When most people think of the Russian dance scene, it’s the country’s top ballet companies that spring to mind, with their unique history, distinctive aesthetics and exquisite performances. Rarely does one think of the Russian contemporary dance scene first, and there just aren’t many opportunities to see the work of the Russian artists that are making waves in contemporary choreography. Maybe I have just not been in the right place at the right time, and I’ve both missed it, and missed out. That is until now and the first UK showcase of Context Festival, a platform founded by Diana Vishneva (principal dancer of the Mariinsky Theatre and guest soloist with the Bolshoi Theatre) as a place for artistic exchange and international exposure. For its inaugural Sadler’s Wells edition, Context brings together some of Russia’s most promising and up-and-coming choreographers. With five short pieces in the first act, and two more complex works in the latter half, it’s a packed programme, yet, impressively, not one foot was set wrong anywhere.

Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva in Bigonzetti's Vertigo
© Daniil Golovkin

A common thread seems to weave through the first four works (Still-Life by Konstantin Krikhel, Light in November by Pavel Glukhov, The Room by Olga Vasilyeva and Wood Rabbit, a co-creation by dancers Dor Mamalia, Dariusz Nowak and Vladimir Varnava), and this thread is assembled from the finest and rarest of terpsichorean silks: the movements are strong, but incredibly light, the interpretations sheer and delicate, and all four pieces share a distinctive finesse that comes from the artists looking introspectively for meaningful expression, without ever making the dancing about themselves, but rather about the art itself. Finely tuned, classically trained limbs and patterns meet floor-bound explorations in these four successful propositions. Glukhov’s Light in November struck in its treatment of the male-and-male pas de deux, strong, multidimensional, soft and caring, but never camp. An exploration of what seemed like a huis clos (delimited by effective use of lighting and a somewhat unwieldy prop) Light in November’s success laid as much in the choreography as it did in the great interpretations of the duo (Yuri Chulkov and Pavel Glukhov himself). Olga Vasilyeva’s The Room was equally compelling in its treatment of relationships, and shapes, and the choreographer-dancer’s language (she also performs the only female role of the four-people cast), a great blend of sweet narrative steps and intelligent dance theatre, is certainly one to watch.

Olga Vassilieva's The Room
© Elena Lekhova

Diana Vishneva and long-term partner Marcelo Gomez (himself a leading star in today’s international ballet elite) closed the first act with a stunning interpretation of Mauro Bigonzetti’s Vertigo. Adapted from his Casimir Paints (originally created for Vishneva and Vladimir Malakhov) Vertigo is a made-to-measure vernacular for the two dancers, whose complementarity and complicity gradually develops into true symbiosis.

Ekaterina Shipulina in Nureyev
© Damir Yusupov
The second act has different dynamics. We are treated to Letter to Rudi, The Pupil and Letter to Rudy. Diva, excerpts from the ballet Nureyev (directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, with choreography by Yuri Possokhov) which premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in December 2017. Performed by two of the Bolshoi’s finest, Denis Savin and Shipulina Ekaterina, the dances in memory of the prodigious dancer are performed whilst a narrator reads out (in Russian) four letters addressed by fellow artists and close colleagues to Nureyev: Laurent Hilaire and Charles Jude (both dancers of the Paris Opera in Nureyev’s era, Alla Osipenko (his dance partner) and Natalia Makarova (a fellow great Russian dancer who also stayed in the West after a London tour). Goyo Montero’s Asundar, an ensemble piece for 17 dancers performed by the Perm Opera and Ballet is a great follower to this reflective excerpt of the Nureyev Ballet though it brings contrast with its vigorous energy. 

With Context, Vishneva has mastered quite a tour de force: under the umbrella of her organisation, she nurtures the talent of emerging artists and offers them opportunities for development and exposure, and also brings important Russian works to audiences around the world. Her programme for this edition was perfectly balanced, interesting, dynamic and thought provoking, and speaks at length of her curating talent.