Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Painted love


Ilkhom Theatre brings a Russian artist's obsession to the stage

A scene from Ilkhom Theatre's Ecstasy with a Pomegranate. Photo: Artur Konovalov
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The homoerotic paintings of Aleksandr Nikolaev may be hidden away in a Moscow museum, but their subjects come to life in Ilkhom Theatre's vibrant Ecstasy with a Pomegranate, playing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts May 15-17. With a colorful blend of drama, visuals, dance and music, the innovative theatre company, started in the 1970s in defiance of Soviet authority, continues its tradition of radical themes with artful production.

"The paintings are very beautiful, very erotic. That's what inspired us," said Maxim Tumenev, Ilkhom's Assistant to the Director, in a phone interview from Baltimore while taking a break along the company's two-month US tour, their longest yet.

What's the story behind this sensual hybrid theatre work that's been getting acclaim around the world? Ecstasy with a Pomegranate , titled after a painting by Nikolaev, tells several stories, mostly about one Russian soldier's introduction and obsession with the bacha boy dancers in Turkistan. As Islam spread to the region, women dancers were banned, and a homoerotic male dance-form evolved.

Nikolaev discovered these harems of boys when he was posted with the Russian military in Tashkent during the 1917 Communist revolution. Nikolaev adopted a pseudonym for his work and remained in the region, which became Uzbekistan as the Russian empire expanded. As the male-only aspects of Muslim culture in the region were forced into suppression or complete extinction, Nikolaev's paintings fell into obscurity.

Although the details of the painter's life seem to have been lost, the fanciful interpretation, performed in Russian and Uzbek with English subtitles, takes liberties with plot, while remaining rooted in the fragmented details about the Muslim and pre-Soviet culture clash of the time.

"It's not lost for us," said Tumenev. "What inspired us were the paintings." Tumenev did admit that "little is known about Nikolaev's personal biography. We get only things which were in pieces."

The paintings, stored in Moscow's Museum of Oriental Art, are not exhibited. "The museum is poor, and they need restoration," said Tumenev. Reproductions of the paintings are shown projected on screens throughout the performance, and re-enacted in many ways.

"Although we show the life of a painter, we don�t make a specific parallel between the life of Nikolaev and the main character in our performance," said Tumenev. "We don't say it's all about him. Some of the facts are used from historic documents. We talked to people who may have been related to the bacha boys."

The company was founded in 1976 as the first independent theatre company in Russia. Before then, every form of publicly shown art fell under government rule.

"From the beginning, the theatre was dedicated to creating unique and new work," said Tumenev. "We were prohibited from staging in theatres all over the Soviet Union, because it was contrary to the government ideology. Our first time performing in Russia was after Perestroika, when things became less controlled." The company first toured in 1988 to Socialist Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Scandinavia. In 1991, the company came to the US.

Ilkhom's work continues to befuddle traditionalists and conservatives, and anger extremists. Only eight months ago, Mark Weil, their founding artistic director, was murdered in an as-yet unsolved crime in Uzbekistan�s capital, Tashkent. Yet the company presses on by touring and creating innovative work.

A scene from Ilkhom Theatre's Ecstasy with a Pomegranate. Photo: Artur Konovalov
One of Aleksandr Nikolaev's "bacha boy" paintings. Photo: Courtesy Ilkhom Theatre Company

Dancing outside the frame

Credit Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Executive Director Kenneth Foster with alerting David Rousseve to Ilkhom's work. The former New Yorker, Guggenheim Fellow, and acclaimed choreographer has been a professor in Dance, World Arts and Cultures at UCLA for the past 12 years.

"I went to see them when they were in Los Angeles," said Rousseve. "They were looking for an American choreographer, and the project sounded so amazing, so I signed on right away. We were from very distant worlds, all the collaborators. But I craved that, a global work."

How could such historically provocative dancing be re-imagined with little documentation? "We had to try to find out what type of vocabulary in terms of the movement would fit the piece," said Rousseve, who looked into archives and photos, and "tried to work with the essence of more traditional work, and put it into the context of the sensual and somewhat jarring themes."

With projected imagery, including many of Nikolaev's paintings, the choreography, music, and text create a colorful fantasy of what may have happened during the shift from Muslim to "Russi-fied" cultures that dealt with male attraction in clashing ways.

"The themes of the piece are sort of bizarre," said Rousseve. "You have the bacha boys in pre-Soviet Russia, this Muslim tradition of geisha boys of a sort, and a painter who became enamored of the culture. The Russians got rid of the tradition, which was quite complicated," as is the dramatized version, with its multiple layers of stories.

So, were these mysterious "bacha boys" a sort of Muslim escort? Said Rousseve, "It's never mentioned that they were having sex, but some of them may have been. There was also certainly a tragic element to the practice. Some of the boys were sold by their parents. When you see the kind of effort to be effeminate with the movement and dress, it's clear that they're serving a purpose."

Despite his pleasure in collaborating on Ecstasy, Rousseve said he felt some of the tension around the company's environs, particularly in light of their founder's murder after the creation of Ecstasy.

"When I was there in Uzbekistan, I was really happy to be there, and fortunate to have done this collaboration," said Rousseve. "But it was certainly difficult to be there for six weeks. It's very difficult to be overtly political. Homosexuality is actually illegal, and here I am, this black queer. I wondered about my safety the entire time I was there.

"This company really pushed the limits, and seems to get away with it. They spoke out on issues of democracy, with a lot of queer themes in their work, and they're incredibly popular. People were lined up around the block to see an experimental theatre company, all different classes, ages. I just thought it was amazing. The content's really pushing limits."

Ecstasy With a Pomegranate, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., May 16-18, 8 p.m. $30-$35.

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