Anastasia Nefyodova: ‘Beauty cannot be devoid of meaning’

Despite her young age, the prominent theatre set designer Anastasia Nefyodova has long since earned the level of renown on par with a mature master. Her talent allows her to achieve flawless creative harmony with the director’s idea, while also enhancing it with her own concepts. The set and costumes that Anastasia will contribute to Cheeky Chastushki, a ballet set to Rodion Shchedrin's music and choreographed by Vyacheslav Samodurov, will be her first cooperation with the Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre. Anastasia, two-times winner of the Golden Mask award, chief set designer at Stanislavsky Electrotheatre and design lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, talks about the conceptual side of setting up the stage, the crossover between traditional Russian clothing and outdoorsy sportswear, and the ways of finding beauty in a world that keeps falling apart.

Анастасия НефёдоваAnastasia, you are one of the few theatre artists that do not shy away from the spotlight. In fact, you seem to accept being a public figure as a special mission. I think the reason is that you have your own original philosophy of existing in your profession, which you carry to the masses, as it were. What is the cornerstone of this philosophy? What message are you committed to sharing not just with theatregoers but also with people who attend your lectures, workshops and public talks?

It’s amazing that you noticed that. I do, in fact, perceive working in this field as a mission, as serving Beauty, in the grand, sombre sense. I am convinced that beauty really will save the world, but only if we start to truly understand its nature. The nature of beauty is meaning, it cannot be devoid of meaning. And the main thing that I want my audience to grasp is that an aesthetic for aesthetic’s sake, just like meaning for meaning’s sake, cannot stand on its own in our profession. Only when we consciously combine them both do we get artistic results. When I am told that this is too complex and that no-one will understand me, I get frustrated because I know for certain that people in the audience are much smarter and much more open-minded than we usually give them credit for. The question is: how much do we trust these people? And are we ready to reach out to them?

Theatre stopped drawing a clear line between who is the creator and who is the audience a long, long time ago. For me, it’s very important to know what’s happening on the other side of the stage, what’s shifting the tectonic plates of consciousness, prompting the audience members to look within and think. Serious artists have long since refused to work in genres that are nothing but entertainment. To me, being entertained and actually appreciating art are polar opposites. What I support is the joy you derive from profoundly meaningful beauty, the awareness that an artwork has it all: music, choreography, lighting, set, costumes, and energy. All of this comes together in perfect harmony, and everyone involved feels like they could fly. When it dawns on you that it’s really working, that’s when the true catharsis comes.

Анастасия НефёдоваAs an artist with an impressive background, you have been very selective about which projects to take part in for quite some time now. How did the Yacobson Theatre’s offer appeal to you?

I learned about it from Slava (Vyacheslav) Samodurov, who’d previously cooperated with me closely. He is fascinating to work with, as an astoundingly creative person with a vast range of artistic interests. At one point, I was lucky enough to get invited by him to work on the Order of the King show. I adore it when people are fully aware why they are inviting this specific artist. Especially while knowing that the artist does not usually work on ballet shows, but still daring to embark on this great adventure, and do something no-one has ever done before. In this respect, we made a really great tandem. As for the latest offer, what appealed to me was the prospect of working with a new theatre: I love meeting new people and exploring the unknown... Plus, working in St. Petersburg is a source of special joy. I’ve already put on a show here, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, and before that, we went to St. Petersburg to shoot Ivan Dykhovichny’s film, Inhale-Exhale, which I have really fond memories of.

As a master of creating new visual worlds, did you find it important to work at a theatre specifically tied to Yacobson, also a master of fantastical transformation, who revolutionised dance?

As it happens, I don’t know much about Yacobson yet, but this will be a perfect opportunity to learn more about his work. I might have had some intuitive premonition that I would get this amazing chance when I was agreeing to the project.

It’s a known fact that you like to work with ballet dancers, whom you refer to as ‘space warriors’, respecting their incredible discipline and ‘power of acceptance’, ‘acceptance of the sketch as destiny’, meaning that they are immediately ready to put on whatever costume you are offering them, exactly as it is. But the creation of ballet costumes is fraught with numerous restrictions. And yet you, without knowing the troupe, the ways in which the performers move, have already created and almost completely finalised a whole sketch set. What guided you as you ventured out there, almost blindly?

Each of my experiences with ballet is its own story. In this case, Slava Samodurov worked with me on each costume, on a literally sketch-by-sketch basis. Obviously, music is at the heart of everything here, and it was essentially my starting point. Another starting point was Samodurov’s idea to use an almost cinematic technique: make costume and body elements stand out, frame by frame, like close-ups in a film. I came up with four set design versions, and we eventually settled on the one that pleased both myself and the director. Interestingly enough, the key parts of our set design were the vinyl ‘noodles’ that were featured in our Humpbacked Horse production. Here, we built upon this concept, and it transformed into an organic aspect of our production, in an all-new way. When it comes to choreography, I keep a close eye on Slava’s work process. His latest creation at the Bolshoi was a real choreographic extravaganza, with such poignant precision... I have come to understand his modus operandi as a creator. It’s like a sort of telepathic thread has formed between us, which helps me in my costume design. We walk side by side, but only to a certain point: while I am perceptive to his ideas, our professions are different. So there comes a time when, to avoid losing my independence, I step aside onto my own path, and Slava does not get in my way.

Анастасия НефёдоваWhat inspired you when you were working on this particular project, aesthetics-wise?

I went through a lot of lubok art, not particularly ancient though, closer to modern times. I adore Russian lubok: it is so subtly ironic and bold, in ways that still work to this day. And, of course, I looked over the surviving sketches of Larionov and Goncharova. I have been paying special attention on how proportions work within patterns, because Chastushki music is all about passionate rhythm. All of this goes together splendidly with the snapshot-like choreography that the director has come up with. If you think about it, our entire modern reality is fragmented: it’s like the world is shattering into separate pixels. And I think that you have to accept that, to see a special kind of beauty in this world that’s falling apart.

You mentioned that today today, costume design techniques largely shape the show’s aesthetic. How does this apply to Chastushki? How does costume design affect the artistic output?

This is another manifestation of meaning that is very important to me. When you are creating a new show, you must understand what language you are speaking when you use this or that technique. And it’s amazing that I am handling both the costumes and the set, because they blend organically one into the other within the concept I have come up with. The vinyl ‘noodles’ that we have chosen as a visual foundation influence our fashion language, in a way, and Slava and I stray into this realm of pseudo-sporty fashion. After all, chastushki songs are sung around the ‘hood, and we explore this topic here, we create an image of what I’d like to call high-level gopniks. Gopniks are the quintessence of modern times: lower-class guys and gals that can actually be more intellectual and creative than other social groups. Their aesthetic inspires street fashion, and my designs combine Russian folk clothing and patterns with casual, sporty outwear. The technique makes that evident as well: we use such semi-sporty materials as neoprene, meshes, and vinyl side by side with rhinestones. This is our way of making luxury designs meet sporty textures. I fall back to my beloved the principle of collage and appliqué, typical of the traditional Russian theatre.

What parts of the Chastushki costumes can be worn in real life? I have already spotted some really nice sneakers...

That’s also our innovation from Humpbacked Horse, where we decided to transform ballet shoes into something more like sneakers. Here, our dance continues. There will be a lot of tights, leggings, cycling shorts, which are already being used widely in contemporary dance, but remain taboo in classical ballet. I am looking forward to finding out how this works. All of this is still experimental, dubious even, but I am always open for discussion. When I was working on a show at the Stanislavski Music Theatre, Which was a ballet called There Is No-One More Just Than Death, by Maxim Sevagin, I created this space uniform, a jumpsuit made of transparent organza, which many people would later want to make part of their wardrobe. Honestly, this is something I’d love to wear myself.

The fashion industry has now become an integral part of your life, and you even recently registered your own brand, NN, explaining what the initials stand for: not really Nastya Nefyodova (short for Anastasia), but rather a reference to a line from Pushkin, about being the sort of person that makes others say ‘NN is wonderful’. Are any of your first NN collections, which I am sure would make anyone feel and look wonderful, already available?

I am making steady progress. Following the same concepts of mixing sports and luxury fashion, we have already completed some test clothing samples, but we still have a long, long way to go before mass production.

Interviewed by Tatyana POZNYAK