Orest T. Martynowych. The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014. 240 pp. $31.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-88755-768-2.
Reviewed by Jennifer Boivin (University of Sudbury)
Published on H-SHERA (September, 2018)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)
Vasile Avramenko: Between Art and Ideology
Vasile Avramenko is an emblematic figure in the Ukrainian Canadian and Ukrainian American diasporas. Avramenko was born an uneducated peasant in 1895 near Kyiv in the former Russian Empire. He served in the Imperial Russian and Ukrainian National Republic Armies, where he found his calling as a dancer. He also fought for Ukrainian independence after the Revolution of 1917. In the subsequent years, Avramenko wandered around western Ukraine, Poland, and Czechoslovakia teaching Ukrainian folk dances before immigrating to North America. There, he tried to draw attention to the Ukrainian cause via the medium of folk dance.
In today’s North America, Avramenko is the object of profound respect and admiration, and a highly idealized character. Most scholarly publications depict him as a mythical national figure, a dance genius, and a successful filmmaker. All accounts portray the greatness of Avramenko’s work and his impact on Ukrainian Canadian and Ukrainian American diasporic culture. These publications generally focus on the intangible cultural product Avramenko left rather than how he created it. In The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko, historian Orest Martynowych presents the first unvarnished portrait of the dance master. Through an impressive and precise research based on archival material from the National Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, and from the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre (OSEREDOK) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Martynowych revisits the “Avramenko myth” by investigating the personal correspondence of the choreographer and performance reviews from different newspapers in Canada and the United States. For the first time, one can have a real grasp at who Vasile Avramenko really was.
Martynowych’s book is divided in four main chapters, each discussing an aspect of Avramenko’s life. The first of these chapters focuses on the dancer’s youth in Ukraine until his immigration to Canada. In this first part, the author examines the social and political context in which Avramenko was born and grew up, as well as the life experiences that might have prompted the dancer to develop such a zealous nationalism and interest in the performing arts. Martynowych gives a detailed account of the beginning of the Ukrainian theater in the nineteenth century, most of which presented romantic and ethnographic themes from village life, and a combination of acting, singing, and dancing. One finds out about Avramenko’s dance debut, who influenced his work and his teaching, and the context in which he moved to Canada. Without excusing the dancer’s later eccentric behavior, this first glimpse at Avramenko’s early life proposed by Martynowych helps readers understand the context in which the dance master developed such a missionary zeal for Ukrainian independence, a self-imposed mission that would consume his life, his friendships, and his family. Using Ukrainian folk dance as a tool for propaganda, he started his nomadic journey as a dance teacher and choreographer, first in Europe and later in North America.
Avramenko arrived in Canada in 1925. A few weeks later, he launched his first dance school. To survive in Canada and later in the United States, Avramenko relied on what he knew best: dancing and teaching dance. The “maestro,” as he liked to be called, traveled for the next four years from city to city and province to province, launching multiple ephemeral dance schools, teaching the same set of choreographies, and forming dance instructors who would continue his legacy after his departure. As Martynowych shows in this second chapter dedicated to Avramenko’s dance career, the students enrolled for several weeks in the dance school to learn his repertoire and produced a final performance that marked the end of the dance course. Avramenko’s success was partly due to his highly patriotic lectures prior to launching the schools. In these speeches, he claimed that folk dancing was a way to support the Ukrainian cause and to avoid assimilation. In the context of the Roaring Twenties, which brought decadent jazz music, “vulgar dances” such as the Charleston, the black bottom, the jitterbug, and the Lindy Hop, and new social behaviors, Avramenko’s folk dancing was perceived as a “pure, virtuous, decorous, and worthy of absorption into the fabric of Canadian life” (p. 49). Furthermore, this was an activity that had the power to raise national consciousness among youth who belonged to a minority group. In this section, Martynowych carefully examines Avramenko’s correspondence to unveil the maestro’s career path as well as how he supported his grandiose artistic schemes: through questionable fund-raising methods including conviction and often manipulation of investors, many of whom were vulnerable and of small means. As Avramenko’s debts increased, he would often terminate the dance lessons with a performance (paid with borrowed money) before disappearing to another location without repaying his investors. As Martynowych accurately show in this section, this is how Avramenko would lead the rest of his life.
The third chapter focuses on Avramenko’s career as a film producer after moving to New York City in 1928. Once again, Martynowych puts the choreographer in the context of the US film industry of the late 1920s and the rapid ascension of Soviet cinema. The chapter follows Avramenko’s new career path during the Depression and post-Depression era, as he launches the production of the films Natalka Poltavka (1936) and Cossacks in Exile (1938). Once more, Avramenko associated his artistic projects with the Ukrainian cause and expressed his plans of creating a “Ukrainian Hollywood” (p. 78). Martynowych links Avramenko’s work to the low-budget “ethnic” cinema that developed in the interwar period and unveils his collaboration with Edgar Georg Ulmer (1904–72), who directed Avramenko’s two films. The filmmaking period of Avramenko’s life marks his decline in reputation and popularity within the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States due to his erratic behavior and heavy debts.
The last chapter depicts Avramenko’s years wandering the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, and Israel, trying to appeal to more donors in these respective diasporas to support more artistic projects that combined patriotic and religious deeds. During this period of his life, Avramenko was influenced by the work of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944). Avramenko returned to Canada in 1950 and tried to launch several anniversary performances, all mildly successful. As Martynowych shows, the declining interest in Avramenko’s work coincided with the creation of major state-sponsored dance ensembles in the former USSR, led by celebrated choreographers such as Pavlo Virsky (1905–75) and Igor Moiseyev (1906–2007). As these ensembles toured the world offering a highly polished dance product with elements of ballet and acrobatics, Avramenko’s rudimentary and unchanged choreographies, unpolished movements, and amateur style were increasingly seen as “irrelevant” (p. 134).
The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko is meant to give a full portrait of an extraordinary man with larger-than-life dreams, poor business skills, and an irascible temper. Martynowych largely describes Avramenko’s issues with his creditors and collaborators. His research also shows that the lack of success in the choreographer’s dance and film projects was not necessarily due to the poor quality of the product, as the reviews were generally positive, but mostly to a lack of attendance. As Martynowych unveils the internal conflicts, rivalries, and intrigues between Avramenko and some members of the community, he also shows the extreme difficulty of reaching stardom in the late 1920s. In a way, the story of Avramenko is as controversial as his persona: from the community’s point of view, Avramenko stands as an example of the American Dream, but it is also the story of an immigrant who never really learned English and paradoxically, never gave up the dream of finding his place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As the author points out, Avramenko was deeply flawed, but he nevertheless was able to transform Ukrainian dance into a respectable activity, and ultimately, his greatest success was to make Ukrainian immigrants proud of their heritage.
The large majority of Martynowych’s published sources are from the field of Ukrainian studies. While most studies about Avramenko were indeed undertaken by Ukrainian, Ukrainian Canadian, and Ukrainian American scholars, it would have been interesting to see more references to other scholarship, especially when it comes to the historical context. In some cases, he contextualizes Avramenko’s career based on a few general sources that are a tad outdated. This is a bit disappointing considering the rich scholarship devoted to Soviet cinema, American cinema, and folk dance. It also contrasts with Martynowych’s especially meticulous and extensive research in archival documents.
The author’s archival research certainly constitutes the best and most valuable element of this publication. Martynowych is an extraordinary researcher and took full advantage of the archival resources. One should remind that the author’s focus is the life of the maestro. Therefore, the reader will not find extensive details about costume and decor-making, or how the dance instructor’s travel was organized. Furthermore, to keep focus on his biographical theme, a larger discussion of Avramenko’s propaganda and the nurturing of the Ukrainian diasporas’ imagination is not undertaken in this volume. However, with this long overdue, well-written critical biography, the author clearly opens up a wide load of possibilities for future research.
Martynowych has produced a well-balanced work, but more importantly it is the only source that depicts Vasile Avramenko without a heavily sugar-coated framework. Martynowych debunks a national myth that was carefully nurtured within his own community, and one can only marvel at the risk he and the University of Manitoba Press were taking with its publication. While it might shock some readers to find out that the dance master was a only a modestly talented choreographer (according to later performance expectations) and a deluded, envious, and egotistic character, I find this publication also makes Avramenko more real and more human. When readers reach the end of Martynowych’s book, they will be left with a sense of sadness for a man who dedicated his life to a cause that in the end consumed him, but also with a sense of awe at Avramenko’s incredible story and achievements, however modest they may be, and more importantly, at the impact his life had on Ukrainian dance worldwide.
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Jennifer Boivin. Review of Martynowych, Orest T., The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko.
H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews.
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