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Putin on the Ritz- an account of the 2002 Russian Tap Festival

copyright 2002 by Michael Shoehorn Conley First submitted to ON TAP, August 2002 Putin on the Ritz Tapparade 2002 in Moscow Talk about tapping into another culture! This event brought together the dance masters of Russia with American tappers and students from Eastern Europe, with at least a couple of acts from Central Asian Republics. There was a competition, as well as a series of master classes and concerts April 15-25,02 . I was part of the U.S. contingent which included Savion Glover, Brenda Buffalino, Tony Waag, Pat Cannon, Dexter Jones and Jason Samuels-Smith, pianist Larry Ham and vocalist Yvette Glover. We were joined at our Helsinki stopover by Sarah Petronio and Olivia Rosenkrantz of France, Mari Fujibayashi of Japan, and Klaus Bleis and Kurt Albert from Germany. Judging from the treatment we received, tap is held in high esteem. As soon as we cleared Customs in Moscow, we were greeted by the festival directors and producers Vladimir Kirsanov, Victor Rashkovich and Oleg Shevchuk, to the sound and flickering of flashbulbs going off. After a scenic bus ride into the heart of the city, guided by Victor, we were settled into one of the most extraordinary hotels I have ever seen. As an indication of the level of service, we were entertained by a live harpist every morning at the breakfast buffet! (great food). So far so good. Thanks are due to Hotel Metropol, one of the festival co-sponsors. The first night we were all tired from the trip but we were treated to a fine meal in the restaurant ÒRestavraziaÓ which was to feed us quite a bit of good food that week. There was a jazz combo and we all wound up doing a chorus in our street shoes. We also got our fist taste of Russian vodka! The first concert was the following night in a venue we played twice , the Mosbusiness Center. All of the concerts showcased an extreme variety of tap styles from comedic to lyrical, structured choreography to exuberant improvisation, white -tie elegance to serious street cred. Among the comedic acts was the four-legs-one-man routine , done to the Alley Cat Song by the Russian Oleg Abdulayev. This was a great crowd-pleaser. There was also Tap & Tray by Kurt & Klaus, inspired by and learned from the late expatriate tap master Carnell Lyons, whose story is familiar to readers of this publication. This is a beautiful piece done to an exquisite slow jazz number. Sarah Petronio performed sweet sounding, almost poetic interpretations of jazz songs that went over very well with the musicians as well as the audience. She really makes one listen to those footfalls. The first night included a big band led by George Garanian, an alto saxophonist who appeared in the program opposite myself. He is said to be well-known in Moscow and around Europe. His wife is also one of the many journalists who interviewed each of us at various times during our stay. Vladimir Kirsanov's group did some classic tap choreography to this music. I was unable to watch all of the performers in these shows because of my preparation for my own segment. Tapage is a duo comprised of Olivia Rosenkrantz and Mari Fujibayashi. They performed a very dramatic work choreographed to a taped modern orchestral accompaniment, the Sensemaya by Revueltas. They had special make-up and costumes and lent a bit of gravitas to the proceedings. This was another audience favorite, for the beauty of the performers and the sincerity of their statement. Mari and Olivia also joined Tony Waag and Kurt and Klaus to dance Brenda BuffalinoÕs interesting choreography from her American Tap Dance Orchestra, which are well known to many readers. These are delightful to behold and were appreciated by crowd. Brenda and Tony also did polished solo segments which amply demonstrate the great talent and sophistication of their accomplishment. The sheer range and variety Brenda's work continues to amaze me. She does something different every time I work with her and it is all top drawer, be it homages danced to departed masters or smooth-pattered story-telling accented with great footwork.Tony began one spot with an a Capella intro which audibly delineated the song form of the previous performer's closing choruses as a skillful segue to a signature song and dance number. Amen! Speaking of Amen , we must also recount the doings of Yvette Glover, who accompanied her famous son on this trip..During our sight-seeing bus trip, which fell on a Sunday during the Lenten season of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, it was she who requested that we stop at, of all places, a church. We stopped and took photos and entered the huge edifice topped with golden onion domes.( By the way, the Russians call them "onion domes" in Russian too.) This church on this sight had been razed by Stalin in one night, only to be rebuilt by the faithful within five years of the collapse of the Soviet system of governance. Upon entering we smelled the incense and heard the music, and some of us lit candles. It was only upon closer observation that I noticed the music was live. I craned my neck looking for the choir loft, and it was only after some searching that I was able to discern the hand of the choir director conducting a choir hidden from view at the base of the giant domes high above us. This also gave me an amazing look at the painted image of God staring down at us, serious and omnipotent. Add to this heady atmosphere the presence of the Patriarch of Moscow, the head of the entire Russian Church, who was saying a Lenten Mass. Everyone was pretty much awe-struck, Christian or not. Marina had to herd us all out of there so we could continue the tour. We next headed to the hills overlooking Moscow to the Olympic Park and were given a panoramic view of the city from the area adjacent to the ski jump. There were souvenir stands, and arrangements had to be made for a shopping excursion the next day. We drove through the Victory Park up on the bluffs and were reminded by the many monuments that the victory commemorated was a victory shared by our own fathers, the defeat of fascism in WWII. There are monuments honoring several religions including Islam and Judaism in this complex. Our guide gave us very insightful narration during our tour that occasionally underlined the many social and scientific achievements of the Soviet period and some of the unfortunate effects of the current economic and political climate on ordinary people. Pensioners in particular have been hard hit, and salaries for most people have not kept pace with the rapid economic changes since the end of the Soviet era. We ended the tourist day with a stroll through the Kremlin, the very center of the historic capitol of Moscow. We took more pictures and visited a smaller, much older church, a place where the Tsars themselves worshipped. The vibe in this place was not so uplifting and indeed a bit repressive, even though one could not help but but appreciate the history and the artwork, which consisted of tortured-looking portraits of suffering saints. The entire group of Westerners also enjoyed a night at the Bolshoi Ballet, just across the street from our hotel. Back to the TAP: There were master classes as I mentioned above and Tony Waag and Pat Cannon were among the judges for the competition that was part of the Tapparade. I was not present for the competition, but I was glad that I decided to perform in an optional show, held in a decidedly more rundown venue, the Community of Taganka's Actors Theatre. I was the only one of our crew to appear at this event, and I was able to watch some of the acts that were not featured in the grand concerts. Some of these performers were not as refined as the others , but displayed creativity in adapting the art form of tap to specific ethnic musical traditions, including those of Central Asia and the Baltic States. One of the more intriguing artists I met here was Yevgeny Zernov, who I was told worked for years at the Bolshoi ballet doing acrobatic and character roles. His love of tap was evident,he taught youngsters and also performed himself. The P.I. Tchaikovsky Recital Hall, which is where they hold major piano competitions in Russia, was the site of the biggest concert ( 5 hours! ) of the whole tour. This concert began with winners of the tap competition and included many children and teenagers, many of whom were directed by the Russian soloists featured in the other shows. It had all the trappings of a dance recital in the U.S., with family members fussing over costumes and kids eagerly watching their peers from the wings. There was also a group called Los De Moscu, a flamenco troupe who informed me they were Russian Gypsies. Their maestra had studied in Spain. Some of the other acts performing were the Czech Igor Shabla and his young son, and their countrymen, twins Pavel and Peter Hrubec, who employ costumes and props in precision comic work. Alexander Ivaskevich of Estonia did his take on the Buster Brown favorite "Cute". We had a concert grand piano in the men's dressing room, where pianist Larry Ham was able rehearse with us and which later gave rise to an impromptu jam featuring Savion at the keys and Jason hoofing. By the time I went on it was getting late. I had decided to stick with a couple of selections from my repertoire and started with "Black Orpheus" by the Brazilian composer Luis Bonfa and "Seven Steps to Heaven" by Miles Davis. By the end of the tour, the band and I got real tight on these tunes, with Larry and I trading lines between the piano and my sax as well as the interplay of shoes with Dimitri Sevastyanov's drums and the bass strings of Andrei Ivanov. These three guys did a great job backing up all of the jazz numbers in the concerts, except for the few big band pieces. Pat Cannon is artistic director and choreographer of Foot and Fiddle Dance Company from upstate New York. She also deserves credit for her role in organizing the travel arrangements by way of a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding. Thanks, Pat! Her work included a superb high-energy duet with Dexter Jones and an audience participation piece. The crowd loved the spirited execution of folk forms and seeing their friends and family get in on the act. And everyone, this writer included,was impressed with Dexter's awesome leaps and splits. Dexter had another solo bit, decked out in tails, where he again exhibited his athletic command of technique , form and style. Yvette Glover was a most welcome compliment to the terpsichorean happenings and thrilled the audience with a truly stirring version of "What a Wonderful World". Her voice has a lot of the church in it but she sings jazz very well with a classic feel and swinging phrasing. Her soulful renditions had the public clamoring for more. And more they got. Jason Samuels Smith is a powerful young dancer with a great talent and work ethic. He has performed a lot with Savion but is definitely emerging with his own thing. He hits hard and fast and is developing his knowledge of the jazz canon by doing it. Among the songs he did on this tour was "Lullaby of the Leaves" -going into it pure improv. At 21, he is just giving us a taste of what he can achieve. I heard that he starts every class he teaches with Steve Condos Rudiments, which can open up worlds of rhythm for anybody. Plus, he sure is a cool dude, fun to hang out with. Savion Glover by now is known to every tapper in the world, I reckon. As well as any of us did on this tour he surpassed all in terms of sheer technique, chops, and execution. He was simply breath-taking in his improvs, every night a different theme. He seems to have developed a lighter, more lyrical attack since I last worked with him in Chicago in 1998. His mom told me it just depends how he feels on a given night. He paraphrased and quoted "Seven Steps" and some of the other artist's programs at the Tchaikovsky Hall, scat singing melodic variations while laying down the iron, then putting down the mic to embark on rhythmic flights through the sonic stratosphere, coming back to earth drenched in sweat, smiling, with nothing more to say. Of course he was compelled to offer a brief encore, underscoring the fact that he had already made his statement, and was at peace. This guy really is a kind of prophet of the tap dance! He showed me steps while we were hanging out and told me about his gigs with jazz greats Wayne Shorter (saxist and composer) and singer Abby Lincoln. He is attracting critical recognition of tap in the jazz world, which has long underplayed or overlooked the vital contributions of tap dancers to the rhythmic vocabulary of AmericaÕs greatest addition to world culture (Hello, Ken Burns). After one week in Moscow, we bade farewell to Savion and Yvette and headed for the train station. We took an overnight train to St. Petersburg. The first few hours were quite festive, with everyone sharing drinks and snacks and much animated chatter. It reminded me of a school excursion with all the horsing around, step swapping and luggage wrangling. Finally a sort of half-sleep descended in the wee hours., me getting up to look out the windows as we pulled in to decrepit rural depots, past huge industrial areas ringed with humble residential districts. Some of the areas we visited were very grim-looking, but no bleaker than rundown parts of some American cities and rural areas I have seen. On the other hand, St. Petersburg boasts a cultural heritage undreamed of where I reside, Portland, Oregon. Next year St. Petersburg will celebrate it's tricentennial and they are busy restoring monuments, obelisks and cathedrals scattered throughout the central city. We were checked in to our hotel, less luxurious, but with a commanding river view of the city and situated across a canal from the famous battleship which kicked off the revolution. We could also see the Hermitage Museum, which rivals the Louvre in Paris for it's wealth of art and artifacts. The decor alone would merit a visit, but in addition to the incredible appointments of this former palace, it is chock full of masterpieces of fine art. Paintings, sculpture, and tapestry are all to be found in rich abundance and from various periods and regions. It is impossible to see it all in one day, but we tried. I wandered the halls with Dexter, Jason and Victor and was able to snap a few photos in some of the rooms where that is allowed. The first day in St. Pete, after that epic train ride and a couple hours rest, we gave a press conference in which we all expressed our profoundest thoughts about tap, which ended with a quick tune by Larry on piano and myself tapping and playing harmonica. It was a fun little sound bite type of thing. Some of us took a boat tour organized spontaneously by Pat, which was great fun as well. The last concert, in St. Pete, was in a part of town far from the tourist beat, with a huge mural of Lenin intact and hand-lettered signage, like an old vaudeville or music hall poster. We were joined by the core group of Russian dancers from Moscow, and with some new faces from the St. Petersburg area, we presented yet another variation on our program. No two concerts were alike. The preceding concerts having honed us to a precision machine, I felt the St Petersburg gig was my personal best showing of the tour. I would like to express my appreciation to Victor Rashkovich, Oleg Shevchuk and Vladimir Kirsanov, and our translators Marina and Olga, for all they did to make this event happen.After all was said and done, we a enjoyed a unique opportunity to get to know something about Russia, which I had been taught to regard as an enemy my entire life until a few years ago. Not only is it a great culture with a rich heritage, but it is made up of ordinary people striving to live as best they can. I was newly appreciative of my own circumstances, coming in as a privileged guest and leaving with money in my pocket. I was struck by the dedication of the Russian artists, who during the Soviet era had to practice the bourgeois, AmericanÓart form in secret. They even had an elaborate code-word system, which culminated in asking the other person's phone number. If the answer was "Pennsylvania 6, 5 thousand", * newly acquainted hoofers would be off to trade steps quietly in soft shoes, keeping alive the freedom of expression inherent in our glorious, treasured form of dance. The crimes of political elites bent on power and control goes against the very nature of humanity to rejoice and cooperate. The oppression and futility of national divisions will hopefully be banished to the past so we can peacefully dance our way to harmonic coexistence. Other arts ,sports, information and technology will contribute much to global understanding, but I like to think that our chosen careers as tap dancers will have it's own part in the architecture of world peace. Irrepressible and life -affirming, tap is one of the great achievements of humanity, and I believe it has a long future ahead of it. * an old Benny Goodman swing favorite