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Ukrainian Dance From Village to Stage

Village to Stage

Ukrainian dance is hugely popular today. Most of the dances we perform have roots in traditional village culture in Ukraine, where, for several thousand years, most of the population was peasants.

Peasants lived (and continue to live) in villages, growing their crops and raising animals in family farms. Compared with contemporary urbanites in Ukraine, Canada, or elsewhere, Ukrainians have lived with relatively low technology, travelled little, and continued the customs and beliefs that were passed on to them from generation to generation.

A Lifetime of Dance

The peasantry has been the focus cultural context for much of what is recognised as unique in Ukrainian culture. While most of the objects we own today are manufactured somewhere far away, peasants have typically lived with many more local and handmade objects. They made much of their own clothing. They grew much of their own food. They made their own music, and they entertained themselves by actively telling their own stories, performing their own songs and dances.

Ukrainian peasants danced quite often, but not on stages for other people to watch. They danced in rituals to communicate to the supernatural world, and to reflect profound places, times, relationships, and events in their lives and in their communities. They danced for recreational reasons, to express themselves, to release energy after their hard work. They danced as a means of courtship, interacting with other people in their village and perhaps visitors from one or two villages over.

Because they were rooted to their farmland, peasants did not travel far. For this reason, traditional activities such as dance did not necessarily travel far and wide, but often stayed quite local, developing their own features and styles in rather small areas. If they did spread, they diffused fairly slowly. Canada, Australia, and other countries also have regional differences due to factors such as climate, settlement patterns, and economy. In traditional Ukrainian villages in the past, however, without mass transportation technologies, these regional differences are much more important and clear.

The Ethnographic Regions of Ukrainian Dance

Ukrainian stage dances are often thought of as coming from a particular ethnographic region of Ukraine. Sometimes the dances actually have their roots in one specific village. This is the case for dances such as Toporivtsi, Arkan Kolomyis’kyi, Iavorivka, and Rakovets’kyi Kruchenyi. In other cases, the dance symbolises the traditional culture of a larger ethnographic region, such as Bukovyna, the Hutsul region, or Poltava. In yet more cases, the region of origin for the dance is not as important as some other element in Ukrainian village culture. For example, dances that represent Kupalo traditions are meant to show the audience symbols of this special holiday in the yearly calendar cycle, while Cossack dances try to provide an impression of this special occupational group in Ukrainian history.

Village to Stage

This map, created by prominent Ukrainian choreographer and teacher Serhij Koroliuk, shows the ethnographic regions of Ukraine. In many places, the coloured regions do not match the political borders of Ukraine. One of the reasons for this is that village culture is quite independent of politics, and regional boundaries match natural patterns of communication, occupation, and geology. Secondly, the political boundaries of Ukraine have changed many times over the centuries. Indeed, for many centuries, there was no such thing as a country called Ukraine. The current boundaries of Ukraine were established mostly after WWII.

In the north, for example, the cultural boundaries between Ukrainian Polissia and Belarussian Polesse are very gradual, and blend slowly into each other as you travel north. In the far west, the Lemkos have long lived on land that is now mostly within Poland and Slovakia. In the east, thousands of Zaporozhian Cossacks moved to the Kuban area in the late 1700s, beyond the Sea of Azov. Their ancestors still call themselves Kuban Cossacks and preserve some identifiable Ukrainian cultural features, but live in a region outside of Ukrainian political boundaries.

The coloured ethnographic regions are also different from the 25 provinces (oblasti) of Ukraine, which are marked by dotted lines. The oblast of Chernivtsi in the southwest is often called Bukovyna, though it doesn’t exactly match. This oblast includes a corner of Podillia in its east, and some of the Hutsul region in its western edge. Also, many Romanians live in the Chernivtsi oblast, while many Ukrainian-speaking Bukovynians live south of the Ukrainian border in nearby Romania. It is also interesting to note that there are many small, clear, ethnographic regions in the west of Ukraine where people have lived a settled existence for many centuries. In the steppes of central and eastern parts of Ukraine, where populations have moved around more in recent centuries, the regions are larger and more blurred.

Most Ukrainian Canadians and their ancestors have roots in the southwestern corner of Ukraine, Bukovyna, western Podillia, Pokuttia, Boikivschyna, Opillia, and Lemkivshchyna. The reason for this peculiar pattern is that this western part of Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, and this Empire allowed emigration out to the west. The rest of Ukraine was part of the huge Russian Empire, which actively discouraged emigration westward; rather, people from central-eastern Ukrainian territories emigrated east to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and beyond. In Australia and other Ukrainian diaspora communities, where Ukrainian immigrants mostly came later, the pattern of geographic origins is different.

From the Village to the Stage

Village to Stage

Though most Ukrainian dances have their roots in village dancing, this does not mean that they all look identical to the dances performed a century ago. Some contemporary choreographers in Ukraine and in the diaspora work hard to keep the form of the dance “authentic”. Even in these cases, however, the dance form changes as it moves from the village common to the proscenium stage, as they recontextualise from a participatory experience to a presentational product. Circles are opened into semicircles and other new formations and figures are introduced, improvisation is usually eliminated, toes are pointed, and everyone is taught to dance the same steps on the same foot. Other choreographers actively choose to modify the dances more for the stage. They may use a village dance form as a base, but they explore creative theatrical effects, emphasising spectacle, and concentrating more on modern movement aesthetics rather than village tradition. Still other Ukrainian dance choreographers make dances that are not connected with village traditions at all. They create “born on the stage” Ukrainian dances, some of which have strong Ukrainian cultural content, while others have less.

There was once an active discussion about the ideas behind creating Ukrainian dance choreographies. Which strategy is the best? Perhaps each of these three strategies, three “principles of theatricalisation”, can be successful if the choreographer crafts the piece carefully and applies his or her good knowledge and experience. Ukrainian dance in the diaspora and Ukrainian dance in Soviet Ukraine had quite different traditions for much of the 20th century. They tended to interact and influence each other more in recent decades. There is still a lot of “smoke and mirrors”, and so much to think about and share with each other about how we understand Ukrainian dance – especially when the dances move from the village to the stage.

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