Calderon, had hardly a single line of Chekhov’s text or the personality of the dramatist. In a flight of fantasy the viewer is taken to St. Petersburg of 1905, and Chekhov’s ideas are projected to all the Russian revolutions that were yet to come. Daniel Veronese from Argentina brought a very bold adaptation of “Uncle Vanya,” but combined Chekhov’s original text with truly passionate characters reminding the audience that Chekhov is strikingly contemporary.

Provocative and radical readings of Chekhov were offset in the festival program by the much more careful, traditional but no less spectacular “Platonov,” directed by Gerardo Vera of the National Drama Center of Madrid, and “Three Sisters” by Canadian director Wajdi Mouawad, a co-production of Quebec’s Trident Theatre and the Chekhov Festival. Each of the directors and their brilliant actors managed to emphasize the human aspect of Chekhov’s plays that is always appreciated by the public.

Modern dance performances are very indirectly linked with Chekhov's legacy. Chekhov’s texts and characters became the starting point and source for the creative energy and cognitive process embodied in dance. As the famous Swedish choreographer Mats Ek of the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm, who produced a take on the “Cherry Orchard”, put it, “the text for a choreographer is a springboard to jump into the performance.”

Asian choreographers went even further ahead with their abstract interpretations. “Nameless Poison. Black Monk” (an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Black Monk” and “Ward No. 6” by Jo Kanamori, a European-trained choreographer from Japan), offered a fantastic fusion of refined music, reserved movement and traditional Japanese theatre culture. Choreographed Chekhov continued with the outstanding Taiwanese choreographer and founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Lin Hwai–min, whose “Whisper of Flowers” emerged from the classical Chinese literary work “Dream of the Red Chamber” and Chekhov's “The Cherry Orchard”. “Hwai-min selected one of the play’s most disturbing motifs - that of dying away and transition to non-existence, to the world behind the mirror, populated by the ghosts of the past,” says Russian theatre critic Alyona Karas.

Another attempt to tap into Chekhov’s spiritual message was brought to Moscow by acclaimed Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who has headed the Spanish National Dance Company since 1990. His “Infinite Orchard” is totally abstract and based on the music by Alfred Schnittke and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The performance pays tribute to the Russian language as one of the dancers appears on stage wearing a suit covered in Cyrillic letters. At the press-conference the choreographer stresses that the character is not Chekhov but a metaphorical image of text created by the writer. “This is my dedication to Chekhov, a great person and a great artist… With this work I wanted to thank him for everything that he created,” Nacho Duato said. “His ballet has been a real success of the festival program. Duato took our request to create something in Chekhov’s memory very seriously and the results of his work impressed many,” Valery Shadrin added.

Apart from premiers in Russia in 2010, Chekhov’s plays will be performed in a host of countries worldwide under the auspices of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival. Chekhov’s audience is truly global. As John Freedman, an American theatre critic living in Moscow put it: “In Russia he is Russian. In England he is English. In the United States he is American. Or may be the secret is that he always leaves us perplexed and curious to know more. Rather like life itself.”
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