Courtesy of The Arts Council, the British Council and the EU Step Beyond Fund, Felix and Josh (along with Dan and Alex also of RIFT) spent the last ten days in Russia developing ideas for a collaboration with Russian company Le Cirque De Charles Le Tannes. Felix and Josh were hosted by company members Sasha, Yuri and Misha and split their time in Russia between Suzdal and Moscow. We spent this time developing ideas and fact-finding about a piece they want to create in Russia in collaboration with Le Cirque called ‘Palace of Youth’. Felix continues the story with this, the first in a series of two blog pieces outlining their trip.
We were met off the intimidatingly rusty train in Moscow by Sasha our erstwhile guide. Shades of Eastern Europe and Albania echoed through the architecture and gave clues to this country which we grew to become increasingly curious about; the culture, ideas and ambitions not entirely dissimilar to our own but refracted from what we expected.
Driving through the wide Moscow streets, the Cyrillic alphabet, bombastic architecture set the tone for the rest of the trip. We arrived at the small flat that was used as Sasha's company Playtronica's office. Sparsely decorated, fronted by a steel double door, a couple of mattresses were strewn on the floor along with piles of electronic equipment and a board adorned with post it notes setting out a plan for that company which extended their reach far west.
We left he flat quickly and skipping over torn up pavement, which we would later learn was a renovation across the city for which Sasha's Playtronica mate Andrea was responsible. We walked down the garden ring (a circular road lined with trees) to Hermitage Gardens. A large outdoor bar spilled onto manicured lawns. We ordered mackerel sandwiches and beers and sunk into the balmy Moscow evening. Later we met Aglaya, Sasha's girlfriend at an art exhibition and made our way to a small bar in a converted motorcycle repair shop. Next door a sparse wine bar accessible only by RFID card.
Conversation lurched from graphic design to London's cultural dominance, the rise of craft breweries and the performance which was staged in London. Sasha and Aglaya knew many of the people crowded into the car park, in the wine bar Aglaya showed us some hand drawn wavy lines which later appeared on banknotes and tattooed onto her arm.
Returning home, a hot night on the sofa, at 3am a loud banging continued for hours. Andre, the owner of the flat had been locked out after filming in Siberia. Our first Russian faux pas.
The next morning, a walk, then a coffee and a chat with Andre about his time at Bristol University and working for the BBC as a fixer, at the design institute that was digging up the roads, Strelka, and now freelance for Sasha's music project Playtronica. Despite not quite being able to read the Russian character we think he forgave us for the hour that he spent banging on the door of his own flat.
Later that day, we set off to Suzdal, a small town 8 hours away from Moscow. Piling into Sasha's car we steamed out of Moscow past monuments and listening to esoteric jazz, we stopped briefly chocolate once, but eventfully made it to a large house in a small town complete with Russia's oldest Kremlin and many onion dome churches.
We settled into the house quickly, welcomed warmly by Lena and Vladimir, her sister and family. We were constantly given food and a place to stay above the winter fire complete with babushka doll. The town, geared up for tourists, was filled with souvenir shops, a large parade of souvenir tents and cafes. The biggest influence on the town was the eight or ten churches which flanked a beautiful river. We swam many times in the river which ran through it's hear and undoubtably was just as attractive to visiting nobles and clergymen when the city was first founded as it was for us in 2016. As darkness descended Yuri texted Sasha telling him that the performance would start at midnight, we made our way to the site of the house, a commune in the middle of nowhere next to a fishing lake where Андри Попов had his base.
Inherited from a russian landowner who had no need for it the several adhoc buildings, an outdoor kitchen and two houses the floors filled with sleeping bags, matts, children with no parents scuttled around our knees accompanied by kittens all scorched by the sun. Andrei Popov placed himself at the centre of proceedings greeting us abruptly; bronzed. Most furniture was refashioned from benches which we were told by the family we were staying with was produced by Popov for the streets of Moscow. Benches with paintings splashed on them. That sold for hundreds, here they’d been repurposed the kitchen tables, beds, walls. We spent hours here lying around blending in with the itinerant artists and students who poured through the house, waiting expectantly for some kind of purpose.
Returning to Suzdal, the family gathered us for a meal of soup, black-bread and fish, conversation was sped along stilted but jovial. After a brief respite we were joined by another family and Vladimir began to prepare another dinner: a barbecue. Was the other dinner a pre-dinner? How many meals a day do Russians eat? We sat around with plastic plates drinking wine out of disposable glasses which were later washed, without warning, the family who didn't speak much English broke into song. Looking at Sasha, had the performance begun? Was this all for us? Was this some kind of test an experiment? Our glasses were charged with honey cognac and the singing, a traditional set of drinking songs in A minor key continued. After dinner we learned this family toured the 86 cities in the UK.
We waited around until we were summoned to an anonymous meeting place next to what looks like an old train station. We drove deep into the night, and gathered, like the beginning of a happening. A large van arrived the anonymous mass of girls poured out, heartily waiting and then hiking into the night.
We gathered at the bottom of a valley, all clutching a small wax candle, similar to one you might light in a cathedral. The flame bestowed on us by Andrei Popov, the gathered to watch a girl wearing white sing, she sang and we looked at the crowd bathed in a soft balmy light. Eventually she made her way down to a beach, now exposed by our shared light, the fragile image shattered by Andrei and assorted teenage helpers gathering a canoe which the singing figure occupied a huge flame billowed and as she sang she disappeared the soft light of the Flames eclipsed by the far away beams of passing cars. Expectation peaked. What was next? Andrei Popov explained the piece in Russian, we were in the shadow of the second church in Russia. We walked back to the car, everyone looked around, we were joined by Yuri's friend, who we were introduced to as the choreographer, Yuri urged us to be quiet as his children were sleeping in the car. The woman's face was frantic, and her eyes wide.
We got back in the car after waiting, returning to the house we agreed to stay awake until the next instalment, due for 3am. We sat with Lena slumped on the table. We soon abandoned returning.
In the morning, a scene was set for 7am, we strolled around the town again, at midday making our way to the house. We set off again. This time gathering at a corn field and gathering an adolescent couple as hitchhikers. Many photographers documented every moment. We stole through the corn. Directed by Yuri we sat on the sharp ends of sythed corn, loud electronic music started. Women in the image of soviet realist paintings started flailing and then gathered corn. We watched. Photographers snapped.
Getting back in the car, we wobbled through fields, chased other cars, observed sets falling off vans, one of the hitchhikers started groping his teenage girlfriend. She pushed his hand away firmly.
We rode along the large empty roads as the stark landscaped peeled out in front of us, a black Nissan pulled up next to us, Yuri, many women in the back seat, including the choreographer. He blasting out rap and nodding along, we mimed shooting each other as he sped ahead blindly overtaking the two vans in front. Suddenly everyone was gone.
We stalked through small villages trying to trace Andrei Popov and his hotchpotch crew. We wobbled up and down fields, the scrape of the ground against the chassis of the car, we made our way down to the river, a local swimming spot on the opposite side. A call to Yuri, his 4x4 kicking up dirt as it overtook us again making our way to the wrong place. When we found where everyone had stripped down to underwear or swimming costumes and were standing nonchalantly around waiting. Eventually, almost without instruction, and after throwing all our possessions into the back of the car we lurched down a sandbank into the brown river surging by next to us.
Forty or fifty people including the family we were staying with and all the actors trod water, waiting. The water a relief from the temperatures which would later cause some heat stroke. Some splashed each other, others began gently paddling. Loosened from possession and identity, we became a mass. A long way from home I thought, deep in an alien country but levelled with creativity and curiosity. The current surged and many just floated, people with red hats, people calm, people religious, people flirting and splashing. The sons of the the family we stayed with asserting their macho template while Andrei Popov surveyed. Behind us four actors sang, their muscovite hair cuts the only thing separating them from the generations who had also swum here. As we drifted the women we were staying with also started singing, a surreal bi focal soundtrack. As we approached the bank Andrei Popov knelt in the water greeting the audience members as we left.
On the shore, Sasha and Yuri were gone. Lying on the sharp ground shoots of corn dug into my back. Later boards of wood were pulled out and the benches formed a platform for fruit which Sasha calmly played providing a needed injection of energy and spontaneity to a lagging non event.
This was accompanied by a indulgent performance: groups of couples spiralled, swirled, shoaled and mirrored clad in white. A descenting man in blue shorts expressed his personality through throwing grass in the faces of his companions.
As Sasha played a woman began pawing the ground, he limbs becoming raw against the sharp earth. We tried to talk to her and then she walked off into the middle of the bare scorched field. I have Yuri some water to give to her, he response unexpectantly blissful. She wasn't identified and it was clear where she came from or went.
We clambered back into the car this time joined by two performers. Neither students. One without pants and one in a footwell. We stopped for a drink at a small shop disguised as a house. The shop filled with drinks and a bottle of coke only cost 43p.
Back to the house. Emptier. Children playing with kittens. Alcohol and drugs forbidden. Smoking weed out the front. Rows of chairs in a field. A fire. This was when Sasha made his balloons. Helped by a Portuguese anarchist who smelled strongly of stale sweat and sculler around after us for the next portion of the evening with a disregard for the performance.
More people gathered, Andrei entertained glamorous men and glamorous wives who had arrived in sports cars. Holding court. More people trickled in, a note of exasperation, we formed a chain to pile bricks on the back of a truck. We travelled again to field. This time we were greeted by a naked boy smeared in clay.
The boy was a gate keeper to Yuri's performance we trapped across the field. Many more people wearing only clay. Their nudity nothing, the art primarily and sharply coming into focus as we wrapped ribbons around their necks, Yuri stood in the centre directing.
A PA system assembled. Sasha wanted to return to the house to finish balloons, the sun began to set. The roads had a different identity in the dark, we saw local people gathering on the side of the road with vodka and firecrackers. Shouting after the cars, too fancy, too disruptive. Couples met next to the town hall, in a town with one shop. Teenagers with boxer braids. Blonde Boys with angry looks in their eyes. We got back to the house, picked up the Portuguese anarchist and the helium and made our way back, our route obscured. As we arrived back the performance had finished and the group around it melted back towards the cars. More milling ensued. We ate some crisps. We waited for a while on the bridge with some of the performers considering whether to drive 30km to another stop. We decided to have dinner. Portuguese anarchist still in tow, along with other stragglers who thought we knew where we were going. We went to a Bavarian style chalet, out of place on a b-road deep in the mass of Russian countryside. Two people were outside smoking. Going inside it was completely empty aside from a granny mannequin sitting next to a computer playing the worse kind of euro techno.
We sat, a mild tension passed over the conversation, should we eat or seek out more performance which wasn't made for us or even for anyone to see. In search of meaning. A spectacle to bring people together. To be seen. After eating a pot of meat and potatoes smothered in dill and mayo. We returned to the river to help to assemble clay ovens in the pitch black, then choosing to return home instead of smoking with Yuri and co at the commune. We stole past a bonfire on our way back to bed as Babushka's flew through the air.
Waking up in the morning Yuri had prepared a meeting with a local Buisness man and Andrei Popov. We ate with the family, who showed us their extensive ceramic creations and then we went to the town to eat. We left after meeting a sausage magnate, seeing Yuri and talking about Rasputin. We set off for Vladimir, a town close. It was so hot we shelter in a bank for air conditioning. Having lunch in a gold lined restaurant Moscow beckoned.