On 28 March, Ruslan Stepanov and Artjom Astrov’s play-performance “Performance @STL” on the position of victimhood at Sõltumatu Tantsu Lava was an experience — everyone was on stage, even the audience, as at times the audience was more on the stage than the dancers-performers.
In the middle and edge of the space, there are boats that are covered in rugs that we step on. We position ourselves where we feel most comfortable. Sometimes we get out of the boats and sit on the floor, the empty space. Sometimes we step closer to the performers to get a better view. Sometimes we step back so we wouldn’t be in the way. The extent of being part of the performance depends on the audience’s level of curiosity, courage, and will to change their position. Interestingly, because the areas covered in rugs were literally higher and closer than the dancing space allocated to the dancers, then, of course, you had to change your position for a better view. Not everyone could see the performance entirely because some dance steps always remained behind an elevation or in the kitchen that was built under the elevation. This was a separate playground and reminiscent of a more realistic theatre.
Like in life, we need to change our position to gain more information about the situation we are at. To change our perspective in life we need to use empathy, which is the skill of putting yourself in another’s situation instead of physically moving from one place to another. This also requires courage, curiosity and the will to change your position. What takes place between the performers is a similar means of giving a voice to someone – to one, another, third, fourth. According to where they stand or who they become in that moment, the performers choose their words and their movements. Though most often the performers aim to be someone, who they already are by their first name. Kai, Annemai, Raido, Oliver, Artjom, Ruslan.
In the current political climate, the imagery of the uncensored kitchen especially stands out. And it feels like I have accidentally found myself in Sergei Dovlatov’s Soviet Russia or Estonia, where the intellectuals are safest in their kitchens and not in fancy restaurants or cafes or bars, where speaking freely can lead to jail. For some reason, Artjom Astrov reminds me of Isaac Babel and the tiny kitchen in the corner of the stage Aleksey German Jr.’s movie “Dovlatov” (2017). This movie with its endless and funny journeys ends up in censorship and in a situation, where people (long ago those people were women, but now journalists can end up in the same place) cannot speak or write anywhere else but the kitchen. That is, they literally change their physical position like we do when we watch the performance. Let’s hope we don’t end up in that situation. That we won’t find ourselves in the corner of a kitchen cursing the government and being afraid of someone overhearing the conversation outside of it. That is why you should be courageous and curious and take on someone else’s position, and just for a moment push them out of their position, to get a better understanding of what is happening around us.
Towards the end of the performance, the imagery of the kitchen is amplified by the conversation that engages the public. We find out that Kaja Kann, Mart Kangro and some others, who are directly connected to dance are also there. For example, I consider myself to be an honest by-stander and volunteer. I am unnoticeable. You cannot notice everyone involved in the performance. And yet you get a feeling of being outside of the game. Which game precisely, I don’t know. But I suppose that is the piece of the pie that is described in the programme leaflet: “Victim mentality as a means to assert oneself in this world. The group of performers with different life and stage experiences as well as nationalities is astonished and asks: when will the world hand me the piece of the pie that is rightfully mine?” As if by accident I have found myself in someone’s kitchen talking about their important matters. Without knowing what to say. And I am not even being involved in the conversation.
In some way the performance is an homage to Estonian dance. A reference to something that once was, but that continues and changes in the hands of Ruslan Stepanov. Similar to Henri Hütt’s and Mihkel Ilus’ performance “Caprices II”, which was a serenade to Kanuti Gild SAAL. Ruslan Stepanov takes a bow to Estonian dance and includes various dancers from different generations in his kitchen. And this is exactly what is needed — a feeling that once there was something and once something will come after. Not a white ship with promises of a better future, but the knowledge of changing positions. And attentiveness towards something that once was in order to get a better understanding of something that could come after.
Header photo: Lee Kelomees