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Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros

Russia and France: the Pétia Iourtchenko and Simon Renou Collection

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Avant nous étions des oiseaux 10

Marie Novikoff | Avant nous étions des oiseaux 10 | photography | Russia | 2017 | dan_00594 Rights held by: Mustafa Özuna | Licensed by: Dr. Adrian R. March | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Dr. Adrian R. March – Private Archive

Overview of the Collection

This collection collates two separate mini-collections that are interconnected through a teacher-student relationship. The text at hand focuses on Roma artist Pétia Iourtchenko and non-Roma dancer and artist Simon Renou. The collections are devoted to completely different works but are connected by their focus on Roma dance and on Pétia Iourtchenko’s work, teaching and dance philosophy.

Artists Iourtchenko and Renou first met as teacher and student in Paris in 2011, and in 2013 came together to make a series of short dance films among other projects. This text will explore Iourtchenko’s Russian Roma background and his work and then frame Simon Renou’s project with Iourtchenko within a French context.

Russia Overview

Modern-day Russia is a huge country with a complex history. It has been home to a number of ethnicities. ‘The earliest Russian official document mentioning the Roma, is from 1733 – Decree Anna Ivanovna of new taxes on the military’ (Vilensky, 2010). The Ruska Roma are one of the largest subgroups of Romani people in Russia and Belarus, and they came to Russia at the turn of the sixteenth century while others formed part of the nomadic Kelerara and Lovara tribes which arrived in the nineteenth century. The Ruska Roma are believed to have held a number of ‘traditional’ professions, which included horse trading, music, dancing and fortune-telling (Bessonov, 2007). From the late eighteenth century, a few Ruska Roma maintained a close working relationship with the Russian nobility, as it became fashionable for Russian aristocrats to recruit Ruska Romani serfs into ‘Gypsy’ choirs (Rom-Lebedev, 1990; Druts & Gessler, 1990, in Lemon, 2000). This is an important detail as it will help frame the Romen Theatre discussed later in this text.

In summary, while the Ruska Roma have a long history of living in Russia, the community also live in Eastern and Central Ukraine, France, Canada and the United States. A large number of Roma emigrated during a critical period following the Crimean War. Many Roma moved to Sweden and France while others went as far as the South American continent.

Russian Dance and Operettas

Russia has cultivated an appreciation for the arts and culture and is often associated with ballet companies like the Bolshoi, the Kirov, the St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg and ballet schools like the Vaganova Russian ballet system. A number of legendary ballet dancers such as Mikhail Barishnikov, Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Chametovitsch Nureyev, Agrippina Jakovlevna Vaganova, Anna Pavlovna Pavlova, Michel Fokine and Marius Petipa came from Russia and many also associate the Ballet Russes and Serge Diaghelev with the country. The above-mentioned names are all considered canonical figures in Russian dance history. While there are a number of traditional folk dances and other styles that are as diverse as the nation itself, we will focus on a lesser known style which is tied to Russian Roma dance.

Russian Roma dancing is vibrant and expressive and includes intricate footwork, similar to Flamenco footwork, shoulder shimmies and graceful arm movements. Women’s use of wide colourful skirts, which are swung front and back, is also important and an integral part of the dancing. Male dancers are energetic and their movements include fast, rhythmic footwork and palm slaps on the torso, legs, hips and soles of the feet. The dancing is dynamic and often accompanied by live singing, guitars, violins, accordions and sometimes tambourines. Russian Roma dancing has etched a place in dance history and is slowly reaching international audiences. As previously mentioned, Ruska Roma emigrated to various countries, taking with them their art and joyous dancing.

Previously we mentioned that some Ruska Roma choirs existed in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. At the end of the nineteenth century, a conductor of one of these Romani choirs, Nikolai Shishkin, created the first ever Romani theatre troupe. In 1886, the troupe performed in an operetta titled Gypsy Songs in Faces (1886), which ran for several years. Another operetta, The Gypsy Baron (1887), which was written by Johann Strauss, saw its premiere in April 1887 and was also performed by Shishkin’s troupe. In 1888, the Maly Theatre premiered Children of the Forests, which was the very first Romani language operetta performed by the Romani troupe. In the 1920s, Shishkin also staged other operettas, which enticed Romani singers, dancers, musicians and artists to perform in the USSR.

The Russian Roma community have a strong performing arts tradition. A principal part of that history is the Romen Theatre, located in Moscow.

It is important to mention that Russian Roma dancing has carved out its unique place in the dance world both inside and outside Russia thanks to institutions such as the Romen Theatre. One significant example of a company that performs Russian Roma dancing outside Russia is Saeeda’s Yagori Gypsy Dance Company in the United Kingdom. Another example is the Yagori Dance Festival in Oslo, Norway.

The Romen Theatre is the oldest and most well-known Romani theatre in the world and is a pillar of Romani culture in Russia. It was founded in 1931 and has attracted many Roma performers and artists. In December 1931, a play by Romani actor Alexandr Germano was premiered at the Romen Theatre and the first director of the theatre, Georgy Lebedev, was a Rusko Roma.

Romen Theatre, the one and only professional Romani repertoire theatre, has celebrated its 85th anniversary. It is the oldest and the most well-known Gypsy theatre in the world. ... Starting from the late 17th, early 18th century, when the Roma settled in Russia, this country's literature, music and poetry cannot be imagined without the Gypsies and their songs. The great Leo Tolstoy defined the role of Gypsy songs in a most profound way: ‘Gypsy music has been the only transition from folk music to academic music here in Russia’. In 1930, the Moscow intelligentsia got the idea of ​​creating the Gypsy Theatre, which was supported by officials and cultural figures. December 16, 1931 saw the first performance of Alexander German's play Life on Wheels, which marked the birth of the new theatre (Ivanova, 2016).

The Romen Theatre revives and develops genuine Roma folklore and offers a platform for Roma artists from the country to develop themselves and their artistry while staging performances on themes that are relevant to the community. The Romen Theatre has developed a number of Roma songs, dances and music into professional stage productions, thus contributing to the Russian Roma repertoire. Nikolay Slichenko, who was given several State Awards of the USSR and won the State Prize of the Russian Federation, has been director of the Romen Theatre since 1977.

Russian Romani-artist Pétia Iourtchenko has successfully contributed to the Romen Theatre’s legacy.

Pétia Iourtchenko

Pétia Iourtchenko is a visionary Roma dancer who honours the Russian Roma dance tradition while also incorporating more modern dance steps, fusing them with other Roma dance styles. The first part of this collection offers a number of still and moving images that not only document his trajectory as an artist and dancer but also as a teacher.

Iourtchenko was born in 1957 in the industrial city of Donetsk, Ukraine, into the Vlach tribe. At the age of sixteen, he successfully auditioned to become part of the prestigious Romen Theatre company in Moscow. He took part in performances immediately after joining the company, thus becoming the youngest actor, dancer and singer in the theatre’s history.

Official Poster for Pétia Iourtchenko, Paris, France; Romano Atmo Dance Company.

Photographed by: Thibault Fernandez | Rights held by: Romano Atmo – Dance Company | Licensed by: Romano Atmo – Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Pétia Iourtchenko & Anne-Marie Iourtchenko – Private Archive

Concurrent to this, he trained at the Gnesenikh Institute, studying theatre arts, dance, voice and art history. From 1974 to 1988, he performed on stages all over Russia as well as abroad (Japan, India, former Yugoslavia, France, etc.). In 1988, he appeared with the troupe for the first time at the Theatre Mogador in Paris. In 1989, he left the Romen Theatre and returned to Paris, where he performed in various cabarets, in particular at the Balalaïka, graced by many an Eastern European artist. He met Pascal de Loutchek, a singer and guitarist hailing from Russia, and Lilia Dalskaïa, a singer and former actress from the Romen Theatre. Together, they formed the Arbat Trio, which would go on to perform in New York, London, Oslo, Madrid, Budapest and other cities, making festival appearances and recording three albums.

In 1994, Iourtchenko founded the company Romano Atmo, which is Romani for ‘Roma Soul’, in Paris, with the help of his wife Anne-Marie Iourtchenko. The Company was founded for the purpose of preserving Roma culture, tradition and dance. Iourtchenko is the creator of a Roma dance method, the choreographic language of which draws upon the tradition of his homeland, Russia, and on Roma culture from across Europe. He has enhanced his dance method with modern steps and uses elements of his Romani dialect as well as Russian and French to teach. Iourtchenko has continued to develop as an artist, dancer, choreographer and teacher and has brought his method and choreographic repertoire to international audiences in Brazil, Portugal, the Czech Republic, among many other countries.

Video: Interview Pétia Iourtchenko,
L’enseignement de la danse tzigane, France (2010).

Licensed by: Romano Atmo – Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Pétia Iourtchenko & Anne-Marie Iourtchenko – Private Archive

Romano Atmo Dance Company

Iourtchenko’s company, Romano Atmo, was founded in 1994 in Paris and is made up of amateur dancers and artists from all walks of life. The company includes dancers, actors, singers and musicians who hail from different ethnic backgrounds. Most are non-Roma French, but there are also many Russians, Romanians, Spanish and Poles, and one dancer is only eight years old. Many of the dancers have been working closely with Iourtchenko for over twelve years while others have joined more recently. Iourtchenko states on his website that the company ‘is a family, concerned about sharing its art and love for “Gypsy” folklore as broadly as possible, through gala performances, new works, evening performances in Paris restaurants, open rehearsals and yearly auditions for new dancers who have reached the required level of proficiency and wish to share their love for this form of dance on stage, with an audience’ (Romano Atmo, 2018).

Romano Atmo may perform for French and international audiences, but they manage to keep certain Roma traditions alive through their work with the non-Roma. The Ruska Roma traditional clothing is based on Russian and Kalderash traditional clothing, and is used actively by singers and dancers. Iourtchenko is a self-proclaimed ‘perfectionist’ who personally designs the skirts of each of his female dancers. In keeping with the traditions of his ancestors, he designs the Roma skirts based on how the dancers move and inspire him.

Romano Atmo Dance Company, France (2017). Male dancers performing in Avant nous étions des oiseaux.

Rights held by: Mustafa Özuna | Licensed by: Dr. Adrian R. March | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Dr. Adrian R. March – Private Archive

Romano Atmo Dance Company, France (2017) Female dancers performing in Avant nous étions des oiseaux .

Rights held by: Mustafa Özuna | Rights held by: Dr. Adrian R. March | Licensed by: Dr. Adrian R. March | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Dr. Adrian R. March – Private Archive

Since 1994, Iourtchenko has been teaching his dance method to ‘non-Roma’ and has worked at the Academy of Choreographic Arts at Cité Véron in Paris, as part of the association MTK La Danse. Since 2010, he has taught at the International Film School of Paris (EICAR), working with students in the Acting Division. In 2005, he worked with Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Julien Derouault on the production Ivresse and he has also appeared with Romano Atmo Company in the cinema film Rires et châtiment directed by Isabelle Doval with José Garcia. In 2011, he appeared in the film Rockstar with Ranbir Kapoor.

Pétia Iourtchenko’s Works

The Romano Atmo Company and Iourtchenko’s work as a dancer, choreographer and teacher are incredibly important to the dance community. The two not only embody the past as artistic and historical reflections, but represent a way forward where Roma and non-Roma come together to celebrate Roma traditions and culture. By dancing and creating full-length dance pieces or in offering masterclasses Iourtchenko is passing on traditional values and imparting knowledge to a non-Roma community. He is also preserving and maintaining his Romani roots through the company.

Official Poster for Mémoire d’un Vieux tzigane, Paris, France (2015), Romano Atmo Dance Company.

Rights held by: Thibault Fernandez | Licensed by: Romano Atmo – Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Pétia Iourtchenko & Anne-Marie Iourtchenko – Private Archive

The collection has a number of images that capture Iourtchenko’s dance works and his teachings and also includes a series of artistic films he produced and prepared with the Company and/or with other artists. There are also some gems from his own personal archive that show him as a young dancer in Russia.

As has been mentioned before, Iourtchenko took his Roma traditions with him when he moved from Russia to France. While in Paris, Iourtchenko’s teachings allowed him to cross paths with French dancer, artist and film-maker Simon Renou. The two met in 2011 and a close and collaborative bond was born.

Roma in France

France is home to Roma from several backgrounds. They are classified in several different ways as Roms, Manouches or Sinté and Gitans1. The exact numbers of Romani people living in France is not known. Some government agencies estimated somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000, but they do not know for sure because no official statistics exist on any ethnicity in France. The Council of Europe estimated 400,000 in 2012 and some scholars say roughly 500,000 The French Romani rights groups (Fédération nationale des associations solidaires d'action avec les Tsiganes et les Gens du voyage, FNASAT) report that at least 12,000 Romani have immigrated from Romania and Bulgaria in recent years, some of whom live in unofficial urban camps throughout the country.

In the last decade, Roma in France have received much media coverage. This stems from the 2009 deportations of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma by the French government. The French government also initiated a programme which aimed to remove allegedly illegal camps, a move which shone light on France and its treatment of the Roma. Iourtchenko and Renou’s work is not political in any way but it is important to highlight this modern day situation as it contextualizes the work that the two artists are doing in an area that is sometimes subject to polemics. For both Iourtchenko and Renou it is important to speak about the art and beauty of Roma culture and to highlight the positive aspects of the community.

Simon Renou’s Work

Simon Renou (external link) is a French artist, dancer, film-maker, director and stage comedian. He has over twenty years of experience working in the arts and was a TV reporter for seven years. Renou is a curious person who likes to work in an interdisciplinary manner. He writes scripts, performs as a dancer and clown and has won awards for various projects that have brought dance, motion capture and animation together.

Renou met Pétia Iourtchenko in 2011 while filming his dancing and fell in love with his work. During the filming Renou asked if he could join Iourtchenko’s course and for six years he studied under him and danced with his company, Romano Atmo. Currently, Renou is pursuing new collaborations and working on new projects, maintaining close links with Romano Atmo and Iourtchenko.

Renou’s collection for the RomArchive is a unique source of materials that ranges from films about Pétia Iourtchenko’s teaching and choreography to a short video on the Motion Capture project that the two carried out. Renou loves to mix the traditional with the contemporary and his use of modern technology has enabled him to work to preserve the Roma cultural heritage.

Transmission Dance Film

Transmission (France, 2013) is a short film introducing the art of Pétia Iourtchenko, who has created his own choreographic language. The film portrays both Iourtchenko and the dancer Alissa Doubrovitskaia on stage and was created jointly by all three artists. Renou says the way that each individual was involved at every stage of making the film and influenced one another is what “co-creation” is all about and Transmission symbolises this mode of working.

Renou offers a Director’s Note stating ‘Transmission is a teaser to show how wonderful Roma dance is and to present the character of Pétia. Pétia speaks about the links between a choreographer and a dancer in dance work. The choreography tells a story about performer, professor and pupils. As director, I just want to show the dance and let the public have its own interpretation. I collaborated with Pétia and Alissa on the choreography and the performance. It is a co-creation.’

Motion Capture of a Russian Gypsy Dance

Simon Renou is not only a dancer but also a visual artist and technologist. He collaborated with Iourtchenko on a Motion Capture project entitled ‘Motion Capture of a Russian Gypsy Dance’, which is part of the documentary film Memory of an Old Gypsy which is still being produced in 2018. The making of the Motion Capture project was awarded the Drematrix Award in Dresden, Germany. The film and trailer were made in 2013 and featured the dancer Kevin Souterre and Iourtchenko’s choreography with support from the DREsdner MATRIX Computergrafik Gruppe der Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Dresden (HTW Dresden).

‘Motion Capture of a Russian Gypsy Dance’ does not exist as a stand-alone work as it is the fictional part of the documentary, which represents the idea of the ‘crazy’ side of choreographer Pétia Iourtchenko. Motion Capture allowed Renou to document and precisely record the steps and choreography. Renou’s progressive vision in motion capturing Iourtchenko’s Russian Roma dancing is important to the dance community. Motion Capture 3D work allows dance, which is an intangible art form, to exist in a tangible manner. It uses technology to precisely document and record the steps, choreography and details of movement. Very few Roma dance styles had been motion captured at the time of writing this text. Another example is the EU-funded Horizon 2020 Wholodance Project (Whole-Body Interaction Learning for Dance Education), which captured Flamenco dancing and is also an important addition to the field.

Pétia Iourtchenko, Memory of an Old Gypsy

The work entitled Pétia Iourtchenko, Memory of an Old Gypsy (2015) exists in various forms: Mémoires d’un vieux Tzigane or Memories of an Old Gypsy is the stage show, written by Pétia Iourtchenko (external link). It is about the Samudaripen (Roma Holocaust), Roma dance, love and old age, and it is completely different to the film made by Simon Renou.

Renou was also a dancer in the staged performance and can be seen dancing a duet in the video titled ‘Duo d’amour’ with fellow dancer Cécile Joseph. Excerpts from this performance can be seen here.

The film Memory of an Old Gypsy conceived by Renou remains unfinished. It is influenced by Pétia Iourtchenko and his work. However, after Renou started interviewing him and working on the project and looking for financial support for the animated sequences, he concluded that the film was too ambitious. Instead, Renou decided to focus on the motion capture aspect of the work and the 3D modelling. The collection includes a pdf document, which gives more descriptive background on the choreography and the motion capture sequences of the film. Pétia Iourtchenko’s collection also features images of the staged performance of the work.

In summary, Renou and Iourtchenko came together to create, co-create, preserve, explore and honour Russian Roma dancing. The two are contributing to the ongoing legacy that is Russian Roma dance.