Saturday, September 03, 2005

On Going Back to School in Ukraine; On the Back to the Village Movement or Authentic Folk Culture Perfomance in Ukraine

Old Polish Cathedral in Pidhajtsi

Pecherska Lavra, Kyiv (Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv)

The Folklore Music Group "Bozhychi"

This photo is from last Wednesday night, Aug. 31, and was taken on the campus square inside Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Students arrived en masse to Kyiv from all over Ukraine that day, as classes began the next day. Initially, I had wanted to take a train on Tuesday night from Ternopil to Kyiv, getting in Kyiv on Wednesday morning, but alas I discovered only too late that there were no tickets--students wanting to get to Kyiv the day before classes began had already bought them all up. I have no idea how many universities are in Kyiv, but there are many, and I did not think about the fact that there would such mass movement from the provinces to the capital. Fortunately, my luck was that I was able to hitch a ride that night instead with my second-cousin Ostap, who was driving his girlfriend to Kyiv. His girlfriend is starting her first year at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and also had no luck getting on the trains from Ternopil. So we set out from Pidhajtsi mashynoju (by car) at 4 AM and arrived in Kyiv at 12 noon. The distance from Pidhajtsi to Kyiv is shorter than that from Minneapolis to Chicago (maybe 300 miles at most), and yet it takes about 8 hrs. to drive there--you must add at least two hours Ukrainian drive time for slightly less than the same distance. If you go by bus or train, it will be an overnight venture, or you can also take a daytime bus that will leave western Ukraine in the morning aroud 7 and get to Kyiv by 8PM.

However, word is that they are now planning to add a high-speed train from Lviv to Kyiv. There already are high-speed trains connecting Kyiv to Kharkiv, I know for sure, and I think there is one to Dontesk, I think, as well (the high-speed train from Kyiv to Kharkiv zipps from the capital to Poltava, and then to Kharkiv). It is typical that eastern Ukraine has more modern services such as this high-speed train while there has been nothing but neglect for the western part of the country. It is also typical that eastern Ukrainian cities got more money for renovations under the old oligarchy while the beautiful, very Mitteleuropa-styled architecture of L'viv is still crumbling and neglected. I hope that the Orange government will be making a priority of evening out the way that tax-money and development resources are allocated in the country. Keep this in mind: the tax-system in Ukraine is centralized, so that all tax money, at least in theory, is supposed to go from the regions back to the center (i.e., Kyiv) from which it then is supposed to be redistributed back to the regions. The opportunity for corruption along this money-trail, both too and fro from the regions, is obvious. Ukraine is not a federal but centralized state--there is basically no or very little local-level independence, at least in theory. State administrations are part of the central government, with the President appointing the governors. So another problem is that the tax money is supposed to be redistributed according to regional needs, but it is very obvious that the infrastructure and major cities of the eastern and central regions have benefited from the lion's share of the tax and development money under the old oligarchy. In part, western Ukrainians have subsidized some major projects in (as well as profits for the oligarchs of) the central and eastern parts, while their roads, water pipelines, powerlines and transformers, and major cities, are in various states of severe decay, by comparison to what exists in much of the central and eastern parts. This is not to say that the situation in the central and eastern parts is perfect. Not at all. Not at all. But western Ukraine is, in general, in a state of greater decay, and it is in part because of this reason of the uneven allocations of tax and development money. However, part of the reason for this uneven allocation is the fact that the central and especially eastern parts of Ukraine are the industrial powerhouses, while western Ukraine has mostly an agricultural economy that is, for the most part, limited to mere subsistence farming and limited sale of cash-crops, such as sugar beets. The economic incentive for doing more about infrastructure in the central and east is obvious, but many people with whom I have chatted feel that the unevenness of development has more to do with the fact that the formerly-ruling oligarchic clans all hailed from the central and east, and thus allocated state money from taxes and development funds accordingly (to their hometowns as much as to their own coffers).

Anyhow, back to the musicians. This photo was taken on the square inside of Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, were there was a dance and concert for the students arriving to begin classes the next day. The evening began with social or recreational folk dancing. As far as I am concerned, this is the closest one can get to the ''real thing," by which I mean, seeing how our ancestors really danced in their villages. In other words, if you want to see how people, including our Ukrainian ancestors, really danced in their villages anywhere in eastern Europe, go to the villages, or go to the recreational folk dancing clubs, or go and see dance troupes that have very deliberately distanced themselves from the style of dance that reigned supreme for most of the 20th Century in eastern Europe--a very formal style involving mostly ballet moves and only a little folk dancing. In other words, avoid Virskyj, Russia's Mosiev, and most of the dance companies in the diaspora!

But before I am slain for this comment, let me explain it: When I go to a folk performance, I want to be transported to another time, and feel like what I am watching is people dancing in their village--albeit in a village in which every person is a talented dancer! However, I don't get this sense when I see Virskyj or most of the Ukrainian diaspora groups. I can tell you from personal observation that the way most groups peform dances like arkan or hopak only vaguely resemble the real way the dances were/are done in Hutsul or central Ukrainian villages, respectively.

However, I do get the sense that I am in a village watching people dance when I see Hungarian and Bulgarian groups. That is because the Hungarians and Bulgarians (and Latvians, at least musically if not in dance) were leaders, starting in the 1970s, of a back-to-the-village movement that changed how folk culture was presented and performed. Throughout the 20th century, and usually under Soviet tutelage, a style of performing folk culture was developed that added loads of ballet and classical music to folk dances and music. It was as though the music was too dissonant or unharmonious, and the dances too rough, for the stage, and the Soviets, inheriting the all-Russian imperial culture's obsessions with appearing as cultured as any people in Europe, proceeded to suffocate, to my and many others' minds, authentic folk music and dance with a typically Soviet and Imperial Russian formalism. Formalism came into folk dance via ballet, into folk music via classical music training, and for the most part, what groups like Virskyj do is better described as character ballet than folk dance. And this is the style that most of us growing up in the diaspora learned. I certainly did.

However, in the 1970s, a back-to-the-village movement began in much of eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and Bulgaria and Latvia, whose participants tried to jettison all of the Soviet formalism (that one of my dance teachers in the US likes to call "Sovietski Bullshitski;" more on Don LaCourse later. . .) and to return to a more authentic, village based style of performace. The results are astounding. This has meant a change in choreography as much as in footwork and musical accompaniment, and one really should see how major ensembles in Hungary and Bulgaria perform. Most members of ensembles there still do have a great deal of professional ballet and music training and the dancers do ballet warm-ups, but the end result is completely different from what was the norm in Soviet times and continues to be the norm in Ukrainian diaspora folk performances. I am waiting for the passion for authenticity to catch on in the Ukrainian folk performance world, and it is starting to. . .

There is a back-to-the-village movement in Ukraine. There are lots of groups who know how to play the music as the village musicians used to, and not just as the Philharmonic Institute students of Soviet times have been trained to. The photo above is of one such group. The violin player is in another group, called Buttja, in which he plays with his father and his sister. I saw them playing on the street in front of the Arsenal'na metro station in Kyiv, a busy and touristy one since it is the closest station to Pecherska Lavra and Stalin's gigantic Mother statue marking the Soviet victory over the Nazis in Kyiv. Buttja has recorded 14 albums of authentic music from all over Ukraine. They spend much time seeking out musicians in rural parts of the country, those without much formal training and who know village music from traditions within their families, etc., and Buttja don't change the music so that becomes easy listening for bourgeois ears. There are more of such music groups around.

Also, social or recreational dancing of folk dances, as what was going on last Wednesday at Kyiv Mohyla, was and is still a major part of the back-to-the-village movement. Many of those musicians and dancers who made and make field trips to the villages will come back and play the authentic styled music and will teach the authentic style of the dances at social clubs. In Riga, they get together every T night in the old town. I was told that in Kyiv, there is somewhere to go every Fri. And in Budapest, in the fall though spring, there is a very lively tanchaus seen. It is very worth checking all of these things out, and I hope some day Virskyj will jettison all of the ballet (the Sovietski Bullshitski) and will come to resemble something more like the Hungarian or Bulgarian National Ensembles.

And more thing: in countries like Latvia and Hungary, such movements for authenticity or back-to-the-village played a major role in the anti-Soviet resistance. This was especially so in Latvia, where the singing of folk songs became such a big part of the anti-Soviet resistance that the anti-Soviet rebellion that led to independence is called "The Singing Revolution." The back-to-the-village movement played kind of a role in Ukraine, especially of course in western Ukraine, but the movement was not as well developed as in Hungary or Latvia, it seems to me. Today, just as in the US, most of the enthusiasts of such authenticity are part of a subculture that includes lots of hippies, punks, more educated and artistic people, etc.--people whose tastes tend to deviate from bourgeois norms. But plenty of people with average middle class tastes have also grown to love and appreciate the more authentic styles wherever they gained supremacy, as in Hungary.

And oh, one other thing: if you are in the US, you can check out either the Ethnic Dance Theater of Minneapolis or the Tamburitzans of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. These groups take their cue from the back-to-the-village style and do it very well. I may be a little biased, as I danced for years with the Ethnic Dance Theater, started by one Don LaCourse from whom I have learned a great deal about the big difference that exists between the authentic and the Bullshitski. . .

I also want to mention that my Ukrainian dance instructor as a teenager, Oksana Bryn, also worked hard to move things toward the more authentic; perhaps I took my cue from her! (And both Oksana and Don start their rehearsals with ballet warm ups; it is good to know it, but folk dance is folk dance and not character ballet!)

Well, more later on my adventures in Ukraine. I am, at present, really inspired to finally be meeting people of the back-to-the-village movement and mentality!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the next few days, I'll be sending you a link to anti-poverty journal I wrote a couple of years ago. It was written in the US during a 19-day hunger strike I undertook against poverty in the US. Considering your understanding of BushCo's War on Poverty (get rid of them), the journal is appropriate for this blog. I'll add in an appropriate preface to bridge US and Ukraine, as I've done in my Maidan blog.
Terry Hallman