As 2012 draws to a close and turmoil brews across the Middle East and elsewhere, there's no doubt that we are a long way from the golden age of cultural diplomacy.
Gone are the days when the U.S. State Department sent the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington jetting around the world to expose hundreds of thousands to America's great homegrown art forms. And though the government still deigns to send the occasional American musician to a distant outpost in China or Africa, the idea of cultural outreach as a political priority belongs to another time.
So it came as something of a surprise when LehrerDance, the gifted Buffalo-based dance company founded by choreographer Jon Lehrer in 2007, received an invitation to perform from the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok, Russia, in August.
The owner of a dance studio in Vladivostok, a city of 600,000 in the far southeastern reaches of Russia near North Korea, had been charged by the consulate with finding an American dance company to bring to town. With the help of an American dance festival director, she assembled a list of the 100 best dance companies in America, from which the small but ambitious LehrerDance was selected by a panel.
So it was that Lehrer and his troupe of nine dancers boarded a plane in Buffalo a few days before Christmas, and flew halfway around the world. They gave two performances to a near sell-out crowd in 700-seat theater in Vladivostok and a sold-out performance on the island of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatzkiy on Christmas.
The fans treated the dancers like rock stars. The concert organizers insisted that company members greet the audience immediately after their final performance, Lehrer said. When they came into the lobby, still dressed in their skin-tight costumes from the final number, the scene was overwhelming.
“Literally, every single person [from the audience] was there. It was like one of those rock and roll scenes, all of them wanting autographs, pictures, videos, and it lasted well over an hour,” Lehrer said. “So I was very happy for the dancers. They got a little dose of that.”
Imagine a modern dancer getting that kind of attention in the United States.
Though the act of sending one small dance company from Buffalo into the farthest reaches of Russia isn't going to have any measurable effect on the foreign policy of either country, it does qualify as an important political act. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law barring Americans from adopting Russian children in retaliation for a U.S. law punishing Russian human rights abusers, every little bit of cultural diplomacy helps. And Buffalo should be proud that their native sons and daughters played a little role.
What will be much more measurable is the effect of the tour on Lehrer's company, which is preparing for a heavy year of performing in 2013 – including a European tour next fall. In addition to countless new Facebook friend requests from Russia, the company's international profile is sure to rise as a result of the tour.
LehrerDance is one of the great success stories of Buffalo's recent cultural resurgence. Its dancers, each of whom could pull off careers in larger cities, have chosen to stay with Lehrer in Buffalo and to build their reputation concert by concert. Their work is obviously paying off and, with encouragement, will yield benefits for the company and its home city.
“Sometimes [on] tours like this you go and you perform and that's it,” Lehrer said. “But there was so much more to this trip personally and socially. As you know, my dancers, I am so lucky, they are so committed to this vision I have. They were excited to be sharing our vision with the world.”