A triple lutz does not represent human misery

By Robin Baranyai, Special to Postmedia Network

Creating art always involves taking a risk. Art can be a platform to challenge and provoke. It can expose corruption or celebrate achievement. Art can connect audiences emotionally to a past that should not be forgotten. Or it can fall flat on its face.

A small furor rippled through the ice-dancing world this week, after Russian figure skaters Tatiana Navka and Andrei Burkovsky performed a Holocaust-themed routine on the TV show Ice Age. Made up to look bruised and gaunt, the pair dressed in striped prisoners' uniforms bearing yellow Stars of David. The performance was inspired by the Oscar-winning 1997 film Life is Beautiful, in which a father goes to elaborate lengths to make his son believe their internment in a concentration camp is part of a harmless game.

Condemnation of the routine was swift and biting. Comedic actor Michael Ian Black tweeted: "This might be offensive if they hadn't taken such great care to recreate all the wonderful ice dancing going on at Auschwitz at the time." Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev denounced the performance on Army Radio. "Motifs from the Holocaust are not for parties, not for dance and not for reality shows," she said with finality.

With due respect for the sensitivity of the subject matter, the minister's statement seems overly broad. If approached respectfully, surely dance is a legitimate form of creative expression to explore tragedy, cruelty and loss, even on a profound scale.

Holocaust remembrance activities around the world explore these themes in a range of media. The Mordechai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition in Philadelphia encourages students to "respond to the lessons of the Holocaust and the related issues of ethnic, racial and religious intolerance through creative expression."

Submissions include works of poetry, short fiction, dance, photography, drawing, painting, original song, sculpture, quilting and video.

Like the art and poetry competitions sponsored by Royal Canadian Legions each November, these activities engage students in the act of remembrance. In an age of ever-fewer living witnesses, the connection is vital.

Nazi atrocities have inspired some of the world's most impactful art, from Picasso's Guernica, to Shostakovich's Symphony 13, about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar. Art helps people connect emotionally to the unfathomable. It keeps history alive.

Of course, there is a wide gulf between memorial art and reality television. In the Ice Age routine, many were offended the Holocaust was less its subject than a backdrop for entertainment.

However, it's worth noting, Life is Beautiful faced the same criticism when it was released. Yet for many viewers, the film created an emotional connection to historical events by scaling down the tragedy to a few relatable characters.

The politics of identity is an inevitable presence in these debates. Reports noted Navka, a former Olympic gold medallist, is married to Vladimir Putin's press aide, Dmitry Peskov; the choreographer and chief producer, Ilya Averbukh, is Jewish.

But remembrance is not the sole domain of communities who have suffered. The debate should not be about who is qualified to make art about atrocities, but the cultural importance of artistic response.

In truth, the routine was not very good.

While film and dance can express universal truths about war, some forms of artistic expression may be inherently ill-suited to the task. A triple lutz is not an ideal articulation of human suffering. But how does any artist deliver social commentary without pushing the boundaries of their medium?

To judge the artistic merit of such an attempt, it seems to me, we must weigh not only the outcome, but the intent. Every artist takes a risk. But the real failure is not to try.