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FotoFest 2012
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The Arthropologist

Russian fever grips Houston: How FotoFest is changing the city

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Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, from the installation, The Fall of Empire, 1994-1997 Courtesy of the artist
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Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, Kazakstan Courtesy of the artist
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Gregory Maiofis, A Taste for Russian Ballet, 2006 Courtesy of the artist
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Houston Ballet artists Jun Shuang Huang and Katharine Precourt in Theme and Variation, choreographed by George Balanchine Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Marsha Drokova with Vladimir Putin Putin's Kiss: The Movie
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Anybody else have the urge to hole up with Dr. Zhivago with some blintzes and a shot of vodka? Or is it just me that has seen a fixation on Russia framing the FotoFest Biennial 2012

 It's been a terrific chance to take in the imagination of an entire region. FotoFest's theme of Contemporary Russian Photography, through April 29, is spread across Vine Street, Spring Street Studios, Winter Street Studios and Williams Tower (and more than 100 other spaces), and includes more than a 1,000 photographs from 147 artists.

But, my Russian season started with Stalin. Let me explain.

In a rare glimpse of the National Theatre, Sundance Cinema offered a screening of John Hodge's The Collaborators in January, staring Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin. The play, set in Moscow in 1938, tells the story of dissent writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who is commissioned to write a play about Stalin's youth, called Young Joseph, to celebrate Stalin's birthday.

Although Hodge's play is as funny as it is tragic, we do get the idea that it was a troubling time to be a writer during Stalinist Russia, which explains the still chilly images in After Stalin "The Thaw" The Re-emergence of the Personal Voice-The late 1950s-1970s at Williams Tower. It may be one of the smaller FotoFest shows, but it packs a wallop. It also may be the only place where, in all of the shows, you see a Russian smile, but mind you, it's a guarded one.

As a child of the cold war myself, the reign of Nikita Khrushchev brought with it another set of complexities that defined mid 20th-century international politics. 

By the time FotoFest opened I was in the mood big time, and ready to catch up with the flurry of artistic activity evident in The Young Generation 2007-2012 at Vine Street.

Setting us up for a deeper look into pre-revolutionary Russia were a stellar pair of Chekhov productions, Uncle Vanya at Classical Theatre Company in January — Chekhov's 1897 commentary on the wealthy Russian aristocracy — and The Seagull at The Alley Theatre in March, which chronicles the romantic lives of a group of actors and writers at a summer home.

Both plays give us Russia on the threshold of change.

Then, Main Street Theater (MST) took up the cause with Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, occupying MST's stages January through MarchStoppard's trilogy spans 1833-1866, and follows the lives of anarchist Michael Bakunin, literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, literary giant Ivan Turgenev and revolutionary thinker Alexander Herzen, four men who lived out their hopes and dreams for a different future for Russia under Tsar Nicholas. Impending turmoil has never been this poetic.

By the time FotoFest opened I was in the mood big time, and ready to catch up with the flurry of artistic activity evident in The Young Generation 2007-2012 at Vine Street. I had a refreshed sense of the history in their collective DNA. The emphasis on portraiture reveals an ever evolving sense of Russian idenity, the very theme that anchored the Stoppard plays.

I wasn't remotely surprised to see ballet making its way into FotoFest. For dance people, it's our Russian connection. Ballet may have not started in Russia, but they sure polished the art form up, and most of the classic story ballets had their start in Russia, surviving the revolution better than the other arts. Anna Skladmann's eerie series Little Adults, featuring portraits of children of the new wealthy class in opulent settings, places a young aristocratic boy holding a gun with a white tutu ballet scene in the background.

Gregory Maiofis' witty and surreal Taste for Russian Ballet, depicting a ballerina performing for a bear, was the very first image that struck me at Perestroika Liberalization and Experimentation - The mid/late 1980s-2010s Fotofest show at Spring and Winter Street Studios.

While I was there I visited with Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, whose luminous images of famous statues representing the various Russian republics resemble religious icons. When the couple created this series of painterly images, it was not a popular time to be looking backward. Yet, they evoke the shattered cultural identity that would follow.

Later that evening, Le Roi des Aulnes (The King of the Forest), a video by the Russian collective AES +F, stopped me in my tracks. Based on a mythological creature featured in a poem by Goethe and a novel by Michel Tournier, the video places 200 children from elite ballet and sports schools in Catherine II's opulent palace in a biting commentary on how children are exploited as corporate messengers.

Once you take in the three exhibits that make up Contemporary Russian Photography, head on over to Debra Colton Gallery for Focus on Russia I, Olga Tobreluts and Focus on Russia II, Oleg Dou. Both shows run through April 28. 

I plan to wrap up my FotoFest adventure at the the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with a set of Russian films, including the 1929 classic silent film, Man with a Camera, a marvel of early cinematic editing (showing Sunday at 3 p.m. and 5. p.m.); Lise Birk Pedersen's Putin's Kiss, winner of a cinematography award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, on April 22 at 3 p.m.; and  Cyril Tuschi's Khodorkovsky, an indictment of the Russian political and judicial system, on April 22 at 5 p. m.

Dance's Turn

As FotoFest packs up its global tent, Houston Ballet takes up the cause with a string of ballets giving another glimpse of mother Russia. Don't let the title of Made in America (May 24 through June 3), fool you. The program features Balanchine's Theme and Variations, his tribute to Imperial Russia, set to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G major, Op. 55 (1884). The Russian choreographer may have defined modernism in American ballet, yet he often turned to Russian themes and composers. 

Miller Outdoor Theatre presents the Houston Ballet's production of Giselle May 11 through 13. Giselle premiered in Paris in 1841, but it's the 1884 Russian version that gave this ballet its legs. Houston Ballet's production was set by Russian legendary ballerina Ai-Gul Gaisina, lending a glorious Vagnova style.

Houston's Russian season concludes with Houston Ballet's production of Ben Stevenson's Romeo & Juliet, with one of the most powerful ballet scores in history by Sergei Prokofiev, created in 1940 under Stalin's reign of fear. 

The month is still relatively young and there's still time to take much of this in. I just returned from my second pass through at Vine Street, which was considerably different without the 4,000 photo lovers who showed up at the opening.

I plan to return to the other locations as well, soaking up mother Russia one image at a time. I suggest you do the same.

AES+F - Le Roi des Aulnes (The King of the Forest)

Let Prokofiev and Houston Ballet sweep you off your feet with Romeo & Juliet

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