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Russophone Emigrants in the Performing and Visual Arts

Konecny, Mark

American culture of the twentieth century benefited enormously from emigration from Russia and the USSR; theater, film and music were imbued with an unexpected wealth of creative energy. In New York and Hollywood, Russian actors, directors, composers and musicians transformed the American conception of entertainment. Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater immensely successful tour of Europe and New York in 1922-1923, which was organized by Otto Kahn and Morris Gest, the impresario who also brought Russian ballet companies to the West in the 1920s as well as Nikita Balieff's "Chauve Souris," inspired generations of actors to participate in workshops of theatrical innovation such as the American Laboratory Theater under the direction of MKhAT alumnus, Richard Boleslawsky and Maria Ouspenskaia, as well as Mikhail Chekhov's schools in New York and Hollywood. The American stage and screen benefited enormously from the performance methods taught by Lee Strasberg ("Hyman Roth" in "The Godfather"), Stella Adler, and director Elia Kazan, and continued by the still active Actor's Studio and students such as Brando, Hoffman, and DeNiro which had a powerful influence on the shaping of American performing arts. Entrepreneurs like Gest, Boris Romanoff and Sergei Balk brought a new and exciting presence to New York theater in the 1920s, and later to Hollywood. The unexpected blend of vaudeville and high art in Russian cabaret and adaptations of "Crime and Punishment" done by Theodore Komisarjevsky in 1947-48 and Yury Liubimov in 1987 are illustrative of the great influence of Russian theater in America. In the arena of choral music, the famed Don Cossack Choir conducted by Serge Zharoff found a home in the USA in the late 1930s. Among other luminaries who immigrated to America during this period were Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky. The later fourth wave of emigration from the USSR during the Brezhnev era brought several well-established Russian musical luminaries to America, notably cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who was appointed as conductor of the National Philharmonic in Washington, D.C., and pianist Vladimir Feltsman.

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Harriman Institute
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September 20, 2013
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