My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

From Russia with divas

Yury Ruzhyev is an old-school all-round entertainer with the additional talent of being an excellent drag artist. He left Russia for Canada and with the controversies over the Sochi Olympics and draconic anti-gay laws, he finds himself compelled to speak out and politicize his work – to an extent. Ruzhyev is a fascinating bundle of tensions that are cultural, sexual, artistic and political. This strong, proud and talented gay man, who impersonates stars to entertain, is finding his inner voice and it is an intriguing one. Ruzhyev may be Russian by birth, but he is now figuring out whether Vegas or activism is his spiritual home. On the eve of an updated version of his signature spectacular Viva Cabaret, he answers a few questions and is “Feeling Good.”

Viva Cabaret is a showcase of the drag element of your talents – do you feel it is more female impersonation or more satire? 

Yury Ruzhyev: Viva Cabaret is a tribute to the greatest divas in the genre of impersonations. I am not a look-a-like, neither drag, nor impressionist, but simply an actor, playing a character, a satirical parody. Or at least I think I am. What I am really demonstrating is an ability to portray, as accurately as I can, a well known persona through the look, moves, attitude and facial expressions. And at the same time take some elements of it to the grotesque. It’s a parody. Oh my, that came out so serious and deeply technical. I wanted to start with a joke.

Who is your favourite diva to portray? 

 This is the most frequent question I get but I still don’t have an answer. There are 65 characters in my show, divas from the past, like Ella, Marlene and Elvis; modern day divas like Britney, Gaga and Bjork; all time divas like Tina, Liza and Michael. This year I am introducing a circus element with Clown Ring Master, a half man/half lady act, belly dancing and a giant diva doll. They are all fun, but the new ones are always my favorites. Right now I am in love with my clown character and Bjork. 

Who is the most difficult diva to portray? 

There are two divas that I have been trying to do for years and am still struggling with: Barbra and Celine. I even flew to Brooklyn to see Barbra live and I still can’t quite capture her. She is just so huge in movies and is still doing live shows. I am thinking of doing a Hello Dolly act, but we will see. Celine bores me to death. 

Who is the next diva you plan to add to Viva Cabaret

I have already added Bjork, the Cirque Clown, a Russian Swan, belly dance and Michael Jackson. Annie Lennox, Pink, and Grace Jones are the next ones.

What does a female star have to do, or become, in order to be included in Viva Cabaret

She has to be magical and inspiring with a great blood-pumping song that I can dance to. Some performers, when they sing or dance, they awake the magic fumes in you, you are intoxicated, you are in love with them and the act. Some of  the rest are just technical. This is also the reason I can’t find any love to portray all these young girls. No magic happens with their performances, sorry. And yes, I am hard to please.

It’s important to note that you also impersonate many male stars – Charlie Chaplin, Freddy Mercury, James Brown, etc. How do you choose which males to include? It is it a different process to find their essence and project it? 

Those guys were divas all right. It’s easy to impersonate performers who are larger then life. Elvis was easy, you just stand there and look cool and wanted. With Michael Jackson, it took several years to build the confidence to impersonate him and I still have so much to work to do on his character. The recipe is the same: engaging charisma, sparkly costume, loud song, and a shot of vodka. Two shots, if it’s Celine.

You did a very powerful piece at The Penis Project at Buddies. Will Viva Cabaret contain any political/dramatic material like that?

Recently, not as a part of Viva Cabaret, but as an artist, I did a piece – I read my poems about murders and the repression of gays in Russia - at the Wrecking Ball at Buddies. It’s a new thing for me to be political and have an urge to say something. An artistic fight if you wish. I only did it because I couldn’t not do it. It was so painful and horrid and I am going to do more, but not in Viva CabaretViva Cabaret is all about rainbows and unicorns with mild satire and kind humour. I want my audience to live the dream, have fun and feel the magic. 

You are doing a theatrical piece, Komunka, you created to be directed by Sky Gilbert in February. Komunka is inspired by the Sochi Olympics and Russia’s gay policies. How do you feel about what is happening in Russia? Would you be able to perform Viva Cabaret in Russia or for the Olympics?

Russia is a very, very double-sided medal kind of country. Highly hypocritical. The same people who impose inhuman laws against gay people, have no troubles booking drag shows for their special events as well as doing other all sorts of “ungodly” things. My show and my friends’ shows - we still keep in touch - do well and dance our heels off for politicians and lawmakers. What the politicians shout out to be noticed and what is happening in real life are two different things. It’s not as scary as it seems from here, but very scary on a whole different level. Komunka is going to address gay rights issues, immigration and the 51 billion dollars they spent on Olympics. The six apartment tenants in the play, who represent six different social circles in Russia, have a lot to say about it all.

Assuming that Komunka will be explicitly political, what would you like audiences to get out of Viva Cabaret

Viva Cabaret is all fun: good music with a touch of nostalgia, and fabulous costumes. It’s just good entertainment. Komunka is a theatre piece, introducing Russians, their lives and culture to a Canadian audience. The play is trying to explain why Russians are so fucked up. It’s a rhetorical question - the classics have been asking it for ages - whose fault is it and what to do? Come and see what those six tenants got to say about it.

As a triple-threat: what is your greatest strength? 

Do you mean that in my one-man cirques, I get to be a clown, a monkey and a striped tent? (laughs) It gives me great love, I am thrilled and high when I get to perform and the audience feels it, shares and enjoys it with me.

Is there a difference between how a gay audience and a straight audience reacts to Viva Cabaret? Do you tailor it to the demographic? 

Straights are way more interesting and a better audience to perform for. Most of my shows are for straights. Firstly, they pay better, and secondly they are amazed with everything I do on stage, from dancing in 10-inch heels to the part where the guys bet that I am a girl. I create the illusion and they believe in it - we all have fun. Gay audiences watching my show are like those TV show judges, so it’s harder. But at least we speak the same language and I can sing the Diana Ross line, “This is dedicated to my girls,” and only gays know how much it means to me and to them and to every girl out there.

You inhabit many divas but what song would you perform as Yury? 

The first song that comes to mind, and it seems that it’s here to stay, is “I am what I am, I am my own special creation!” And the other song for when I am alone at home: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”

Viva Cabaret is on Sun, Dec 15 at The Rivoli, 334   Queen St W. .
Tickets online are only $16: or $20 at the door.
A workshop production of Komunka will be announced for February.