Natalya Kolosowsky plunges into her Soviet past and the deep subconscious

A new movement work recalls Kolosowsky's Soviet childhood and her struggle to dance

Several weeks ago a beautiful image of four female dancers—wearing long, red and white skirts, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight-knit circle, facing inward—crossed my Facebook feed. Out from under the back of their skirts onto the floor, came a thick coil of red rope, which also wound around their waists. Facebook has just a few redeeming qualities these days and being able to discover new Portland dance artists on it is definitely one of them.

This striking image, I learned later, is a section from Liber ll, a new work by Shadow Tender, a brand-new, Portland-based project founded and directed by Natalya Kolosowsky, that combines butoh, physical theatre, martial arts, and wearable sculpture. Liber ll, as described in the release, is “a love letter to the terrifying secrets of the {queer} female body,” and premieres April 26-28 at The Headwaters Theatre in Northeast Portland as part of The Butoh College 2019: Performance Series.

This is the original image of “Liber ll” that captured my attention as it came through my Facebook feed. The dancers pictured are Amy Leona Havin, Ariel Bittner, Carly Ostergaard, and Haley Jensen. The photo was taken by Shadow Tender artistic director Natalya Kolosowsky.

I met up with Kolosowsky during a Shadow Tender rehearsal at the The Headwaters’ Waterline studio and later at her cedar-shingled tiny house/studio in Northeast Portland to view and talk about the work and its intersections with her life.

Kolosowsky, is a Russian-American director, performer, and interdisciplinary artist with a background in dance, psychology, illustration, and costume design. Shadow Tender isn’t Kolosowsky’s alone, though. It is actually made up of a bicoastal team of dancers, artists, designers, and scientists. The Shadow Tender team includes movement consultant/performer Maria Thomas (Portland), movement consultant Magda Kaczmarska (New York), sound designer Adam Cooper-Terán (Arizona), lighting designer Hank Peterson (Arizona), and Portland dancers Amy Leona Havin, Ariel Bittner, Carly Ostergaard, and Haley Jensen.

Kolosowsky was born in Siberia, in a city called Akademgorodok, “Academy Town,” a Soviet experiment founded in 1957 by the Soviet Academy of Sciences as part of a plan by then-Communist Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to gather the Soviet Union’s sharpest minds together in one place. At its peak, Akademgorodok was home to a university, 35 research institutes, a medical academy, and 65,000 scientists and their families. Kolosowsky lived in the city with her scientist parents until she was eight. Akademgorodok still exists today and is a thriving tech city that is sometimes referred to as the “Silicon Forest.”

For Kolosowsky, it was an exciting place to grow up.

“You had access to all kinds of intellectual and artistic material, all the influences from the Silk Road, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia…everything! It was this really ethnically diverse, liberal, highly educated, creative space. Furthermore, you had all the dissidents who had been sent to Siberia and all their descendants, living there. So you had a very liberal environment with all these different histories of the Soviet Union that had been suppressed on the European side. It was also unique in that the city was much less censored than the rest of Russia.”

Shadow Tender artistic director Natalya Kolosowsky rehearsing with her corset/harness that is adorned along her natural spine with a moose spine. In the rehearsal process Kolosowsky discovered that it was difficult to roll around with the skeleton on her back and has replaced the row of bones with large fluffy white flowers/Photo by Natalya Kolosowsky.

Around the time she was six or seven years old, Kolosowsky slipped and fell on the ice, falling backwards and breaking her spine, as she walked to a music lesson. She had pretty severe childhood osteoporosis, she told me, and the fall compressed three of her vertebrate.

“I was actually bedridden for three or four months, and I was just on my back flat. They allowed me to flip over, and from there I had a lot of physical therapy to figure out how to walk again. I was allowed to crawl, and then I think when I stood up I went into shock because I had been horizontal for so long.”

Her childhood was also deeply influenced and heightened by her love of fairytales of which her family had a vast collection from around the world. “We had a lot of Russian fairy tales and folk tales but also Turkish, Middle Eastern, again the Silk Road. My grandma and my mom both grew up in Kyrgyzstan, so Kyrgyz fairy tales, Kazakh fairy tales, the full Soviet block, Irish, Scandinavian, lots of Scandinavian, and Chinese.”

“The beast” in all its glory! This beautiful illustration by Shadow Tender artistic director Natalya Kolosowsky depicts “The Beast” wearing its spine of flowers and furniture leg arms and legs/Photo by Natalya Kolosowsky.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the funding for Akademgorodok stopped.

“The whole infrastructure just collapsed. It was hard to get medical care and of course in Siberia, we import food. We grew some food, but we were really dependent on other food supplies and that wasn’t coming through so we left…My family was originally going to immigrate to the Middle East, to Israel, but that fell through, and then we got refugee status for the United States and came to the U.S. It was just me, my mom, and my grandma. We didn’t know anyone in the United States. We spoke English, but we didn’t have any friends or family. They gave us asylum essentially, and were like, ok! We moved to Ohio and then to Arizona, and I grew up in the Sonoran desert not far from the Mexican-American border.”

For the next ten years, Kolosowsky continued her studies of The Vaganova method of ballet technique, devised by the Russian dancer and pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova, at the School of Ballet Arizona under Nadia Zubkov and Kee-Juan Han with the intention to dance professionally.

Because of reoccurring injuries she was forced to stop dancing at 18. It wasn’t until she was in her late 20’s that she discovered that she had a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that creates overly flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin.

“I had multiple stress fractures and injuries because I was pushing my body so hard. My ligaments didn’t hold. I thought I was lazy. So I just trained, and I would stay after school and train and train and train. And then I got stress fractures on the underside of the ball socket…they said it was going to crack if I didn’t stop. All the muscles in my calves fused together because of all the scar tissue that was cutting off blood circulation so my legs were going numb. I would be doing barre and I would almost be paralyzed. I didn’t understand, My teachers didn’t understand—they just pushed. It was so much, I had to stop. I stopped for several years, and I was like, well my arms are fine, I can do aerial arts. So I went upside down and I started doing aerial work and my legs healed up. And then I was like, I can do contortion, which is really a bad idea for people with Ehlers because it destabilizes everything. And then I learned that if I want to dance, I have to do it on my own terms.”

After leaving dance she studied visual art and psychology at the University of Arizona and began making work at the intersection of her disparate experience using a variety of media.

This illustration by Kolosowsky depicts a section from “Liber ll” called “String theory” where the middle dancer performs while hooked into a harness system that is connected and controlled by the four outside dancers. The illustration and photo are by Natalya Kolosowsky.

Liber ll is approximately 45-minutes long with a Q and A afterwards. It is divided into five sections and is loosely based on a concept of Jungian psychology, “shadow aspect/archetype,” that Kolosowsky describes this way:

“You have the Persona Self, which is what is projected outwards and presents as good and positive. It’s how we want society to see us, and what we judge to be good in others. And then we have the Shadow Self, which is the stuff we hide and don’t want to look at. And it may not be bad—it just might be stuff we’ve never learned to work with.

What happens when we are repressing all of that, when we see it in other people, that moment when you see it in another person, you instantly don’t like them. There’s been no exchange of anything. You’ve no reason to not like them. So we’re projecting. Chances are they are reflecting back to us a quality in ourselves that we don’t want to face, that we’ve deemed as shadow; it’s in the shadow of our being.

So there’s this mechanism of projection. So this blind rage animosity towards something is often rooted in this mechanism, according to Jung. And it happens interpersonally, one on one. It happens in families or groups where you see a scapegoat or black sheep. It happens in communities. It happens in cities and states. It happens in nations. So that’s how you end up with massive discrimination against certain groups. There’s a projection of something.”

Shadow Tender movement consultant Magda Kaczmarska rehearsing and experimenting with the prototype prosthetics that act as extensions for her arms and legs and give her movement an animalistic quality for the beast character in “Liber ll.” For the performance the prototypes will be replaced with ones that Kolosowsky designed to look like furniture legs and had 3-D printed./Photo by Natalya Kolosowsky.

The project also includes a variety of costume and sets, designed and built by Kolosowsky, that bring together her physical experience and concepts in a visual way.

“I built all of these things because I was interested in spines and the notions of the spine as our second brain and like a column that connects us to a deeper wisdom. In my work I talk about the ancestral column where each vertebrate is like an ancestor that we stack on top of, so we can look back through time through our vertebrae. That’s where all of our inherited knowledge is somatically…I realized that this process from crawling to standing, which had sent me into shock as a child, was really important to revisit. So that’s kind of the crux of this performance.

This feeling of having worn a prosthetic so early on with the back brace, of being manipulated, because when you are in the Soviet system they don’t ask for consent for a child, they don’t tell you what’s happening, they just grab you. They just do stuff to you. So you’re an object, and this line between object and body, person and body, woman and object, is really important to me, really interesting to explore. And also in the piece the character is a demon that is trying to bloom, that’s kind of the world that its living in. No matter what’s happening that is its impetus, just to bloom into itself. So it’ll never be human, it’s a beast, it’ll never not need the prosthetics, but it has its own beauty in being what it is and being upright.”

Natalya Kolosowsky as “The Beast” in “Liber ll.” Photo by Richard McConochie.

It’s fascinating to me to see how choreographers make work these days and who is making work. Not every dance is made by a trained dancer/choreographer and not every choreographer makes dances on humans. It’s just not that black and white. BodyVox’s Pearl Dive Project is a perfect example of this. The company recently commissioned a novelist, chef, painter, art director, photographer, and filmmaker to make new works on their company. Even famed contemporary ballet choreographer William Forsythe is choreographing objects these days instead of dancers. In his essay titled Choreographic Objects he says, “Choreography is a curious and deceptive term. The word itself, like the processes it describes, is elusive, agile, and maddeningly unmanageable. To reduce choreography to a single definition is not to understand the most crucial of its mechanisms: to resist and reform previous conceptions of its definition.” I love this!

Long gone are the days of dance training centers that train dancers and choreographers in methods and styles particular to one choreographer. Dancers now are all grown up and in charge of the trajectory of their own dance careers. They train in a wide variety of dance styles and somatic practices. Because dancers now are so much more deeply involved in the choreographic process, work these days reflects those changes. And that’s exciting!

Kolosowsky’s work is no different. She is co-choreographing the work with her movement consultant Magda Kaczmarska and Maria Thomas. Kaczmarska, lives in New York and is connected to the process through feedback and video. Kolosowsky prefers devising a process where she creates a container for everyone else to generate material. But her experiences, interest, and inquiries definitely shape the work. Her physical practices in ballet, aerial arts, and butoh also influence the work. Butoh especially in it’s broad interpretation, is also a useful tool in this process in that it allows for a darker, deeper expression of the human experience through movement; no rules, no boundaries.

Liber ll, which is a complex, layered work that uses multiple art forms to expresses a multitude of ideas, is ready to be witnessed and engaged by you. And don’t be afraid to ask questions at the Q and A afterwards.

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