Taking a Critical Look at Yulia Lipnitskaya’s ‘Schindler’s List’ Performance

Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya wowed the world on Sunday when she performed in the Women’s Figure Skating Team Free Program. The performance, set to the chilling violins of John Williams’ famous score for ‘Schindler’s List,’ won the 15-year-old a gold medal, marking her as one of the youngest Olympians to receive the accolade in the history of the games. Unfortunately, her ice dance, said by many critics to be nearly perfect, is drawing attention for its use of Williams’ score.

Lipnitskaya isn’t the first Olympian to set her performance to ‘Schindler’s List.’ Johnny Weir, Katarina Witt, and other skaters have set their own routines to the music in the past. Like Lipnitskaya, all of those athletes incited public outcry. It’s unlikely in Lipnitskaya’s case that she had anything to do with the choice of song, but that doesn’t stop her detractors’ endless shrill.. Frankly, it’s just too easy in this age of social media to critique people, a mode of communication that just wasn’t around for previous offenders.

As with anything else, the value and offense offered by the ‘Schindler’s’ performance is a polarizing issue. Should we be offended by Lipnitskaya’s performance, or should we simply accept it for what it was likely meant to be?

A Routine Crafted for Controversy

Most critics of the performance point out that it was insensitive to an international community which still clearly remembers the horrors of the Holocaust. Over four million Jews from over 20 countries were rounded up and summarily killed. By evoking the tale of Oskar Schindler, Lipnitskaya’s performance drew up uncomfortable imagery for many people watching. Her routine, critics believe, was designed purposefully to bring about controversy and draw attention to the young skater and Russia. It’s hard to argue with that.

Similarly, the skating dress the young athlete wore was bright red, especially when put against the sterile white backdrop of the ice. As with the music, this was another evocative stunt meant to paint the picture of the girl in the red jacket, a key character in one of the most haunting scenes in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List.’ In the scene, a young girl dressed in a red jacket walks through the streets of Krakow as the Nazis liquidate the area. Schindler, watching from horseback on a nearby hill, watches in horror as she wanders in terror down the streets. He later finds her body, the inciting incident which leads him to help the Jews. As with the use of the film’s score, Lipnitskaya’s garb was designed to elicit a powerful, if somewhat volatile, reaction.

A Russian Performing to the Theme is Historically Negligent

The case can and, perhaps, should be made that Russia performing to the theme song is only less offensive than if Germany or Italy were to take up such a performance. While Nazi Germany undoubtedly earned its reputation for masterminding and carrying out the Holocaust, it’s a lesser known fact that the Russians, for a time, colluded with, or at least didn’t hinder, the Third Reich.

In 1939, Nazi-led Germany signed a pact of non-aggression with the Soviet Union, known both as the Nazi-Soviet Union Non-Aggression Pact and Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Under this agreement, the Russians stood idly by while the Germans stormed across Europe. When the two forces met in Poland, the pact gave the Nazis the western half of the country, with the eastern half going to Soviet forces. Complacency, in the case of World War II era Russia, equals complicity. For a Russian to dance to a song that symbolizes the holocaust is something like if an American were to dance to the theme music from White Flash/Black Rain, a documentary detailing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s undoubtedly insensitive.

Art is Meant to Provoke Thought

Fans of the performance claim that Lipnitskaya was performing a piece of art, a type of social commentary meant to evoke thought and keep the memory of one of humanity’s blackest hours alive. In essence, the argument is, as Leo Tolstoy once said, that the purpose of art is to evoke and communicate a strong feeling. In that, Lipnitskaya’s near flawless routine certainly succeeds at being a wonderful piece of art.

In the end, it seems both fans and detractors of Yulia Lipnitskaya’s performance are right, but they are also wrong. Yes, the performance was insensitive and inarguably crafted to draw attention to a fantastic young athlete and her Russian motherland that can’t seem to generate any positive PR. However, it’s equally true that the performance was a wonderful piece of art and should be taken for what it is.








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