Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ukraine Day 3 – The G is Silent

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s small ensemble Potomac Fever had a public performance on the outdoor main stage of the America Days Festival today. In addition to us, there were jazz instrumentalists and vocalists featured at the festival in Lviv’s Opera House square.

After a lazy morning of sleeping in, we arrived at the stage to meet our new security detail. The square was filled with vendors selling food, coffee, honey-flavored vodka (a new favorite of mine), and traditional clothes. There were fully costumed animal characters à la New York’s Times Square, and an impressive presentation of US Army troops showing off one of their hummers. Gen. Hodges came right up to us for a photo opp. He is as personable as he is decorated. The Army is currently training Ukrainian troops in Yavoriv, just outside of Lviv. This is one of the many factors contributing to the positive reception of Americans in Ukraine. For as much as we may have to go back in the closet for a bit in the more public performances in Ukraine, our American identity makes us welcome almost anywhere we go.

While we were meeting by the stage pre-show, we were awkwardly asked by our security to move over to a holding tent. There were lots of people in uniform around the stage, and I later learned that some of them weren’t actual soldiers, but rather right wing paramilitary extremists. The kind that wouldn’t like a gay chorus being there if they knew who we were. I’m glad there were more of our uniforms than theirs.

Today’s performance at the America Days festival was very public, which means it was one of the performances where we used the title Potomac Fever, and made no mention of gay. There were surely people who knew the full story if they bothered to Google search the group. Leading up to the tour, many allies have been informed through liberal social channels. The US Embassy has worked hard to get the word out to the right people and keep it from the wrong people. So far so good. On the tail end of the tour, there will be a lot of local media to get the word out that a gay chorus toured Ukraine. Those TV and radio spots are already lined up, and we’ll be safely en route home.

The performance today had a bit of a rock concert element to it. We chose some of our more popular songs (Teenage Dream anyone?) and had the audience dancing and singing along. Afterwards, a bunch of teen girls wanted pictures with the group.

Another fun thing happened at the festival. The America House in Ukraine organized an effort to break the Guinness World Record for the largest English Lesson (currently held by Germany). Hundreds of people in the square participated, and there were about 100 other locations doing the same thing simultaneously around the country. We don’t know yet it the record was broken, but the goal was 6,000 people participating.

After the festival, we all boarded a bus to go to the Ukrainian Catholic University Campus for a performance hosted by the US Embassy in honor of Memorial Day. You heard that right – we sang at the Catholic University of an orthodox country. That experience deserves its own post, so I’ll cover that another time.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ukraine day 2- “I know courage when I see it”

After a security briefing last night, which not only covered the state of LGBTQ affairs in Ukraine but also our own personal safety, we awoke this morning to take a walking tour of Lviv with at least seven security personnel in tow. I say “at least” because we were told that we won’t see all the security that is in place for us. Violence against LGBTQ people, while technically against the law in Ukraine, is still common.

On the one hand, there’s a bit of a rock star feeling having your own security detail. On the other hand, having someone watch your every move makes you begin to watch your own actions and behaviors. Should I have worn a more masculine shade of blue? Should I avoid certain movements? Should I lower my voice (sorry tenors)?  Should I say the word gay in public? Questioning this kind of thing, to many of us, is like questioning if we should breathe. And it makes us all the more aware that it is our role to use any privileges we have to help those who have fewer.

The backdrop of security was only eclipsed by the backdrop of renaissance, baroque and classicism that is preserved in the architecture of a city. With its roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Polish rule, and that of the USSR, Lviv is a perplexingly western European city, lying somewhere in the visual landscape between Prague and Vienna. As the Mayor of Lviv said in his address before our concert tonight, everyone leaves a bit of their heart in Lviv – and I can see why.

Now about that concert. Our first official performance was the opening of the America Days weekend festival in Lviv. Taking place at the Lviv Philharmonic, an acoustically and visually rich concert hall, this concert was a 75-minute set combining our music and stories about the LGBTQ experiences our singers have had back home. If Lviv didn’t know we were gay (and to be fair, some of them didn’t), it became unmistakable tonight.

It was a notable concert for many reasons. To borrow a phrase from the hit musical Hamilton – it was about who was in the room where it happened. This impressive list included the Mayor of Lviv, the Governor of the Lviv region, most of the US Embassy staff including Ambassador Pyatt, and several US military personnel including Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, Commanding General of the US Army in Europe.

Notably, one of the Catholic Bishops from the Lviv diocese was present. Even after we started, he stayed for four songs. Leaving early may seem like an insult from the US perspective. True, an American rebuffing the performance of a diplomatic guest may be insulting. But for a Ukrainian, it’s a different matter. It wasn’t until the stories in between songs began to explicitly discuss same sex marriage that the Bishop decided to leave. Overall, it's a huge sign that the people who make policy and influence opinions in Ukraine showed up publicly to our concert. As we understand it, nothing like this has ever happened. And as one Ukrainian on social media said, “the sky didn’t fall.”

After our concert, Gen. Hodges approached us and remarked of the performance, “I know courage when I see it.” Think about that. In a post Don’t Ask Don’t Tell world, hearing the head of NATO land command in Europe tell a group of gay guys that they are courageous is pretty incredible. Maybe he knows just how much security we have while we’re here. Potomac Fever and the GMCW family supporting us back home are, indeed, courageous.

However, I would respectfully amend what Gen. Hodges said. He made this very kind and supportive statement to us backstage, under the cloak of security, and in good company. The courage, in my mind, is also in all the people who attended the concert; all the people who are already tweeting about the concert; the people Gen. Hodges oversees to make sure we are safe all over Europe; and all the people who worked through government red tape (on the US and Ukraine side) to make the concert and tour happen.

In Washington, we are lucky. We can go to any concert, any museum, any meeting, and our lives are relatively safe (the metrorail notwithstanding). The people who came to our first concert tonight, and who will come visit us on the rest of the tour, are the truly courageous ones. While we can go home safely after this tour, our audiences may risk personal safety, political scandal, employment, and familial relationships if they show support in a country where 72% of people have a negative view on LGBTQ rights.

So to those who show up, who advocate for what is right, who use their power and influence in Ukraine and abroad to save more lives, we say to you: we know courage when we see it.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Ukraine Day 1 - #artsenvoy

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC has sent its small ensemble, Potomac Fever, on a US State Department sponsored diplomacy tour to promote LGBTQ rights in Ukraine. This tour came about due to the success of our Cuba concert tour last summer. Earlier this year, the US Embassy in Ukraine called us up and said they loved what we did in Cuba, and would like us to bring that kind of diplomacy to Ukraine – a country that is deeply in need of unity on LGBTQ and other issues.

I am beginning this travelogue from the Kiev airport. Notably, the capital of Ukraine is pronounced KEEV by Ukrainians and KI-EV by Russians. No doubt this is one of many cultural distinctions we will encounter for the next week here. We are approaching our 20th hour of travel to get to Ukraine, so I'm writing this a bit bleary-eyed. 

Before we even boarded the plane, we had learned that the Ukrainian political activist and captive in Russian prison, Nadia Savchenko, was just released back to Ukraine after two years. The “Joan of Ark” of Ukraine has been a symbol of national unity and anti-Russia sentiment since her capture. This impressed upon us the seriousness with which human rights and freedom are part of the dialogue in the country we’re about to visit.

Our first travel stop was Munich, an airport apocalyptically empty and sparkling clean in the morning hours. It also seems big enough to have its own zip code. We found lounge chairs to sleep/read in for a couple of hours until the next flight. For this trip, I am re-reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin - an innovator and diplomat who spoke and wrote about individual freedom, equality, and political autonomy his entire life. Seems fitting considering the circumstances.

After a two or so hour plane ride from Munich to Kiev, we find ourselves in a bare bones but clean airport for the second layover of our travel. The Kiev airport has a colorful piano available to the public for playing (which reminds me of the Sing for Hope pianos in NYC). Naturally our first thought was, “if Ukraine encourages public performance, we came to the right place.” So we had our first pop-up performance right there in the airport.

Our final destination today is Lviv - one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe. When we finally get in around 10pm tonight, we will have a cultural and security briefing with the US Embassy.

Speaking of security - what is unique about this tour for GMCW is that we are doing very little public promotion ahead of time. This is a stark contract from Cuba, for which we hired a publicist in the U.S. and were on the radio every other day leading up to the tour. Additionally, for this tour we are highlighting the name Potomac Fever more than Gay Men’s Chorus. In recent months and years there has been violence in Ukraine against LGBTQ people during public event and rallies, so this nuanced messaging is understandably for our safety.

You’ll even notice that the publishing of this blog, including any concert location info, won't occur until after events have taken place. In a way, it harkens back to the early days of GMCW when we sometimes used the name Federal City Performing Arts Association in an attempt to shield supporters and singers from unnecessary questioning and harassment in the early 80s.

Returning to this approach is strange considering the post-marriage equality experience we enjoy back home. But it is important to first meet people where they are if we want to establish any kind of trust or connection. It also underscores the need for this type of diplomacy at home in places where discrimination is still alive and well. That’s why GMCW will be traveling to North Carolina this summer, as another extension of our Beyond the Beltway program.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Partnership or "Partnership"?

Partnership has been a bit of a buzzword in arts funding circles. I remember first encountering it as an intern at Washington Performing Arts. I had the fortune of some really great mentors there that taught me the difference between a partnership and a "partnership." The latter, I would replace with the word transaction, and I'll explain the distinction.

First, the transaction. Everyone in the arts loves to use warm fuzzy words (well, almost everyone), and most people hate talking about money (well, most people). So, rather than saying "we paid so and so to be here," it can be more comfortable to say "we're partnering with so and so." A great example is media sponsorship. Oftentimes, particularly at a festival, there will be a media outlet credited as the media partner. What normally happens is the media outlet provides discounted advertising to the organization/event in exchange for the title and branding of media partner.

Now I'm not criticizing this model. It benefits everyone. And if you can get one of these discount/barter relationships, you should. But a partnership it is not.

A partnership, to me, is a much deeper collaborative relationship in which new art is happening as a result of shared process. There are a few key elements to a partnership: openness to outside perspective; owning a healthy sense of your own perspective; compromise; being unafraid to experiment; knowing the outcome will be different than you imagined when you started.

Only slightly bragging on some great people I work with, here's a recent example of a phenomenal partnership. This past weekend, 5 organizations came together to perform a never-before-seen version of Carmina Burana. The epic choral work turns 80 this year, and Dr. Thea Kano (Artistic Director) and I wanted to turn this work on its head through the lgbt lens.

At Alice Tully Hall in NYC, we saw The New York City Master Chorale, the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC, the National Children's Chorus, Gallim Dance Company, and the piano/percussion ensemble Yarn Wire all collaborate on a shared vision of turning Carmina upside down, exposing it as relevant today as ever. Getting all of these organizations to share in a vision, and jump into the deep end together, was a year and a half in the making. What's more - it was better, but also different than I expected.

Of course we knew it would be good. But I suppose we didn't know how "newness" would feel when first tried on for size. Yarn Wire brought an energetic and unexpectedly visual component to their musical presentation. Gallim Dance pushed boundaries that we hadn't event considered with gender-bending and bawdy choreography. The combination of the Gay Men's Chorus and NYC Master Chorale, both of whom are led by Dr. Thea Kano, was like a meeting of long lost siblings for the first time. It wasn't just showing up and singing; it was an emotional moment that had been building for 10 years when Thea first started the Master Chorale. The children's chorus, juxtaposed with the heavy and emotional choreography and chest pumping percussion, brought a sense of innocence that caught me off guard.

We'll be doing something very similar in the coming weekend. We'll swap out the children's chorus for our own LGBTQA GenOUT Youth Chorus in Washington at the Kennedy Center, and we're hiring local instrumentalists rather than a pre-formed ensemble. To see how things change with new elements will be very interesting, and add another layer of newness onto this collaboration.