What do Annie Leibovitz, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and FACT/SF have in common? They’re all cultural ambassadors to Russia through the U.S. State Department’s American Seasons program, which promotes the sharing of arts and ideas between the two nations.
San Francisco’s contemporary upstarts didn’t become the avatars of stateside dance overnight. Artistic director Charles Slender lived in Russia from 2006 to 2008 and started his professional career there. In 2010, when colleagues in Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg and Moscow expressed interest presenting and collaborating with FACT/SF, he applied for a travel grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding; the application was approved, and planning for a brief 2.5-week tour began.
Then Slender thought some more. If we’re going all the way to Russia, he reasoned, why not see if other cities are interested in presenting us? The trip grew to seven weeks, with additional stops in Krasnoyarsk, Ufa, Kazan and St. Petersburg. The U.S. consulate in Vladivostok–three days east of Siberia via train–got wind of the tour, signed on for a Vladivostok visit, and eventually lent its support to the entire trip. And that (dramatically simplified–Russo-American relations are a tad more complicated than two paragraphs can explain) is how a little DIY tour became the FACT/SF Trans-Siberian Tour, a cultural diplomacy initiative of the United States.
In April 2012, Slender, company manger Jeanne Pfeffer, tour manager Natalia (Natasha) Podkovyrova, and dancers Erin Kraemer, Shannon Leypoldt and Catherine Newman embarked on their 7,000-mile odyssey. Along the way, they performed in black-box theaters and 1,200-seat houses, led master classes, gave lectures on contemporary dance and did their part for perestroika. In late May, a few days after the tour ended, Slender phoned in from Copenhagen and debriefed Claudia Bauer on their mission.
Claudia Bauer: How did it go?
Charles Slender: I knew that the tour was unique before we left, but I don’t think I realized how unique it was until it finished. Most of these cities don’t usually get international companies on tour. Russian companies don’t even go to these places. Each city had a resident company that has been working over the past 10-20 years developing their own audience. Something that I took for granted, working in San Francisco, is that a lot of these companies didn’t just need to convince their audience to go their modern dance show versus another modern dance show, they needed to convince them to come see modern dance at all. They’re doing real grassroots educating in their cities. They’re finding a way to find dancers, to train dancers, to get a venue, to get an audience. The work ethic and the determination and the commitment to those things was really inspiring.
And they went all out to promote your shows.
In Ufa, there was a huge poster of my face and the FACT/SF logo. It was 8m high and 8m wide. It was totally crazy!
Does it give you perspective?
It really made me thankful for all the people who came before me who did that groundwork. We are really lucky in the Bay Area to have a large community of people who are already interested in the arts, so you’re not needing to convince everyone that dance is cool.
So how did you prepare to perform the same four pieces in different types of venues?
The dancers in my company are very smart, and they pulled together a long list of questions that they would ask whenever we got into a new space, like how many steps from stage left to stage right, where are we setting this diagonal. With each theater we got better and better at blocking the piece.
Given that Russia is steeped in classical ballet, how did they respond to contemporary dance?
Because these companies are doing so much work to get the audience, most of the people I would talk to were already converted. But one of the main points in my lecture was that the major shift from ballet to modern dance is that the viewer can have an individual interpretation of what happens. In ballet, the work is structured to get one reaction.
Were they open to that, or perplexed by it?
There’s the ones who get that they’re allowed to see what they see, and like it or don’t like it. And then you have people who want to do that, but they’re struggling to wrap their minds around what that is. And there’s still the people who are like, “It’s difficult to do something beautiful, and it’s easy to do something ugly, so anything I see onstage that is ugly is bad.” We have the same three camps in the U.S.
Vladivostok was the city where the audience had the most difficult time understanding what we were doing. A rep from the consulate was in the audience and overheard two young men, just after the show had started, saying, “This isn’t American dance. I came to see hip-hop.” And then they left.
The people who did appreciate the work…had a lot of different interpretations. For instance, Russian children used to get oranges for Christmas, and the orange was something special, because it’s very hard to get oranges in Russia in December. They were watching us devour dozens of oranges, and do it in this sort of rabid way. For them it became a commentary on the things that we have, and the things we take for granted, and what we do with those things. It was a cultural lens that I could not have predicted.
Did you bring the oranges with you?
No, we had to buy them in each city. There were a lot of things we had to buy. We couldn’t bring our halogens from the States because I was concerned that running a 500W 110V lamp through an adapter into the light grid was a bad idea, that we should buy our lamps in Russia so they would already be on 220V. But we also needed extension cords because the lamps move onstage. One of the dancers in Tatiana Domovidova’s company [in Vladivostok] happened to be an engineer. So he, Jeanne and Natasha bought the lamps and the materials for the extension cords, and he made us four 18-meter extension cords that we took on tour.
When you’re here, your leadership is largely limited to company business. But on tour, you had leadership responsibilities 24/7.
Something that I didn’t anticipate was how “on” I needed to be. When I was on tour with five other people, I was the point person for all of them. We had a 26-page document that had our performance schedule, weather for each city, the contact list, all of the information that I thought people could use. But still there’s a lot of questions that come up. The dancers learned a little bit of Russian, and they gained more confidence as we went along that they could go buy yogurt at the grocery store without me.
How do you feel you’ve grown from this experience?
I was like, “Wow, I got four hours of sleep last night, and we’ve got to load in at 9, and then our show’s at 7, and this person needs this thing, and somebody forgot something at the hotel,” and even when things would feel very challenging, we still put the show on, it still went well, it was still well received, we still had a nice reception afterward, and the entire team could feel very proud and satisfied with the work that we did. In terms of my own confidence, that was really great.
What would you say to somebody who wanted to do a tour with their company?
I would say absolutely go for it. If it’s something that you really want to do, it’s possible. And it’s facilitated by having a lot of support. I felt like I was on tour with five other people who I could really count on, who weren’t going to oversleep in the morning, who weren’t going to miss the bus. Having trust and faith is something that we talked a lot about on tour, having trust in each other and having faith in the mission. It’s not just about being in tune with each other, it’s about the sense that you’re really being supported by them, and you give them support in return.
If you have any ideas and expectations about how it’s going to be, you have to throw them out the window. Ask a lot of questions up front. For example, in Russia, when you get on the train, you change your clothes. You have a set of clothes for the train and a set of clothes for outside. So when you’re telling your dancers what to pack, they need to have slippers that they can wear on the train, because it’s inappropriate to walk around barefoot, or in your socks, or in your street shoes.
You need to bring a certain maturity to it.
I would remind myself and my company a lot that we’re here representing San Francisco, we’re representing California, we’re representing the United States. And everything that we do, every comment that we make, every face that we make, is representing that, and to be cognizant of that all the time. It’s a tall order. We were joking about that “cultural ambassador” thing, but you’re meeting people that you might never meet again, and it’s important that you represent yourself and your community in the best way possible.
That said, did you feel like an ambassador? Do you feel like you bridged something between America and Russia?
Wholeheartedly. During the tour we had nine performances in seven cities, and I gave my lecture three times. We taught 36 master classes, which gave us a chance to share information with the students, but also to hear from them. And when we performed, it was usually on a split bill, so we would get to see the other company’s tech rehearsal, we would get to share stories about dancers or choreographers or works that we all knew. The dancers from the host company were the people picking us up from the hotel, and the presenting choreographer was the person organizing the reception after the show or taking us on excursions. They would connect us with friends in the next city who would come to the train station to get us. It taught me a lot about community. It was beautiful.
I got an official thank-you letter from the Republic of Tatarstan, from their minister of culture. They said that we “made a valuable contribution to the development of contemporary dance art in our republic and promoted the strengthening of cultural connections and mutual understanding between our peoples.” To be official in that way and to be formally recognized felt really incredible.