|DURHAM - You don't need to know about choreographer Olga Pona's background or contemporary Russian history to enjoy her programs at the American Dance Festival. Her energetic dancers grapple and collide in gritty, often humorous combinations that constantly fascinate and surprise.
But if you know about Pona's relative isolation in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk and her concerns over disillusionment in her country, you'll find even more to appreciate in her down-to-earth style.
Pona started the Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater in 1992 without any exposure to Western modern dance other than an ADF workshop she observed in Moscow. Her pieces, which first grew out of theater and folk dance, have always dealt with realistic subject matter, abstracted and heightened through movement and character.
"The Other Side of the River" takes its title from the symbolic divide between poor and rich, East and the West, life and death. Although the program notes characterize the piece as dark and lugubrious, it's actually rather playful and matter-of-fact, a reflection of Russian acceptance of life's inequalities and perils.
The first section has the nine dancers (six men, three women) "warming up" singly and in couples, employing awesome stretches, contortions and balances. Clad only in black shorts and shoes (with halter tops for the women), the dancers project resigned affirmation of their station -- so poor they don't have proper clothing, according to Pona's post-performance talk. Their wearily repetitive movements return again and again to the floor, as if the effort to stay upright is too much.
The scene suddenly changes to two men using prodigiously steaming irons on dressy clothing, which they eventually exchange for their own. Pona bases this section on the story of laundry workers in an expensive hotel in the 1960s who put on the fancy duds to see how it felt to be rich. The two men then seek out a prostitute, who humorously uncouples from each mid-motion to smoke a cigarette. Russian pop music from the 1960s adds an appropriately low-rent aura.
There are various other couplings, often gruff and violent. Along the way there are little bursts of carefree sailing on skateboardlike devices, and upbeat groupings of almost improvisatory gestures, but eventually it all leads back to the steaming irons and the men's own clothing. A final image of the men crumpling to the floor, the irons steaming away on their own, speaks to an inescapable fate.
The piece is only an hour long, and the dancers give their all in the constantly moving, high-energy choreography. Pona's style is eclectic, more concerned with sweaty reality than lyrical purity, but always attention-grabbing in a "what will they do next?" way.
The company is alternating performances of "The Other Side of the River" with a program that includes "Waiting" and "Nostalgia," which Pona created at the 2004 ADF as part of the International Choreographers Commissioning Program. Whichever program you see, you'll be immersed in Pona's intriguing but accessible dance visions.