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HOW CHOREOGRAPHY CAN SERVE TO REFLECT CANADA’S CULTURAL DIVERSITY (by Serhij Koroliuk)

May 1, 2013

  How does Canada’s variety of cultures (multiculturalism) influence any given ethnic group? Is a harmonious co-existence possible, or, even, a union of cultures within an eclectic mosaic? Does this threaten the natural development of an individual culture, or perhaps, does this lead to the creation of new concepts? In this article, the author wishes to share his thoughts regarding these questions.

 

   Firstly, let’s consider the meaning of multiculturalism and the main societal and political aspects that constitute its fundamental features in Canada. We’ll start with the fact that multiculturalism is an acknowledgment of and an incentive for multiple ethnic cultures. In the 1970’s and 1980s this became official policy in Canada, a country which probably has one of the highest percentage of immigrants in the world even in comparison with such countries as Australia, Argentina, the United States of America or Great Britain. The results of this policy are evident today. Listening to my older colleagues, family and friends, comparing their life experience with my own (I immigrated to Canada in 1993), and also watching and analyzing the dealings of my dancers – grown-up youths, I see quite a marked advancement in the worldview and tolerance of various generations of people in their relations with different ethnic groups.

 

   And now let’s analyze the foundation which provides the basis for a policy of multiculturalism. In Canada one is allowed dual citizenship. When I received my Canadian Passport in 1998, I asked the judge -- who granted me a certificate of Canadian citizenship and before whom I made a promise to be loyal to Canada – what is to become of my Ukrainian citizenship and passport? “They stay with you,” answered the judge, “this is something you’ve acquired, it’s your life experience and your right.”

 

   I felt a twofold respect towards my country and for my fatherland Ukraine. When I’m asked about my origin, I jokingly reply that “I am a made-in-Ukraine Canadian!” But behind this joke there are some rather serious feelings of pride and respect. To exemplify what’s behind these feelings, one can cite the existence of Ukrainian schools, churches, radio programs, and the celebration of Ukrainian holidays on Canadian soil. In Saskatchewan, for instance, every year local paper or televised news offer articles or reports about the celebration of Ukrainian Christmas or Easter. It’s also worthwhile noting that Canada’s policy of multiculturalism includes financial support (grants, awards) from municipal, provincial as well as federal agencies. Of course, one would wish to see more funds set aside for cultural projects, because culture (not to be confused with recreational arts) is not a product of industry; but since such sponsorship does exist, even though it’s meager, this alone testifies to the recognition of multiculturalism as a fact of life.

 

   Now let’s consider how cultures influence one another.  Can this be good for a given culture, or not? This question can give rise to many thoughts. First of all, let us agree that -- whether we like it or not – this kind of process does exist. I wish to focus attention on the fact such a process exists not only in countries with high levels of immigration, but also in any country where various ethnic groups live side-by-side for historical, political or administrative reasons. Let’s take for example such European countries like Switzerland, Belgium, or Indonesia and the Philippines in Asia. Or let’s look at Ukraine: from west to east we can see a marvelous instance of cultural inter-influence not only in language dialects, but also in traditions, rituals, folk costumes, dances. Nowadays Canada’s Ukrainian dance groups popularize a “regional” repertoire that highlights the variation of Ukrainian dances. Exclusively “Poltava” or “Hutsul” styles of Ukrainian dance are a reflection of the past.  Everyone likes to see a variety of dance movements, styles of performance, costumes. But do we wonder about the origins of this variation in Ukrainian folk dance? If we look closely we’ll see the echo of other peoples in the dance steps, the costumes, the music.  For example, there are Tatar, Bulgarian and Greek influences in the southern regions of Ukraine, Russian influence in the east (Slobozhanshchyna and Donshchyna), Hungarian and Slovak influences in the Transcarpathian region, Polish influence in Opillia, Volyn and Polissia, Romanian and Moldovian influences in Bukovyna.

 

   And now let’s examine whether cultures can evolve on their own within a multicultural system outside their countries of origin. Let’s recall the meaning of the word “culture”, which signifies a cluster of material and spiritual treasures created by people in the course of that people’s history. I wish to emphasize the word “history.” In my opinion, this is the key word, which answers the question raised above.  The history of those countries whose people have settled in Canada and the history of Canada are different. Just like biology and climate are factors that influence a plant’s growth, so can historical factors influence the formation of a given culture. If you transplant a cranberry bush or a willow-tree from its Ukrainian environment to a Canadian setting, you’ll see that they will grow differently. Nonetheless, they remain willow-trees and cranberries. And now let’s take the example of the well-known hopak, Ukraine’s signature dance. Examine the movements in this fiery dance: roznizhka, povzunets, prysiadka, perekyd, shchupak, pistolet, bochka, and so on. In my opinion factors relating to Ukraine’s history prompted the emergence of these movements since they are closely linked to the movements of combat associated with Ukrainian kozaks who, incidentally, also emerged in response to certain historical factors. After they returned from their military expeditions to a civil life style, the kozaks would reveal their skills in everyday diversions, just like aboriginal hunters, Argentine shepherds, Scottish warriors, Japanese samurais or Spanish toreadors who influenced the dance art of their own cultures. Could the hopak ever originate in Canada? I guess not, the historical environment here is different.  But the cultural legacy of cowboys, for instance, that’s a product of North America’s history (although it has its antecedents in Spain). Could the hopak originate in today’s Ukrainian military? I’m not sure, but if it did, the form would be different. From the 14th to 18th centuries the military experience was different from today’s, the manner of fighting was different. A close-up physical kind of combat required other kinds of tactics and techniques.  By flinging himself and his outstretched legs into the air, the kozak could use his limbs to strike at the heads of two opponents at one time, or, squatting down and spinning a “windmill” (a favourite movement with many young dancers today), the kozak could make his adversary lose his balance while spinning around with a mace in his hands, and in this way the kozak could protect himself when surrounded by attackers on all sides. Today’s soldiers use contemporary weapons, which allow for attack and defense without bodily contact.

 

   And thus we can question whether other Ukrainian dance movements could have emerged in today’s historical environment. But now let’s examine how this cultural legacy adapted itself to our environment in Canada. In my opinion, this legacy was transformed into something different – the kolomyika. Do you realize that the kolomyika, a form familiar to all of us for its skill and endurance, is much more popular here in Canada than in Ukraine? And is it not true that today’s kolomyika is different from the Canadian kolomyika in the previous century? This difference testifies to the evolution of this form. In my opinion the Canadian kolomyika is a reformulation of the Ukrainian hopak, -- but instead of combat, its roots are grounded in the demonstration of allegiance to Ukrainian culture and in the energetic passion that is characteristic of Ukrainians.

   

   I also wish to focus on how multiculturalism can influence the creative process experienced by an individual person. In order that my perceptions be more telling, I’ll do the simple thing and analyze this on the basis of my personal experience.

   

   My knowledge and experience as a choreographer took shape in Ukraine. Besides a natural fascination with Ukrainian dance, I had the good fortune to study this fascinating art-form with talented and leading professors and leading choreographers of Ukraine. I arrived in Canada with considerable knowledge and experience.  But having lived here for 17 years now, I can say that I’ve created more choreographic works in Canada than in Ukraine. And that’s quite normal. But if anyone were to ask me whether I would have created analogous dances had I remained in Ukraine, I would respond: very few.

   

   One of the works I’ve created in Canada when based with the “Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble” (which I currently lead) is entitled “Canadian Kaleidoscope”. This dance number reflects my artistic and social vision as a Ukrainian-Canadian choreographer. I would not have created this work in Ukraine. Using the methods of dance, this suite underlines one of the democratic principles that makes Canada a special country – that’s Canada’s recognition of cultural diversity. The country’s immense vastness – this marks a unique piece of embroidery and inter-weaving of ethnic groups from various parts of the globe.  And while each of these groups is always visible as a separate entity, they are inextricably linked to one another in the formulation of what we call a “Canadian Identity”. This is not a static identity – it’s a living concept, which evolves and absorbs other forms in dynamic and unexpected ways -- like the ever- changing and unique patterns of a kaleidoscope. This is an extravagant dance composition that focuses on the ethnic groups that call Canada their home. Among them are North American Aborigines, the Scots, Irish, Germans, Spanish, Filipinos, the French, Ukrainians – and that’s just some of the groups that came to this land and created a nation that stretches “from sea to sea”.

 

   This dance is composed in the form of a 20-minute kolomyika: when one nationality’s dance is featured in stage-centre, the other members of the Pavlychenko ensemble create a dance entourage in a big half-circle performing in the style of the nationality being highlighted in the center.  At the end of the suite, all our dancers join hands and render Canada’s national anthem. “Canadian Kaleidoscope” was my thanks to Canada for 10 years of living on the land of the country that became my home.

   

   Before getting into the production and staging of this work I tried, as much as possible, to learn about the culture and dances of various nationalities. I also organized dance seminars for our Pavlychenko dancers with my colleagues – choreographers from other nationalities.  Not only was this a marvelous chance to meet interesting people, this was also a unique experience for my own dancers who could learn other kinds of dance forms. Did their Ukrainian repertoire suffer on account of this exposure? No. Did they expand the range of their knowledge? Yes.

   

   At first I was worried whether other ethnic groups would accept this work. But after several performances, I realized that I didn’t need to worry. Representatives of other ethnic groups would approach me after a performance to thank me and shake hands. And some of them during joint concerts even requested that I allow their dancers to come onto the stage at the end of our suite to do “O Canada” together with my ensemble. I didn’t have anything against this.

 

   It didn’t take long for “Canadian Kaleidoscope” to become popular with Saskatoon’s community and then even beyond the City’s boundaries. Invitations to perform came in and continue to come in from various organizations and festivals. “Kaleidoscope” opened the doors to events organized by administrative and political leaders of the city and the province, and in this way “Kaleidoscope” earned respect for Ukrainian culture not just for the Ukrainian community.  In my opinion this kind of strategy is important in a multicultural society. During the ensemble’s tours abroad, I was both pleased and proud to see that, whether it was in Ukraine or the United States of America, after a performance of  “Canadian Kaleidoscope”, viewers in the audience would rise and applaud not just my dancers but also the show of respect for Canada.

   

   And so, to sum up, I can say from my own experience that the co-existence of diverse cultures can stimulate the emergence of new concepts in art. But this needs to conform to the principles of democracy and tolerance without any suggestion of some superior national culture. But this also needs to support the wishes of ethnic groups even if necessary, their perceptions of cultural uniqueness. And not only in dance, but also in language, traditions, worldview. I’m in favour of social integration but against cultural assimilation.

   

   It should be noted that in Canada we enthusiastically sample different kinds of cuisines. During my first years in Canada I was often amazed to see the wide range cuisines. I got to love pizza, shrimp, sushi and steak. From another perspective, I also know countless people not of Ukrainian descent who are very fond of Ukrainian borshch.  If we can accept the cuisine of other peoples, what stops us from accepting and savouring their cultures?

 

   Bon appetit, Canada!

 

 Translation by R.B.Klymasz Feb.18, 2010

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