Chernobyl, beautiful girls, russian and vodka ... This is the Ukraine of stereotypes and (false) myths. But what is the reality? Is Ukraine a second-rate country or is it a nation with a strong and vibrant culture that deserves to be spared from the tempting trivialization? This is what we'll try to understand in this interview through the particular point of view of folk dance, a window on the soul of the largest country in Europe: Ukraine.

Why dance and not another form of art? The answer is very simple. Folk dance has always been a vital part of Ukrainian culture. Observing it carefully, we can grasp the proud and courageous character of its people, the tormented history, the rich ethnic composition and the great heritage of symbolism and allegories linked to pagan cults. To trace the origins of dance to the territories of present-day Ukraine, we need to go back to the late Neolithic. In the third millennium BC, the area between northern Romania, Moldavia and south-eastern Ukraine was the center of the first urban civilization in Europe, known as Cucuteni-Trypillian. The discovery of a series of ceramic artifacts, including the famous Hora of Frumusica, threw light on rituals attributable to an ancient dance:  Hora, the circular dance associated with the cult of the sun. This type of dance has survived over the millennia and, even today, it can be found in the main Balkan folk choreographies. With the introduction of Christianity, the archaic relics of these dances mixed with Christian rites and were adapted to the church calendar. To the circular movement, others were added, some linked to the rural world, others to military techniques. In the early Middle Ages, dance was enriched with music, words and poetry, becoming a traveling profession. Despite the formal changes, Ukrainian folk dance never lost the energetic and virtuous character that still distinguishes it today. It is from here that I would like to start to discover the colorful culture of Ukraine. Accompanying us on this journey will be Debbie Karras, leader of the popular dance group Dovbush Dancer, based in Vancouver. What is the connection between Canada and Ukraine? After Russia and Ukraine itself, Canada has the third largest Ukrainian population in the world. At the end of the 1800s, intellectuals, farmers, war veterans and artists emigrated overseas, bringing with them the love for a land which, unfortunately, has not always been able to offer a future to its people.

Debbie, what's the story of your ensemble?

Our group was officially born in 1962, but its history begins much earlier. We are members of the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, AUUC, a national organization which in 1918 built its first Hall in Winnipeg - the capital of the province of Manitoba in Canada. Our first immigrants brought their rich Ukrainian culture to Canada. The dance itself was not a stand-a-lone art form but also incorporated theater, song and music. At first, the dance was performed in a rudimentary form by the interpreters of the operas or orchestras. Despite this, the performances were sufficient to satisfy a social need, namely the need to celebrate traditional weddings and celebrations. From these first experiences, the Kobzar Dancers were born in 1943, a senior dance group that was our predecessor and laid the foundations for the birth of our Dovbush Dancers ensemble.

Canada has the largest Ukrainian population in the world after Russia and Ukraine itself. What is the reality of Canadian Ukrainians today, more than a century after the arrival of the first settlers? Do you still feel a link with your homeland?

I feel lucky to have lived in Ukraine in the early 1980s as a dance student. It was a time when the pain of the older generation that had suffered a lot during the wars was still felt. My love for the country and for its people has transcended my passion for the art form. There was a time when dance was a hobby, an art form left to those involved in the world of culture. Today more than ever there is a revitalization and awakening of Ukrainian dance. Highly skilled dancers and instructors have moved overseas and injected their experience and knowledge into various groups across Canada. The best known are Anna and Vasyl Kanevets, Serguei Makarov and Zhenia Bahri. These people currently lead many of our groups in Canada, imparting their knowledge and skills in the field of Ukrainian dance. There are specialized tour companies, such as Cobblestone, which bring new generations to Ukraine to experience culture firsthand, offering new generations the opportunity to explore their roots and connect with their homeland.

Your group is named after Oleksa Dovbush, the so-called Ukrainian "Robin Hood". Why did you choose the name of this popular hero?

When the seniors of the Kobzar dance group withdrew, the dancers felt the need to have a new, proper name. They chose this charming and romantic name, which is well suited to an organization located in the heart of downtown Eastside. Oleksa Dovbush has always defended and fought for complex progressive social issues. This is why the dancers chose his name for the company, a name they have come to love and are proud to be a part of. In 2013 our dancers had the opportunity to visit and study dance in Kiev. On that occasion, they went to visit the Dovbush Rocks. It was very exciting for the group to visit their namesake's site.

Oleksa Dovbush is one of the best known Ukrainian national heroes. Lived in the first half of the eighteenth century, Dovbush earned the title of ''Robin Hood'' for being the leader of the opryshky, an anti-feudal movement of national liberation, active in the Carpathian Mountains. These noble brigands used to steal szlachectwo (Polish nobles), landowners, usurers and wealthy Jewish merchants, and then share the booty among the destitute and enslaved Ukrainians. Most of the historical information on Dovbush is known from court cases. Research has shown that he was born to a humble family in Pechenizhyn (about 200km south of Lviv) and that he devoted his entire life to defending and vindicating the rights of the poor and oppressed. Folk tales tell that Oleska built a safe shelter with the help of an ax. This site, known as the Dovbush Rocks, is a rock complex formed about 70 million years ago in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in western Ukraine. Caves and gorges follow one another for over two kilometers through the dense vegetation of the Carpathians, making this an ideal place for the secret missions of Dovbush and his followers. Although he was loved by his companions, it was because of one of them that Dovbush was treacherously captured and brought before the Polish nobility. In many Ukrainian tales it is said that Dovbush, like our hero Achilles, could only be killed under special circumstances and with precise tools. It seems that to kill him it was necessary to use a silver bullet wrapped in his own hair. If for Achilles the vulnerable point was the heel, for Dovbush it was the portion of the head from which the hair had been pulled. Also, according to the oral tradition, to play the role of Paris in the tragic end of Dovbush, was the husband of his lover Dzvinka. The account of the treatment of his body after death also recalls other stories of national heroes, for example the Scotsman Wallace. According to legend, Dovbush's body was cut into twelve pieces and exhibited in various places in Ukraine to frighten and discourage peasants loyal to the Ukrainian Robin Hood ideals.

Let's enter the world of Ukrainian dance, an art strongly connected to seasonal cyclicality and pre-Christian rituals. What are the main types of traditional dance?

Ukrainian dance can be classified into three main branches: ritual, social and thematic dances. The former are the oldest form of folk dance, a synthesis of poetry, music and dance. Their practice was linked to the calendar, therefore, for example, to the traditional spring greeting, the observance of summer, the harvest or the new year. The name that is usually used for these dances is khorvody - a term that identifies a folk dance of Slavic origins that is performed by a group of women arranged in a circle who move from East to West, like the sun. The social dances which, on the other hand, reflected the customs and habits of the people, originated in the period of formation of the Ukrainian nationality. These dances form the basis of folk choreography, because they carry the essential characteristic traits of the Ukrainian nation: love of freedom, heroism, courage, intelligence, tenacity, resourcefulness, ingenuity and humor. These dances are an integral part of people's daily life and are performed at home, during evening meetings or group outings. Finally, the thematic dances are the latest in chronological order. They were born when the dancers were able to represent the various phenomena of life and nature.

Hopak, the martial art ''danced'' by the Cossacks, is undoubtedly the most famous Ukrainian dance. What is the meaning of this dance and where did the acrobatics that made this dance so popular all over the world come from?

Speaking of Hopak, one wonders why this dance was elevated to fill the role of national dance of Ukraine. We can answer that for the Ukrainians it became the symbol of the growing feudal exploitation which forced many serfs and peasants to leave their villages. It was a true mass migration that involved many generations. In this context the Cossacks - the Russian term kazàk is of Turkish origin and means free man - built two fortresses in the Kaniv and Cherkassy regions, but the armies of the foreign feudal nobility soon began to colonize these areas, forcing the Cossacks to move to the island of Tomakivka. This place is located between the rapids of the Zaporižžja region, literally za beyond, porohy rapids and sich fortress. Cossacks were forbidden to dance before battles, but upon their return to the fortress, they celebrated their achievements through dances that mimicked their actions in combat. Hence the Hopak. Initially, these dances were performed only by men, but eventually women also joined. When you dance Hopak there is a sense of national pride that goes beyond the borders of individual regions. In our shows, the Hopak is the final dance, the highlight of the evening.

Let's talk about another dance present in your repertoire, the Hutsulsky Polonyni, the ceremony of sending the Hutsuls shepherds to the distant mountain valleys, polonyna in fact. What does this dance consist of and what is its origin?

This is a dance we acquired from Ukraine in 2013 and was choreographed by Lilia Chernous. It portrays a moment of celebration and evokes a sense of mysticism steeped in traditions of renewal and awakening of nature in all its beauty. This dance, which is divided into two parts, brilliantly brings together all its components: a superbly matched choreography to the music, costumes indicative of Hutsuls region and, above all, the traditional elements of Ukrainian culture. In the first part, performed by male dancers, there is the presence of fire pots, which are raised as a tribute to the gods, and axes, a central element in the Hutsuls folklore and clothing. In the second part, the girls also enter the scene and the atmosphere becomes very joyful. The first female dancer falls in love with the male first dancer, the chief shepherd, and the other girls flirt with the other dancers. It is therefore a celebration of love and the genuine simplicity of rural life.

Hutsuls are an ethnic group of shepherds and mountain people, originally from northern Romania (Bucovina and Maramureş) and the western part of Ukraine (the aforementioned Oleksa Dovbush was part of this group). The etymology of their name is still widely debated (some say that the name derives from nomadic populations of Turkish stock, others from Slavic tribes) although all opinions agree that they gathered on the Ukrainian Carpathians following the Mongol advance. Hutsuls are distinguished from other ethnographic groups of the Carpathians for their colorful clothes reminiscent of Turkish and Persian kilims, their own dialect, authentic traditions, the art of inlaying, legends and mystical beliefs. The culture of this ethnic group is strongly connected with pastoral life, as evidenced by the four elements that best characterize them: the vatra fire, the brynza goat or sheep's milk cheese, the axes and the trembita, the longest wind musical instrument in the world (between three and eight meters in length), whose sound can cover a distance of over 10 km.

Hutsuls are also known for a very particular dance: the Arkan. Becoming an opryshko, a real Hutsul man, and being able to participate in this dance was not easy. To gain this privilege, young people had to go through a series of very severe tests. The first proof consisted of eating only excessively salty and spicy foods for a whole day, without being able to drink. At the end of the test, the future opryshky was presented with a glass of water. If they ran out of the contents of the glass immediately, the test had failed. In the second phase, the recruits were accompanied to the banks of a stream or near a precipice, preferably at high altitudes and during a storm. The test consisted in crossing the river or the cliff, walking on a log (the bark had previously been made slippery). In the event of failure, the best-case scenario was a quick and painless death. The third proof was used to test the ability to resist potential torture: holding hot coal in the palms of the hand, until they could feel the smell of burnt skin. All, of course, in strict silence. Finally, in the last test, the recruits had to kneel in front of the elders and reach out to a log. Three times the leader of the opryshky dropped his ax near the hand, pretending to want to amputate it. If the recruit showed no signs of fear, then he was finally considered an opryshko. Only then could the young boy, who had become a lehin, or a real man, wear the ax and the stick, the symbols of Hutsuls. Furthermore, only upon completion of these initiatory tests, the opryshko could take part in the Arkan, the dance of the daredevil men of the Carpathians. Today, of course, Arkan's dancers no longer have to pass these tremendous tests, but this dance remains a symbol of the strength and courage of the Hutsuls.

The aesthetic beauty and originality of Ukrainian folk dances are enhanced by the colorful costumes of the dancers. Traditional Ukrainian clothing has always had a profound significance within the country: even the slightest variation in embroidery can indicate belonging to a specific region or city. What are the traditional dresses that have come almost unchanged to the present day?

Features of national clothing are directly related to the specific events in the life of the Ukrainian people: holidays, weddings, rituals, customs and all aspects of everyday life. Clothing is a synthesis of many different art forms: weaving, embroidery, fabric making, leather and metal processing. Historically, we can identify three periods in which the creation of clothes has changed. In the first, the body was wrapped in a single rectangular piece of woven fabric, in the second the clothing consisted of several pieces of rectangular fabric sewn together and, finally, in the third the pieces of fabric were first cut to the shape of the body and then sewn together. It should also be considered that Ukrainian clothing has been affected by the influences of the Slavs and other Eastern European nations. Despite this, there are still some clothes that reflect the ancient Ukrainian customs. An example is the sorochka, a finely decorated linen or hemp shirt worn by both women and men. This is undoubtedly the oldest and longest-lived traditional Ukrainian item of clothing. For women, the plakhta is worn over the sorochka, a kind of rectangular fabric skirt, held in place by a poyas, a woven belt. Based on the length and color, we understand the region of origin of the wearer. As for men, wide satin trousers of Turkish origin have always been a mainstay of men's clothing. The wide trousers allowed the Cossacks to ride horses freely. Today, these varying width trousers - called sharavary and usually worn with a pair of red hussar boots - are mainly found in Central Ukrainian costumes.

Kupalo night is one of the oldest and most popular celebrations in Ukraine. Are there any particular ritual dances that are performed on this magical night?

The dances that are performed on Ivana Kupala's night are among the oldest forms of Ukrainian dance, although little is known about the specific choreography.

In Eastern Europe and the Balkans there are many festivals of pagan origin that have survived the advent of Christianity. In the pages dedicated to Romania and Bulgaria, I told you about Paparuda, the rain dance of the Balkans, Dragobete, the feast of universal love, the Lole Carnival, an ancient custom of the Saxons of Transylvania and Sânziene, the fairy festival dedicated to the summer solstice and the beginning of the harvest season (Italian version only). The latter has its Ukrainian equivalent which takes the name of Ivana Kupala (it is also celebrated in Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland). The original name was Kupalo, the Proto-Slavic personification of peace and joy, often represented as a female deity. According to Slavic mythology, on the night of the summer solstice, two twins, Kupalo and Kostroma, were born from Simargl, god of fire, and Kupalnitsa, goddess of the night. One day, the two children ran into a field and listened to the song of Sirin, the bird of pain, and of Alkonost, the bird of joy. Kupalo, who had been attracted by Sirin's song, was taken by the latter to the Nav, the world of the dead whose entrance was in the depths of rivers and from which it was not possible to return. Many years later, Kostroma found himself sailing on a river. He wore a beautiful garland of flowers on his head which, according to the Slavic tradition, if given to a girl, it would have sealed the union in marriage. Kostroma had no intention of getting married. So, he challenged the gods, sure that the wind would not let the wreath fall from his head. But the gods did not accept his arrogance and, to punish him, ordered the wind to drop the crown into the river. Once in the water, the wreath was collected by Kupalo and for Kostroma there was no other solution than to get married with the girl. The two were unaware that they were brothers, but the gods took pity and decided to tell them the truth. The twins then, taken by shame and pain, sought death. Kostroma drowned in a pond and Kupalo threw herself into the fire. The gods, realizing the extreme cruelty of the punishment, decided to transform the two young people into a flower with yellow petals, the color of Kupalo's fire, and blue, the waters of the lake into which Kostroma stands. 

Since then, on the night of the summer solstice, girls and boys celebrate by dancing around large bonfires and making flower garlands that they place in the waters of a river. With the advent of Christianity, the feast was linked to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24) and at the end of Kupalo was added ''Ivan'', the Christian name par excellence, which then, aimed at female, became Ivana Kupala. This was the only way to Christianize this pagan festival, since, despite the various attempts to ban it, it was now a deeply rooted and popular tradition. Even today the girls create garlands of flowers and medicinal herbs and all night they dance around the fire, symbol of the sacred sun, into which they throw all the old objects to purify themselves. Finally, they run towards the river where, after putting down their garlands, they take a ritual bath to complete the purification rite.

I would like to conclude with a maxim by the German historian Max Bendiner: "Ethnic music and dance can fulfill the highest of all tasks: they can be a link between nations, ethnic groups and states, which are strangers to each other in many ways; they can unite what is disunited". What do you think about it? What value can dance, the universal language of the body, have in this sense?

Dance, unlike any other art form, can bring people together. It speaks volumes without ever saying a word, which means that we don't need to speak another country's language to appreciate what is being performed on stage. We can convey a variety of feelings: joy, sadness, despair, anger, happiness. We can explore ancient folklore and traditions. We can take a look at the daily life of a people and see their history on stage. I believe that dance is a window on the soul of a nation. If you have a solid cultural base, you also have a deep respect not only for your own culture, but also for others. We are very fortunate to have many elderly people in our community who have passed on their knowledge and love for Ukrainian culture to subsequent generations. I truly believe that this love for one's own culture helps to foster a deeper appreciation of other cultures and, in turn, of all humanity. We really enjoy sharing the stage with other nationalities and finding common ground. In addition, dance also allows us to reflect on the past. There is a particularly touching piece of choreography we perform called We Remember. It is a dance from the repertoire of the State National Dance Ensemble, Virsky, where a young woman places a bouquet of lilies on the tomb of the unknown soldier. The dance depicts the horrors of war and reminds the audience to never forget the tragedies and human losses of those who sacrificed their lives to allow us to live in a better world.

I thank Debbie Karras and I renew my congratulations to the Dovbush Dancers for their commitment to staging and passing on the Ukrainian folk-dance culture. Traditions, history, pride, courage, freedom. These are the values that underlie this great land in the heart of Europe.

In the next interview we will travel to the Far East, destination China, to discover the numerous cultural and natural heritage of the autonomous region of Guangxi.

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