Vlad Savich: My first question: Can you tell our readers and me about yourself?
Genia Blum: I’m a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. I was a ballet dancer for far more years than I’ve been a writer, and I’ve lived longer in Switzerland than in my birthplace Canada. When my father fled Ukraine after World War II, he came as far as the Swiss border, where thousands of refugees were turned away, and he was unable to access Switzerland’s “little lifeboat.” Forced to retrace his steps, he found asylum in a displaced persons camp in Landeck, Austria, where he met my ballerina mother, a former soloist of the Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet. They married, immigrated to Canada, and received new citizenship. I was born in Winnipeg, and chose the same profession as my mother. When I traveled to Switzerland to join the Lucerne Ballet, a friendly Swiss border guard waved me through and, when I married a Swiss man, a red passport flew straight into my hands. Our two children have dual Swiss and Canadian citizenships, and Ukraine remains in their genes and in the Slavic temperament they inherited from my side of the family—moods that fluctuate between blazing passion and ponderous nostalghia—while the language of my Ukrainian diaspora childhood has almost disappeared in our otherwise multilingual family. An avid reader as a child, my most important cultural influences were books, films, and TV programs of Canadian, British, and US origin, and almost everything I write today is in English.
Daria Blum: As much as I loved growing up in Switzerland, I always knew I’d move away after school. My studies took me to Paris, Berlin, the Hague and, finally, London, where I now live and work as a full-time performance and video artist (and part-time Photoshop retoucher) after graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins. I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to travel and immerse myself in many cultures, both at home and abroad, and become fluent in several languages.
VS: Your story is like a novel, “… dancer and writer …” Genia, tell me please, is writing similar to dancing?
GB: To me it seems very different, although I always feel like a performer, not only when reading in front of an audience. When I first began writing, my intention was to follow the same standards I apply to all art: authenticity of emotion before mastery of technique. In my former life, obeying instructions from ballet teachers and fulfilling the visions of choreographers, I often did things that felt wrong or harmful to me. Even when I choreographed for others, I didn’t have absolute control over the end product, the performance. As a writer, I adhere to my own rhythm, listen to my own melody, choose, combine, and own every element of what appears on the page. It’s a huge contrast to the days when I followed, blindly, the commands of an aptly titled ballet “master” or “mistress.” Of course, my classical ballet training taught me iron self-discipline, something I still need as a writer to stay on track and focus on goals. My career as dancer was built on constant striving for perfection, tempered by the daily criticism of a studio mirror, and I internalized the attitude that although, at times, I might fall short of my own expectations, I’d never give up.
VS: Daria, the novel of your life is just beginning. You are an artist. Tell me please, in the century of photography, computer graphics, etc., do we still need painting?
DB: For me, art is a matter of “need,” not medium. I don’t usually paint. My work is predominantly performance, video, and music, and I communicate my ideas either live or before a camera. Because my practice is so concerned with identity and “performance” (in the context of daily life, as well as in the context of dance, music, and the visual arts), live performance is the most direct way for me to address this. The protagonist in my own work, I’m always present physically, and this remains an important aspect of one of my recurring motifs: the different ways in which identity is formed, and the painful processes it can involve. Some of my earlier video work references classical ballet. My piece “i am ready” features my disembodied head and shoulders spinning slowly to the soundtrack of my own awkwardly hummed rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan.” I’m not specifically interested in critiquing the ballet world, but it lends itself well to a discourse around masochism and its politics. But back to your question: do we still need painting? I could ask that about photography, computer graphics, or other mediums. I don’t believe it’s necessary or possible for art to be truly new and unique.
VS: “Beauty will save the world.” Genia, what do you think about this as a writer?
GB: Didn’t Dostoevsky set out to prove the opposite in The Idiot? I’m not convinced the world can (or should) be saved. Mother Nature will probably destroy us, with or without our help. Hurtling toward apocalypse, we grasp at power and possessions, fixated on accumulating wealth and influence and, although science and technology allow us a certain control over life’s cycle of birth, growth, and degeneration—death is inevitable. In a few billion years, whether humankind blows itself up or not, the sun’s flames will engulf our planet. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a deeply religious man, but I don’t believe you need religion to find beauty in kindness, generosity, and tolerance. If we could tone down greed and a few of our other selfish instincts, the planet would be a far more pleasant place—a realistic goal compared to the idea that something like beauty can “save the world.” Even ugliness can offer healing and salvation, something I tried to express in my essay “Wounds and Secretions” (Solstice Literary Magazine):
Pus is the herald of our body’s healing processes; where you find pus, you discover a struggle for repair and regeneration. Yellow and putrid, it accumulates deep within a former soldier’s limb to extrude the remnants of an old injury; forming a pocket of purulence around shrapnel left behind after an ancient skirmish, it struggles to deliver it to the surface and will triumphantly discharge a sliver of contamination, streaked with blood, decades after a war was won, or lost.
VS: “There never was a story of more woe, / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Daria, what’s your funny story?
DB: I’ve had romances that were both tragically comical and hilariously woeful. Several years ago, my then-boyfriend showed up falling-down drunk and hours late for the romantic dinner I’d spent all Valentine’s Day preparing. Instead of chocolates or flowers, he pushed a frozen turkey into my hands, and mocked me when I started crying. I briefly left the room to get tissues and when I returned, he was asleep, facedown on my bed, in his duffle coat and muddy boots. At the time, it seemed like a tragedy, but today I think it’s funny. I cry easily, but my bouts of sorrow are always followed by laughter, and I don’t take myself too seriously. Eurobitch, an alter ego I created, displays a few aspects of my personality I find particularly ridiculous, like immaturity and the need for attention. Eurobitch is a demanding, wannabe celebrity, and fairly successful, but a bit annoying. When she started hogging the spotlight and stealing my thunder, I tried to kill her off … but she keeps coming back to life and forcing herself into my work. Now, I’ve had to allow her to be part in my next London show at Annka Kultys Gallery.
VS: Dostoevsky and all Russian literature are responsible for the war of Russia in Ukraine. Genia, what do you think about this?
GB: Vlad, I want my reply to be: I don’t think anything about this. But of course, that’s not true. Instead, I’ll offer up this thought: actions start wars, not ideas. If all thoughts and emotions are valid, quite a few should never be acted upon.
DB: You taught me all feelings are okay.
GB: Thank you, Daria, for saving me from that problematic question. As a child, I was conditioned to believe my tears and tantrums were shameful and a sign of weakness …
VS: “I started to cry …” Daria, human tears—that’s a biological or cultural process?
DB: I think some people are predisposed to feel more deeply, experience higher highs and lower lows. But cultural processes distort the relationship we have with our own emotions. Society permits the expression of some feelings, while at the same time demanding we suppress or apologize for others it labels “negative.” Why say sorry when you cry? People apologize for everything. “Sorry” has barely any meaning here in the UK, where it’s normal for people to apologize when someone else bumps into them on the street.
GB: Good manners hold society together—to a point. I’m still amazed by the even-tempered Swiss, calm and deceptively polite, even when they’re being rude, or by their sometimes-maddening neutrality, although I’ve learned to appreciate the advantages of watching, staying silent, waiting … which is why, Vlad, I’ve sidestepped your question about “the war of Russia in Ukraine.”
VS: Genia, what is the main theme in your literary work?
GB: Everything I write turns on memory, or is driven by some snippet of remembrance. I have an urge to gaze back and document the past, not by reason of advanced maturity, or a desire to relive my youth (please, never), but through an urge to bestow order and meaning on experience. Growing up, I indulged in the escapism of daydreams, often inspired by time travel. As a teenager, I looped scenes from childhood into films in my head—Kopfkino—going as far back as my pre-verbal, toddler days when I’d understand what was said, but couldn’t form words to answer. By adulthood, I had countless, dramatized life episodes filed away in my brain, including the true stories my parents recounted like fairytales. Amusing others with anecdotes was something I did long before I began writing the damn things down. Despite a talent for story telling, I might never have become a writer, a career change facilitated by the Internet. Several years ago, I reconnected with my childhood friend Dzvinia Orlowsky, author of numerous books of poetry, including her latest, Bad Harvest. We embarked on a reminiscence-laden email exchange. When I shared a particularly unpleasant, adolescent scouting experience, her emphatic response was life-altering: “Genia, there’s a writer in you!” My reply was ambivalent: “Yes, there’s a book in me, not written. I left that dream in the hallways of a Canadian high-school, after deciding it would be easier to become a ballet dancer and escape to Europe.” During years spent perfecting Dutch and German, I thought I’d allowed my own language to stagnate. But I never stopped consuming English-language literature, and its grammar and vocabulary were embedded in my brain. While I write about true episodes from my own life, I’ve also transposed into English what my parents recounted to me in Ukrainian: their own, very selective narratives about war, migration, and their Austrian exile. Because they withheld or suppressed memories of horrors witnessed during World War II, I’ve had to search for facts and context elsewhere. My fluency in German helps. Recently, I began translating, from Austrian German, a book titled Hoffnun’ by Puneh Ansari, a Viennese author with Iranian roots. Although her background, experience, and literary style differ from mine, the cool perspective of an assimilated observer straddling generations and cultures resonates deeply with me.
VS: Daria, tell me, please, what is politically correct for you: 1.) Respect? 2.) Censorship? 3.) …? 4.) …? 5.) …?
DB: I misunderstood that at first … thought you wanted a list of different forms of political correctness. I might have given a long and contradictory answer! Now, I only need to say: political correctness equals censorship, and it stands in the way of meaningful discourse. No work of art should be controlled or silenced, although some form of respect is necessary.
VS: “Snippet of remembrance …” Genia, what was the most vivid impression in your life?
GB: It’s hard to choose, Vlad. The births of my children, three years apart, are two extremely joyful episodes—more intense than any “triumphs” I’d had as a dancer. When our son Julian was born, I was cared for by a corpulent, broad-shouldered midwife from East Germany, who assured me she’d already brought thousands of children into the world. After my long hours of labor, before she handed me my damp baby boy, she turned to the doctor and declared: “In my entire life, I’ve never seen such a happy mother.”
DB: You told me when I was born I shot out like a cannonball.
GB: I think you’ve always been in a hurry to go places … Labor with you was very short: just one overwhelming, uninterrupted contraction. The doctor walked in with a lit cigar, sat on a chair, and continued smoking while the midwife attended to my needs. Unlike the hospital where Julian would be born, we were in a small, private clinic and apparently he could do what he wished. I still picture you flying through the air into your father’s arms, although reason tells me it’s not the way it happened.
VS: 1.) A flight to the moon, 2.) A million dollars—Daria, what is your choice?
DB: A million dollars.
VS: Genia, you are a dancer. Tell me, please, does dance have a language, I mean: letters, words, sentences, syntax?
GB: Ballet has a specific vocabulary and is governed by its own precise grammar and syntax, the underlying technique that defines how a trained dancer’s body must move. A strong and correct technique is the foundation of classical dance, and the names of its steps and positions—terms like tendu, grand jeté, arabesque—are understood by dancers all over the world. Joined together, these form the sentences and paragraphs of a choreography, which is guided and anchored by music. Like bad literature, a form of “fake ballet” exists, practiced be those inept in the use of this language, in the same way a native speaker or voracious reader, without mastering the craft of writing, is incapable of creating great literature. Pursuing dance as a hobby, one can always profit from the aerobic exercise and sheer fun of it, but through an incompetent teacher, a student will inevitably acquire bad habits, faulty patterns of posture and movement that are virtually impossible to unlearn. I often gripe about this with another writer-dancer, my friend Renée E. D’Aoust, author of Body of a Dancer. Lacking basic technique, even a talented pupil will have no chance of becoming a professional dancer—an audition for a ballet company or contemporary ensemble would be like submitting, to a publisher, a manuscript written without knowledge of spelling or grammar. Clearly, all professional dance requires a strong technique, not only ballet, but also contemporary dance, despite its freedom from the constrictions of a classical vocabulary. Although experimental works interest me most, I find well-danced, full-length ballets like Swan Lake—practically a museum piece, first set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky over a hundred years ago—as enjoyable and enlightening as a classic novel or a visit to the Uffizi Gallery.
VS: Daria, what would you do with $1,000,000 cash?
DB: All this talk of art … I’d like to buy artwork from my favorite artists. But I’m tired of moving between temporary rentals and flat-shares in London, and I need a permanent place to live. I’d buy a flat.
VS: A question for both: What do you wish for your audience?
GB: Since I’ve retired from the stage and, recently, from the ballet school I founded over twenty-five years ago, I’ve stopped addressing an audience of theater-goers. It’s gratifying to be able to reply as a writer. For those who honor me by reading my work, I hope my stories resonate, and perhaps transport readers to places where existence can be felt more intensely, or forgotten entirely.
DB: As an artist, I want my audience to be generous toward all art, not only my own, and to be neither too quick with admiration, nor immediately dismissive, but spend time with it, to allow the work to do its work.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer, and translator. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for Best American Essays; and has appeared in Assay: Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Atticus Review, Bending Genres, Berfrois, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), Essay Daily, Solstice Literary Magazine, Sonora Review, and Under the Sun. Her translation from Austrian German of Puneh Ansari’s book Hoffnun’ is forthcoming next year from mikrotext Verlag Berlin. She lives in Lucerne, Switzerland, and haunts Twitter as @geniablum. Daria Blum is a Swiss Canadian video, sound, and performance artist. She holds a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins and is a selected associate artist on the Acme/CSM Studio Programme. Recent and forthcoming solo and group shows are: Cacotopia 03, Annka Kultys Gallery, London; Eurofemmes, Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga; Eurobitch2000, Frieze London; That Would Be Me, Il Colorificio, Milano; What Unites Us, Austrian Embassy, London; Jahresausstellung Zentralschweizer Kunstschaffen 2017, Kunstmuseum Luzern; Intersections in Dance, Xpace Cultural Center, Toronto. She lives in London, UK. Her website is dariablum.com.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.