Persistence pays off:
Battery Dance Company's program in Azerbaijan was nearly cancelled when, two weeks before our departure from New York, the U.S. Embassy conducted a site visit at the theater they had reserved for our performance. That’s when they became aware that the stage was in such bad condition that it was not considered fit for barefoot dancing. However, it was too late from our perspective to cancel: Airlines tickets had been purchased and the Baku program was situated in between Turkey and Armenia on the tour. Cancelling would have left a gaping hole in our itinerary. We convinced the Embassy that we’d find a solution once we arrived in country. Our intrepid production designer came up with a solution that is described in the narrative. It took nerves of steel and determination to press on but the results were well worth it.
Battery Dance Company's programs in Baku, Azerbaijan, were groundbreaking in that a visit to this capital city by an American modern dance company was exceedingly rare (none of the dancers or critics whom we met could cite an earlier example). The Company’s performance at the Musical Comedy Theater was packed with a diverse audience, ranging from fur-coated oil magnates and their bejeweled wives to turtle-necked college students. Getting the show up was one of BDC’s biggest challenges to date: the stage surface was cut through by an old-fashioned turntable, separated from the main stage by a gap of up to an inch and not level with the stage. Fortunately, the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy and his staff had identified this problem before BDC’s arrival and contingencies were in place. Masonite and packing material were obtained and the entire stage floor was covered and painted. The surface was smooth and therefore safe for the dancers’ bare feet, although it was still somewhat “lumpy”.
The performance was covered by national television news as well as the local Baku press. Master classes were excited, over-crowded affairs with large numbers of students and teachers watching from the sidelines. The dance system in Azerbaijan was structured by the Russians and decidedly old school. Modern dance is practically non-existent due more to the lack of qualified teachers than to a lack of interest. Hip hop and show/jazz dance are fascinating to young dancers who have formed a couple of small ensembles to train each other and to perform for cabarets and shows. These dancers appear to have learned whatever they know from MTV and movies and are hungry for “live” instruction.
Arrival at the Baku Airport in the early morning hours of Monday: We certainly stood out on from the all-male, black-coated fellow travelers who seemed part of a 1950's black and white movie. The straight-faced customs officials accepted our 8 passports and pre-prepared visa applications, studied them along with the official diplomatic note from the U.S. Embassy and without the slightest hint of a smile, said "no charge" waiving the very substantial visa fees. Wow! What a nice welcome! It seems that performing artists are respected and welcomed in this country. A bevy of reporters gathering in the afternoon on the rooftop of our hotel for a mini-press conference were interested to know if we were aware of Azerbaijan's rich background in folkloric dance and music (we admitted our ignorance in this regard). They hoped that we would have the opportunity of interacting with young dancers and choreographers who had been turned on by the British dance company Random Dance via British Council-funded residencies in 2003, and a Russian modern dance company that had temporarily set up a branch operation here in Baku, only to shut down a short while later. We had the chance with three workshops at the Baku School of Choreography, the University of Arts & Culture, and the Spider Dance Group.
After our workshops and the press conference, we all regrouped (and re-groomed) for a reception at U.S. Ambassador Anne Derse's residence. The Ambassador herself was down-to-earth and genuine and when she delivered her welcome speech in Azeri as well as English, the guests (and we) were deeply impressed. THree of us headed off to Azerbaijan's premiere dance conservatory -- about which one can find many entries on the www from 1930's onward. We were surprised to find that our session started off with a press conference -- approximately 15 journalists and TV crews wanted to know what we thought about Azeri dance, and whether there were any established ballet companies in the U.S.! After mentioning NYC Ballet and American Ballet Theater and dropping Balanchine's name without any sign of recognition, I realized that we were "big news" and not the more marginal "cultural news" because certainly, these names would have been familiar to the cultural press. We had prepared material from our repertoire that involved various moves on the floor -- but these had to be quickly modified when we entered the large sunny studio and saw 20 young ballet students in traditional Russian ballet attire (black leotards and white tights for the girls; white t-shirts and black tights for the boys; and pointe shoes or ballet slippers on everybody. More alarming was the condition of the floor -- bleached unfinished boards that were probably perfect for ballet slippers but deadly for either bare feet or the floor moves that had been planned (splinters galore!) The master class began with a series of isolations with ribs and hips, gyrations that caused the students and audience to giggle uproariously. Phrases from the repertoire were doled out in good measure and the kids did their best to keep up. Great fun was had by all and when we wandered out of the room at the end, we encountered students, participants and audience alike, gleefully trying out the choreography in the hallways and staircases and clamoring for autographs.
By way of an unplanned post-script to our program, BDC's Artistic Director was asked to lead a workshop for the Neru Dance Group, 7 very talented and hard working dancers who had been mentored by a Russian teacher who closed shop some time ago. They showed their work in the form of a techno ensemble dance, whipped to smooth finish, which they said was in the style of Britney Spears. It was fortunate that they shared their work first, before the master class, because the impression given by the culture journalist who raved about this group was that they were "experimental" and "avant-garde". This was definitely not the case by Western standards, but they were wonderfully open to anything offered and jumped in to the experimentation and self-expression that was asked of them. After 90 minutes, they had concocted a very complex and engaging dance essay and everyone left with warm embraces and promises to meet after the show so that they could be introduced to the BDC dancers.
The U.S. Ambassador and Azerbaijan's Minister of Culture were in the audience at the Musical Comedy Theater to attend Battery Dance Company's performance. Equally exciting was the fact that at least one hundred dance students from all of the schools and studios where we had taught were there to cheer us on. BDC members were a little surprised when the TV cameras appeared back stage at intermission asking for interviews. As always, the questioners rolled around to, "What is your impression of Azeri dance? How do you like our country?"
After our wonderful interactions in the workshops, our dancers had plenty to say about the passion and determination of Azeri dancers -- too much in fact! They had to be interrupted with a reminder that the audience was awaiting the second act! The miracle of the show, of course, was that it happened at all given what was mentioned previously about the stage floor.