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The Buzz, 1-6: Boxed-out
Bolshoi Bars Volochkova from Paris Tour; Altogether Outside of the Box; Mathew Cussick's Dream Deferred

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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I once had a Russian Lit professor at Princeton who, with her raven hair and flaxen complexion, might have stepped straight from the pages of "Anna Karenina." This was the '80s, and the professor always wore '50s-style knee-length dresses. On the blackboard, she'd diagram complex maps revealing the social, political, and artistic context of the work we were discussing. In a word, Professor Chances was very proper... and always very prompt. One afternoon, we waited 20 minutes before she showed up, and then it was, for the first time ever in class, in jeans and with a wild fire in her eyes. She started talking about boxes -- and how we like to enclose everything in them. "Look at those window frames!" she exclaimed, pointing to the metal-ringed glass. "Boxes!" And, "What do you do when you go home on vacation? You pack everything in boxes!" At Princeton, where the professors were more likely to try to teach us how to think than to encourage free-thinking, it was the best lecture I ever attended.

Speaking of boxes, and Russians, not even the law, apparently, has been able to stop the Bolshoi Ballet from doing its damndest to put ballerina Anastasia Volochkova in a box that says "TOO FAT TO DANCE." As previously noted here, the Bolshoi attempted to terminate Volochkova, a principal dancer, last fall. While the company did not respond to a Dance Insider query, a Bolshoi spokesperson, Katerina Novikova, told the New York Times, incredibly, "She is heavy for a ballerina; she is hard to lift."

No sooner had the theater given Volochkova her walking papers (albeit offering her a contract extension through last December 31), then the Russian government intervened to overturn the decision and order the dancer reinstated. "The Bolshoi Theater personnel department has breached the law," Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok told the Russian Interfax news agency, as quoted by the AP, "... Anastasia Volochkova should be restored to her position."

There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Unfortunately, the Bolshoi has apparently decided to obey the letter of the government's ruling while flagrantly violating its spirit and intent.

According to today's editions of the Paris daily Liberation, Volochkova has been barred from the company's Paris tour, its first appearance here in 12 years. "I wanted so much to come to Paris to dance 'Swan Lake,'" the ballerina told the newspaper's Moscow correspondent, Lorraine Millot. "But I believe that the Bolshoi does not want me to come so that those abroad won't see that I am in form and (have been) unjustly eliminated."

Since the Russian labor minister judged her firing illegal, Volochkova alleges, she has been offered only one role, that of the fourth Swan in "Swan Lake." "The Bolshoi, theater of the State, does not respect the decision (of the Labor Minister)," she says. "It is no longer the State which governs this theater, it is the forces in the shadow, the bankers," or sponsors.

"The Bolshoi dishonors the Russian ballet in the eyes of the whole world, in drawing attention to my weight and my height..... I'm surprised that they have not come to measure my breasts or (the) points" of her feet. In each interview it gives, she adds, "The directors of the Bolshoi add some centimeters and some kilos" to her alleged weight.

At presstime, Novikova did not respond to a request to comment on the latest allegations. But she told Liberation that the Bolshoi director, Anatoli Iksanov, would "refuse" to comment on Volochkova's situation.

The Bolshoi Ballet, as the readers of this publication know, has a history for upholding ballet's noblest traditions. Why is it now committing the ignomany of upholding one of its worse -- and in many other major companies, vanquished -- and incorrect stereotypes? A dancer should be judged not by her weight but by the artistic weight with which she imbues her performances and thus impresses her audience. To claim otherwise is to defame the art and the dancers, and to propagate a false and unhealthy ideal to young dancers and would-be dancers everywhere. Shame, shame, shame on the Bolshoi Ballet for distorting the art.

Peter Pucci in "To Begin Again." Peter Pioppo photo courtesy the Joyce Theater.

Speaking of boxes, two -- and of misinformed stereotypes -- it would be very easy for you post- and post-post-Moderns out there to peg the line-up for this year's Altogether Different festival, which opens tonight at the Joyce, as Altogether Mainstream. But I think such a summary judgment would be misguided. As I wrote when the program was announced last summer, I beg to differ. To what I wrote then I would add that Margie Gillis, Rebecca Stenn, John Kelly (who performs tonight), Ben Munisteri and Peter Pucci have each fashioned their particular vision with vigor. It's too easy -- and it's also inaccurate -- to dismiss Stenn and Pucci as Pilobolus/Momix offspring. While both are proud of that heritage, no doubt learned much about composition from Moses Pendleton, Robby Barnett, Jonathan Wolken, Alison Chase, and Michael Tracy, and often display a Pilobolan drollness, their visions and the work you'll likely see at the Joyce are very personal. Ben Munisteri (like Stenn, a sometimes contributor to this publication) has distinguished himself as post-post-Modern contrarian, often starting with the music (as opposed to adding it later or even dismissing it entirely, as has become the vogue among many post-post-Moderns), and working with a choreographic palette that draws from ballet more than release, inspiring dancing that is more often engaged than detached. John Kelly offers an amalgam of music, theater, and dance. (I'm not versed enough in Margie Gillis's work to attempt to thumbnail her.)

While all of these artists (with perhaps the exception of Gillis) move comfortably in other mediums besides dance, they've worked that way from the get; they're not just grasping at theater or music for want of kinetic ideas. They've always worked with many tools.

As for the Joyce's curating here, a close inspection of this line-up reveals that if anything, Joyce executive director Linda Shelton and program director Martin Wechsler deserve to be saluted for programming artists who don't fit so conveniently into the 'dance' box..... In a promising portent for 2004, Danspace Project and Dance Theater Workshop are also starting their winter seasons with artists who have long drawn from multiple forms, with the former presenting David Gordon beginning Thursday, and DTW offering David Parker starting January 28.

Speaking of boxes, three, more than 20 years into the AIDS pandemic, persons with HIV and AIDs are still being put into them, and I'm not just referring to the ones they get buried in if they succumb to AIDS-related illness. As noted here last month, Mathew Cussick, a 32-year-old gymnast, has filed a complaint before the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Cirque du Soleil fired him as a 'catcher' in a Russian High Bar act and as a Chinese tall pole performer just days before he was to join the show, because of the risk Cirque du Soleil contended Cusick's HIV status posed to other performers. Cirque du Soleil insisted, the Associated Press reported, that it does not discriminate against HIV-positive employees, and that Cusick is welcome to work for the company -- just not in a job that requires so much physical contact.

I'd like to share with you Aaron E. Baldwin's letter to Cirque du Soleil, which Baldwin recently shared with us:

Please allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Aaron Baldwin. I am the individual who was very politely asked to leave the parking lot of Cirque du Soleil (CDS) "Algeria" show last Thursday night. I guess the CDS staff did not approve of my handing out leaflets to their patrons, in reference to the current allegations of HIV discrimination (by Cirque du Soleil) against my good friend Matthew Cusick.

Just a few weeks now before World AIDS Day, and on the heels of the 5th year anniversary of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, I felt that it is my moral responsibility to speak out against this alleged injustice. So on Thursday night, on a very cold and rainy fall San Francisco evening, I went down to the CDS parking lot. It was my hope that the educational leaflets that I had would help to inform CDS patrons of the alleged other side of Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque du Soleil, by its very own public admission, had chosen to terminate Matthew Cusick's employment solely on the bases on his HIV status. So the question that one is now compelled to ask is, did Cirque du Soleil break the law when they did this or were their fears justified? I have no way of intelligently answering these questions, as I assume is the case for many members of this group, as most of us have no formal legal training and CDS has yet to be given its day in court. However, I do know how to think, read and to how to listen to what my heart tells me. I recently read the 2002 United Nations AIDS report, where they stated that "today the driving forces behind the spread of HIV are the stigma and discrimination of the very disease itself." That the social taboos about discussing sex, the moral judgments that people often place on each other and the stigma too often placed upon People Living with AIDS (PLWA)... are all continuing to drive this hideous disease into hiding. That fear of HIV stigma and discrimination today often compels an individual to keep their HIV status locked up in some secret closet. That in turn, actually only serves to continue the spread of HIV.

What most of you probably do not know, is that Matthew Cusick gave up everything he had for the opportunity of fulfilling a lifelong dream of performing with the great Cirque du Soleil. He gave up the two businesses that he had started: physical training and gymnastic coaching. That Matthew and his lover (whose career would not allow him to move with Matthew to Las Vegas) had mutually agreed to end their long term relationship so that Matthew could pursue his dream. Matthew also left behind his family and a lifetime of friends, which is often the case with others who are hoping to perform with Cirque.

Today, Matthew Cusick is living in the basement of his mother's home and he is without even the means of paying for his own medical care. Medical care that Matthew may one day soon very desperately need. However, don't you worry (about) Matthew Cusick, because (those) of us who are his friends... are making sure that all his needs are being met as he begins to rebuild his life.... Here in North America there appears to be some growing belief that we now have the HIV virus under control. But do we really? It is reported that there are currently 1,000,000 Americans and 50,000 Canadians infected with the HIV virus. Of all the new HIV infections in the North America last year, 51% of then occurred in human beings under the age of 25 and slightly more than 25% of them are teenagers. (For more info, click here.) In Canada, 27% of all of the new HIV infections are in people between the ages of 13 to 29. Perhaps this is all some crazy coincidence, but I really don't think so! Education of the facts, and a freedom from unnecessary persecution and discrimination saves lives.

Many of these young human beings who are today becoming infected with HIV, are also fans of the "Circus of the Sun." They are the very same children and young adults who were once sitting on the edges of their chairs (as we all have) while watching the greatest performers in the world. They too have also dreamed that same impossible dream, that one day they might perform for the great Cirque du Soleil.

The facts about HIV and sports: To date, there has NEVER been even one confirmed case of an HIV infection relating from sports. This includes; football, rugby, basketball, lacrosse, boxing and every other known sport. Sports where not only is blood often spilled, but where it is encouraged and often viewed as a kind of badge of distinction when it happens. I would dare to say, that if there was even one confirmed case of a sports related HIV infection, parents all around the world would be removing their children from all competitive sports programs.

Over the past years, Cirque du Soleil has encouraged it patrons to go out and to "Dream the Impossible Dream." This is exactly what my good friend Matthew Cusick did. His dreams, like all of our dreams, were very precious to him. You see, our dreams make up the very fabric and foundation of our lives, and no one who ever fulfills another dream... should ever be able to take that dream back!! I, too, encourage everyone to continue dreaming that impossible dream. However, I would first encourage you to stop and remember the words of some other great dreamers. Dreamers like the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who through his words, shared his dream for this world, in his "I Have a Dream" speech. (Through) that dream and through his words, he was able to impact the basic human rights of so human beings around the world.

I would also ask you to remember the words of the great Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw. Think about how even today, Shaw's words can still inspire the masses whenever they are quoted: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream things of that never were and say, 'Why not?'"

Now if the facts about HIV infections during sports and the words of great Dr. King and Mr. Shaw have not caused you to re-think your position, as it relates to Matthew Cusick, then I would ask you to consider these words from the Joe Darion lyrics, from the play "Man of La Mancha":

To dream the impossible dream,
to fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
to run where the brave dare not go...

To fight for the right
without question or pause
to be willing to march into hell...
for a heavenly cause.

Additionally, I would like encourage everyone to continue supporting all the wonderful and talented men and woman,who make up the casts of the amazing productions, that is Cirque du Soleil! This issue of discrimination should not be their burden to carry, for it truly belongs on the shoulders of CDS management.

I thank you for your understanding on this very important issue.

God bless you all.

Aaron E. Baldwin


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