Outward movements are the heralds of inner movements

(Words of St. Andrei Rublev).
Lilia Sevastyanova
The VISAGE Movement Theatre Company, Tashkent.

The art of dance is associated first of all with a beautiful and healthy body. And dance itself is possible because of such a body. However the work of the Visage Movement Theatre with people having physical and mental disabilities turned out to be feasible because long before starting integrated dancing we had been looking not so much for a body movement, but rather for what causes that movement.

How is a gesture born? What is its source?
And we are talking here precisely of a birth and not of composing or inventing a movement.
For the two decades such understanding of the movement nature has been fundamental for us, although our approach has undergone changes.

Back in the 80s – beginning of the 90s this search brought us to improvisation and many years of improvising allowed the theatre to start work with people having disabilities.

The first practical step on the way to integrated dance was made in 1996 in France, where I was giving a master class on dance improvisation. One of the trainees was Yoele, a girl with some disability. She did all the exercises sitting, since her legs were atrophied and she moved on crutches. By the end of the two week master classes we were supposed to present a small performance. My French colleague tried to talk me out of engaging Yoele in this performance, I think, because shortly before in the performance of another director Yoele had played the part of a forest monster and that aggravated the painful impression made by her appearance.

It came to my mind that work with people having disabilities should be different and I offered Yoele a serious solo part in the finale of our performance. Being absorbed in the suggested subject Yoele’s soul started to develop, this could be seen in her outward movements: her arms stretched upward, the crutches came off the floor and the people around saw them not as crutches but as wings.

The spectators flew with her soul not seeing Yoel’s physical condition. The girl’s inner yearning for her soul’s purification, that is for real freedom, influenced the people around stronger than her sick body which in its turn also experienced a moment of physical freedom. This scene struck everybody around and for me it was confirmation of the idea that in a theater a spectator sees an actor at the level of soul as if through body. This means that a person with an imperfect physical condition can take part in a dance performance.

The positive experience of the French laboratory inspired me to continue research in this direction in Tashkent. In 2000 I began to conduct classes with the children in the Club for Rehabilitation and Integration of Children with Disabilities. At that time I was not even thinking of some results, I just wanted to help the children to develop their support-locomotion system using my knowledge in the sphere of movement.

There were only five-six children in the club. I remember Sveta very well when she came the first time. She had oligophrenia and locomotive dysfunction and was constrained both physically and inwardly. The arms bent in, elbows seemed to be stuck to the body and there was no way to convince her to stretch them or to make her approach closer to the other children.

We start playing dance games and it turns out that the palm can become a dandelion and if you blow at this “dandelion” then it will by all means scatter in the air. And the arm without Sveta’s realizing it flies and gets stretched. And then Sveta herself turns into a dandelion (or an autumn leaf, or a piece of light cloth) while Gleb becomes a light breeze and makes Sveta fly and whirl.

This is a children’s variation of one of the exercises for beginners in which the whole body or its parts perform not everyday functions, but create a plastic character of some image. Such exercises help to distance from the deep-rooted thought “I cannot” because in this situation it is a leaf, for instance, not the body, which is flying. Such exercises also help children with problems of communication to start a dialogue with people around.

When I first met Zarina, then a 12 year old girl with mental anomaly and support-locomotion system problem (now she is 22), a thought flashed, "Maybe it is worth while to make a video record, so that some time later I can compare the results". But I did not dare, because firstly my ethics does not allow me to see the children as subjects of an experiment and secondly at that time I did not have enough experience and there was no grounds to expect positive changes. The first solo dance which we prepared with Zarina had to be accompanied by a narrator’s text, since she could not remember the order of movements. A child’s voice behind the scenes, as if speaking on her behalf explained to the spectators the story at the same time reminding her of the following actions – movements. Nowadays Zarina performs quite serious choreography both solo and in complex interaction with others, improvising deeply – and I could not even dream of it at the beginning.

To a large extent such a progress happens due to the fact that people with disabilities dance together with professional dancers and healthy peers. It is very important that beginners find themselves in an already existing strong creative environment, in the stream which carries along, stirs up and helps to catch up.

For a long time it remained a mystery for me how children with mental problems can create while improvising a meaningful and beautiful dance. Because when I explain something relating to the dance subject to them I can see that they do not get what I am saying, in their eyes there is no response, which we are used to seeing when talking with other people. In improvisation a precious flower blossoms out straight away. In 2007 experts from Psychiatric Hospital “Sezam” in France explained to me this phenomenon: Something that a mentally handicapped person cannot understand through his brain can be perceived through a touch that is a physical contact is a way to pass information. And it became clear to me why people with disabilities from the Visage Movement Theatre, a five year old Shukur and a twenty year old Lena (both with Down syndrome) having found themselves in kind and loving arms of Viktoriya Gordienko and Iliya Ostanin all of a sudden rose to their professional level and, what was more important, got rid of their aggression which only several minutes before they had exercised against everybody on their way.

Also next to them Kamila Shamsutdinova and Ludmila Gordienko help out Vanechka (a young man of 20 with oligophrenia) to such a profound soul dialogue, that someone not in the picture will never see that Vanechka is handicapped.

In the same Psychiatric Hospital “Sezam” we also conducted classes and staged a performance with some of its patients, the majority of whom were people with several handicaps. I will tell you here about one of them – a young man named Benua. He came to every class with a basket full of clothes pegs. I thought that it was somehow related to his state of soul, maybe to some hurt feelings, and felt that it was necessary to use those clothes pegs. Before the beginning of one of the classes I put a washing line and pieces of colorful cloths where they could be seen. Since these things happened to be there, during improvisation exercise they caught somebody’s attention and were put to use. So, I just had to wait for the right moment to draw Benua’s attention to the fact that his clothes pegs were needed. As a result we had a long festive garland made of colorful cloths attached to the washing line with the help of Benua’s clothes pegs. We included this scene in the performance “Shantal’s Birthday”, Shantal being the patient with the most serious health situation. She could only sit in the wheelchair and accept presents from the other participants of the performance. In the finale my professional dancers helped her to rise and to perform some movements.

The professional dancers of the Visage Movement Theatre started to help me in 2002. Since they have grown in the theatre they could pass to integrated dance naturally as it happens in a family where elder children help the younger ones. I asked them for help for the first time when staging a duet of two persons on wheelchairs.

This duet was inspired by Valera’s (1st group disability, cerebral spastic infantile paralysis) expressive gesture; having heard the tango he stretched his arm to a girl, also on wheelchair, as if asking her for a dance. There was a need both in purely physical help – in moving the wheelchairs with the guys - and in plastic expression of their feelings and Viktoria Gordienko with Anton Avrutskiy gave that help. For three more years Valera danced sitting in his armchair in various performances. Of course, this form has also developed and every step of that progress made us happy.

But once in class while working at the performance “Improvisations from Life” Valera drove up to Olga Ostanina dancing solo, seized the crossbeam, reached out for it and stood up. We all got dumbfounded both because he was able to get up and because of fear that he would fall. I gestured to Anton Avrutskiy to carefully approach Valera so that to be near to him (I did not want to stop Valera’s impulse, but it was also necessary to avoid any risk). Anton delicately entered a dialogue with Valera. Thus a duet (without a wheelchair) was born and became the culmination of the performance. But the main thing is that in this dance it is already not important at all where the one’s or the other’s leg or arm is and to what extent they satisfy the requirements of the dance genre. The bodies of Valera and Anton get interwoven in internal unanimity and brotherhood which is more precious than all the wonderful muscles and stretched insteps. It will be more correct to say that the spectators do not care about their bodies, because they are so much captured by what is happening between the two souls.

I think that the main principle in work with people having disabilities (although I am sure that it should be the basis of creative work with any people) is not to impose on them your own ideas and fantasies. It is necessary “to proceed” from specific personalities, from their life situations, their real problems, carry on with their ideas, to take note of and perfect their gestures, to discover and develop their abilities. It was Valera’s gesture that gave impulse to staging tango and later his raising from the wheel chair became the beginning for creating a duet.

In the process of work on a gesture, its initial character does change, because sometimes to make the gesture more artistically expressive as well as to make it more meaningful it is necessary to correct its dynamics, direction, volume. But still a dancer has a valuable feeling, that it is him who was the creator of this specific movement. And naturally, further on the author will be very careful with his creation.

The language of improvisation allowed us to conduct creative dialogue with people having disabilities. It is impossible to show a dance to a blind person or to explain to deaf people how they should feel music. A person with cerebral spastic infantile paralysis cannot repeat a choreographer’s movements. But it appeared possible to inspire them to express their feelings, experiences, aspirations through artistic gestures. In joint improvisations our professional dancers help dancers with disabilities to express themselves through artistic gestures and movements showing their inner state. And this is a serious level of improvisation.

We subdivide improvisation into two conditional levels: the physical and psychophysical. Physical improvisation occurs when a body is a source of movement. Impulses from various points or parts of one’s body (shoulder, knee) pull the whole body urging it to continue and develop the movement. Another person’s body reacting to the partner through touching or noncontact can also be an impulse. Such exercises allow relaxing the muscles which are not involved in the gesture, to relax old lacerations, to stretch muscles and spine, to get rid of habitual movement patterns.

But the most important thing is that physical improvisation gives a person a valuable skill to follow the movement of one of the body parts or to respond to a partner’s body movement. This skill prepares a dancer for the main principle of psychophysical level of improvisation which is to pursue a metaphysical goal completely forgetting about one’s body.

When a person starts to work at this level for the first time, I ask him to convey through a gesture some real life problem. Of course, at the beginning he tries to show it or tell the story with the help of gestures. Then he thinks over what is wanted from him – starts going deeper in his self. Then he thinks better of it and all of a sudden realizes that the gesture is born, but was born not through thinking and fantasizing but as a result of this “immersion”. This small experience gives a person a sense that there is art which is not invented. And it becomes possible to talk with such a person using the same language and to look for internal motive for improvisation.

Psychophysical improvisation raises work with partners to the new level of quality too, since it happens not at the body level, but between the personalities and first of all between the souls. And for this to happen it is necessary to believe that another person is also a great divine mystery, exactly like you, despite social status and state of health. And this soul is unique and has the same stupendous value as yours. Then you open yourself to him UN-conditionally.
It is most difficult to teach the kind of improvisation to those dancers and actors for whom demonstration of their body, its abilities, of their voice, emotions, and talents is a deep-rooted habit.

Blind people comprehend such improvisation easiest of all. They have to use their inner vision willy-nilly, to perceive other people and everything around not with their eyes but through their whole being. Both in everyday life and in creative work blind people do have to trust a partner, to listen attentively to and to sense his/her every movement and to react to him/her (not to show a reaction, but videlicet to react) and it is a necessary condition for improvisation. Therefore at a certain stage it is useful to do some exercises with closed eyes. We have blind Irina taking part in our performances and it is always a story of her relationships with the world. In the finale of “Improvisations from Life” Irina appears on the stage and the spectators immediately realize she cannot make a single step without somebody’s help be it just another person with disability, but her very appearance unites all the actors. This scene is a symbol that each of us can fill the deficiency of other people and in turn be supported by those others.

It takes a while to get ready to speak in improvisation at the level of soul and even then not everybody can reach that level. For a dancer not to hide under the mask and not to fall into narration (story in gestures) the first step can be to improvise on topics of paintings or reproductions of pictures, sculptures, poetic phrase and musical pieces.

A performer finds in those works of art some reflection of his/her soul and that urges him/her to express feelings in improvisation. We as human beings are always eager to share our concerns but we cannot always find a way to do it. This method helps to find such a way: formally one improvises on “external” topic (of a painting, of a philosophical idea), but in fact a dancer expresses something profoundly personal.

Sveta, who at her first lesson could hardly stretch arms-“dandelions”, eight years later in the process of rehearsing the performance of “Reflections” made a sketch based on Giorgione’s “Venera”, having chosen the reproduction of this picture among other reproductions of various Italian artists. It was a cry saying that she wanted to be seen as a girl, to be treated as a girl although at her age of 25 she has stature, figure, a haircut of a 12 year old boy dressed as a teenager. The sketch gave me a hint to stage in “Reflections” a beautiful scene for Sveta , in which she is almost a queen (a Japanese queen, since Sveta has East Asian appearance).

The topics of all the scenes in our performances are not invented, but are prompted by real life. The choreography is not composed, but is born in the process of dance improvisation, when inner unity and interaction of different actors are translated into speaking gestures and movements. So many vital topics and situations occur when rehearsing that there is no need to develop dramatic concepts, drama appears following everyday work and actual spiritual aspirations. The latest production “Presence” narrates about young people with disabilities entering their adult life. They look for points of contact with other people and the world in general. In the focus of the performance are Aleksandra Plotnikova (progressive muscular dystrophy) and Nargiza Bakirova (cerebral spastic infantile paralysis, 2nd group). To make every gesture the girls have to get over some real difficulty because of their serious diagnoses. But they do not give the spectators any chance to stay “beyond” their dance and notice their physical imperfection. On the contrary, through their profound professional work they involve everybody into their aspiration for inner transformation.

Now it is time to go back to the issue of the content of improvisation or to be more exact to the issue of its direction. Along with the group’s personal growing up in the recent years the theatre shifted its focus. If previously it was most important for us to know WHAT provokes a movement, now it is more important to understand WHERE an inner movement (to be followed by an outward one) should be directed so that to help the personality to concentrate rather than to come apart. Of course, to create a gesture we still draw on a dancer's real current state, however, now we are able not only to state a topic in its horizontal plane, but we can also channelize this process vertically and the value of this direction depends on WHERE TO and IN WHAT STATE we come following our improvisation.

Our theatre believes that the purpose of art is not to reflect life but to bring people to the level of relationship conceived by the Creator. To the relationship based on love.

If such a relationship of spiritual love connects people in their life including creative process and improvisation, then every movement born in such a union by however imperfect body will be beautiful and harmonious. And influencing spectators and giving rise to kindness such a movement involves them into the secret of creation. Because every spectator seeks in art (whether consciously or instinctively) an opportunity to approach the ideal, to touch the divine. If an actor longs for it as well, then this longing will move him/her to such emblematic gestures that a spectator “reads” them and will recognize his/her yearning (sometimes deeply hidden) for perfection.

Vadim Gaevskiy: Who is Lilia?
Who is Lilia, why was she born near Fergana? She comes from the family of the exiles from the Central Russia. Her grandfather was dispossessed twice. At the heart of Lilya are roots of uncommon talent and vitality. I can't but start thinking of what Russia would have become if these gifted and vital people could continue working here, if they did not have to leave Russia.

Why does Lilia work with people having disabilities? The idea is to bring back to life people with disabilities – and in wider context it is basically the idea of returning to life the whole country, the country which had become stagnant and disabled. Her students are the image of our country. She does not think of it, but it is her mission. She is the only one in the whole of Central Asia. She is known in Europe and almost nobody knows her in Moscow.
I know that Lilia is appreciated in Uzbekistan but there is almost no money in the theater. Most of her time is spent not on creative work but on fund-raising for the theater’s activities. And she is changing the image of our country from beyond, the way our Nobel Prize Laureates glorify our country from afar. Lilia is a might-have-been Nobel Prize Laureate who lives in Tashkent and is not going to leave it.

In her performances one can see nostalgia for high culture, which survived there, in Tashkent. Russia lived with that nostalgia at the beginning of the 20th century. There is no kind of postmodernism in her dances. All her performances are full of improvisations and citations from Renaissance and antiquity. She and her dancers are not infected with skepticism, which I can see in many of my capital colleagues. I am familiar with this so called super saturation with culture of the inhabitants of big cities.
Lilia is of course limited with the abilities of her dancers both the healthy ones and those having special needs. Their technique is absolutely original. Lilia avoids the element of outward overcoming. She cultivates in her students a certain vision of art, the art which shows life not as it is, but what it should be. And this vision aspires the body and helps to improve it. Lilia’s aesthetics is that of a stylist – new-antiquity new-baroque are congenial for her. When a trapeze is used in her performance like, for example, in a Forsyth’s one and a dancer, who normally uses a wheelchair, is lifting himself with his arms, one is amazed not with that but that the movement is anyway placed in historical epoch. Lilia has a sense of style, styles. Like Ratmanskiy she is a classic stylist. Tashkent is not Wuppertal, from there you cannot reach any European capital within one hour. One does really have to be strong to live there with Renaissance in mind and understand it as a way to educate the sick children spiritually.. She believes in restored justice and she restores the justice herself.

Translated from Russian by Aizada Khalimbetova, aizadakhalimbetova@gmail.com.