Ellie O’Byrne.


From Russia with love (of dancing)

Ksenia Parkhatskaya’s new show was developed with her Cork-born husband, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

From Russia with love (of dancing)

WHEN Ksenia Parkhatskaya was 16, her mother succumbed to a long and difficult battle with cancer. Ksenia, walking the long corridor to her mother’s room in their house in St Petersburg to say her final farewell, can clearly remember the distant strains of music, playing from a local Russian jazz station called Radio Hermitage, chosen by her sister.

“I feel totally connected to that spiritual moment with my mother,” Ksenia says. “She left me, but she brought something totally new into my life which brought me to where I am now: in Barcelona, with my Irish husband. I really feel that was guided for me, because none of my jazz life was ever forced; it just happened.”

Luckily, the couple were away from their adopted city for the recent terror attack. They had just flown to France for a friend’s wedding and were in Bordeaux when they heard.

“We couldn’t believe it! Absolute madness that this tragic horrifying attack happened just three minutes’ walk from our home in Barcelona. Every day we walk through Las Ramblas to go to the sea or market or to the metro station.”

Ksenia’s new one-woman dance show, Radio Hermitage, intertwines her life story with a history of jazz dance, through charleston, blues, bebop and swing. “Throughout history, jazz had this healing, therapeutic effect,” Ksenia says. “During prohibition, during the 1929 crash, throughout wars and racism, it was always a bit of a salvation.”

And is it a salvation for her, too? She laughs. “It is therapeutic,” she says. “In jazz, you are improvising and you are totally in the moment; you’re not thinking about anything else except this rhythm, this music, this movement. It’s very self-expressive.”

Radio Hermitage, devised with her husband, Cork bassist Dave Duffy, has been a long time in the making; Parkhatskaya’s passion for jazz music, sparked in her native St Petersburg in her late teens, evolved into her mastery of various forms of jazz dancing, most notably the charleston, which she performed on the Ukrainian version of So You Think You Can Dance; the video generated over 3.5 million views on YouTube and demonstrates her typical expressive, upbeat style.

“After that I was invited on America’s Got Talent, Italy’s Got Talent, Romania’s Got Talent, but I refused,” Parkhatskaya says. “It was difficult to say no to America, because it’s so big, but I thought about it a lot and I thought, ‘This will destroy my soul.’ These shows are not about dance necessarily; on Got Talent, they compare someone who eats snakes with someone who breaks bricks with someone who dances, and that’s not my path.”

Now, the styles of dance that interest her have changed. “At the start, it was all about that era: the ’20s, flappers, silent movies, and a lot of gesture and comedy; that was perfect for me and I fully expressed myself through it,” she says.

“But today, my soul is very close to afro rhythms, more complex music that excites not only my body, but my mind.”

In her life performing and teaching at dance workshops, Ksenia built up a repertoire of work in various jazz subgenres. But developing an hour-long show is a little different to a three-minute solo at a dance festival; in collaboration with French director and dramaturg Lionel Ménard, Ksenia set about weaving a narrative through her dances to form a cohesive, theatrical show.

Working with a live quartet of husband Duffy, pianist Cormac McCarthy, saxophonist Ken Marshall and drummer Davy Ryan, Parkhatskaya’s improvisational skills have found their perfect home.

In a classic example of life imitating art, a chance email three years ago from Cork events organiser Daragh Regan, who arranges several Irish swing and jazz events each year, would lead Parkhatskaya down yet another improvised path: planning a move to Germany, she met her husband in Cork while attending the Lindy Express festival.

“I heard his bass playing, he saw me dancing, and it was magic,” she smiles. With Parkhatskaya beset by residency and Visa troubles for travel to and from Ireland, the couple have set up home in Barcelona for now, but she’s looking forward to returning to Cork to premiere Radio Hermitage at the Firkin Crane.

In life, as in jazz, Parkhatskaya says, improvisation is “the essence: it brings you on a more adventurous but unstable path. Every jazz tune is built up around a theme that you know, but then comes the improvisation part. So I always have to react now, immediately, to what the musicians are creating. I cannot choreograph the moment, if it’s true jazz.”

  • The preview and premiere of Radio Hermitage by Ksenia Parkhatskaya and David Duffy take place on Sept 8-9 in the Firkin Crane, Cork. www.firkincrane.ie 

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