The Theatre of Boris Yukhananov
Vadim Rutkovsky | Vestnik Evropy | 13 June 2020Original

Boris Yukhananov is one of the most significant theatre directors of our time. Major European directors stage their work at Yukhananov's Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. The premiere of one of Yukhananov's own early works, The Observer, took place in 1988 in West Berlin at the Berliner Festspiele. Another of his important works, The Minor, based on a play by Denis Fonvizin and a performance of it mounted in 1911, was performed in 1999 at the Russian Drama Theatre of Vilnius. In recent years, however, Yukhananov has mounted just one international project – the political opera Octavia. Trepanation, staged jointly with the Holland Festival in 2017 on the large stage of the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam. Of what consists Yukhananov's uniqueness and greatness, and why is it so hard to export his art?

One must live in Moscow in order truly to understand Yukhananov’s theatre. Or one must come here – though not for just a few days, greedily hoping to consume the maximum number of important productions in the shortest possible time. It is insufficient to view those rare works by Yukhananov that are not susceptible to metamorphoses (such as Octavia or the unprecedented opera cycle Drillalians, based on the eponymous novel, with music written by modern composers who pass the baton of work to each other segment by segment). Yukhananov declares his work the art of new-processualism. This concept implies the potential of endless development, i.e., a work that is not fully completed and fixed at the time of the official premiere.The point is not that many of Yukhananov’s performances last for hours on end and are performed for several days – like the The Blue Bird, which runs for three evenings, or Orphic Games, which enthralls audiences for almost a week. And it’s not that, no matter how careful the structure, an actor’s improvisation is always allowed in it – which is why, therefore, there cannot be two identical performances of Pinocchio (the name of Yukhananov's grandiose diptych released in the fall of 2019). The point is the director’s interaction with time and life: in any other theatre, whether archaic, conservative, or radically innovative, the bet is always on the final result, while Yukhananov cancels the very concept of ending. The result is a process, a magical movement, the existence of a performance in an eternal space that takes on both the lives of the creators and the lives of the audience. What is done and manifested is as important as what is not yet embodied; a form fixed forever is impossible.

Yukhananov can practically turn anything into art, even the years that for most people would have crossed out much of their lives. In the late 1970s, after graduating from the Voronezh Institute of Arts (where he received a diploma as a theatre and film actor), he joined the army. It was a senseless traumatic experience, but Yukhananov turned his hated service into excellent prose – a funny, impetuous, melancholy and furious novel titled The Instantaneous Notes of a Sentimental Soldier. After the army, Yukhananov wanted to leave the country for “somewhere in America,” but instead of emigrating he entered a unique course at GITIS in 1982 – to study with Anatoly Vasilyev and Anatoly Efros. His years of studying and his relationships with his masters are the topic of another big novel; many chapters from this stage of Yukhananov’s life are described in the book, From Theatre Theatre to The Garden. The title of the collection, published as part of the Theatre and its Diary project initiated by Yukhananov, not only draws the trajectory of his early years in the profession, but also describes two of Yukhananov’s key creations, essentially two living organisms – Theatre Theatre, possibly the first independent theatre collective in the USSR, founded in 1986 with the premiere of The Misanthrope, which was performed not on a stage, but in a courtyard on the Arbat; and the Garden project, inspired by Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, a strange, fragile utopian world, into which Yukhananov retired in the 1990s. The Garden existed in eight regenerations, the sites of which included a cottage in the village of Kratovo, an art gallery built by Anatoly Vasilyev's School of Dramatic Art, and the newborn experimental Meyerhold Center. The final, eighth regeneration of The Garden was performed there in 2001 as part of the Theatre Olympiad. One might regard this as a recognition of the avant-garde director by the theatre establishment. But Yukhananov has always, both in the years of his almost guerrilla theatrical events, and today, as he heads a highly respectable institution, remained outside of all groups and communities. He is special and he stands apart, not subject to the influences of others. He maintains his distance and his independence, including from politics and the powers-that-be. One fact of his biography speaks volumes: During the coup of 1991 Boris took up position behind his own “barricades” – in a basement rehearsal room. The video, shot in those August days, became the basis of the film Genre by his student Klim Kozinsky. It was screened at the DocLisboa festival in 2017.

His Theatre Theatre of the 1980s was a revolutionary theatre that for the first time demonstrated the possibility of productions evolving over long periods of time. Today, when one reads about Monrepos, Park, Ha-Ha-Funerals, and Labyrinth, and as one peruses the surviving video documents of those projects, one wonders how Yukhananov anticipated modern theatre trends so clearly. His immersive theatre existed long before the British invented Punchdrunk, while postdramatic theatre behind the Iron Curtain was no less paradoxical and powerful than in Europe. In 1988, in the era of Theatre Theatre, Yukhananov, along with directors of the parallel cinema movement the Aleinikov brothers, critic Olga Khrustalyova, choreographer Andrei Kuznetsov-Vecheslov, and designer Yuri Kharikov founded the Studio of Individual Directing (MIR, the sixth course of which is currently active). One might call it a school in the old-fashioned sense, but the definition of a “universal self-developing structure” is more appealing. Instead of the usual education system, it is a practice that creates universal directors who are able to generate their own worlds in any visual field – theatre, cinema, and television. Yukhananov occupies territory far from the mainstream, but, no matter how paradoxical it may seem, without him Russia would not have had its central entertainment television channel, TNT. It was created by his comrades and students. It is appropriate to say here that video art, of which Yukhananov was a pioneer in the 1980s, occupies a place no less important than theatre in his biography. You can find several episodes of the video The Mad Prince on the internet. A notable event of 2017 was the premiere of Yukhananov's film Nazidanie at the Locarno Film Festival, the House of Independent Cinema. Nazidanie exists on a borderline with video art. It is a collage of television broadcasts of soccer matches, television news and television sketches, accompanied by a huge narrative text delivered by the director himself. The starting point is the clash between Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi in the finale of the 2006 World Cup. Sports stars are the genuine superheroes of our time; their conflict becomes an occasion for an ancient detective story. Studying the peculiarities of Zidane's and Materazzi's lives and careers, Nazidanie approaches the mechanisms by which higher forces play with people. Such an interweaving of mysticism and practicality, mythology and pop culture, are possible only with BeYu (BeYu is what those who work with Boris Yuryevich often call him).

It is impossible to mention everything Yukhananov did before the Electrotheatre, even in a brief listing. Among his main projects were an evolutionary Faust; a socio-cultural experiment called Downs Comment on the World, with the participation of people with Down syndrome; and The Tale of an Upright Man, produced by the Laboratory of Angelic Directing. Only in 2013 did Yukhananov finally receive his own theatre, the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. It opened for the public in January 2015 with the premiere of The Bacchae, staged by Greek master Theodoros Terzopoulos. This was not a theatre built from scratch – it was preceded for many years by the Stanislavsky Drama Theatre, not one of the most advanced in Moscow, but not one of the worst, either. In it, in the late 1970s, Anatoly Vasilyev staged his legendary performances of Vassa Zheleznova: 1st Version, and A Young Man's Grown-up Daughter. But in the first decade of the new millennium, the theatre could not boast of anything on this level. Artistic directors were replaced with painful frequency, there was no meaningful repertoire policy, and the most popular performance was a tabloid farce, Masculine: Singular. Just five years have passed, and the memories of the times when this space was a common (if not ordinary) repertoire theatre seem like fairy tale. The name is explained simply – in the early 20th century the Ars cinema, or rather, cinema palace or, if you will, “electrotheatre,” was located at this address. Yukhananov retained the old theatre's entire company, all of whom accepted his innovations with enviable enthusiasm, but he radically transformed the space. The building underwent a thorough reconstruction, the hall changing from a classic Italian box into a transformer capable of being changed beyond recognition by any director’s will. In The Bacchae, for example, an amphitheatre slants down to the stage square; there are no armchairs in Romeo Castellucci’s The Human Use of Human Beings, where the action alternately moves from one space to another. In the climactic episode, the audience sits on the floor. In the summer there are performances in the Electrotheatre Yard. It was here that Yukhananov served up his Galileo, an Opera for Violin and Scientist, where instead of arias, the audience listens to a prose monologue comprised of Galileo's writings, and performed by the physicist Grigory Amosov. BeYu turns science and philosophy into art with the same virtuosity as he transformed the onerous everyday life of the army into a novel.

One can build a theatre in different ways; many demiurge directors are not inclined to let other directors work in their space. But Yukhananov is the opposite of a dictator: he opened the Electrotheatre with a work staged by Theodoros Terzopoulos, who was invited specifically for that purpose. Furthermore, the Electrotheatre's marquee includes Castellucci and Heiner Goebbels (who staged Max Black, or, 62 Ways of Supporting the Head with a Hand), directors whose names stand next to those of debutants, graduates of MIR who were educated in The Golden Ass project. The Golden Ass is also one of Yukhananov's own most mutable performances, one created in an “open-circuited workspace” that reveals the inside of the production process to the audience. This five-day session of total theatre is a multi-hour reflection on its own nature, a dialogue that leaps into infinity. To put it simply, a single Golden Ass cycle consists of two performances, daytime and evening, each lasting about four hours. The whole project is based on the text of Apuleius. In the afternoon we see sketches, so-called “modules,” created by MIR students with Electrotheatre actors. Yukhananov comments on them, playing the role of the goddess Isis (and, in part, himself, sometimes a kind or an angry judge). Modules may be included in evening compositions – ready-made works that resemble “normal” performances with set decorations and an established lighting design. The meaning seems obvious, Yukhananov exposes the mechanism of creation: first the rehearsal process, then the finished work. But in fact, everything here – from the modules to Yukhananov himself – begins to live its own life, unpredictable and, ultimately, uncontrollable. People here do not perform theatre, it's the other way around.

The next step toward the open-circuited workspace was the six-day colossus, Orphic Games, a single stream of 12 performances, “punk-macramé” (as the subtitle claims), the collective weaving of a whimsical mythological pattern acted out by 100 performers, all of them participants in the MIR-5 program. Yukhananov stitched together a cascade of original sketches created by student directors based on the plays Orpheus by Jean Cocteau, and Eurydice by Jean Anouilh. The modules in Orphic Games, the “open space of myth,” are transformed into completed performances, but inside them the myth undergoes endless transformations. A portal is thus formed into another reality, through which one can escape daily life by committing to watch all six Orphic days and nights. For those who stop in for shorter periods, they might see a fantasy based on Anouilh/Cocteau and played in fantastically beautiful environments. If you stay for the entire playing time, you become a citizen of another world, you receive the opportunity to live countless lives and experience everything from delight to madness.

Strictly speaking, the Electrotheatre is not merely a theatre. More precisely, it is a place where everything becomes part of all-embracing action. Productions performed in repertoire, and one-off experimental performances (any experiment is worthy of being shown to a viewer – you can only envy the students of MIR) are only part of what takes place at the Electrotheatre. Its doors, by the way, are open almost 'round the clock, and the lobby can be both a place for contemporary art expositions, and for outsiders to come in and hold meetings. In the universe built by Yukhananov, lectures, concerts, master classes and film screenings do not stop. This space, in 2017, in the presence of Jean-Pierre Léaud, hosted the Russian premiere of Jacques Rivette's epic film, Out 1 (1971), a European masterpiece lasting 12 hours, and 53 minutes. I recall this event, not only because of its uniqueness (all such shows are rare), but also because of the unexpected inner kinship of the authorial methods of Rivette and Yukhananov. Rivette said that by the start of filming, the traditional way of working in cinema – to come up with a good story, compose a script, assemble a team, and make a film – only bored him. Out 1 allowed him to destroy all control over the plan and truly to set off free sailing. The film's heroes are members of theatre troupes who rehearse Aeschylus’s tragedies Seven against Thebes and Prometheus Bound. The goal of the actors working on Prometheus is not a specific performance, but rather non-stop training leading to an understanding of oneself and the world. There can be no end point in this approach, unless you consider death. But that is canceled out in Yukhananov’s productions.

Pinocchio, based on a mystery play by contemporary author Andrei Vishnevsky, takes only its basic idea from Collodi's fairy tale. This is perhaps Boris Yukhananov's most spectacular performance, filled with wonderful transformations, adventures, and a laser show. It may also be his most complex work, similar to an independent planet with its own geography, atmosphere, and mythology. It consists of performances running over two days, each lasting about four hours, although it took several decades to create (yes, this again means that Yukhananov has a special relationship to time). The first evening of the diptych, The Forest, is an act of creation. Pinocchio (played by two actresses at once) is joined by his father, the carpenter Geppetto, and, of course, he is also Father, the Creator. In the finale of The Forest, the restless, playful Pinocchio duo burns to a crisp, but death is not the end. They are reborn and find themselves in The Theatre, a narcotic, divine world that exists independently of the audience who appear here in monstrous – literally! – guises. The noisy carnival of birth and metamorphosis is to be found in the magical forest and in the magical theatre.