“The Russian Dream – Through the Eyes of an Artiste” is an visual photo-narrative by Arjun Kamath, a Contemporary Portrait and Editorial photographer from Bangalore, India. Arjun is a second year Graduate Film and Television Production student at USC, Los Angeles and is a recipient of two Canon Creative Asia Bronze Awards.
The project explores the life of the spirited Olga Sokolova, a Russian dancer and performer who, after traveling to over 40 countries and braving a terrifying kidnapping incident, is now a master of her craft, performing for many, including the Dalai Lama. Struggle is common for all people, but it is often artists who are able to use it as their source of inspiration; the stories of artistes like Olga Sokolova must therefore be told to inspire other artistes engaged in their own struggle. The project represents the coming together of two young artistes who transcend the barriers of race and language to create art in their own unique ways.
The images below were shot over 5 days in uncanny locations like the busy streets of downtown L.A., where Olga performs nonchalantly before several onlookers; on the L.A. metro; in Olga’s house, where she takes us through her awards and publications; and at The Degas Studio, where Olga teaches dance to young children. Although, the content of these images is stylized, care has been taken to preserve the underlying emotion behind each image and thought.
“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” – Rumi
On a chilly, dark morning in 2004, Olga stared out the back window of a taxi bearing her to the airport. Her mother, Irina, stood beneath a flickering streetlight with tears in her eyes, blessing the naive and innocent Olga for the long journey ahead. Olga’s tears flowed freely as she watched her mother fade into the distance. Although it was a cold morning, Irina had stood there like a pillar, her eyes alight with hope, the glow from the flickering street lamp the only spot of warmth against the morning. It’s an image Olga will never forget. Irina’s faith instilled in Olga an unbreakable spirit, which proved pivotal for her survival as a performing artist. Today, Olga is a dance teacher at the reputed Degas Dance Studio in Los Angeles. She teaches young kids, and their energy both motivates and inspires her.
Olga was born in the port city of Nakhodka, where the Russian border meets Japan’s and China’s, and raised in a conservative Russian family. Nakhodka Bay, around which the city is organized, was discovered in 1859 by the Russian corvette Amerika, which sought shelter in the bay during a storm. Since then, the ice-free and relatively calm bay has taken the name Nakhodka, which in Russian means “discovery” or “lucky find.”
As a child, Olga went to school, then returned home again. She didn’t hang out with friends after class or go to sleepovers—already, she was too devoted to her art. That’s because when Olga was only three years old, her mother introduced her to rhythmic gymnastics. After that, she trained for ballet every day without fail. While other children binged on chocolates and ice cream and played hide and seek, Olga maintained a controlled diet and followed a strict schedule. But she never complained, and she remained enthusiastic. She was unique, rare, and gifted—a “lucky find” herself. The young Olga was as committed to gymnastics as a root is to its tree.
In 1998, on the recommendation of her coaches, Olga left home to join the Olympic Training Center in Irkutsk, Siberia. She had already won many national gymnastics competitions across Russia, delighting her mother. At the Olympic center, Olga dedicated five hours to gymnastics training before the school day even began. She trained again after school, hardly allowed time to breathe. Students lived and studied at the Center, their entire lives built around gymnastics.
At only 16 years of age, Olga achieved her Master of Sports degree. Soon after, a sports school in Herbania, Spain, invited Olga to teach gymnastics there. But despite all her success, Olga had begun to feel like a bird trapped in a cage. One gloomy evening when Olga was training, she witnessed a European dance company’s performance in the Barcelona Theater. The performance gave her goose bumps. She couldn’t look away from the performers’ graceful movements, marveling at their artistic freedom. She knew then that she wanted to dedicate her life to dance.
The sun was a deep orange that night. As Olga watched it set, her dream started to take form. Sitting beneath a light drizzle, letting both the rain and the angry sun’s rays seep into her, a flame ignited in her heart that no drizzle could put out.
Olga’s mother embraced Olga’s new dream, but she faced a great deal of disapproval from her coaches. One of them went so far as to announce from a podium, “There is no gymnast in the world that has ever become a great dancer.” But today, Olga is a phenomenal dancer who has taken her art to every corner of the globe. She has travelled, trained, and performed in countries from Germany to Italy, Turkey to Austria, Thailand to Tunisia, and many, many more. Olga’s mother Irina remains her best friend. Confucius said, “He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.” Olga did exactly that; she forgave her coaches who had discouraged and embarrassed her and moved on to greater things. After all, perhaps their acidic words had invoked an insatiable hunger to prove them wrong; perhaps she was even thankful to them.
Tragedies and disappointments punctuate every life, and Olga’s was no different. In 2010, Olga lost her beloved grandmother, Zoya, while she was performing in Mexico City. Minutes after receiving the call, she had to take the stage. The audience never knew. But Olga’s most haunting experience—one she is still not comfortable talking about—was her kidnapping in Latin America. Her kidnappers held her captive for two weeks, until a generous family who knew her paid the demanded ransom. No doubt she drew on the same willpower that had brought her accolades in both gymnastics and dance to survive the ugly episode. From performing on the street to buy a single loaf of bread to performing on the great stages of the world, her life has been a real roller coaster.
On the brighter side, Olga recalls traveling to Europe to audition for the international dance company, Cinevox, based in Switzerland. She knew nothing about modern dance as she entered the arena and saw thousands of dancers from all over the world auditioning beneath countless shimmering lights. Although nervous, Olga performed with gusto at the audition and was accepted into the school on a scholarship. The feeling of happy butterflies dancing in her tummy that night remains one of her best memories. But she was yet unaware of the imminent challenges that awaited her. She needed to reconstruct and reshape her body to adapt to a new technique. Her transformation from a soviet gymnast to a free-spirited international dancer and performer at Cinevox was arduous. Rigorous, ten-hour training sessions filled her days, starting with ballet and then shifting to contemporary, modern, and folk dances. It was like learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. One day as Olga was sipping her mug of coffee and admiring the gorgeous Swiss Alps from her window, she realized that if she could incorporate the great flexibility and physical strength of her gymnastic skillset into her dance, she would attain her own unique style. It was like finding home! Now, Olga’s style sets her apart from all her contemporaries. Another highlight of her dancing career was meeting Sandra, the European singer from the popular band Enigma. Olga has since then performed with her and many other renowned artists, such as Chris Brown, in concerts and TV shows across the globe. The girl from Nakhodka had finally arrived.
In 2011, Olga received a scholarship from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. She had always known she would someday travel to the U.S. to further her passion. As an experienced performer, she jumped right in to collaborating with photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and choreographers in Los Angeles. She taught some extremely talented children as well, which is a joy for any artiste. Recently, Olga learned that the Dalai Lama had invited her to work with him, an experience about which most artistes can only dream.
These days, Olga wakes at 7 a.m. and stays in bed for 15 minutes to think about her goals and dreams, putting her mind on the right path for the rest of the day. She chugs down a glass of purified water, then goes hiking in Griffith Park to commune with nature, clear her mind, energize, and receive inspiration. On a normal day, Olga can be seen teaching, choreographing, performing, rehearsing, and working on her technique.
At the end of her long days, Olga relaxes by watching movies. Into the Wild is one of her favorites because it reflects her feelings about the world and how spiritually awakened people deal with life’s harsh realities. Olga also enjoys reading before bedtime; Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet is one of her favorite books. Of course, music plays an important role in Olga’s life. She often choreographs songs in her head as she listens. She dreams of collaborating with John Legend, her favorite singer. Michael Jackson’s dance talent inspires her, and she believes artistes like him have a superpower shining down on them; he was a chosen one, she says.
Spiritually, Olga accepts that people may have various names for the almighty—Allah, Krishna, or Jesus—but that only one God exists. People may pray in different ways, but one Creator hears these prayers. She reads religious books such as the Bible, the Koran and the Mahabharata. Although she is not a big fan of organized religion, she prays and talks to God through her art.
Olga’s advice to youngsters who want to dedicate their lives to dance is to follow their hearts and listen to their inner voices and passions, even if it means going against the demands of friends and family. They must remain strong, make a decision, stick to it, and begin the process of self-discovery. It requires a lifetime commitment and is never easy. Injuries, loneliness, and emotional and financial struggles may interfere, but at the end of the day, you will stand on stage and feel free because you have dedicated yourself to your passion!
In March 2014, Olga and Arjun Kamath, a filmmaker and LA-based fine art photographer, came together to create a photo narrative called “A Russian Dream: Through the Eyes of an Artiste.” Arjun Kamath, a second-year graduate film student at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and a recipient of many photography awards, including the Canon Creative Asia, came up with the idea of creating an article that combined Olga’s triumphant life story with stylistic, documentary-style images. Olga embraced the idea and trusted Arjun’s vision. He believed that, while struggle is common to all people, it is often artists who are able to use it as inspiration. That’s why stories like Olga Sokolova’s must be told.
Olga and Arjun collaborated once before, in the summer of 2013 when they worked on a fictional photo narrative titled “Dharani and Malina: The Island of Eternal Bliss.” The story revolved around the idea of mankind versus Mother Nature. Now, they’re telling Olga’s real-life story, and both of them are thrilled. For several days, they woke up at 3 am for makeup and hair. Transcending barriers of race and language, Olga and Arjun shot photographs over 5 days and pieced together “A Russian Dream: Through the Eyes of an Artiste.” The images were shot in the busy downtown L.A. streets, where Olga performs nonchalantly before several onlookers; on the L.A. metro as Olga travels to her dance studio; in Olga’s house, where she takes us through her awards and publications; and at The Degas Studio, where she teaches. For a few of the images, Arjun had to lie down in a pool of standing water in downtown L.A. to get the exact frame he wanted. After photographing Olga for over a week in different moods and locations, Arjun penned an article about Olga’s life story to complete “A Russian Dream: Through the Eyes of an Artiste.” Tammy Suarez, a talented L.A.-based makeup artist, joined them for hair and makeup, while her husband, Jonathan Suarez, ensured that the shoots went safely and smoothly. It was a team effort, and all felt a sense of fulfillment at its end.
Barry Sanders said, “For the entire world, Los Angeles is a city of dreams,” and truly it is so. It draws performers from around the globe to compete for their moment in the limelight. Olga has managed to make an impact on this city, and she is here to stay. “A Russian Dream” catches a few moments in her story. May there be many more.
Photos by Arjun Kamath MUA by Tammy Suarez
You can’t be afraid of falling down, when all you’ve wanted to do is fly.
Olga Sokolova waits for a mug of coffee at a little cafe in Downtown LA. Confidence and self-belief are two of her biggest strengths.
Olga performs the balancing act in Downtown LA. Focus and self-belief have have played an important role in her success story.
Olga always dreamt of performing in LA, the entertainment capital of the world. She strongly believes that dreams can turn into reality, only when you balance them with pillars of hard work and positive energy.
Olga chose to face her dreams, rather than walk away from them. Come today and there are young kids want to become the next Olga Sokolova.
Your success is a by-product of your hard-work, self belief and positive thinking. God helps those who help themselves.
People called her crazy but she never let that bog her down. She knew she would blossom into a fine artiste one day, but till then decided to put her head down and march forward. Deep within the facades of her heart, she knew that the SKY was her limit!
Been rejected at an audition? Check. Ever felt like nobody cares or loves you? Check.
Wait a moment, why wait for someone to make us feel loved and respected? Why don’t we begin by loving and respecting ourselves a little more? Olga did just that, she embraced those little setbacks life threw at her, respected her hard work and smiled through the hard times; those auditions and setbacks stopped mattering after a while.
Reach out to your dreams and color them the way you want to. Sometimes it can mean journeying into a new city, state, country or even across continents. You have no excuse to not make the journey.
From her little home in Nakhodka to her apartment in Los Angeles, Olga’s unwavering focus and her mother’s prayers have helped her travel across continents and spread her art.
How life treats you depends on the expectations you have from life itself. Don’t take life so seriously that you’re unable to unlock the door that leads to small pleasures and little pockets of sunshine.
The little pleasures that Olga gave up as a child have made her who she is today. So although she snacks on Oranges on most days, there are times when Olga can’t help but snack on a bar of chocolate.
Life offers no shiny path for those who fear failure and defeat. Be brave and make fear your slave.
Even in her darkest moments, Olga always looked for a ray of hope and never lost faith.
Can each day be the best day of your life? YES, but only YOU can make that happen.
Never worry about things you can’t control.
Life’s like a painting; you’re the artiste and the plain canvas, your future. Chose your colors well.
Give your dreams wings and be the architect of your own flight.
How does one become rich? By sharing your knowledge with the world. Share all you can, inspire and never neglect your art.
Never look back. Life’s too short for regrets.
You have a dream, then reach out to it. Get to it before someone else does.
Share your wisdom, so other people can learn and march ahead. A real artiste is a selfless artiste.
Awards and accolades are a subset of your hardwork and the prayers of near and dear ones.
Positive energy is important, it’ll inspire people around you and keep you happy.
Allow the little failures of life to transform you into a stronger person. At the end of the day, you are only but a subset of your failures and successes.
Your success is not just yours alone. Share the happiness with your loved ones and see the joy increase by twofold.
Stay happy and make people smile. Nobody remembers the clothes you wore or your awards on your final day.
At the end of the day, it’s YOUR life… Live it YOUR way. Olga did just that.