Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky

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Withers, M., 2004. Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky. Body, Space & Technology, 4(1). DOI:


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Residency to reconstruct Part II: Solar Wind
Kannon Dance Company – St. Petersburg, Russia
March 9-23, 2003

OPEN LOOK 5th International Summer Dance Festival
Perform and Teach
St. Petersburg, Russia
July 1-10, 2003

TOUCH2 International Dance Festival
Perform and Teach
Arkhangelsk, Russia
July 11-14, 2003

Sasha Kukin_Back: Sasha Kukin, Russia, Part III: View from the Earth (Sasha dances with projected photo of an aurora; Jan Curtis, photographer, shot in Alaska).

Artists (dancers, technicians, and collaborators) began arriving in Russia on June 28, 2003 to restage the high-tech multimedia production, Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky, as the centerpiece for the 5th OPEN LOOK International Summer Dance Festival in St. Petersburg and the TOUCH2 International Festival in Arkhangelsk. We felt honored to be performing during the 300th anniversary celebration of the founding of St. Petersburg. Dance of the Auroras, conceived and directed by Maida Withers (USA), was first performed in Tromsø, Norway for the Northern Lights Festival (world premiere) and in Washington, DC (USA premiere) in February 2001.

Maida Withers Dance Construction Company of Washington, DC assembled the original cast of Dance of the Auroras to perform and teach in St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk, Russia. In addition to the Company, international artists included Iwona Olszowska, dancer (Krakow, Poland), Sasha Kukin, dancer (St. Petersburg, Russia), and Tania Fraga, real-time interactive cyber-world artist (Brasilia, Brazil). New to the production was the Kannon Dance Company (St. Petersburg, Russia). In March 2003 during a two-week residency, Part II: Solar Wind, a 17-minute segment of Dance of the Auroras, was reconstructed with nine Russian dancers who would perform in the work in St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk.

The tour in Russia of this large-scale international project by the Dance Construction Company was made possible by the generous support of The Trust for Mutual Understanding; Dallas Morse Coors Foundation; Arts International Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions - a public/private partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of State, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation; private donors; artist/participants; and the producers of the OPEN LOOK and TOUCH2 Festivals.

The original production, Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky, was created through the support of The Trust for Mutual Understanding, American-Scandinavian Foundation, Andrew E. and G. Norman Wigeland Fund, Dallas Morse Coors Foundation, individual donors to The Dance Construction Company, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, The National Endowment for the Arts, Goethe Institut, Jovid Foundation, Kosciuszko Foundation, Market Development Group, Melton Arts Foundation, The Norwegian Government, the Pola Nirenska Award, The George Washington University, and contributions of Jan Curtis, photographer, R. H. Eather and SOLAR MAX IMAX, NASA, European Space Agency, Johnson Space Center, Trond Trondsen, Alexander Kosovichev and other scientists and federal agencies, and photographers.

The idea for Dance Construction Company's participation in the 5th OPEN LOOK Festival was born in the year 2000 when Kannon Dance School hosted a three-week residency by the Company to create one segment of Dance of the Auroras. The resulting work, Part III: View from Above, inaugurated the opening of the S'tansia (35 Dekabristov Street), the black box theatre developed and managed by Kannon Dance Company and School since 2000 in St. Petersburg.

Three years of planning from conception of the idea of the tour to actual realization in July 2003 allowed time for preparation to present a work demanding high technology support and for the audience to have more contact with modern dance and become receptive to a work of technological innovation and experimentation.

For the OPEN LOOK Festival, July 1 – 10, 2003, our daily regimen was rigorous and rewarding. From 10 am to 2 pm, Dance Construction Company members taught daily workshops in Improvisation and Performance (Maida Withers), Erick Hawkins Dance Technique (Joseph Mills), Partnering (Adrienne Clancy and Lyndsey Karr), and Modern Dance Technique (Iwona Olszowska).

The large number of participants and the diversity of their backgrounds are testimony to the success of the OPEN LOOK Festival, now it its fifth year. Students, mostly from Russia, included a mix of dancers and teachers with varied backgrounds in ballet, modern, and jazz, as well as actors, circus performers, gymnasts and others. Over fifty dancers participated in each dance technique class and over thirty participated in the improvisation and partnering workshops.

Withers first experience in teaching in Russia was in 1997. The expansion of interest in dance is quite remarkable. Vadim and Natalie Kasparov, founders and directors of the Kannon Dance School and Company, have been a driving force in this development of contemporary dance in Russia. The joy they find in their work and their shared vision is infectious. Their management of the Festival is of the highest caliber. The Kannon School offers daily classes, presents concerts, and the Company tours in Russia and Europe. Kannon sponsors four international events, annually, including International Jazz Dance and Music Festival, OPEN LOOK, Young Choreographers Competition, and International Dance Film Festival KINODANCE.

The dancers in the festival were very enthusiastic and committed and demonstrated daring in their movement explorations and investigations. Their curiosity and thirst for ideas was evident in each workshop. Their openness and freedom to move and express their experiences and aspirations through dance were most refreshing, and may be defining contemporary dance in Russia today.

Dancers involved with the Dance Construction Company's Dance of the Auroras project are all mature and experienced choreographers and skilled teachers with extensive experience teaching in university, community, and studio settings. Each artist/teacher is a specialist in the subject of the workshop they taught. Each was committed to deepening the understanding of the body and to building a community in each workshop through intense engagement in the creative process. Analysis and evaluation were important to building the confidence of each dancer and in spawning possible ideas useful to these emerging artists in Russia.

Daily from 3 pm to 7 pm, Dance of the Auroras rehearsed in a rented gymnasium across the street from the Kannon Dance studio. Thus we had no scheduling conflicts with workshops offered in the afternoon by various guest artists coming in for three or four days to teach and perform in the festival. Our converted studio, a large gymnasium painted bright green, was fondly called “the pool.” Swimsuits hung on the clothesline near the stairwell, even though the swimming pool in the building was empty. Surprisingly, no electricity was available in the studio/gymnasium so there was no power for our boom box during rehearsals. We speculated that someone wanted to purchase the building and one means of encouraging the sale was to have the power company turn off the electricity to limit use by the current owner. When the sound was crucial, one of the cast would follow dancers through the space carrying the battery-operated boom box. Surprise is a fact of life in Russia. We definitely got into the swing of things in this way. To our great joy, our studio, “the pool,” was filled with the glorious light of the “white nights” through a row of large windows on the south wall.

Day by day the restaging of Dance of the Auroras was accomplished. The principal cast of dancers reestablished and integrated the choreography that had been separately rehearsed in the USA, Poland, and Russia. Since the dance was originally created with these dancers, the beauty and power of each dancer was once again revealed and the innovation of the choreography became evident once more. The men and women dancers of the Kannon Dance Company were integrated into the rehearsals, bringing their strength, passion, and expressive ability to the work. New costumes, made in Russia for the Kannon Dance Company, were hand- painted to match the original silk costumes.

Dance of the Auroras explores the potential of new relationships between humans and their natural environment, specifically the connection between the Sun and the Earth and the resulting new mythology. Projected images of the Sun, satellite images from NASA, photographs of Earth's auroras documented by astronauts from their spacecraft, movies provided by R.H. Eather and SOLAR MAX IMAX, and auroral photographs combine with 3-D cyber- world images of the Sun, solar wind, and aurora created by Tania Fraga.

Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky requires extensive technological support from the sponsor (high-end computers, video technology, and projectors) to achieve the real-time interactive aspects of the production. The Pro Arte Foundation, an organization founded in St. Petersburg over ten years ago to develop new media performances and research, provided computer equipment, projectors and personnel to support the multimedia aspects of Dance of the Auroras performances in St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk. Oleg Vargo, media specialist with Pro Arte, collaborated with Tania Fraga, computer artist, to meet the artistic goals for this aspect of our production. Adaptations were made in the script by Oleg and Tania to create the overlay required for the 3-D computer art images and the video of film and photographs of the Sun and the Earth's auroras. By the final performance, we had achieved an effective and sophisticated interactive installation – no small accomplishment, considering the requirements of the technology involved and the limited access anticipated.

Dance of the Auroras features real-time interaction where dancers, using the wireless mouse, manipulate and control the 3-D cyber world images projected large-scale on the set. Tania and Oleg became a formidable team as they navigated between the languages of Russian, Portuguese and English. As rehearsals proceeded, the necessary bond was established between the dancers and the visual/computer artists.

Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky is an evening-length production, a continuous performance in four parts: Part I: Sun and Virtual Sun, Part II: Solar Wind, Part II: View from Above, and Part IV: View from the Earth. The multimedia work of dance, music, and visual installation featuring science, art, and technology takes the audience on a dramatic journey through space from the Sun to the Earth. This virtual space odyssey engages all the senses.

In St. Petersburg, the rousing cheers of the festival participants and of the general public were highly gratifying. Our hope to provide an engaging and unforgettable experience was achieved, as evidenced by their positive response.

Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky was featured as the GALA Concert Event for the 5th OPEN LOOK Festival, July 10, 2003 in the Theatre for Youth in St. Petersburg. This unusual theatre, a perfect selection for the presentation of Dance of the Auroras, was also a challenge of some magnitude. The theatre was built as part of the cultural system of Communism in the 1950s, when theatres were built in every large city in Russia to support and sponsor culture specifically for young people. This is the primary function of this theatre today, with the exception of the OPEN LOOK Festival programming. The theatre space was ideal in regard to our interests in innovation and experimentation. For our production the side curtains were removed, and the white scrim stretched fully across the back area, approximately 60 feet, and upwards to reveal the full height of the immense space. The proscenium and thrust stage were lighted to create the volume and void of space desired for our space odyssey, Dance of the Auroras. The visual installation was stunning in this environment.

Theatre for Youth was a challenge for dance but at the same time quite extraordinary. We were accustomed to moving freely through space, as the work is choreographed to express the immensity of space. However, the floor was extremely uneven, with large valleys and ridges due to the mechanical rotating stage situated in the center of the stage. We did overcome this to fill the space and create an unforgettable experience for the audience in this quite unforgettable theatre.

The Theatre for Youth allows felines to roam freely in the large foyer circling the theatre in the round. On entering the space, there is a brief stinging sensation to the eyes and nose. Fortunately this pungent odor was limited to the exterior spaces - my first experience with a theatre for cat lovers.

Joseph Mills-Aurora: Joseph Mills, Dance of the Auroras, Part I: Sun / Virtual Sun (Joseph Manipulates the cyberworld images, Tania Fraga from Brazil, using the wireless mouse);

Lighting design for dance is an art form promoted by American modern dance. Dance of the Auroras requires a delicate balance between the colorful and dramatic projected images (photographs, cyber worlds, and movies) and theatrical lighting in the performance area. The lighting design by Michael Stepowany and Nicholas Johansen (USA) successfully met the challenge of the theatre and created impressive lighting design In St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk. The designers for the Dance Construction Company hung, focused, and created a design for dance in both theatres that was used by other companies performing in the space. We were happy we could provide this service.

The lack of a communication system (intercom or walkie-talkies) for use by the technical personnel in the Theatre for Youth and the Arkhangelsk City Cultural Center created difficulties in staging the production. The personnel for sound, lighting, projectors, computers, and the fly system were, out of necessity, situated in seven or eight different places in the large theatres. With no communication system, each player was on his/her own throughout this real-time interactive work. The three technical personnel with our production served our needs very well and the needs of other companies from the USA and Russia.

Our residency activities in St. Petersburg and in Arkhangelsk were greatly enhanced by our association with Russian interpreters who were university graduates in philology (linguistics). They translated for all the workshops, television interviews, technical rehearsals, and after-concert discussion as well as assisting with transportation and touring events. Their scholarly backgrounds were very beneficial in the workshops, and their study of literature and history greatly enriched our time spent in Russia. Many of the dance students understood or spoke some English and were also anxious to join in for clarification and embellishment of the ideas discussed and presented.

Publicity and promotion for the 5th OPEN LOOK International Modern Dance Festival created a high interest in Festival workshops and performances. In March 2003, when Maida was in St. Petersburg to stage Part II: Solar Wind with the Kannon Dance Company, the local television station broadcast a special on the residency, interviewing Withers and showing a substantial segment of the dance in rehearsal at the time. During OPEN LOOK, this station broadcast a segment featuring a partnering workshop taught by Adrienne Clancy of the Dance Construction Company.

The July issue of RED, a slick colorful popular magazine, included a two-page feature story and photo on the festival and Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky. Articles and photos appeared in the magazines Pomorskaya Stolitsa and Shokolad, and in Docug, Kommersant, Isvestia, Pulse, Where, Guadeamus, PRO, and Chas Pik. The comprehensive and sophisticated OPEN LOOK Festival brochure details information about participating companies and their respective workshops. This beautiful booklet served as the program for each performance. From our interaction with people, the City of St. Petersburg seemed well informed and highly respectful of the festival activities.

Company members felt sad to leave St. Petersburg. We had enjoyed our relationship with students and managers of the festival and other visiting dance artists and companies. We enjoyed our visit to the Hermitage Museum, to Catherine's Palace of Tsarskoye Selo, where we enjoyed the recently restored Amber Room, and to the world-famous Peterhof fountains and park, the splendid official royal summer residence of Emperor Peter the Great. We were impressed by both the beauty and magnificence of the city and the openness to modern dance in St. Petersburg. This was truly a memorable experience for all concerned.

The OPEN LOOK Festival presented a performance each night by an international company in the alternative stage S'Tansia (34 Dekabristov Street Theatre), the theatre founded and managed by Kannon Dance School and Company for concerts, seminars, and sessions dedicated to contemporary art. Performances this year included: Kannon Dance Company, resident company for the Festival; Sasha Kukin and Dancers, the first modern dance company established in St. Petersburg (Russia); Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People (NYC); Provizional Danza (Spain); Cornfield Dance (NYC); David Greskovik (NYC); Teek Kask (Norway), and others. Members of the Dance Construction Company enjoyed seeing these performances and participating in the after-concert discussions.

Following our ten-day residency in St. Petersburg, twenty-one artists, producers, and technicians involved in Dance for the Auroras – Fire in the Sky traveled by plane to the north of Russia in the arctic region to participate in the TOUCH2 Festival in Arkhangelsk. 2003 was the second year of the TOUCH Festival, an event designed to introduce contemporary dance to students, teachers, and audiences in the Arkhangelsk region. We had experienced the White Nights in St. Petersburg, but were even more astonished with the White Nights of Arkhangelsk with the minimal down time of the Sun from 2 am to 3:30 am.

Nikolai Schetnev, Director of TOUCH2, worked closely with Vadim Kasparov, founder and director of the OPEN LOOK Festival, to arrange for the participation of The Dance Construction Company, international collaborators, and Kannon Dance Company in TOUCH2. TOUCH2 was very well organized and our needs attended to most graciously. We were housed in the lovely, recently renovated Dvina Hotel. All the festival activities, classes and performances took place in the Arkhangelsk City Cultural Center, a large building that included a café/bar, studios, and a 1000-seat theatre. The Festival was very well organized and successfully produced.

The City of Arkhangelsk was supportive of the festival. We were met at the airport by the local television station for a brief interview and asked to perform a sample of our dance, on the runway so to speak, to be broadcast on the evening news. We shared their interest, it would seem, in spontaneity and site-specific work. Since the television station was located on the thirteenth floor of our hotel, we became well acquainted with the lead anchorwoman. We were on the evening news for four days with interviews and shots from the workshops and rehearsals. Cameramen engaged in close-up shots of the performances by moving freely throughout the theatre and onto the edge of the stage to get “live” shots for broadcast.

Incredibly, the television station broadcast a thirty-minute interview with Maida Withers with the translator (philologist) bridging the ideas. The anchorwoman asked hard and important questions: How does contemporary dance relate to the dance of Isadora Duncan, a Western dance figure of historic stature in Russia? What would the difference be if you were teaching these workshops in the United States? Could TOUCH2 become a world-class festival for dance?

We talked at length with the Festival participants, the press, and political figures about the importance of this TOUCH2 and the possibilities of the Festival, as we saw them, for the future. Arkhangelsk, located on the beautiful Dvina River near the White Sea, was established more than 300 years ago. It is a stopping-off place in the summer for thousands of tourists on their way to visit the Gulag Archipelago, Solovetskii Death Camp, (written about by Solzhenitsyn), a concentration camp on the Solovetskii Islands for Russian political dissidents. The Solovetskii Islands also feature the 16th century Solovetsii Monastery, an important religious and political center of Russia historically. Arkhangelsk, city of the archangels, seems a most desirable setting for a successful international festival of dance.

The day following our performance, our hosts took us by bus to Malye Karely, a village 25 km outside Arkhangelsk, to visit an outdoor museum of ancient wooden architecture, churches, barns, windmills, and folk art assembled in the rolling hills there. The suspended wooden sidewalks and steep stairways throughout the park were of special interest.

Participants in TOUCH2 ranged in age from twelve to seventy years of age. Many were teachers who planned to use the material in their home dance studios. For four days, Joseph Mills and Iwona Olszowska taught workshops in dance technique while Maida Withers and Adrienne Clancy taught workshops in dance improvisation and partnering. The director and dancers of Kannon Dance Company taught workshops in jazz and modern dance. In the short period of four days there was incredible growth in understanding and increased openness to participate and engage in exchange. It was obvious that these leaders in the region would be instrumental in the development and expansion of future festivals and in the growth of dance in northern Russia.

The people of Arkhangelsk graciously and warmly received the performance of Dance of the Auroras – Fire in the Sky. Modern dance is quite new to this city and region. We deeply appreciated the receptiveness of our host and the audience. We were especially excited to present Dance of the Auroras in Arkhangelsk since the city is located in the Arctic region where auroral displays are a common occurrence in the long dark nights of the north. We thought there would be a special understanding of the performance, since the people there would be familiar with the northern lights or the polar lights, as they are referred to in Russia. We were honored to be able to introduce images of the Sun, NASA images from satellites, magnificent virtual images of the Sun and solar wind, photo images of the Earth's aurora shot by astronauts from the window of the spacecraft, and actual movies and photographs of the aurora similar to those the audience would see in the fall and winter months in Russia. We regret that we did not have the opportunity to have an open discussion with the audience about the polar lights after the performance, but instead, there was an extended interview with the magazine Shokolad which had done a preview story on Dance of the Auroras and intended to do an extensive story following the presentation in Arkhangelsk.

We were also sad to leave this beautiful city. Seventeen of our entourage returned to St. Petersburg for a final day to take a canal trip and visit other historic sites. Four of us spent the day with our hosts, visiting the historic outdoor museum before leaving for Moscow, Russia.

The classes, reconstruction rehearsals, and performances of The Dance Construction Company tour in Russia were documented on digital video by videographer Linda Lewett. Extensive interviews were conducted with the artists, producers, students, television personnel and others doing publicity and promotion. Interviews included the audiences in the OPEN LOOK and TOUCH2 Festivals.

This process of engagement acted as a magnet that brought modern dance in Russia into focus for everyone. Not only was the documentation an instrument of communication important to building strong cultural ties between Russians and the international visitors, it has set the stage for a follow-up to our tour with the planned creation of a documentary for television, Aurora in Russia, featuring artists' views on life in Russia today.

We appreciate the commitment of organizations and individuals whose support made the tour in Russia possible. We feel the stage is being set for a rich and fertile period of expression through contemporary dance in Russia. The Dance Construction Company began the association with dance artists in Russia in 1997 with our participation in the Conference on Dance in Volgograd. This year marks our 5th year of association with artists in St. Petersburg. We have enjoyed our opportunities to bring Russians to Washington, DC. We are honored to have had the privilege of being part of this important period of development in Russia as a nation and a people. We look forward to a continuing relationship.

Maida Withers_Aurora: Maida Withers, Dance of the Auroras, Part III: View from the Earth

(Maida manipulates the cyberworld images using the wireless mouse);

Maida Withers is the founder and artistic director of Maida Withers Dance Construction Company (1974) and a professor at The George Washington University's Department of Theatre and Dance in Washington, DC. Withers has created a significant body of work for stage, site and video, over 75 dances of breadth and vision through a process of experimentation, innovation and collaboration integrating art and interactive technology. She received the prestigious title of Columbian Professor for her artistic research and creative artistic endeavors in 1999 and the Pola Nirenska "lifetime achievement award" in 2001. She currently teaches improvisation as performance, advanced dance technique choreography, and performance art theory and practice, and has been the director of the MFA graduate dance program. Withers is the founder of the DC International Improvisation Plus+ Festival, now in its tenth season The company and Withers tour extensively internationally. performing, teaching, and collaborating on choreographic projects in Norway (2001), Venezuela (1998), Russia (1997, 2001, 2003, 2004), Poland (1997); France (1997), Finland (1998), The Netherlands (1996), Japan (1993,1995), Malaysia (1994, 1995), Korea (1993, 1994, 1995. 1999), Hong Kong and China (1994), Brazil (1992, 1999, 2001, 2002), Mexico (1987, 1988), Guatemala (1987), Germany (1981).



Maida Withers





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