Frontlines

Star-studded lineups in a game of high risks

Constance Brissenden November 5 1979
Frontlines

Star-studded lineups in a game of high risks

Constance Brissenden November 5 1979

Star-studded lineups in a game of high risks

Constance Brissenden

Arthur Harnett went to Moscow to watch a hockey game and came home with the Bolshoi Ballet. When the Toronto impresario visited the Soviet Union during the World Cup hockey series last April, he dropped in at the Bolshoi’s office and found the company eager to add a Canadian turn to its United States fall tour. And so, unlike his New York counterpart, Samuel Niefeld, who spent three years arranging the U.S. circuit, Harnett was able to put together his Bolshoi tour of Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto this past summer with three quick trips to Moscow in April and May. And also unlike Niefeld, who was subsequently scorched by three Bolshoi defections— Aleksandr Godunov in New York and Leonid and Valentina Kozlov in Los Angeles—Harnett is being welcomed back to the Soviet negotiating tables this month. It’s the kind of break that Canada’s impresarios, who number about 50, fantasize about as they handle and import touring performers and shows which run the gamut of tastes from The Rolling Stones through Englebert Humperdinck and the Moscow Circus to the Prague Chamber Orchestra.

“The Bolshoi Ballet is revered in Moscow as the premier company in the world, the flagship of Soviet entertainment abroad,” says Harnett. “Defections hurt that image very badly. There will be a definite reluctance to visit the U.S. again.” Within 10 days of the Bolshoi defections, that attitude was made clear to the American impresario Niefeld. He was hauled on the carpet in Moscow and asked to guarantee that there would be no defections during his scheduled October tour of the Moscow State Symphony. When Niefeld replied that such a promise was impossible, the Soviets summarily cancelled the 23-city visit less than a week before it was due to begin.

For U.S. impresarios (the title comes from the Italian impresa, meaning enterprise), politics has muscled in on the marriage of art and investment which is their domain. But for Harnett, the defections augur a rosy future for Canadians who have had difficulty in the past importing Soviet attractions because of U.S. competition. “The Soviets now appear to have more confidence in Canadian impresarios; we’ll be seeing more of them in the future,” he predicts.

The impresario, once the top-hatted symbol of cultural enterprise, walks a tightrope between art and business, with business the main component of his balancing act. Some, such as Vancouver’s David Y.H. Lui, who has been that city’s dance master for seven years, steer clear of the Bolshoi which “costs a bundle,” preferring to handle more accessible, less expensive companies such as the National Ballet of Canada or New York’s Joffrey Ballet. But even with a more cautious approach than some eastern impresarios — Lui will promote 49 concerts this year while Montreal’s Sam Gesser takes on 150—and lower expenses on the West Coast, spiralling costs still affect every deal that Lui makes. As every impresario knows, there’s no limit to the amount of money that can be spent on attractions, but ticket prices have a ceiling—beyond which audiences will choose to stay home and watch TV.

Ironically, despite the popularity and prestige of Soviet groups, they often contribute only indirectly to the impresario’s coffers. Soviet artists became hot properties demanding exorbitant fees under Sol Hurok, the legendary Russian émigré to the U.S. who, through sheer showmanship over the course of his 50 years in the business, developed an eager, adulatory audience for the music and dance of his homeland. Says Martin Feinstein, once a Hurok assistant (Hurok died in 1974): “Sometimes an impresario gets the Bolshoi and is happy if he breaks even.” Adds Feinstein, now executive director of performing arts with Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center: “Having the Bolshoi helps an impresario’s clients sell more season subscriptions and adds lustre to his other attractions.”

If the Soviets add lustre, defections leave a bitter aftertaste with impresarios. The flight of dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov from a Toronto hotel during a 1974 Bolshoi tour transformed him into a Western superstar, but left the Montreal impresarios Nicolas and Rita Koudriavtzeff, who had imported the group, with a whopping $154,000 debt. Adding insult to injury was a charge by the Bolshoi’s company manager, Aleksandr Lapauri, that the couple had helped the dancer defect. Says a stilldismayed Rita Koudriavtzeff: “I told Lapauri, ‘If we were crazy enough to help him, surely we would have waited until after the tour.’ ”

Without Baryshnikov, around whom all the Koudriavtzeffs’ advertising was focused, a large proportion of the couple’s remaining audiences demanded refunds on their presold tickets, and their company tottered on the brink of bankruptcy. Adds Rita Koudriavtzeff: “The Soviets are bigger capitalists than we are. They gave us absolutely no financial breaks.” Nicolas Koudriavtzeff was the first Canadian impresario to sponsor the Bolshoi; the incident finished his relations with them.

“I survive by concentrating on what my intuition tells me will be a surefire winner,” says impresario J. Sergei Sawchyn of Toronto. In 1974, Sawchyn left the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as general manager and began his own company, Cantour, to import and tour Canadian and foreign groups. Like many impresarios, Sawchyn, who brought the Moscow Circus to Toronto in 1977 for a vaunted tour, organizes productions of his own to add to his coffers. His major regret is that “every single cost in the business is up. There are some things that I just can’t bring to the Canadian stage because I can’t justify the gamble.”

The big acts that impresarios promote entail big risks. In the U.S., if the Soviets decided to withdraw a company (always a threat if an artist defects), the impresario would lose not only the remaining dates on the tour but would also have to pay the remaining performers’ plane fares back to Moscow, plus a fee to the Gosconcerts, the Soviet agency that arranges cultural tours. Harnett’s contract for the Bolshoi’s Canadian appearances did not include this clause because the Bolshoi wanted the extra tour dates. The cancellation of the Moscow symphony tour left definite feelings of uneasiness among U.S. impresarios. But, for Harnett, an impresario’s dream is about to come true: Moscow beckons and his Soviet shopping list is growing. “They were very pleased with Canada and our arrangements with them,” he says, adding in understatement: “I’m looking forward to seeing them again.” £?