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Friday, August 08, 2008

Ukrainian dance (mis)labelled as Russian on TV program

Some members of the Ukrainian Canadian community recently objected to this episode of the "reality" show "So You Think You Can Dance?" ...

The objection was that not only a Ukrainian dance but Ukrainian dance costumes were being passed off on this TV program as "18th century Russian street dancing." To add insult to injury, they call it the "trepak" which is the Ukrainian-to-Russian-to-English transliteration (sigh) for the Ukrainian dance "tropak." And the tropak is, definitely, a Ukrainian folk dance. And it was not exactly a common sight on 18th century Russian streets.

Those who object to the objectors tend to overlook these inconvenient facts. They justify their obtuseness by pointing out that this dance is from The Nutcracker, a ballet by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky, and that since it was performed to the musical score from the ballet (rather than a Ukrainian folk tune, presumably) it can legitimately be labelled a Russian dance.

Well, actually, it can't. Especially not in the context of "Russian street dancing." According to Wikipedia:

The Tropak a traditional Ukrainian folk dance from the Slobozhan region of Ukraine (around the city of Kharkiv) settled primarilly[sic] by descendants of the Zaporozhian Cossacks ... The tropak differs from the better known Hopak in chordal use and also in that the tempo gradually speeds up throughout the dance.

The Tropak was one of the traditional instrumental dances played by blind itinerant musicians [and] was also one of the dances often included in the repertoire of village violinists in Eastern Ukraine.

The tropak went out of fashion in the 1930's during the major transformations in Ukrainian village society and culture that happened in Soviet Ukraine at that time.

Oddly enough, Wikipedia goes on to say:

As one of several consecutive ethnic dances in Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Nutcracker, the Trepak often also goes under the name "Russian Dance"...

No reason stated why it also goes under that name. (Of course, the reason rarely is.)

So there was a hue and cry in the Ukrainian community, asking for a rush of letters to the network. There was even a petition being circulated in an attempt to urge them to correct their error on the air.

Right. As if they would. And as if they believe (or care) that they have insulted millions of Ukrainians. This is where I part company with the community activists all up in arms over this.

Fox TV is not a government or university bureaucracy. They are a business, big business. And their business is entertainment. Here's a little look behind-the-scenes....

Now I do agree that it's quite reprehensible of the producer to have misrepresented this dance so blatantly. I'd be very surprised if he didn't know what a slap in the face it would be to Ukrainians. (If he didn't, then he's extremely stupid and deserves to be fired.)

OTOH, if he did then you have to wonder at the motivation. What disservice to the program's viewers to present them with a slipshod product, given that with just a wee bit of research online, anyone could clear up the confusion. So if it isn't arbitrary mean-spiritedness towards Ukrainians, it was sloppiness and a callous disregard for the integrity of their product, and the intelligent of their audiences. (In which case they really should check out internet gurus Chris Andersen or Seth Godin.)

But, I digress.

Yes, I think Ukrainians are justified in feeling insulted. And yes, I think that the program producer is either a flaming idiot or just too full of himself to see around his stuffed shirt.

However, those are my personal feelings about it. On a professional level, I think it was pointless and maybe even counterproductive to send a flurry of letters (much leass a petition!) to egomaniacs who run TV networks. And face it, they all are egomanics. It just comes with the territory. They can't help it.

Author Marsha Skrypuch, who edited a groundbreaking anthology of Ukrainian stories called Kobzar’s Children, says that if Ukrainians don't get better at telling our stories, someone else will (because they're interesting and entertaining!). But if they do, chances are they won't tell them right.

I quite agree. I think our community needs to step up to the plate better. This whole thing is, really, more about show business, and storytelling, than it is about history. The reality is that, by the time the story gets to the stage, the history is pretty much cast in metaphor and it’s just too tedious and expensive to change a good (enough) story just for the sake of historical accuracy. The finer details of which, quite frankly, the majority of viewers probably don't really much care about.

I think it would have been far more productive if community activists attempted to connect and network with the choreographer who, after all, runs a Ukrainian dance school for kids in LA. Or, at least to contact him and find out why he represented the tropak to the network as a Russian dance.

The thing is, it could be that this choreographer is the only one who bothered to pitch Ukrainian dance to the mainstream entertainment industry. And/or it could be that this (just getting the dance and the costumes in front of the cameras) is as far as he could get, at least for now. Or, maybe I’m being naïve and it was all very deliberate. Who knows, really? But whatever the case, I think that maybe it’s time for community to consider a different, more pro-active approach if we want to see a better representation of Ukrainian history on stage and screen.

There's no business like show business, but the important thing to remember is that it is all business. And there's no place in it for amateurs, especially those who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But, this has been a long, earnest and far too serious post. If you have stuck it out this far, you deserve a treat. (Heck, you deserve a medal!) So enough of the serious stuff. Time now for some fun… Ukrainian style.

Here are a couple of treats for you. Enjoy!

Folk! Ukrainian Dance Documentary

Here’s the hopak expertly done by Virsky … can you believe those little kids???

And my DH’s all-time favourite … and one of mine too! Volyn.

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