Tonight, I was joined by two lovely friends for an experience I'm sure I will cherish for a long time: I finally saw Aram Khachaturian's "Spartacus" performed live by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, at the Kennedy Center. I admired Khachaturian's work since I was at elementary school (all those hours spent practicing the "fortepiano"...); and later, as I explored classical music a little further, I came to the conclusion that the Armenian-Soviet composer was certainly one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century (not that I'm biased, of course!).
Washington Post review, Sarah Kaufman wrote: "Ballet lovers, Russophiles and fans of the bright, unsubtle pageantry in Aram Khachaturian's music would do well to catch any performance before the run closes on Sunday." Since I'm all of the above, despite the cost, the temptation was too strong to resist. So I simply didn't.
The Choreography was done by Yuri Grigorovich, who had choreographed the very first performance in 1968, while the performers were simply wonderful. I had seen Grigorovich's co-production in Yerevan last summer, but it was certainly no match for the Bolshoi. I had goose-bumps throughout the entire 2.5-hour performance, and yet the all-time favorite "Adagio" still managed to surpass all expectations. Indescribable.
At the same time, sitting next to Laura, I couldn't help but think of the cultural diplomacy involved, since we had been discussing it for a while. Firstly, it is noteworthy that the performance was organized as a part of the "Focus on Russia" initiative, sponsored by the HRH Foundation. This two-year initiative is meant to help the American public re-discover the Russian culture, and will involve various events and activities, including ballet, music, and theater. Although there is no official support from the Russian Embassy noted anywhere, the Russian Cultural Center is encouraging enthusiasts to attend.
Secondly, I was happy to see that despite the cost, the hall was almost entirely full, and there was a significant proportion of young people in the audience. I am sure that every person there was impressed and walked away with positive emotions, which would logically bring along positive emotions towards "Russian-ness" as well (even if not Russia itself). Nevertheless, that is still a major component of public and cultural diplomacy, since in a longer term, it enhances a country's appeal and soft power.
Then, the question arises: why make it so prohibitively exclusive? Why should the faith in a "person of culture" (or what Russians would appropriately call "kul'turniy chelovek") be increasingly worn away, while attention focuses away as Britney's new single hits the charts, or Paris Hilton comes up with a new scandal? And why is such a great channel of PD not getting more attention and prominence?
Any government that engages in PD runs the risk of its programs backfiring, since the "audience" might perceive it as propaganda, especially when the message or the mode of communication is too blunt. Products of "high" culture, however, are more likely to be positively received, since they are usually not perceived as "propagandist," even when supported by their government.
And yet, there are various forms, kinds, and styles of culture and arts that can be appropriate and welcome in various societies for various reasons. If properly chosen and delivered, culture can provide a strong people-to-people connection, which currently constitutes one of the foundations of PD. It can have underlying themes - such as freedom in the case of "Spartacus" - which, when thus communicated, might be much more willingly accepted, than when repeated time and again as a line in a certain "national patriotic" song. (By the way, there had been some worry over the Communist Party's acceptance of the "Spartacus" when it came out in 1968, precisely because of the underlying message and the extent of openness involved.)
Since values, especially those that are to be communicated across cultures, are supposed to be more about themes rather than specific or concrete ideas, such cultural approach can be much more promising in the longer run. That is why, although high culture should not be transformed into a mass culture, it should be actively supported (including support by the government in cases where private donations run short) and promoted through various educational programs and subsidized events (that would be more accessible to a wider public). After all, this is one of the very first spheres where acceptance and understanding can be easily achieved, so why not use it as a platform for dialogue more often?
[Stage photos from The State Academic Bolshoi Theater of Russia.]
UPDATE: a personal pic!