2. Performing Folk
There was a time when the idea of watching people performing a folk dance would seem a ridiculous proposition. The ‘folk’ were illiterate peasants – the kind of people everyone was striving NOT to be. What could they possibly do that would be of interest to us ‘civilized’ city people?
Interest in the ‘folk’ began around the time people were becoming disenchanted with the city – roughly the time of the industrial revolution of the early 1800’s. Urban types would go on excursions to the countryside, where the air was clean, watch the ‘folk’ celebrate, and fantasize about their seemingly simple lives. For more on the idea of ‘folk’ see: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/begin/who-are-the-folk-in-folk-dancing/
Back in the city, theatrical productions began inserting dance numbers purporting to be ‘peasant’ in operettas, performed by the in-house ballet-trained dance troupe.
In the USA, Broadway musicals like Oklahoma! featured country-themed dance numbers performed by Broadway-trained dancers.
Still, it didn’t occur to these city slickers that people would pay to see a performance of foreign country dances (by the foreigners themselves) on an urban stage.
Igor Moiseyev changed all that. See https://folkdancefootnotes.org/dance/dance-information/soviet-communisms-contribution-to-world-culture-igor-moiseyev/ From the 1950’s to the present day, his spectacular productions (featuring highly skilled dancers in colorful costumes performing intricate choreographies backed by symphonic orchestras spiced with exotic instruments) enthralled audiences around the world. What was different about Moiseyev’s productions was that the dance numbers weren’t part of some larger story where someone we could identify as one of ‘us’ found him-or-her self among ‘them’. It was ALL dance, ALL ‘them’, a ‘them’ we knew next-to-nothing about, a ‘them’ we had been trained to fear – Communists!
The success of Moiseyev’s company stimulated the creation (by Soviet-puppet governments) of similar (some would say copy-cat) companies in all the Soviet-controlled Eastern European states, as well as ‘non-aligned’ nations such as Egypt, the Philippines, Mexico, and Turkey. Also stimulated were some not-so-similar companies in Croatia and Greece.
The first State folk dance companies to play in the USA, (1956) were Tanec from Macedonia,
and KOLO, from Serbia. Their visits are generally credited with kickstarting “kolomania” – the passion for Balkan dancing that was to take over the recreational folk dance movement in the USA.
Finally, in 1958, Moiseyev’s company arrived in the USA, storming the country. Whereas Tanec and KOLO performed to relatively small audiences, Moiseyev‘s debut was on the Ed Sullivan Show, followed by a nation-wide tour, seen by hundreds of thousands. My source for much of this information is Anthony Shay’s book (a must-read!) Choreographing Politics 2002, Wesleyan University Press.
In it, Shay writes “It would be almost impossible for anyone not present in the audiences…to understand the impact of those appearances…Such a spectacle had never been seen before in the United States, at least not in my lifetime...nothing had prepared me for the sheer physical impact of their actual theatrical performances. I left the Shrine Auditorium a convert. I returned several more nights…as many as the income of a poor student…would allow. My life had changed forever. This is what I wanted to do with my life; create dances, spectacular choreographies, like Igor Moiseyev.“
“After that first performance, the folk dance group to which I belonged hosted the Moiseyev dancers for a party, at which we happily went through the figures of the Virginia Reel…and other dances. Each of us danced with a Mioseyev dancer as a partner. The thrill of dancing with those radiant performers and knowing them by name was infectious. Had the opportunity presented itself, I would have defected and done the 1950’s version of running away and joining the circus.”
It’s easy to see how the arrival of these performing groups stimulated an interest in folk dancing. What is not so obvious is how watching performances such as these also shaped our understanding of what folk dancing is. Most non-dancers are vaguely aware that what they’re seeing on stage in not the same as what they would see in ‘the village’. But even many experienced recreational folk dancers seem to have little awareness of just how far professional state performing groups stray from being ‘authentic’.
Performing Groups – the dilemma common to all.
What is a folk dance performing group? A collection of people who perform folk dances for an audience. There is a continuum of skill level, motivation and dedication; from outsider to cultural ambassador, from untrained hobbyist to to highly trained professional, but all share this dilemma – how do you present dances that were not created or intended to be shown to an audience, in a way that can be clearly seen and entertain, yet remain true to the original spirit of the dance? How do you transform something that is meant to be experienced by the body and soul into something that delights the eye?
Different groups have resolved the dilemma differently – some by sacrificing entertainment value for authenticity, others by abandoning authenticity altogether (like Moyiseyev). All have had a tremendous impact on urban peoples’ understanding of folk dance. For many, watching a performance was their first introduction to folk dance, and for better or worse, it shaped their expectations of what folk dancing entails. When I tell an “outsider” that I’m a folk dancer, specializing in the area around the Balkans, a common response is something like “oh, the dances that go like this?” and the person does his/her impression of the deep knee squat that’s the highlight of a Ukrainian performance. As folk dancers know, this is an extreme example of a dance done traditionally by only a few Ukrainians, and hardly ever outside of Ukraine in a recreational folk dance setting.
Almost all performing groups adjust their dances in some way that acknowledges the needs of an audience. Few position the dancers so their backs are to the audience for long, even if the dance in ‘the village’ calls for it. Audiences would be confused if each performer in a line danced differently – “who should I pay attention to?”- so all dancers strive to look the same; same height of leg lift, same pasted smile. It’s not the dancer’s feelings that count, it’s the audience’s.
You may ask yourself “but what does that matter? If the footwork seen on stage is the same as the footwork of a ‘village’ dance, isn’t it the same dance?” Ah, but is it ever the same? The essence of ‘village’ folk dancing is its spontaneity. Live musicians mean the music is never the same twice. Village musicians play for tips, so they play to the biggest tipper. The size of the tip relates to the length of the song. They play requests, in the taste of the requester. They play to please their dancers, or they won’t be asked back. Dancers and musicians inspire each other. The quality of the dance is related to the people performing; their age, skill level, gender, moods, their state of inebriation; whether they’re dancing with friends or competing with rivals. How well a skilled dancer improvises on a given night is subject to these variables. People chat, flirt, rebuke, enter and leave the dance at will. All of these factors are missing in a stage performance. The dance we see is stripped of its context. The choreography is fixed – has to be if the dancers are to look the same – and the choreography is what we focus on because there’s nothing else to see.
Factors Affecting a Performing Group
As for the dances themselves, almost none of the State performing groups are displaying dances as they would be danced in ‘the village’, even allowing for the variables of context. Much of this is due to how and for what purpose the State performing groups were formed. The Eastern European nations under Soviet control were directed to form these companies, and ‘advisors’ were sent from Russia to oversee their progress. Naturally these advisors thought their own Moiseyev had the winning formula and tried to impose it on their puppet states. Moiseyev openly declared he was not interested in recreating village dances, and adapted techniques he learned in ballet and/or outright created new dance vocabularies in order to ‘improve’ dances.
The purposes of these performing groups were six-fold.
1. To show Soviet superiority by beating the West at its own game - outdancing the West in ways Westerners could understand.
2. To showcase the ideal Soviet state, where everyone was equal, all (white) ethnicities were supported, and everyone was happy.
3. To idealize the common man - elitism and other bourgeoise affectations were mocked and denigrated, hard work for the common good was elevated, there were no individual 'stars', only the masses.
4. To foster pride among subject states by showing how the state supported local arts, even as they were transforming those arts to advance the messages the state wanted told.
5. To advertise Soviet values to developing 'non-aligned' states. Mexico, the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, and many others formed State dance companies on the Moiseyev model.
6. To extract hard currency from the West.
Fidelity to dance traditions was adhered to only if it did not conflict with these purposes.
Thus, many dance formations appeared on the stages of Serbian, Bulgarian, Polish, and other dance companies that did not exist in the village, because Moiseyev’s protegees thought they were more entertaining. Large orchestras of folk instruments were created where they didn’t previously exist. The famous ‘Voix Mysteres’ sound of Bulgarian female choirs was the creation of classically-trained composers, utilizing harmonies and numbers of singers not previously heard in Bulgaria.
Like Moiseyev, the organization of these companies was very heirarchical – usually under the direction of one dominating figure – Philip Koutev in Bulgaria, Dora Stratou in Greece, Amalia Hernandez in Mexico, Zvonko Ljevakovic in Croatia. 65+ years later, many of these companies are still performing according to the precepts of their founders. Further, offshoot companies formed by that country’s immigrant groups, instead of dancing their ‘village’ dances, also dance in their state group’s founder’s style. So do some performing groups composed of recreational folk dancers. To them the ‘hottest’ Bulgarian dances are those seen being performed by Koutev’s group and its offshoots, irregardless of whether they can be identified as ‘village’.
The Spectrum of Fidelity
To be fair, not all state performing groups abandond the idea of fidelity to folk traditions. In Choreographing Politics , Shay makes a partial list of state companies, placing them on a continuum, with the base representing groups “deeply committed to the extensive use of authentic, particularized elements“, while the top “represents the character dance, the ‘essentialistic’ end of the spectrum“ which “uses some steps based on folk dances“.
Moiseyev, Reda[Egypt], Mazowse [Poland
Bulgarian State Folk Ensemble [Philip Koutev]
Ballet Folklorico Mexico, Bayanihan [Phillipines]
KOLO [Serbian State Folk Ensemble]
Mahalli Dancers [Iran]
Geogian State Folk Company
LADO [Croatian state ensemble]
Dora Stratou Greek Dance Theatre
Stratou vs Moiseyev
Let’s see how the same dance is treated by both ends of the spectrum – Stratou & Moiseyev. The Greek dance Vari or Argo Hasapiko, an urban dance originally from Anatolia, was originally a dance for 2 or at most 3 men who faced the band, and improvised small, grounded steps in a hunched-over style reflecting their introverted, cynical- but defiant, punk-like atttitude. As the dance became popular among tourists, the music evolved to be more upbeat, the dancers turned to face the audience, and footwork became more extroverted. Here’s the later incarnation of Hasapiko.
This is the music and dance known to the outside world, and Stratou’s troupe portrays this ‘tourist’ version, even stretching convention further by having the men in one long line. The footwork, however, is rather conservative, fairly true to the original.
Above is how Moiseyev treats Greek dance – in a long suite. From 6:47 to 9:04 the tune ‘Fragosyriani’ plays, a tune traditionally reserved for Vari or Argo Hasapiko. Immediately the dancers break into star formations never used in Hasapiko, or Greek dance generally . The first soloist performs squat-spins – a Tsamiko move from another part and era of Greece. Most moves are large, light, gravity-defying, right out of ballet. ‘Vari’ Hasapiko means ‘Heavy’ Hasapiko. Each fancy move is ended with a triumphant “look at me and clap” pose; totally un-Greek, but very Russian. Only the music to this performance could be recognized as Greek.
I recently attended a weekend-long folk dance workshop in Vancouver, Canada, where for entertainment the local Serbian and Croatian clubs’ dance troupes performed. Each was a replica of the styles of their respective country’s professional companies – LADO for Croatia, and KOLO for Serbia. These two countries exist next to each other, and many of their dances are similar, some even identical, yet they were presented in very different fashions. The KOLO-influenced group used recorded music, short, constantly shifting lines forming patterns on the stage, featuring very fast footwork.
The LADO-influenced group played and sang their own instruments, the musicians were the dancers, though sometimes they just stood and played or sang. Dances were often in circles, often backs were to the audience, as if they were dancing for each other and not an audience. So even the children and grandchildren of immigrants see their heritage through the filters of professional dance companies.
Almost all performing groups learn their dances from a teacher in a class setting, rather than from observing or “following along” at a 1stE event. The dancers themselves are likely from the city – used to taking directions from a teacher, familiar with the basics of classical dance, not having enough background to challenge him or her. The teacher may have altered dances or created dances. The teacher likely learned their dances from another teacher, and may never have seen a Living folk dance in ‘the village’. In turn, most of the instructors bringing dances to recreational dance groups were either members of their home country’s performing groups, or travelled from the West to that country and learned from performing group members.
Even in the country of origin, where many ‘village’ dances are a thing of the past, young people whose relatives have lived in cities for generations are now re-discovering their folk heritage through recreational dance groups similar to those in the West, who learn most of their dances from teachers and performers, not villagers.
At best, dances seen performed on a stage are stripped of all context, giving the impression that you’re seeing the ‘essence’ of the dance; that footwork, precision, unity, and energy ARE the dance, when in fact it’s only the hollowed-out shell. People believe that if they learn the choreography and execute it with enough spirit, they can capture the high they get when watching the dance. That may be, but it’s almost impossible to capture the chaotic, spontaneous, interactive high of a village dance on a structured, focused stage.
Therefore I call the dances seen executed by performing groups 1st Generation or 1stG if there is documentation that those dances also existed in ‘the village’ and the footwork and formations haven’t been altered considerably. Without independent verification, I consider dances by performing groups 2nd G. (See 2nd Generation Dances under DANCE>3c. – 2ND GENERATION DANCES.) Though they’re highly polished, entertaining, even spectacular, they’re one big step removed from 1stG, and not even close to Living.