The venue — the troupe’s home is in New York, about 4,700 miles and another culture away — was as curious as it was resonant. Alvin Ailey, a black man born into the deeply racist U.S. society of 1931, created his company because, as he once said, “I’m trying to say something about the beauty of black people, about the elegance . . . and about their intelligence.”
Ailey died in 1989, but his company delivered his message, eloquent and relevant as ever, to full houses in six performances at the storied Stani
slavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater.
This visit to Russia, with performances in St. Petersburg Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and others as part of President Obama’s effort to engage Russia and warm up a relationship that had been cooling. It began a year-long “American Seasons” that will include an Annie Leibovitz photography exhibit and, in April, performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Detractors say that reset policy has meant giving Russia a pass on the arbitrary ways it often treats its citizens. If so, the Ailey performances are a reminder that cultural statements can be as powerful as the political, even if more subtle.
Ailey started the company in 1958, the year high schools in Little Rock, Ark., were closed to prevent integration and 10,000 students marched on Washington in support of integrated schools.
Although Russia’s laws are not discriminatory in the manner of American Jim Crow legislation, they are arbitrarily applied, and many people here hold a deep-rooted prejudice against their fellow citizens from the Caucasian mountain regions of the country such as Chechnya and Dagestan. The ethnic groups there tend to have dark hair and be olive-skinned. Russians call them black; they are frequently demeaned and their rights violated.
Toward the end of June, a soccer fan in a mid-size city threw a banana onto the field to taunt Roberto Carlos, a Brazilian who plays for the Dagestan team. A similar incident occurred earlier this year in St. Petersburg.
The racism seems particularly virulent in the sporting world. In December, Moscow soccer fans got into a street brawl with young men from the Caucasus. In the melee, an ethnic Russian was killed, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid a wreath at the spot, a gesture interpreted as taking sides before the facts were known. Days of ethnic tension ensued.
Racial profiling is so routine that on a short subway trip to the theater last week, police could be observed several times stopping Caucasian-featured young men and women, demanding to see their identification papers.