Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay with final show

  
  

Playing to sold out crowds, Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay

  
 

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk

This past Monday night, the Belarus Free Theatre gave its last Chicago performance of Being Harold Pinter to a packed house at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Their world tour will now carry them to Hong Kong and London, a development they hardly anticipated when they first escaped from the Belarus secret police in January to perform in New York City for Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by Public Theatre. As artists on the run, they have one overriding mission—to alert the world to the conditions of torture, unlawful detention and disappearance occurring in “the last dictatorship in Europe” and to continue strong sanctions imposed on Belarus for its mass arrests of Alexander Lukashenko’s political opposition during post-election demonstrations on December 19 last year.

The applause they received upon entering the champagne reception afterwards echoed the standing ovation that crowned up their final performance in Chicago. While undoubtedly deserved, one couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of what we were offering them–that what they needed most were not cocktails and hors d’oeurvres but a home free from the terrors of state oppression. The star presence of John Mahoney, Ora Jones, Phillip James Brannon, Stephen Louis Grush, and others who joined the actors onstage to read eye-witness accounts of KGB brutality paled before both the cast’s plight and their bold achievement.

Overwhelming our attention were names of the imprisoned and tortured, their images printed up on posterboards and lined in the lobby—Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party; journalists Natalya Radina and Irina Khalip; Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Nekliaev and Nikolai Statkevich, opposition presidential candidates; Dmitri Bondarenko, European Belarus Movement coordinator; Maya Abramchik and Svetlana Nosova suffering leg and eye injury from being tortured and young Danik, whose parents are still in jail from the December crackdown. “These were the photographs that we made in time for the NYC performance in January,” said BFT director Vladimir Scherban. “Some of the people have been released from jail but are under house arrest now. As for the images of those tortured, these are just those photos that we could get to print.”

With the help of BFT co-founder Natalia Kaladia, I had managed to corner Scherban for an interview:

PL: So, how long will your tour continue from Chicago?

VS: We’ll be in Hong Kong for less than two weeks, then on to London. We’re planning to perform the play in Parliament. We hope so.

PL: So you have UK politicians helping you to set that up?

VS: We have good contacts with British artistic figures. And we hope to return here. We plan to continue our contacts with the Goodman Theatre, with the Public Theatre and the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York.

PL: Have you received enough funding from your performances here for the tour?

VS: (shrugs) We hardly knew we would be here when we arrived in New York. I suppose so—we’d plan on only 4 performances and how spontaneous to perform 14 in Chicago, fully sold out. So, this was very strange but also very pleasant situation that we could do this for Chicago audiences.

PL: How is your application for asylum in the US going?

VS: (shrugs) I really don’t know about asylum. It’s a big question whether that’s going to happen or not. We cannot re-enter our own country. Our members have already received threats or orders to return. We constantly receive threats in the form of our relatives and neighbors being called late at night by the police about our whereabouts. Several members have received invitations from the police to show up for interrogation.

Unfortunately, this [Belarus] government only understands sanctions, straightforward and unwavering sanctions. The last elections, only very harsh sanctions forced the president [Lukashenko] to release the opposition presidential candidates from jails. Discussions do nothing. During discussions, political candidates just become goods to sell America and the EU.

What you have to know about the demonstrations that took place on December 19th is that there was snow on the ground. After the police had stormed the crowd and assaulted the people, the snow was stained with blood. Then at university, students who were absent on the day of the demonstration were ordered to go for a medical check up and if they looked like they had been beaten up from the demonstration, they were expelled from school.

In some ways, it’s easier for us. We don’t fear this anymore. We’ve been beaten up, we’ve been arrested, we’ve lost our places at work—we’ve gotten used to working under pressure.

PL: What would you like people to take away most about your stay here?

VS: Well, a very big idea for everyone to understand is that we mean serious things. We’re not just about going around and telling our story. We are expecting Obama to be very precise about our situation and take a clear position against the Belarus government. This is what people should know: people are being beaten up, thrown in jail, and disappeared. [BFT co-founder] Nikolai [Khalezin] has had 9 friends disappeared in the last 16 years. The people you see on the posters who are in jail? They’re our friends, our audience.

PL: Anything else you’d like to say?

VS: Wish us luck!


UPDATE: Since the posting of this interview, the OSCE  – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – published its report on Belarus’s December presidential election, declaring that the election did not meet the criteria for being free and fair.


 

           
Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin_thumb[1] Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk - Belarus Free Theatre - Being Harold Pinter_thumb[1]
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich_thumb[2] Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Goodman Theatre_thumb[5]
     
     

Essay-Review: Billy Elliot – A teaching moment?

Miners Association

Billy Elliot: A teaching moment?

 

 

J.P. Viernes as Billyby Paige Listerud

There shouldn’t be any trouble with the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning show Billy Elliot, but there is. Simply put, the music – composed by Elton John – is gorgeous, the songs, memorable. The dialogue is, by turns, funny and frank—at appropriate moments brutally unsentimental and at others deeply touching. Under Stephen Daldry’s cunning direction, Billy Elliot successfully veers from hardcore expressionism to utter escapist fantasy. It’s a heartwarming tale about a child achieving his dreams against horrendous odds. All the same, while stuffed to the gills with sterling inter-generational talent, this multilayered production just isn’t putting bums in the seats at the Oriental Theatre the way Wicked did. Broadway in Chicago invited us to its “bloggers’ bash” last Thursday, no doubt to generate a fresh injection of press. Yet, shockingly, little more than half the theater was filled on a Thursday night.

So just what is the trouble with Billy?

  • Its rough language turns off too many parents. Hard to believe that this could be a concern in an urban setting, but this is the Midwest. Marketing Billy Elliot as a family show because of its plethora of child talent may have crashed on the reefs of American conservatism over language. Certainly the movie version, when it came to the US, received an R rating for adult language, which later transformed to a PG-13 rating upon DVD release. Much as I might wish that both parents and children could appreciate the touch of realism that Lee Hall has scripted for his Northern industrial English town, my sentiments may be completely overridden by parents not wanting one more cultural inducement for their kids to engage in verbal shock and awe.
  • It’s the economy stupid. Say what you want about uplifting messages about a talented dancing boy achieving his dreams, Billy Elliot is dark. Billy (J.P. Viernes for our performance) makes it to the Royal Ballet in London, but his small town community is going down. It’s 1984 and Margaret Thatcher is shutting down the UK’s national coal mining industry in favor of cheap coal from the Eastern bloc states. 300,000 jobs are all going bye-bye–forever. Try wringing a positive message out of that scenario as America double dips into the Great Recession (Great Depression for people of color) and the Democrats lose the gains they made in Congress two years ago.

So it’s not just the dirty words—Billy Elliot is crashing on the reefs of America’s economic and political turmoil. Would that the show itself could be a teaching moment about the value of survival in hard times. The trouble is that the only person surviving decently is Billy . . . and he survives because he is exceptionally talented, because his talent holds youthful promise, and because his future career is in the arts, not coal mining. The UK still subsidizes the arts far more than the US—but even that funding is facing a 25% cut under the current government.

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and CastWhat may be an even more important point, emotionally and dramatically speaking, is that Billy is a lonely survivor. The production creates an infinitely potent moment of loss and isolation with the number “Once We Were Kings.” The miners, defeated after their struggle with the Thatcher government, descend into the darkness of the mining pit with only the lights on their helmets showing. Billy watches them depart—his own shadow cast long, black and solitary behind him. One way of life is ending while Billy’s is just beginning. Melancholy infuses Billy’s singular success at the Royal  Ballet. Billy makes his escape to London—but he cannot take the rest of his family or community with him.

Sadly, this just may be more realism than American audiences are ready to pay for in our country’s present situation. Ironically, Billy Elliot is just as much about human beings resorting to fantasy as a way to cope with hard times. This production contains incredible moments of fun and beautiful fantasy. Billy’s dance number with his young friend Michael (Dillon Stevens), complete with a cadre of 20-foot tap-dancing dress, is a flight into reverie over the joy of women’s clothing for the young cross-dresser. Other fantasy moments expand into profound theatrical expressions.

J.P. Viernes and Samuel PergandeOne of the deep pleasures of this production, over and above the movie version, is that we do not actually witness Billy as an adult ballet star. Future success is only hinted at during Billy’s dance with his older self (Samuel Pergande) to the music of Swan Lake. Peter Darling’s choreography and Rick Fisher’s lighting design evoke a scene that recalls William Wordsworth’s “The Child is Father of the Man.” The audience is moved to hope and dream with Billy because it can glimpse the fulfillment of his human potential through Viernes and Pergande’s grace and control.

Darling’s choreography even makes profound social statements about the nature of children’s lives under violent labor-busting conditions. The dance number “Solidarity” is by far the high point of the show. Darling intricately weaves together the feminine setting of Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance class with the outer masculine sparring between miners and police. Billy may tussle with the girls to keep up with Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance orders, but the children seem protected and separate from the struggle that is determining the course of their lives. Darling’s choreography stunningly reveals just how illusory separation is. It brings together the two disparate worlds of Billy’s universe and the lyrics of the song even comment on the blue-collar connections between the police and the striking miners. That’s a lot to achieve in one number and the cast pulls it off fantastically.

In fact, let’s just say here that every dance number is fantastic. Only the first act finale, “Angry Dance” pales, seeming rather anti-climactic, compared to the rest. Billy’s secret ballet lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) have been exposed. Billy’s Dad (Armand Schulz) has just forbidden both them and his chance to audition at the Royal Ballet in London. So far as Billy’s family and the other miners are concerned, ballet is for “poofs.” Billy’s angry dance afterwards meshes with the violence erupting in town, since the police have just violently attacked Billy’s brother Tony (Patrick Mulvey – see picture below the fold).

Tommy Batchelor and Police Shields But once again, the choreography positions Billy as a lonely warrior against forces beyond his control. He alone faces a line of riot police with their ominous shields. Even as symbolism, the image is heavy-handed. Surely the rage and bloodshed that the whole community faces is worth some representation on stage. Having set Billy up as the boy who is “different” from the rest—because of his love for dance–he cannot at this point stand in for the whole community. As much as Fisher’s stark, expressionist lighting packs a powerful punch, the act of isolating Billy as if he were the only one suffering diminishes the powerful communal statement of the entire production and does not cleanly communicate Billy’s rage.

  • Billy is different from other boys. Billy is tacitly queer. Could the social conservatism of Billy’s mining town, circa 1984, have its mirror reflection in the urban and suburban environs of 2010 Chicago? That’s difficult to say. So long as documentaries like Straight-laced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up reveal kids being harassed and bullied just for wearing scarves or pastel colors; so long as youngsters commit suicide because of anti-gay harassment at school – messages that promote tolerance regarding sexual identity and gender expression will always be needed in America.

A message of acceptance and tolerance, of appreciating differences, not denying, hiding or shunning them—this is the core message of Billy Elliot. One wonders whether this message, too, has been overwhelmed by our current economic troubles. Billy needs to escape the economic reality that his family and community confront. But the cost to him seems to be any close association with family and community. Few moments inspire more than when, not only Billy’s family realizes that he has to have his chance, but the entire community of rough and rugged miners offer up what little money they have left to get him to his audition in London. At that moment, Billy’s queerness seems to make no difference and their funding of his aspirations becomes their last, noble expression of “Solidarity Forever.”

Billy makes it out because of his exceptional talent. Heaven help the poor queer kid in a rough mining town who is simply average. At the end of the show, Billy gives his queer buddy, Michael, a goodbye peck on the cheek. Heaven help Michael because his community’s homophobia is not over and done with, whatever they have done for Billy. Michael still has to grow into queer adulthood. On top of that, he now has to grow up with extreme economic disadvantages to himself, his family, and his community—something that won’t make the homophobia go away. One of the terrifying things about economic crises is that people often go looking for an Other to scapegoat—whether that Other is queer, immigrant, or a member of a minority.

Is Billy Elliot’s message of acceptance, then, too narrow for our times? What one has with Billy’s acceptance by his family, the endorsement of his community, and with Billy and Michael’s own personal self-acceptance, is a brief respite from the punishing restrictions of sexuality and gender prejudice. It hardly seems enough in the face of government-sponsored economic terrorism–but they have to make do with what they have. And so do we.

Right now, that may not be enough for the American public, at least in terms of entertainment. Billy Elliot is such a big, rich and complex musical treat but it cannot do it all. One can only hope that this superb production has what it takes to survive the current climate.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Billy Elliot is currently playing at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre through January 15. Individual tickets range in price from $30 to $100, and can be bought at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph, 151 W. Randolph and 18 W. Monroe), the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations (including Hot Tix), and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com. For groups of 15 or more, call 312-977-1710.  For more information, visit www.BillyElliotChicago.com.

Corrales, Skinner, Hammond and Ballet Girls

 

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Congress passes $12.5 million increase for the arts

Yesterday, Congress passed a $12.5 million funding increase as part of the FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  President Obama is scheduled to sign this bill into law by October 31, which concludes National Arts and Humanities Month. The nation’s two federal grant-making cultural agencies will now each have budgets of $167.5 million, their highest funding levels in 16 years. As so many state and local governments have had to cut arts budgets across the country, this well-timed federal appropriations increase for the arts is a welcome infusion of funds.


FY09 vs. FY10 Difference

NEA

$155 million  raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase

NEH

$155 million – raised to $167.5 million

$12.5 million increase!!


The FY 2010 Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 2996) was passed in the House by a vote of 247­­-178 and in the Senate by a vote of 72-28.  Please play your part and send a quick e-mail to your members of Congress at the Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center and let them know how much the arts will benefit from this funding increase.

Senate confirms Broadway producer as next NEA chair

This afternoon, the U.S. Senate confirmed Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to serve as the next National Endowment for the Arts chair and former Congressman Jim Leach to serve as National Endowment for the Humanities chair. Both are expected to begin work next week.  Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch issued the following statement:

"Today’s Senate confirmation of Rocco Landesman and Congressman Jim Leach marks a moment of great opportunity for our nation’s cultural agencies. Landesman embarks as Chair of the nation’s arts agency with a robust agenda, an upward trajectory of funding, broad Congressional approval, and a White House committed to attracting national attention to the value of the arts and integrating them into broader domestic policies."

Rocco LandesmanUpon his nomination, Mr. Landesman said, "I am honored to receive the Senate’s vote of confirmation.  I look forward to serving the nation as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I believe this is an auspicious time for the NEA and the country. Art is essential to the civic, economic, and cultural vitality of our nation. It reflects who we are and what we stand for — freedom of expression, imagination, and vision. I am eager to work with our many partners to bring quality arts programs to neighborhoods and communities across the country."

Congress has now recessed for August.  When they return after Labor Day, the House and Senate will resume work on finishing the appropriations process for FY 2010.  Currently, the House has approved NEA funding at $170 million but must await the Senate’s completion of their bill, which the Appropriations Committee set at only $161.3 million.   While both of these funding levels represent increases above its current budget, these bills will need to be reconciled and a final compromise bill signed into law by President Obama this fall.


Interesting Chicago-related comments in Robin Pogrebin’s NY times interview with Landesman:

While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.

“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”

“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”

And regarding the Arts role in the country’s economics health:

Mr. Landesman said that as chairman he will focus on the potential of the arts to help in the country’s economic recovery.

“I wouldn’t have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency,” he said, and worrying about which nonprofits deserve more funds. “We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession.”

………“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.”

Read the entire NY Times interview here.

Congress approves NEA funds increase – for now…

Great news via the NEA:

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $15 million increase for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for FY 2010.  Currently funded at $155 million, this increase would bring both agencies’ budgets to $170 million

Thanks to the arts leadership of House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Congressional Arts Caucus co-chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY), this House-approved funding increase for the NEA exceeds President Obama’s budget request by $8.7 million and is the highest proposed appropriation for the NEA since its $176 million peak in FY 1992. On June 25, corresponding legislation in the Senate Appropriations Committee set NEA and NEH funding at only $161.3 million each.

We must now put pressure on the Senate to match the funding level set in the House of Representatives.  Please take two minutes to visit Americans for the Arts E-Advocacy Center to send a letter to your Senators.

 

Aside: Thanks to all of my readers for helping increase arts funding.  We all know from experience that any child, when introduced to the arts, becomes a smarter child. 

Illinois is trying to cut arts funding by 75% – act now to prevent this from happening!!

Hey gang – I just received this very urgent e-mail:

 

State funding for the Illinois Arts Council will drop to $6.4 million, an unconscionable 75 percent cut from FY2009, unless the General Assembly acts to pass a responsible budget.  Per capita state spending for the arts in Illinois will plummet from approximately $1.17 per person to a near national low of $.49 per capita.
We must act now to send a powerful message to our elected officials and legislative leaders. There is less than a month before the new fiscal year begins and these devastating cuts take effect.  Here’s what we need you to do:

  • Thank legislators who showed leadership by supporting full funding for the arts and encourage them to work with their colleagues to pass a responsible budget
  • Urge other lawmakers to step up and negotiate a comprehensive, responsible budget that protects our investment in the arts

We’ve made it easy for you to take action.  Just enter your address and the appropriate message will appear.  Thoughtful, customized communications are more effective than form emails and petitions.  Please take a moment to personalize your message by sharing what the arts mean to you and your community.
When the legislative session came to a close on May 31, lawmakers failed to pass a responsible budget that addresses Illinois’ multibillion dollar deficit.  Instead they passed a bare bones budget that makes catastrophic cuts to the arts as well as K-12 and higher education, childcare, college scholarships, health care, public safety, transportation, and local government.
This "doomsday" scenario would decimate the arts infrastructure in Illinois and put artists and cultural organizations at extreme risk.
Act now and urge your elected officials to protect the arts by passing a responsible state budget.

Many thanks for all you do,
Ra Joy's Signature
Ra Joy
Executive Director
Illinois Arts Alliance
P.S.  Please forward this action alert to other arts professionals and supporters in Illinois.

Michelle Obama – Arts Warrior!

I’m excited to report that, during her second New York City visit, first lady Michelle Obama spent her time emphasizing the crucial role the arts play in our society, reopening part of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday and later addressing the crowd at a glittering ballet gala – where she was greeted with enthusiastic ovations from audiences that included prominent figures in politics, the arts, entertainment and fashion.

She stressed the importance of giving young people better access to the arts:

“The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it,” she said at the museum. “Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.”

michelle Obama and Caroline Kennedy at Metropolitan Museum of Art“The president and I want to ensure that all children have access to great works of art,” she told a crowd that included students from four New York City public schools that focus on the arts. “We want all children who believe in their talent to see a way to create a future for themselves in the arts community, either as a hobby or as a profession.”

Mrs. Obama also she reminded the audience that her husband, President Barack Obama, had included an additional $50 million (yeah!) for the National Endowment for the Arts in his economic stimulus package.

It was hardly the first time Michelle surprised the art world with her involvement, and it’s looking as if it’ll be far from the last. She and the president have gone to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to watch the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. They attended the reopening of the newly renovated Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. She’s been spotted at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, for a Welcome to Washington event that included performances by the Washington Ballet, the Arena Stage, the Washington National Opera, and other groups.

Mrs. Obama spoke in the newly renovated Charles Engelhard Court, a striking room filled with sunlight, in front of the Greek Revival-style facade of an early 19th-century bank branch that was originally on Wall Street. She wore a bright purple Isaac Mizrahi sheath and coat.  To the amusement of a crowd that included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Vogue editor Anna Wintour, former model Iman and designer Ralph Lauren, Mrs. Obama was reminded by museum president Emily Rafferty that she and the president had their first date in a museum. (aside: how cool is that?!?)

“Thank you for reminding me,” Mrs. Obama said. “You know, after 20-some-odd years of knowing a guy, you forget that your first date was at a museum. But it was, and it was obviously wonderful; it worked.”

Michelle ObamaMichelle also met with arts luminaries in the gallery in the Egyptian wing named for Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled as pharaoh. “We thought it would be appropriate,” says Emily Rafferty.

After meeting with a group of arts leaders, the first lady changed into evening clothes and headed to American Ballet Theatre’s spring gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, a highlight of the city’s social calendar. Among the glitterati: Actresses Sigourney Weaver, Kim Raver, and Rosemary Harris; New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, opera singer Renee Fleming, and Wintour, who pronounced the evening “wonderful _ wonderful for the ballet, wonderful for the arts.”

The crowd rose in enthusiastic applause _ one man shouted, “Brava!” _ as Mrs. Obama, dressed in a black Alaia dress and Thakoon jacket, was introduced by Caroline Kennedy, whose mother, Jackie Kennedy, was a longtime supporter of the arts.

“My husband and I believe strongly that arts education is essential for building innovative thinkers who will be our nation’s leaders for tomorrow,” the first lady said, before introducing a multiracial cast of ballet students from ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, who leaped and pirouetted their way to a huge ovation.

FYI: parts of this story are from http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-05-19/obamas-new-arts-czar/