A remote Russian city gets a lesson in fabulousness.
As far north of the Mongolian border as it is east of Novosibirsk—four hundred miles—the city of Krasnoyarsk sits on the Yenisey River. In 1825, Decembrist rebels were exiled there by Tsar Nicholas I. A century later, the area housed a concentration of gulags. Today, Krasnoyarsk is a major hub of aluminum production and, each May, hosts the Isadora International Festival of Modern Dance. This year, Chicago group the Seldoms was the festival’s resident dance company, which carries the stipulation that ensemble members teach Isadora’s student attendees a mix of styles including jazz, modern and contemporary ballet. Seldoms dancer Damon Green taught the Siberians to vogue, and their response surprised him.
“I thought when I first started doing the movement, with just a simple runway walk, that I would get a chuckle or something,” he says. “Like, okay, who’s this guy coming in and being all flamboyant?” With Major Lazer from his iPod playing through the sound system, Green took a strut across the floor in imaginary heels, hips banging from side to side, and turned around. No one laughed. The class applauded in earnest.
The festival students, in their late teens to midtwenties, had come from all over the Russian Federation for a week of intensive dance training. Some traveled hundreds of miles by train. (“‘Close’ doesn’t mean the same thing to Siberians that it does to Americans,” says Seldoms artistic director Carrie Hanson.) A few had seen some vogueing on YouTube and immediately asked to be taught how to dip, duck walk and body scan, but they were in the minority. Vogue dancing, and its roots in 1970s black gay culture, was for most a foreign concept and, as such, interpreted simply as a technique, free of cultural associations. Through a translator, Yulia—who took his classes as well—Green explained the history. “They were like, ‘Okay, sure, whatever. Let’s just do it.’ They were all about just investing in the movement and taking it all in.”
One of Green’s most eager and excitable students was Andre, a break-dancer and B-boy whom, he remembers, fellow Seldoms member Christina Gonzalez-Gillett “literally had to pull out of the studio. As soon as class would end, he’d be asking questions—he was so hungry, so into it.” Russian dancer Vladimir Golubev, at Isadora as a guest performer, was also intrigued—he saw Green perform in Hanson’s Marchland at the end of the week, but until then had only watched him lead vogueing lessons. In the piece, the Seldoms don’t play anyone but themselves; it’s a purely abstract work. Green’s moves in Marchland are clean and masculine. Following the show, Golubev, Green and the rest of the company had a chance to talk at dinner.
He was shocked that Green could “be so strong, and portray himself that way,” says Gonzalez-Gillett, “but in the vogueing classes be so feminine and flamboyant.” One class remained before the Seldoms began their 26-hour journey back to Chicago, and the dancer made a point to attend. The real lesson, it turned out, was that movement could be worn as easily and casually as clothing. Green says Golubev admitted, “I couldn’t see myself going to both those extremes—I felt like I would have to be either/or.”
“I think Damon started a whole vogueing movement in Siberia,” says Seldoms dancer Bruce Ortiz. “He planted a seed. I think they loved it because it was so unlike anything they’d ever seen.”
“To go over there, and have the students be so accepting,” adds Green, “made me open up even more, and that energy just kept building. In the videos I’m rolling around on the floor, kicking my legs, saying ‘Skazochny˘ı! Skazochny˘ı! Skazochny˘ı!’”
The word means fabulous.
Festival director Elena Slobodchikova teaches contemporary movement at the Seldoms Summer Intensive, July 19–30 at the Pilsen East Arts Center. Visit theseldoms.org for more information.