|Select magazine number|
Australian ensemble performs Ukrainian dances
Recently, three members of an amateur dance group, called Verkhovyna, from Australia paid a visit to the office of Welcome to Ukraine Magazine. There was no- thing unusual in the fact of foreigners paying a visit to the WU office — it was the first time though that we talked to Ukrainians from Australia.
Dedicated to Ukraine
We have brought our young souls,
Our great respect and best wishes
To you, Ukraine, from the distant land
Oh, Ukraine, the land sung by poets!
The land we’ve been looking for
Since our childhood,
The land where we did not grow up —
Oh, Ukraine, help us discover you!
Before coming to Ukraine, Verkhovyna had been to Thailand where they had enjoyed a great success. In Ukraine they performed in Donetsk, Lviv and Kyiv. In Kyiv it was at the National Opera of Ukraine that they performed. Verkhovyna was a big hit with the Kyiv audience who could hardly believe that Verkhovyna members were amateurs, not professional dancers, members of the Ukrainian Youth Association of Australia who paid their money to come over to Ukraine to show their dancing skills and see the native land of their ancestors.
Zoya Kohut talked to Natalia Moravski, who organized the tour and designed the costumes, her daughter Melanie, the artistic director, and Natalia’s son, Stephan, a dancer. These three, evidently made up the core of Verkhovyna. All of them were full of good cheer; they said they were thoroughly enjoying their tour and stay in Ukraine and the way their performances were received.
My first question will naturally concern your group Verkhovyna and the kind of dances you perform.
Melanie: We come from Melbourne, Australia. We perform dances that originate from various parts of Ukraine. Basically, we follow the lines set up by the remarkable Ukrainian choreographer Pavlo Virsky, but there are also numbers we perform that are borrowed from well-known dance ensembles of Volyn and Polissya. But I, as the artistic director of Verkhovyna, introduce changes which I think necessary for adjusting our dances to modern times and contemporary audiences. I want to connect the past with the present. Incidentally, we call our show Discovery.
On this tour you performed in Thailand, didn’t you? It seems to be rather an unexpected place to take traditional Ukrainian dances to.
Melania: Yes, we performed in Chiang Mai (one of Thailand’s largest cities, Chiang Mai is the capital of Changwat Chiang Mai; it serves as the chief economic center for the northern part of the country; it was founded in 1296; the Lao people constitute the city’s main ethnic group — tr.). And the Thai audiences just loved our dances! It was a local international school for the children of diplomats and for local Thais that received us and provided the venue for our performance. We also gave master classes — there were quite a few people who wanted to learn to dance Ukrainian dances. And yes, Ukrainian dances were quite exotic for Thailand — and I’m afraid not only for Thailand! (Melanie laughs).
Stephan: We were asked to stay longer. Among the people who came to see our shows were Thais, Koreans, Germans, Britons, Americans and people of other ethnic backgrounds. At the first show, the spectators sat and watched mesmerized — but silently. But when they saw us clap our hands on the stage, they began clapping their hands too! By the end of the show they were all standing on their feet and applauding thunderously!
You mean the children?
No, they were the children’s parents and teachers!
I think it is well known in Thailand where Australia is — but do they know in Thailand where Ukraine is?
Melanie: The students had had geography lessons some time before we arrived in Thailand and they had some idea of what and where Ukraine is.
When was your Verkhovyna ensemble founded?
Natalia: It was founded back in the 1950s within the framework of the Ukrainian Youth Association. The first artistic director was Yaroslav Bulka, a great enthusiast. He invited professional choreographers, and gradually Verkhovyna became the biggest and best-known dance group in Australia.
Is it known how many people of Ukrainian descent live in Australia?
Melanie: There are about 35,000 people of Ukrainian descent in Australia and about 10,000 of them are activists and enthusiasts of Ukrainian culture. We have such organizations as the Ukrainian Community, Ukrainian Youth Association, Plast. There are Ukrainian Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Ukrainian schools where Ukrainian classes are conducted on Saturdays, song and dance groups.
Natalia: Australia is a big country — a continent, in fact! — but most of the large cities are situated in the east and south. Most of the Ukrainian community in Australia is concentrated in the east and south as well. I live in Melbourne, my mother lives in Adelaide, and my daughter lives in Sydney. But we see each other quite often — plus, all sorts of festivals provide additional opportunities for meeting each other. But I wish people of Ukrainian descent would socialize and see each other more often. There are maybe three or four thousand people of Ukrainian descent living in Melbourne but they see each other mostly in churches on Christmas and Velykden (Easter). But thanks to Ukrainian dances, a number of people socialize and are in contact with each other much more often. I do hope our young people will maintain knowledge of the Ukrainian language and culture and enthusiasm for it.
The Ukrainian community in Australia is not as well-to-do as it is in Canada, and we can’t pay people for participating in Verkhovyna or other similar activities. The Verkhovyna members who have come on this tour paid between fifteen to thirty hundred dollars each in order to be able to travel to Ukraine. To put together that much money would take a lot of varenyky to sell!
Beg your pardon? What do varenyky (a sort of stuffed dumplings — tr.) have to do with it?
Natalia: You see, one of the ways of earning money for all sorts of things among the Ukrainian community in Australia is to make Ukrainian borsch, varenyky and other Ukrainian dishes which are quite “exotic” for Australia, and sell this food at festivals.
How do Australians of non-Ukrainian extraction react to your dance shows?
Natalia: I work for an agency that organizes tours of foreign theatrical and other troupes, and I know that we, with our Ukrainian dances, are not in the arts’ mainstream. We perform in small halls, at festivals, in restaurants and at weddings. Curiously enough, we usually get invited at the weddings when only one of the newlyweds is of Ukrainian descent rather than both of them. Probably, in this way, the bride or the bridegroom wants to introduce their partner to Ukrainian culture. I think the Australian public would have appreciated our Ukrainian dances more if they knew more about Ukrainian culture. We are doing our best to make Ukrainian culture better known and appreciated in Australia. My grandmother did that, my mother did that, now my children and I are doing that. I hope that my grandchildren will do that too! Incidentally, my daughter’s fiance, Oles’, is a member of Verkhovyna too! And probably a day will come when Ukrainian dances and music will be known as hip-hop, African and Caribbean dances, or fusion (laughs).
Melania: In fact, we are planning to rehearse and perform a dance, which will combine elements of a Ukrainian traditional dance and hip-hop, and we want to involve some Australian dancers. I hope it’ll be fun!
You mentioned restaurants at which you or other Ukrainian dance groups perform. Are there restaurants, at which the patrons are taught Ukrainian dances? The way it is done in Edmonton in Canada?
The number of restaurants which offer Ukrainian dishes is growing but I doubt Ukrainian dances are taught there. But it’s a good idea, thank you for mentioning that.
You and other people like you maintain Ukrainian traditions, language and culture in a far-off Australia but you don’t gain any financial benefits from it…
Melanie: No, we don’t. But we do get cultural benefits. It’s our culture — Ukrainianness is our very soul, it helps us to be what we are, it supports our inner world. I have Ukrainian genes in me, and whenever I hear Ukrainian music my genes respond with joy!
Stephan: Our grandparents and great-grandparents came to Australia because they were forced to do it by economic or political circumstances, they created there their new, little Ukraine, but they always wanted to go back. They passed their love of their native land and its language and culture on to us, and we respect our parents and grandparents for fostering in us this love of Ukraine, for teaching us Ukrainian songs and dances, and we shall pass this on to our children as well.
It’s your first visit to Ukraine, isn’t it? What did you expect to see, and what did you actually see?
Melanie: No, it’s not my first visit to Ukraine. I learnt a lot of things about Ukraine at a national Ukrainian Saturday school. When I saw the Dnipro River for the first time from the airplane window, tears sprang into my eyes. I visited Kaniv and Taras Shevchenko’s grave there, and wherever else I went to in Ukraine I felt I was coming in touch with the things I had learnt about in school. I felt so much at home in Ukraine, though at the time of my first visit then to Ukraine, I heard people mostly talking Russian and it was difficult for me to understand them. When I traveled to other countries of Europe, I felt myself a tourist there — not so in Ukraine. When I was leaving Ukraine, I wept. I kept crying for the whole month after I returned to Australia…
Natalie: In my student days, I had to explain to my teacher in Australia that Ukraine was not Russia, that Chornobyl was in Ukraine, not in Russia. I had to show her the map to prove my point. These days, people in Australia know a little more about Ukraine — the Orange Revolution, the boxers Klychko, the pop singer Ruslana…
Stephan: What I had learnt in school corresponded more or less with what I’ve experienced here in Ukraine. I did not experience a culture shock when I arrived in Ukraine. When we were riding in a bus from Boryspil Airport to Kyiv, I looked out the window and it seemed to me I had been here before. Incidentally, I saw snow in town for the first time — before that I had seen snow only in the Australian Alps. When, later, in a store, someone called us “foreigners,” I was sort of surprised and the girl from Verkhovyna I was with even felt offended. She said, “We’re Ukrainians! Only we talk with a bit of different accent!”
I think it’d be rather easy for me to get adjusted to life in Ukraine and live in this country… I remember when in Australia I was watching the Olympic games on television I could not quite figure out whether I should be a fan of the Australian or the Ukrainian athletes! (laughs). I am proud to be an Australian, but I am also proud to be an ethnic Ukrainian.
Natalia: On the poster that advertises our shows there are flower wreaths depicted — they are Ukrainian-style wreaths with Australian flowers!
Stephan: Before I traveled to Ukraine, I had heard a lot of warnings from different people about Ukraine — be prepared for this or that, but all of it has proven so far to be wrong! I had been told, for example, that at the passport and customs control at the airport in Ukraine, all our luggage would be very thoroughly checked and all sort of questions would be asked, but I was asked a couple of usual questions, and was waved on — “Welcome to Ukraine!”
Natalia: I came to Ukraine for the first time in 1994, and things were a little bit different then from what they are now. My parents had taught me back home to watch out for Russians in Ukraine, and to be careful not to expound on political and national subjects with them. I did not do that because I did not want any trouble and had a very good time in Ukraine. I was somewhat annoyed and upset when I encountered manifestations of soviet mentality, but I have not seen much of that on this visit. And the clerks in stores have become much more polite. I’ve noticed a lot of changes in Ukraine that have taken place since my previous visit. It’s not true any longer, as some people say in Australia, that everybody talks Russian. I’ve found that a lot more people talk Ukrainian! I am very pleased to see that people we meet do not take us for tourists — we are Ukrainians for them!
Photos have been provided by Verkhovyna Dance Ensemble