Performers Vying for Chance to Tour USSR

  • Capital Connections ®
  • -
  • 04/1986

by Karen Feld

There aren’t a lot of rubles in it, but American performers are jumping on the bandwagon headed for the Soviet Union, not that the US-Soviet cultural exchange program is in effect. 

It’s the prestige rather than the money that motivates them to go. “There’s no way the Soviets will make a visit to the Soviet Union a financial bonanza for Americans.” explains Stephen Rhinesmith, who is coordinating the exchange on the US side. 

“Financially it’s a one-way show.  Americans will pay top box office prices to see Soviet performers, but the Soviet philosophy about the performing arts is different.”

American impresarios, local and national alike, have adopted an entrepreneurial spirit in attempting to do business with the Soviets since the United States and the Soviet Union concluded a new General Exchanges Agreement in Geneva last Nov. 21.  The agreement, signed by Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, marked the reception of official exchanges in academics, culture, sports, health and the performing arts between the two countries for the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  The agreement calls for reciprocal tours by 1988 by at least 10 major performing arts groups and at least 10 individual performers from each country. 

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s performance in Moscow last Sunday was the first solo performance there by an American artist since the exchange agreement.  The Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts in Albany was the first theatrical troupe to make the trip with it’s “Rag Dolly” a musical about Raggedy Ann. 

The first major Soviet performers to tour the United States will be the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, which introduced Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Rudolph Nureyev.  The Kirov, which has not played in the United States in 22 years, is booked into three cities: Los Angeles May 21-26, Philadelphia May 28-31 and Washington June 2-5.  The Ganelin Trio, a jazz group, will tour the United States this summer, and the Moscow State Orchestra will tour next fall.  Other discussions are under way. 

The US Information Agency is acting as a liaison with private impresarios who will manage the Soviet performers’ US tours.  Rhinesmith, a specialist in international exchange, acknowledges difficulties in dealing with two different systems of doing business, but he is confident this will improve. 

The November agreement, which followed long negotiations, caught many people off guard.  Now there is a scramble to implement it.  Top performing artists are usually booked a year or two in advance.  For this reason, the Kirov Ballet cancelled some dates on its Canadian tour to make time for its US performances.  Another problem was that, after a six-year lapse in cultural exchanges, USIA didn’t have funds or personnel in place.  Like performer’s schedules, the agency’s budget is planned a year or two in advance. 

USIA has been flooded with requests from performers who want to go to the Soviet Union.  It has received hundreds of proposals from organizations ranging from major symphony orchestras and pop music groups to high schools that would like to send their baseball teams to the Soviet Union.  Rhinesmith has already taken 37 proposals to the Soviet Union to determine interest there.  “It’s been a one-way flow of Americans into the Soviet Union,” Rhinesmith says. “We’re interested in getting teen-agers out of the Soviet Union and into the United States to live for a year.”

The selection process works like this: The National Endowment for the Arts makes a list of recommendations, which is sent to the US Embassy in Moscow for review. Those recommendations are presented to Goskoncert, the Soviet state concert organization, which decides the mix and the balance.  “We would like to send a Broadway play, a Dixieland group, individual country and pop artists – a wide range, groups and individuals who are representatives of America,” Rhinesmith says. 

Goskoncert also decides which Soviet artists will come to the United States.  

“In dealing with a government agency such as Goskoncert, one has to negotiate the financing and artistic endeavors separately, with the government as the intermediary,” says Jane Herman, director of presentations for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.   She is involved in discussions with Goskoncert to bring Soviet conductors and vocalists to America, as well as Bolshoi Ballet and Opera. 

“They’re very savvy people,” Herman says of Goskoncert.  “They know what their talent is worth, and they’re playing the American market for all it’s worth.”

Rhinesmith agrees.  “The Soviets are bargaining quite hard here.  During this startup period they’re the hot commodity, and they’re playing it for what it’s worth.  They’re getting $10,000 to $20,000 a performance for major groups like the Kirov Ballet.  For individual performance artists, they’re still trying to see what the market will bear. 

“The Soviets look at American ticket prices, $30 to $40 each, and their eyes light up, but the cost of staging, housing, and feeding 120 people in Washington or New York is enormous.  The Soviets may walk away with a half a million dollars because they work a group hard, seven days a week, but with the exception of a long grueling tour in the US, they don’t appear to be walking off with millions.”

Among American performers, recording artists who command $30,000 to $40,000 dollars or more per concert in the United States won’t get more than $5,000 of $10,000 dollars in the Soviet Union, according to Rhinesmith.  Inorder to reap some financial rewards, performers are looking into television and recording rights for their performances. (For example, Horowitz sold the television rights to his concert broadcast last Sunday.)

Americans are competing among themselves to present the Soviet artists, according to Herman.  “The Russians are not going to come cheap.  The Americans will pay every nickel.  The Russians are good businessmen. If one person won’t pay it at this stage then another will.”

Even San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and her husband, financial entrepreneur Dick Blum, are trying to get in the act.  They reportedly visited the Soviet Union in an effort to bring the Bolshoi to San Francisco.  Washington arts patron Adrienne Arsht Feldman has met with Goskoncert representatives in an effort to take members of the American Ballet Theater to the Soviet Union. 

“Everybody wants to take Frank Sinatra to the Soviet Union, but there’s absolutely no confirmation that Frank Sinatra is going anywhere,” Rhinesmith says. Dustin Hoffman doesn’t have a plane ticket to Moscow yet either, although insiders say “Tootsie” is one of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s favorite films. 

One of the first to get in on the act was Lee Lamont, an agent with International Creative Management (ICM) in New York, who is coordinating the US engagement for the Kirov Ballet in conjunction with a Canadian tour that had been scheduled before the November agreement.  Lamont worked for Sol Horok in 1956 when he was the only one bringing Russian talent to America.  “It’s a little easier working with them today,” she says, attributing in part to younger people in the Soviet government. 

Negotiators hope the agreement will prove to be a step toward a free flow of cultural accomplishments and an important part of both American and Soviet heritage. 

“Our purpose is to expand contact between the people of the United States and the people of the Soviet Union,” Rhinesmith says.  “The more people know about one another, the better.”

Karen Feld is a free-lance writer based in Washington.

Back to Articles