Reflections on Approaching The End

It is starting to really hit me that I do not have much more time living in Moscow. As our final projects begin to require more and more late night and weekend rehearsals, my time spent exploring the city has decreased greatly. Though devising and rehearsing are some of my favorite things to do, it has made it very apparent that we are working towards an end goal that will soon be reached.

Our final exams take the form of final showcases. For each class we will present some sort of performance. For our singing class, we will sing every song we’ve learned this semester. For our movement class, we will be presenting an adaptation of “The Lion King” using the acrobatics and Droznin movement we’ve learned. For dance we will show the ballet bar exercises we’ve been practicing all semester and improvise Russian dance. And for acting, we will be putting on a presentation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, a conglomeration of specific scenes and devised etudes.

I love and care about this work so much and it feels great to be able to spend all my time just focusing on it. Yes, it is a lot, and I certainly will not be able to give every detail the attention that it deserves, but getting to work with these teachers and this ensemble is such an incredible privilege. I am nervous for what is to come but taking it one day, one rehearsal, one moment at a time.

Thanksgiving!

As we are approaching Thanksgiving, the entire ensemble has been preparing to make a Thanksgiving feast for our teachers and some of the other students at MXAT. We have delegated every essential Thanksgiving dish to a member of the ensemble and have precisely scheduled cooking times to accomplish everything. We need to serve 50 people and only have our two dorm kitchens. The cooking will commence Wednesday night and continue through right before the dinner on Thursday evening.

In the United States, I am typically always home for Thanksgiving. Although I cannot endorse the origins of the holiday, celebrating it has always had positive memories associated with it. It’s been an excuse for everyone to come home and share food.

I am very excited to host a dinner party for my teachers. They have given me so much this semester with their support and patience and I’m excited to give back to them in the form of turkey, stuffing, and every vegetable dish one could possibly imagine.

Also I want to apologize for a lack of photos! My phone is broken so I have not been able to access my photos or take any new ones for a while. Hoping to fix this soon!

Banya

I want to share a place in Russia that I believe is a quintessential Russian experience—going to the Banya. Banyas are bath houses in Russia, the main attraction within them being a sauna. In Russia, the Banya is often regarded as a sort of ultimate cure for any ailment. Our teachers have told us to go whenever we feel like we are getting sick and as the weather has gotten colder.

The Banyas are separated by gender, so I can only speak to the experience of going to the women’s Banya. As you enter the area outside the Banya, you are assigned a seat where you can keep your belongings. You undress and put on a towel, shower-type shoes, and a felt, cone-shaped hat. Only then can you enter the actual Banya area. The Banya area consists of the sauna itself, wooden tubs of cold water, showers, and a pool of cool water and oils. As you enter the sauna, you pass the sources of the heat, go up some stairs, and sit or lay down on one of the several wooden benches. The temperatures of the Banya often exceed 90 degrees and is reinforced by steam water being tossed into the fire. Your felt hat protects your face and scalp from the heat and your towel protects your skin from the hard wooden benches. Some women bring birch branches into the sauna and hit themselves and each other with them. After you have spent enough time sweating in the Banya, you exit the room, shower off the sweat, and then jump into a small wooden tub of freezing water. The extreme temperature change is definitely jarring, but it’s incredibly relaxing. For three hours, you get to rotate between the sauna room, showering, and the freezing tubs.

I have found the Banya to be an incredible place to spend time away from the ensemble and re-center myself. There is a unique solace in being surrounded by women who cannot speak English. It gives me an opportunity to sweat out any bad energy in my body and return to my classes renewed and rejuvenated.

Mid-Semester Update

As of now, I’m just over half way finished with my time studying here in Moscow. It’s crazy how time works here-our days are so long and yet the weeks seem to pass by inexplicably quickly. But as I have spent a great deal of time here, I thought I would reflect on the ways I have grown and learned since September.

First off, the physical training of this program is showing. I am far more flexible than I was a the beginning of this program. I can do a bridge, a position I have been attempting to do since I was little. I can lift up people of all sizes far above the ground with my hands and my feet. Though I have not executed a shoulder stand yet, a goal that I had set to accomplish when I had been accepted into to the program, I can finally do the base, meaning that with practice I should be able to do it in the near future.

Outside of the classroom, I am so comfortable with living in and navigating the city of Moscow. I know enough cyrrilic to be able to read most signs, and definitely all metro stops. I am starting to understand the layout of the city and how far away things are from each other. I feel incredibly comfortable going to places alone. A fear I initially had about studying here was experiencing the potential street harassment. However I feel confident walking the streets in Moscow alone and often even more comfortable than I feel walking alone in my own home city.

I think the most formative thing that I have experienced here is the philosophy behind the training here, which I have started to use in how I approach things in my every day life. In our movement class, we are often told to smile while in very physically straining positions. Though this was difficult at first, it has made me feel less nervous about trying to do things that are hard because I know I will be able to find happiness in it. Additionally in the class, we do a lot of high jumping. We bring our knees as far up to our chest as they can go and then jump as high as we can. As you can imagine, this is can become exhausting pretty quickly. But our teacher posed this to us as an “opportunity to fly”. Being in the air is fun–we are briefly flying–so stay up there for as long as possible and when you come down try to get back up. Suddenly an exercise that had been draining fueled me with a new purpose–wanting to fly. From now on, I am trying to approach difficult situations with the same optimistic outlook.

Etudes

I thought I would shed some light on the core of my Russian theater education: etudes. I had heard this term tossed around in the Skidmore theater but have never really understood it until this semester, where it has become a constant and essential part of my time here.

An etude is a short piece of theater in which an event happens that affects every character involved. Every day we are divided into groups and assigned to make an etude for the following day. At first there were not any specific prompts but as we are beginning to use a text in a work (Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”), we have started to have thematic requirements. We have done etudes that have an element of mysticism, in which a person has to depart, with the theme of waiting, and at at a setting of a party. Tomorrow’s theme is “Stockholm Syndrome”.

In addition to these group etudes that happen everyday, we work on individual etudes. For the first assignment, we had to “become” an object that experiences an event that changes it. The second round was of animals. The third round was of advertisements: something had to happen that caused a character to have to sell or buy something. The current theme we are working on are dreams of characters in “Three Sisters”.

Attending the Theater in Moscow

One of my favorite parts of Moscow is regularly attending the theater. With my student ID, I can get discounted or free tickets at most theaters in Moscow, so I have been fortunate to attend the theater several times a week here.

There’s the MXAT Main Stage that works on a repertory system, meaning that they show the same shows once a month every month. They do mostly classic works but  also several film and novel adaptations.

I’ve been to the Stanislavsky Electro Theater quite a bit. This is a much smaller venue, located on Tversakaya–one of Moscow’s main streets. I find this theater especially inspiring and unique because they do a  lot of site specific pieces within the architecture of the theater: the staircase in between floors, the lobby, the coat room. This theater does a lot of new, avant-garde work.

I would say my favorite theater here is the Meyerhold Center, which is a 10 minute walk from my dorm. They do new works which include a lot of music and movement. Younger and newer theater groups tend to perform there. In fact, a theater group that I have been obsessed with for three years now is coming to perform there this weekend, and I’m going to see their show tomorrow.

Seeing so much theater is a dream come true! Looking forward to seeing much more!

St. Petersburg

This past weekend we traveled as an ensemble to St. Petersburg. We left after class Thursday night on an overnight train that took about 7 hours and returned on Sunday on an express train that took around 4 hours.

We reached St. Petersburg around 7 am on Friday. We ate a huge breakfast to rejuvenate ourselves and then went straight to the palace of Catherine the Great, located in the town of Pushkin.

Commissioned by Catherine the First, this palace was a summer residence for the Tsars of Russia. The palace is filled with ornate rooms covered in gold, with paintings expanding across the ceilings.

We also went to the Hermitage, a building that strongly resembles Catherine’s palace in aesthetic. The Hermitage is the largest art museum in the world, and began when Catherine the Great started to collect paintings from Berlin.  The building was given its name due to its original exclusivity–only a few people were allowed to visit during Catherine’s reign. However today it is consistently packed with visitors and a required tourist destination of St. Petersburg.

In addition to the places we went to as a group, we were also given plenty of free time to explore the city. I spent it by wandering through the summer gardens, visiting St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and attending a show directed by one of my favorite directors, Butusov. Looking back on it, it’s actually pretty crazy how much we were all able to do and see in such a short amount of time.

St. Petersburg is a very beautiful city. When I first got there, I kind of wished that I had the opportunity to study there. But after those two days I realized that although St. Petersburg is breathtaking, it was artificially constructed to be that way. Whereas Moscow has been conceived by Russians and has adapted to the changes of Russian culture, St. Petersburg is a relic of Russia’s imperial era, preserved for posterity and not for the spirit of the Russian people.

Cultural Differences

One of the reasons I chose to study abroad in Russia was because I wanted to experience culture shock. I wanted to go somewhere entirely culturally different from the United States. Here are some of the observations I have made so far:

    1. The people are much quieter here. Restaurants, parks, and general public places in America are much louder with everyone talking and laughing. That isn’t to say that the people here do not speak and laugh–it’s just much quieter.
    2. The streets are much cleaner, however the trash cans are smaller and fewer. I am still trying to understand how this is possible.
    3. Moscovites dress extraordinarily well. Additionally, they appear to be prepared for the cold all the time. Even on the warmer days they wear long, thick, coats.
    4. PDA is far more socially acceptable here than it is in the United States.
    5. There is a culture of bringing people flowers. I’ve seen so many people walking around with flowers, couples carrying around flowers, and people leaving flowers at the foot of statues of great leaders, politicians, and artists. Even on ordinary days, there are flowers left at these statues to commemorate Russian legends.

Training at the MXAT

I thought I would share some information about the Moscow Art Theater and my daily schedule there to shed some light on the culture of theater in Russia.

In 1898, Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko sat down at a bar to talk about the state of theater. The conversation ended up lasting 13 hours, and resulted in a resolution between the two of them to begin their own theater company. They wanted to create a space for naturalistic theater, as opposed to the melodramas dominating Russian theaters. Thus began the early days of the Moscow Art Theater, otherwise known as the MXAT.

The Moscow Art Theater Studio–its training program–was the first to implement Stanislavski’s method of acting. Today, the program embraces other methods and styles too, including Michael Chekhov and Droznin.

Our schedule at the MXAT changes every day. Our morning classes rotate between Movement, Stage Combat, Voice, Russian Language, and Ballet. In Movement, we train in the school of Droznin, in which we use our bodies as architecture. It is incredibly physically demanding, but our teacher Vlad always tells us to smile. “Lighter! More cheerful!” he’ll say as jump up and down with our knees to our chest. In stage combat we’ve been training our instincts to act quickly and we have learned simple kicks. In voice we work on choral singing–how to properly open ourselves up to get a good sound and how to blend together with other voices. So far in my Russian class I have learned the cyrillic alphabet and how to order food, which I put into use very often. The ballet class is the most incredible dance class I have taken to date. Not a single wrong detail goes past our teacher and I am working harder than I have ever worked for ballet.

Once a week we have a Drama History class and a Cinema History class. We have only had one drama class so far but we learned so much about how theaters currently operate in Russia and how the scene differs from theater in the United States. In just two Cinema History classes, we have already watched several films and covered years of history. I have always wanted to take a film class and have been looking forward to this class for a while and I’m glad that I’m learning so much from it.

We have Acting class every day. The class always begins with “mysteries”–group pieces of theater that we prepare for class every day. After we perform them, we critique each others’ work and get feedback from our teachers. Following the “mysteries”, we train. We do exercises in memory, multi-tasking, and paying attention to detail. After the training, we do solo etudes. An “etude” is a piece of theater in which an event happens that changes the entire circumstance. The first round of solo etudes were based on objects: we all had to act as objects and embody their essences. The second round was the same thing but for animals. It’s been really cool to see all of my classmates perform, as well as getting individual feedback from the teachers.

First Sunday in Moscow

Yesterday was my first Sunday in Moscow! My study abroad program has classes all day for six days of the week, leaving Sunday to be our only available day to go and explore the city.

Even though it was a long, exhausting week, I got up early to go walk around areas beyond my walk to school every morning.  Although we attend school and plays at the Moscow Art Theater everyday, there are many other theaters in the area that I wanted to see. I found the Maly Theater, the Mossovet Theater, and the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi Theater

In the area, I also found a bookstore with primarily Russian authors but in English. I have found that written Russian books has helped me adjust to cultural life in Russia a great deal so it was great to find a spot where I could find more. I also found a Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines that I am hoping to return to with some friends to play.

Pretty close to my school, I found a fish market. I have a soft spot for fish markets–I always go to them when I travel with my family. This market, though small, was vast and had so many incredible looking fish.

I visited the home of Mikhail Bulgakov, a prominent Russian writer. We were required to read his novel “The Master and Margarita” prior to coming here, and we had seen a staged version of the story early this week at the Moscow Art Theater. His apartment, as well as the rooms surrounding it are significant because the people living around him inspired characters for a lot of his work.

Following that, I finished my day by visiting Patriarch Ponds. Patriarch Ponds is the location of where “The Master and Margarita” begins and it’s just a block away from Bulgakov’s old home. It’s a square park with a pond in the center–very quiet and calm.