Theatre in Passing – Interview with Elena Siemens

Theatre in Passing     Theatre in Passing 2

Elena Siemens‘ two volumes Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary (2011) and Theatre in Passing 2: Searching for New Amsterdam (2015, both published by Intellect) combine a personal narrative of cities, the author’s experiences and memories, stories of the different theatres, performance and urban spaces, with quotes from authors, scholars, playwrights, and theories of photography. The books are a great blend of scholarly, poetic, and personal narrative tone with street photography, and particularly the snapshot aesthetic.

Photo by Elena Siemens  Photo by Elena Siemens  Photo by Elena Siemens

Siemens captured images of Moscow in transition, as it was being reconstructed, refurbished, and gentrified during the post-Soviet years. She included many photographs from the 1990s and 2000s that show the transformations, reconstruction, and the public’s engagement with these spaces. She begins with her photo of the iconic St. Basil Cathedral on Red Square, photographed “in passing.”

“I photographed St. Basil’s from the sidewalk. It was late afternoon. I was tired, annoyed by crowds, and anxious to return to my mother’s flat in a quiet Moscow suburb. Baudelaire was right: ‘It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art’ (Baudelaire 1988:27). I was not looking forward to crossing Red Square, nor was I interested in taking pictures. I photographed it in passing, simply because it was there, directly on my way” (Siemens 2011:7).

Photo by Elena Siemens  Photo by Elena Siemens  20160305_154414

She then takes the reader on a stroll through Moscow’s renowned centre, pausing at various places and explaining their personal and historical significance.

“I took some of my most nostalgic pictures here [Lubyanka, short for Lubyanskaya Square, known around the world as the site of the KGB, now FSB headquarters], one of them showing a trash bin heaped with banana peels. Following the advent of perestroika, the space around the station was transformed into a lively market offering various imported goods, as well as fresh produce – bananas above all. During the Soviet period, bananas appeared in Moscow only sporadically, maybe once or twice a year” (Siemens 2011:8).

Photo by Elena Siemens  Photo by Elena Siemens

She takes the reader inside a music school, where the play N (1993) about Vaclav Nijinsky was staged with Oleg Menshikov.

“The enigmatically titled N (1993), a show about the celebrated dancer Vaclav Nijinsky, was one of the first independent productions staged in post-Soviet Moscow. It played at a music school on Prechistinka Street located in the historic neighbourhood near Kropotkinskaya metro station. Today this area is dominated by the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the rebuilding of which was still under way when N was being performed. N is loosely based on a diary Vaclav Nijinsky kept in his later years while receiving treatment at various institutions for mental illness in Europe. Authos Alexei Burykin was not interested in the sensationalist aspects of Nijinsky’s life, such as his turbulent relationship with Sergei Diaghilev, the powerful impresario of the Ballets Russes. Rather, the play sought to capture Nijinsky’s poetic spirit as reflected in his art and his unusual diary. Originally entitled Nijinsky: a Game of Solitaire for Two, the play features just two characters, Nijinsky and Actor, the latter protagonist assuming different guises, among them Nijinsky’s wife, his parents, and Diaghilev. The bulk of the plays is taken up by intense conversations between the two protagonists. In the final and most remarkable scene, Nijinsky jumps out of the window and disappears in a spectacular flight” (Siemens 2011:69).

“This unusual finale alludes to Nijinsky’s legendary performance in Le Spectre de la Rose / The Spirit of the Rose which premiered in Paris in 1913.[…] In the Moscow production, Oleg Menshikov, who played Nijinsky, jumped from the second-floor window into a truck loaded with mattresses, parked in the courtyard behind the music school. Burykin said that a crowd of passers-by would gather nightly to watch Menshikov jumping, and that their cheers could be heard inside the auditorium” (Siemens 2011:72).

Photo by Elena Siemens

Moscow plays a significant role in the history of Russian theatre, not only because of its world-renowned Bolshoi Theatre, Maly Theatre, Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, and Ermolova Moscow Theatre (currently under artistic direction of Oleg Menshikov), but also because Russia’s first public theatre was erected on Red Square by Peter the Great (just before St. Petersburg was founded).

“Russia’s first public theatre was constructed on Red Square in 1702. Initially Peter the Great intended to build it within the Kremlin walls, but due to the church’s strong objections, he altered his plans, placing it just outside the Kremlin, near the contemporary site of the State Historical Museum (Anisimov 1984: 12-13). The first theatre was managed by a German entrepreneur Johann Kunst, who, in addition to overseeing the troupe, wrote historical plays, in which he compared Peter to various glorious rulers, among them Alexander the Great. The attendance was poor, and the first theatre was shut down after only a few years. Due to the lack of funds required to dissemble it, the building remained standing for several decades and was finally removed following a 1737 fire which destroyed much of its wooden structure” (Siemens 2011:91).

Photo by Elena Siemens

The second book takes the same approach to various cities and theatre spaces around the world, starting the the New Amsterdam theatre on Broadway:

“New York City, 2006. I came to Broadway in search of the New Amsterdam Theatre that served as the setting of Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a cinematic adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya (1897). Directed by the innovative team of Louis Malle and Andre Gregory, the film was shot in the then-abandoned New Amsterdam, with the actors performing in street clothes. The original Uncle Vanya takes place at a provincial country estate in pre-revolutionary Russia. Seeing it staged in the contemporary setting of a run-down Manhattan theatre was a complete surprise and it left a lasting impression on me.[…] I learned that, soon after the film had been completed, the theatre was leased to The Walt Disney Company and restored to its original 1903 splendour, when it was home to the legendary Ziegfeld Follies” (Siemens 2015:3).

She even found the Café Uncle Vanya on West 54th Street in Manhattan.

Photo by Elena Siemens

There are surprisingly similar encounters with art, performance, and urban imaginaries in all the cities selected for the second book, and Siemens draws many connections to her first book and to Moscow where-ever possible.

“Walking in Moscow and taking pictures of its theatres for my previous book, was relatively easy. Although I now live and work in Canada, I still feel at home in Moscow. I see myself as a “walker” there, and not a “voyeur.” According to Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1988), the voyeur observes the city from some elevated perspective, such as the top of the Eiffel Tower, from which the terrain below unfolds like a map. By contrast, walkers remain on the street, taking full advantage of shortcuts and back alleys. Walkers do not “read” the city like a map, they “write” it (De Certeau 1988: 93). Taking pictures inevitably turns you into an observer, a close relative of the voyeur. I try to mitigate this by staying close to the ground, avoiding, whenever possible, panoramic shots. Capturing the Bolshoi Theatre, I followed the example of Alexander Rodchenko, a prominent avant-garde photographer, who insists that well-known landmarks must be shot from unusual points of view so as to defamiliarize their habitual perception” (Siemens 2015:11).

Photo by Elena Siemens  20160305_155613-001.jpg  Photo by Elena Siemens

Whether on Broadway, in Paris, LA, Montreal or Vancouver, we get a personal, curated photo-journey through urban spaces that are often utilized as performance spaces:

“According to Marvin Carlson’s Places of Performance: The Semiotics of Theatre Architecture (1989) which inspired my Moscow book, ‘almost any identifiable space within a city may become a performance space’ (Carlson 1989: 36)” (Siemens 2015:17).

Photo by Elena Siemens

“In Vancouver, a poem by the British conceptual artist Liam Gillick is reproduced on the exterior of the Fairmount Pacific Rim Hotel, a recent 22-storey addition to the Fairmount chain in this city. I first learned about it from a blurb in enRoute, the Air Canada in-flight magazine, which quotes Gillick’s short poem in its entirety: “Lying on the top of a building the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street… (enRoute 8, 2011:24). When you see it live, the poem does not seem short at all. Reproduced multiple times on the hotel’s exterior, it appears to go on and on like One Thousand and One Nights. (Siemens 2015: 75)

All photographs are by Elena Siemens.  

Vanya on 42nd Street

Elena Siemens was kind enough to take the time to answer my interview questions about her books, photography, and new projects.

K.S.: What inspired you to do the first book on theatres and urban spaces in Moscow through photography?

E. S.: Initially photography was a means to remember many spaces, streets, theatres, other landmarks. But soon photography began to take over, although not entirely. To me, photos and text remain equally important.

How did you conceptualize your writing style of mixing historical and theoretical writing on theatres, the city, and photography with a more poetic and personal narrative style and literary quotes from poets and playwrights?

To some extent, my mixing of various genres was intuitive. Eventually, I came across Michel De Certeau and his concept of the “second poetic geography” (as opposed to the primary or official geography). Inspired by De Certeau, I went on bravely to describe/ photograph Moscow from my own point of view. But the personal is inevitably connected with the public/collective point of view (history, cultural heritage).

In your second book, with the intriguing subtitle “Searching for New Amsterdam,” you continue your exploration of theatrical and urban spaces around the world, starting with a search for the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway, where an adaptation of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, entitled Vanya on 42nd Street was filmed in 1994. You point out many similarities between what you found on the streets of Moscow and the cities you explored in North America, Europe, and Canada (including Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa). What was your most surprising or exciting discovery when comparing all these cities and spaces?

Both similarities and differences. I didn’t aim to find either; rather, I just kept my eyes open to whatever comes my way. And in each instance and at every destination, there was always a surprise. Like finding an old marionette theatre in the heart of Brussels. It’s a unique environment: a theatre, a pub, and a courtyard (itself like a theatrical space). Or, stumbling on a group statue A-maze-ing Laughter by Yeu Minjun in Vancouver, a spectacular theatrical mise-en-scene. There were only a couple of cases where I intentionally sought some connection between Moscow and abroad (Broadway, Versailles, and the Teatro Strehler in Milan).

In bridging the disciplines of theatre, performance, history, urban spaces, photography, and autobiographical narration, you are also bridging the academic and creative writing divide? Why do you think that is significant?

It isn’t a recipe for everyone, again it’s a personal choice. Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with a reference to Nietzsche. It came as a revelation: this is how fiction should read. The reverse is equally true: academic writing can mix effectively with poetry, autobiography, philosophy, history, etc. Like Eisenstein’s collision montage.

What are your next projects?

I’m completing a book on Street Fashion Moscow. And I’ve just edited and contributed to Stirred Memories, a collection of creative writing and photography. Next up, a short visual volume on Jetlag Iceland.

Sunset in Moscow - photo by K.Sark

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This entry was posted in Architecture, Art, Books, Cities, History, Inspiration, New York, Photography, Theatre, Vancouver and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Theatre in Passing – Interview with Elena Siemens

  1. Pingback: Mary Poppins – Canadian College of Performing Arts | Suites Culturelles

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