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© Magnus Joenck/Courtesy of Boris B. Bertram

Dancing in time to the Geiger counter

by Kimberly O’Haver at 27/01/2011 20:21

Creating and displaying art under less than optimum conditions seems to be something that Russian artists do with great skill and aplomb. I recall one memorable experience a few years ago on a cold January evening when I attended a performance of contemporary dance at a Moscow theater that was under repair and strangely missing a wall. All that separated the audience and stage from the elements was an enormous plastic tarp somehow suspended from ceiling to floor on stage right. Yet, the dancers, who were surely freezing, performed seamlessly and the audience, bundled up in winter coats and hats, took the experience in its stride, watching intently to see the newest, most exciting choreography on Russia’s thriving contemporary dance scene.

While performing under harsh circumstances for one evening is an accomplishment, creating world-class dance in a region dubbed the “blackest spot on Earth” is a triumph of human will over adversity. It is just this triumph that Danish film-maker Boris Bertram shows in “Tankograd”, an award-winning 2009 documentary about the dancers of the Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theatre, led by Olga Pona.

The film was awarded the Best Full Length Documentary at the ArtDocFest Film Festival in Moscow in December 2010 for showing how a troupe of talented dancers live and dance in a region that suffers from the results of at least three Soviet-era nuclear disasters. Over the past 50 years, the weapons- and tank-producing Chelyabinsk region was the scene of a nuclear explosion and the dumping of radioactive waste into a local lake and the Techa River. The cause of the contamination is the Mayak nuclear weapons complex, which produced plutonium for the Soviet military-industrial complex and was a restricted zone and closed scientific city during Soviet times. The level of radioactive contamination in the region is difficult to pinpoint since official figures are closely guarded, but the cumulative damage is thought to surpass that of the Chernobyl incident by up to 20 times. As a result, a public health disaster has engulfed the region to the point that medical professionals claim that no healthy babies are being born in Chelyabinsk.

Bertram didn’t set out to make a film about dance or nuclear contamination, but to tell a strong story. “I like the idea of making films like literature, with several layers and complex stories, as in real life. You have love, dance and politics in one mix. You zoom in to where it’s very intimate and you zoom out to the macro prospective,” said Bertram. The film’s opening music mimics the clicks of a Geiger counter, which in turn mimics a dancer’s pulse as she moves across space. The effect is idiosyncratic, connecting the personal with the larger environment.

Bertram, who does not speak Russian despite having a grandmother from Yekaterinburg, gives viewers a portrait of modern Russia free from the glitz of Moscow through the eyes of dancers, who “cope” with the complexities of life in the contaminated city through artistic expression.

A non-expert in dance, Bertram learned to “dance” alongside his subjects while filming. He displays a sort of choreography with the video camera that lends certain heaviness to the film even as the young dancers get excited about opening nights. But he also shows how they deal with their own health issues and make decisions about life and love. They talk openly about living in the most radioactively contaminated place on earth, about the lack of green grass, but the appearance of mutant flowers and about rumors that only mutants live in formerly closed cities. Masha, a beautiful dancer on whom Bertram focuses, ominously coughs between rehearsal sequences, while Pona wishes her to rest and recover. After rehearsal hours a young male dancer talks with sheepish grins about how to properly propose to his girlfriend.

Despite the toll that the contamination has taken on Chelyabinsk and the health of its inhabitants, Tankograd shows a bustling urban center where the dancers wake up and pull themselves out of bed to trudge to morning rehearsals. The female dancers primp backstage at a nightclub where they perform for extra cash. One young male dancer candidly tells the camera: “We dance in this shit. We meet. We make love. Our girls give birth in this shit. Our lives go on.” And they keep living and moving and dancing in spite of the eerie orange horizons, the still-functioning cooling towers on the skyline and the nuclear waste arriving from former Soviet satellite states for storage.

**Information about screenings of Tankograd in Moscow and beyond can be found at www.tankogradmovie.com

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