“Giselle Botanical”: the Moscow Art Theater told the story of Soviet fallen women

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Eduard Kochergin has been the main artist of the St. Petersburg BDT for half a century. He worked with Tovstonogov, Efros, Lyubimov, Dodin, Yanovskaya and Ginkas. He writes beautifully, and his colleague Sergei Barkhin encouraged him to do this. There are already seven books filled with memories of childhood, full of hardships and wanderings. For years, Kochergin, being an eight-year-old child, independently traveled from Omsk to Leningrad. His parents were arrested in 1939, and when he was two years old, he ended up in an orphanage, from where he escaped six years later. “Giselle Botanical” is based on his short story of the same name, fragments of the story “The Life of Lidka Petrogradskaya”, another story “Angel’s Doll” and tells about people whom Eduard Kochergin knew firsthand. They lived in the same communal apartment with him.

“Nerd girls” all over the world raised the daughter of a dead friend Dasha. The girl grew up, entered the Vaganovsky Choreographic School, became a ballerina. Nikita Kobelev says: “This is their victory and the realization of what they themselves could not realize due to circumstances.” The young actress Avdotya Salnikova played the girl. She comes from an acting family and took part in Marina Brusnikina’s performance “I’m afraid to become Kolya”, in reading evenings and concerts of the Moscow Art Theater.

Nikita Kobelev has already turned to Kochergin’s prose, having staged a radio play based on his autobiographical book Baptized in Crosses in 2012. And now, as Nikita says, there was a request for something human, warm, sincere. “I offered the theater something that is not worn out, the wonderful author Eduard Stepanovich Kochergin. They agreed that his story “Giselle Botanica” should be made. And then I already added fragments from other works in which prostitutes are also present. Linda was his neighbor. He saw these women with his own eyes. They were in his life and became important people for him. I don’t know how much fiction there is, but these are real women,” says Nikita Kobelev. – We are asked what kind of prostitutes in Soviet times can we talk about. And these are the specific fates of the Petrograd side, which Eduard Stepanovich describes with great love. I hope that he will come in September and watch the play. We are looking forward to it.”

There are five colorful old cabinets on the stage, five ordinary chairs and another cabinet that turns into a coffin. Each worker of love has her own unique closet. It is like a repository of a small life with all the necessary attributes, the only refuge for each of the heroines. Girls are constantly dressing and undressing, remaining in underwear, partly stylized in the post-war style. Wardrobes miraculously transform before the eyes of the audience into the boxes of the Mariinsky Theatre. This is a find by the stage designer of the performance, Nana Abdrashitova. In these boxes of the second tier, the comrades dressed to the nines sit while they are on the stage, and in the Moscow Art Theater, somewhere near the grate, a young ballerina performing the part of Giselle soars in a video projection.

Photo: Alexandra Torgushnikova

“Nana and I work together a lot,” says Nikita Kobelev. – She is the daughter of film director Vadim Yusupovich Abdrashitov. We create a tandem with her. I’m very happy with the solution that came up. The task was to find a non-domestic solution and a special style. On the one hand, it is retro, and on the other, something modern. I thought that since prostitutes are always undressing and dressing, it means that closets are needed. We came up with them, then Nana developed this idea and offered to make a theater. Everything came together easily and inspiringly.”

Svetlana Kolpakova laid the foundation for the acting ensemble. Nikita Kobelev immediately chose her for the role of the real neighbor of little Eduard Kochergin in the communal apartment of Lidka Naydenova. She is a foundling, hence the surname. And Lidka was raised by a kind Chukhonian family. “Then I began to watch actresses of the Moscow Art Theater in about this range, arranged a small casting,” Nikita recalls. – There were about twenty candidates, from which I chose those whom you saw on stage today. And I didn’t guess. We’ve gone all the way to the end. I didn’t change anyone along the way and I’m not disappointed.” Uliana Glushkova played Muska Kolotaya, Nadezhda Zharycheva – Shurka the Eternal Kaurka, Polina Romanova – Arishka Spoiled, Ksenia Teplova – Ekaterina Fragrant, Yulia Vitruk – Dasha Botanical. All of them are so different, some incomplete, but for every taste. Some men in the hall reacted very vividly to the motley texture of the amateur “public artel”.

Photo: Alexandra Torgushnikova

There is almost always only one man on the stage. In the program, he is called the Man. In several guises, up to a hermaphrodite. Artem Sokolov appears. He is the narrator, the voice of the author himself. At first, the choice of an actor seems very strange: a skinhead, somewhat reminiscent of Vertinsky, with some kind of foreign plasticity of other eras. But gradually you come to terms with such a decision, without even fully accepting it.

“Working with prose is always very difficult and, in a sense, painful, but enjoyable,” Artem shares his impressions of the performance. – You don’t have specific dialogues and scenes yet, they are born from the material. Sometimes you can speak in the first person, sometimes in the third. It’s always a search, experiment, pulling out a character. I love working with prose. In this case, these are the memories of a little boy. He remembers his childhood, the people who surrounded him. This is what Eduard Kochergin remembered and carried through his whole life, and then wrote his stories. At first we thought about a complete reincarnation, but then there was one narrator. He is already an adult, but as a child he talks about these heroes. He is either a brave sailor with an accordion, or a neighbor with a mustache. Somewhere these characters are caricatured and funny. Often a vivid image is remembered. I like it when I step back from the image and become an author, talking about serious and lyrical things. This is the scene at the very beginning, where the narrator remembers the neighbors, the street, Lida, and at the end – in the theater. What is important to me in this story is that the women are crippled and as if protected by thorns, but we see their subtle internal architecture. Having passed such trials, the war, alone, without men, they are drawn to the beautiful.

Ksenia Teplova played the most respectable of the priestesses of love, Ekaterina Fragrant.

“My heroine is more prosperous than her friends, because she serves military business travelers, big bosses. She lives differently, does charity work, helps those in need. All the heroines are engaged in their profession out of desperation. Some of them lost loved ones after the blockade. Someone was left with a child in their arms, with a husband disfigured after the war. When I read the prose of Eduard Kochergin, I could not hold back my tears, especially at the moment when the heroines went to the theater. Most of these unfortunate women do not and never will have children or families. They don’t have a normal life and never will. But they raised a girl who broke out of their midst, achieved success and will live a life that they will never have. This struck me. Moreover, ballet is a great art that enhances the contrast of what is happening.

A spectacular scene where Ekaterina Fragrant sits on chairs, on which they put on a dozen tunics, various types of military uniforms. She burrows into them. She is no longer visible. It is a mountain of clothes that belonged to an endless stream of his high-profile clients. Another bright scene with a girl practicing at the ballet barre, which is carried out by her guardians. It could have become sublime, but turned into a comedy, perhaps in vain. But the audience has fun when the puffy ladies of easy virtue awkwardly lift their legs, repeating the movements of the girl.

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