It’s exciting to be playing Clive Barnes in To Dance not just because it is the first production I have been cast in after a 13 year hiatus from the stage, and not just because it has great music, dialogue, and a fabulous creative team, but also because it relates to some of the experiences I had while I was overseas (both recently and as a child).
In To Dance, as he did in real life, Clive Barnes (the British-born ballet and theater critic of the New York Times, and subsequently, the NY Post) goes to the U.S.S.R. in the 1960's to meet dancers of the Kirov Ballet, and especially the virtuoso Valery Panov. Mr. Barnes then keeps up contact with Panov, and eventually plays a role in getting the Soviets to stop persecuting Panov (who is Jewish) and to let him emigrate to Israel. Most of this is indicated through description in To Dance, but the first meeting between Clive and Panov is an actual scene in the musical, and one of the up-beat moments too, with a Beach Boys inspired pop-song called "Lifeline." Clive shows up in the U.S.S.R. and visits Panov and his friends at their "haven" (secret apartment). He strips off a bunch of clothes (including Levis) that he has brought to Panov and his friends as a gesture of respect, given that they live less "decadent" lives behind the Iron Curtain. They deserve a little bit of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, delivered by a rather fuddy-duddy Brit, and a 60s song to match. Nice work Kyra (the writer) and Tibor (the composer)!
I'm glad to have been cast in this part, especially since I had some experiences to draw upon while performing it. As a child, my first foray into theater was in a muscial about children's fears of nuclear war, and in 1988 I had the priviege to go to the U.S.S.R. to sing for peace in schools and then in Red Square with some of the songs from the play.
Perhaps we would have been arrested a few years earlier, but it was getting near the end of the Soviet era, and we probably looked pretty harmless there in the square (except for my dad, with his moustache, and his Vermont Progressive style – yes, he knows Bernie). I sang “I’m just a kid” (“but I'm starting to get very scared, of all our weapons"). Some policeman told us to move onto the sidewalk, I think, which seemed pretty scary in retrospect, but nothing compared to the kind of persecution that Valery Panov and some of his fellow Russians endured at the hands of the KGB, and which is depicted in To Dance.
In preparing for the role of Mr. Barnes in U.S.S.R., I also drew upon more recent travels. In To Dance, Barnes essentially enters a room in a foreign place, bearing a smile and some gifts for his hosts -- not knowing what to expect, and meeting people who didn't really know what to expect from him either. It is a secret meeting, fraught with some question about whether the KGB would ever find out, but nevertheless they have a great time. It is a scene that displays the joys of meeting new people and cultures that are different from one's own. Hence, I couldn't help but think about how often I was welcomed into homes in Haiti, South Africa, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Myanmar over the past decade. Each time, I found myself wanting to listen intently and to show deep respect, but also to give off some enthusiasm, and not be too quiet. Laugh as much as possible. Smile. Smile. Nod. Nod. Try to learn one of the local words. Feel gratified when they laughed with appreciation and pleasure as I tried to speak some of the local language. Murakoze! Cyane! Oh you speak Kinyarwanda! Smile. Smile. Nod. Nod.
The above image is of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony that I was offered in the home of a very dear taxi-driver who, along with his "supporter" (his assistant), took pity on me as I was sweating along, and drove me for free up a huge mountain to the place where Ethiopian runners practice for marathons, and then invited me to dinner, to his house to meet the family, etc. What a trip! I remained in good touch with him for years and many of my friends became his clients and friends after.
Below is a picture taken with me and the staff of a local coffee shop in Waliso (a day trip from Addis Ababa), in 2009. I think these gents would be fine with me putting this on the blog, given that it was a picture taken in full view of everyone, and I sent them a copy of it on email afterwards, and hopefully they are blogging with it as well! The coffee is amazing. Did you know you can put peanut butter in your coffee in Ethiopia? It's on the menu.
In light of all of the above, I heard an interesting quote in Up the Yangtze, a documentary about the Chinese tourism industry (and environmental and human destruction) on the Yangtze River. In the doc, the tour boat managers tell the new waitstaff and service trainees, “please don’t be too quiet around Americans, they don't like silence. They need to be spoken to and joked with right away.” (I'm paraphrasing. Essentially, they were being told to not be polite in a traditional way and to adapt to the tourists' way of being/living/touring). I found this interesting, because I actually don't think most people, either the guests or the hosts, can truly change where they are coming from, or who they are, no matter how hard they might try to adapt. Ultimately, during the first meetings we have with another culture, it is the differences between cultures (the inhalation of air after a phrase in Ethiopia, or the half-arm hugging in Rwanda) that make a first meeting so memorable, combined, of course, with the universally human nods and smiles.
To some extent, the spirit of vulnerable first meetings is something I think is playing out in the scene in Volodya's Apartment in the production of To Dance.
Or at least all of this is in the back of my mind as I personally step on the stage!