New East Digital Archive

Home stretch: a photographer revisits the Chelyabinsk gymnastics school of her childhood

For Russian photographer Maria Babikova, gymnastics has strong ties to her own experience of coming of age in Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains. Harmony, the series she produced in collaboration with Frederick Paxton, shares its name with the school of rhythmic gymnastics where she spent most of her childhood. At times dreamy and abstract, the photos channel Babikova’s fascination with the industrial landscape and memories of “the long lost dreams of Soviet scale and the loud, gaudy colours of the leotards”. The project also outlines the role gymnastics still has in Russian society today. “As it is usually seen by the spectator, rhythmic gymnastics is a harmonious blend of art and dance. The sport highly emphasises femininity in girls, which is also inherent in Russian culture itself,” Babikova says. “The girl is being taught to sculpt her body, perfect her moves, be graceful in every moment, which can only be achieved with endless tedious repetition. From a very early age she becomes aware of her body and the hypnotising effect it can have on the viewer. The city plays a crucial role in the series as well. With the limited resources and options Chelyabinsk can offer, this sport becomes almost a necessity, a means of social mobility for the young girls. The inherent grace and pain that belongs to gymnastics is juxtaposed with these harsh industrial landscapes, in an attempt to capture the fragile beauty of the place in the present moment.”