There’s a rich history of theater studios on Povarskaya Street. Chances are many readers of this blog know that Anatoly Vasilyev and his School of Dramatic Art occupied the building at 20 Povarskaya from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s. Some may also know that Vsevolod Meyerhold had a studio on the corner of Povarskaya and Merzlyakovsky Lane for half of 1905. That building was destroyed by bombs during World War II. But there was another studio here for much of the 1990s and that’s the one I have in mind – Gennady Abramov’s Class of Expressive Plastic Movement. Yes, this was technically part of Vasilyev’s School of Dramatic Art, but artistically speaking it evolved into an independent entity that took on a life of its own. The success of that life determined its death – Vasilyev was unhappy with the wild popularity that Abramov and his students achieved and he pulled the plug on them, closing the studio just as it was accomplishing some of its greatest work.
Abramov was a former ballet soloist and a choreographer who worked with Vasilyev for years, answering for the movement aspects of some of Vasilyev’s most famous productions, including A Young Man’s Grown-Up Daughter, Cerceau and Six Characters in Search of an Author. They first collaborated in the mid-1970s when Abramov choreographed Vasilyev’s production of – yes – Hello, Dolly!
The idea of the Class of Expressive Plastic Movement was to help Vasilyev’s young actors learn what to do with their body when they were and were not talking on stage. You laugh, but stand on stage sometime and then start thinking – “What do I do with my hands? My feet?” It’s enough to drive a sane man batty. So that was Abramov’s job – to keep Vasilyev’s actors sane and teach them how to live in harmony with their bodies on stage. But it quickly became something else – it became a theater in its own right, with a separate audience, rave reviews, European tours and all the fame and pressure that go with that. For the most part, Abramov and his students weathered the test. Vasilyev, who wasn’t doing much of interest in those years, was less successful at handling his “employee’s” success. He brought down the hammer.
In my more than 25 years of theater-going in Moscow, I know few phenomena that can match that of the Class of Expressive Plastic Movement. It was electric charged. It had the feel of something truly new and exciting. It was smart and witty. It was an elite experience, but in an utterly down-to-earth, democratic way. The people in it were talented and cool. Spectators jostled to get in and get a seat, often next to some admiring Western luminary – say, Pina Bausch – who was making the pilgrimage to find out what all the talk was about. Abramov always played the role of the self-effacing, unimportant, random guy in the house. “Me? I have nothing to do with it. It’s all my students. They do the work. I just let them out on stage.” Their shows consisted usually of 10 to 14 sketches, non-verbal, physical performances that were sometimes entirely abstract, sometimes were based on obvious plots – meeting, engaging, parting and the such. Abramov’s physical training helped his young actors achieve a prowess I had never seen before in Russia. These men and women could do amazing things. Take a look at the last picture in this small gallery and imagine Vladimir Belyaikin or Vasily Yushchenko, wearing nothing but a bit of a cloth wrapped around their loins, shimmying up the metal brace in the right-hand wall, then climbing, hanging, twisting and twirling their way all the way across the ceiling on the metal ceiling beam, and then down the other side. It was damned astonishing. Belyaikin and Yushchenko, like all the other performers in their own skits, did it as though they were bits of down wafted on a lazy breeze.
Until the big success hit and the tours began, the performances of the Class of Expressive Plastic Movement always took place in one of the basement studios at 20 Povarskaya Street. We spectators would enter through a door in the building’s archway that led to a courtyard in back. You’d walk down the stairs and at the landing below everyone would kick off their shoes. There were a minimum of 100 shoes strewn in a huge pile for every show. I don’t ever remember having trouble finding my own two in the madhouse that reigned around that pile after shows.
From the outside the basement studio still looks deceptively like it did back then. It has the same hardwood floors and the same white walls that catch your eye as you approach the entrance from the street. Regardless of what I am going to see at this theater these days, I have never once walked past those basement windows without peering into them, almost hoping against hope that I will see Abramov and his students back at work again.
A large number of Abramov’s students went on to impressive careers as dancers, choreographers and movement gurus in their own right. A whole team of them left to tour for several years with Sasha Waltz. It’s interesting, and important, to keep in mind that Abramov’s work came and went before the boom in Russian contemporary dance occurred. It will take someone else with a deeper knowledge of the topic than I to make the definitive statement, but this I know: if Abramov did not kick off the flourishing of Russian contemporary dance, he surely set the stage for it.
If you’re interested in learning more about Abramov and his work – and you should be if you’re interested in Russian theater – you can find several things I have written over the years. Perhaps the most accessible is a feature I originally wrote for Slavic and East European Performance and which I republished in my book Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996. I also wrote about Abramov a lot in the pages of The Moscow Times. You can check the index there for those pieces.