News: Should dance companies boycott Russia?

Wednesday 16 April 2014 by Lise Smith

In an interview with The Times last week, choreographer Matthew Bourne joined a growing group of artists refusing to work in Russia. “I don’t feel welcome and I’m not confident about the safety of the dancers,” he told Times reporters Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester.

Bourne follows British choreographer Ben Wright, who turned down an invitation to work with Russian artists on a new arts and culture programme last year, stating in an open letter on Facebook, “…being privy to the absurd knowledge that foreigners can now be detained for up to 15 days and deported – as well as fined up to 100,000 rubles for ‘promoting’ a homosexual lifestyle – it would be foolhardy for me to attend these workshops for my own personal safety.”

Bourne and Wright’s concerns about safety appear to be well-founded, with evidence that physical assaults against LGBT people in Russia are on the rise. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones argues that a cultural boycott will send a clear message to Putin that his anti-gay policies are not acceptable and must be reconsidered. “It really is depriving Russia of something to refuse to tour an important production of the same great composer’s Swan Lake there,” says art critic Jones, calling on visual artists to join the boycott. “No more art for Russia until it returns to the democratic and peaceful road!”

But is this the right approach, asks dance critic Judith Mackrell? Writing online today, she argues that such a boycott would leave Russian artists opposed to President Putin’s policies isolated and unsupported. “Given that those regressive elements are closely aligned with the larger Putin project – to weaken the influence of the west and to re-aggrandise Russia’s sense of national identity – this surely complicates Jones’s argument for a cultural boycott.”

The musician Elton John, who performed in Moscow and Kazan last year, has stated that he wanted to use his profile to offer support to gay fans in Russia while condemning the country’s current anti-gay legislation. Athletes at the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi also used the event to speak out against the new laws, which ban “homosexual propaganda” and have been associated with a rise in homophobic attacks across the country. There’s clearly a debate to be had on whether a blanket cultural boycott would, in Jones’s phrase “hit Putin where it hurts” or, as Mackrell cautions, leave dissident voices isolated and so “play into his hands”.

Read the interview with Matthew Bourne here (The Times, April 5)
Read the comment piece by Jonathan Jones here (The Guardian, April 9)
Read the comment piece by Judith Mackrell here (The Guardian, April 16)

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