Arts & Culture

Modern performance reflects Ukrainian culture then and now

By Lorraine Graves

Published 4:27 PST, Wed January 16, 2019

Richmond’s history of Ukrainian settlers starts principally in the 1920s when they moved here to Musqueam land from Saskatchewan, mainly from Cree territory. Saskatchewan had been home to many fleeing persecution and poverty in Ukraine in the days when the Canadian government just wanted people loyal to the British crown, and not the American government, setting up farms.

Richmond’s Society of Ivan Frankopays tribute to a Ukrainian author, scholar, journalist, and political activist of the 19th century. Though his PhD was Viennese his heart and poetry was Ukrainian.

Established in 1937 as a society, the Ukrainian community in Richmond continues to thrive to this day preserving and celebrating this culture. As Europe’s second largest country by area after Russia, and eighth largest by population at just over 42 million, Ukraine today has revived a culture once subjugated to the ruling Russians during the Soviet era. Canadians too played a role in that revival, returning to teach the language, crafts and dances after Ukraine regained independence in 1991. The Russian language and culture had suppressed and supplanted that of the Indigenous Ukrainians.

As an example of this vibrant and evolving Ukrainian culture, the East Van Cultural Centre, known a the Cultch, offers the Dakh Daughters in performance through January 19 at the York Theatre as part of their Femme Series which highlights the strength and power of female-identifying voices with support from the Charlotte and Sonya Wall Arts Fund.

The troupe’s name comes from their home performance space under whose roof they perform, the Dakh Theatre in Kiev.

These six professional musicians who have also studied ballet offer a look at contemporary Ukrainian culture while paying homage to the songs they learned in their mothers’ arms. With an audience made up of a surprisingly wide range of ages, the Dakh Daughters had them captivated from the moment the first wistful strains of an accordion began. The performance got raucous after that.

This cabaret-style evening was definitely not your baba’s music. This is the Ukrainian avant-garde think more Pussy Riot than Shumka Dancers. Though, when asked, troupe member Anna Nikitina said, “We are not Pussy Riot. We do art. We are not political. We make just art.” More on that later.

Ukraine, once a great empire, was by the end of the 19th century, subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Newly independent in 1918 after the First World War, military intervention from Communist Russia in 1920 paved the way for Ukraine’s incorporation in 1922 into the Soviet Union as a republic ruled by the Soviets.

After the Dakh Daughters’ performance, another older woman there with her sister and nephew said the music and words was mainly about the war that is on now with Russia. The concert-goer also spoke of the Holodomor, literally “death by hunger” in Ukrainian, where the Soviet Union imposed harsh quotas on this bread basket of Europe, executing farmers who kept seed stock or food they had grown. It started in 1932.

Much as with today’s engineered famine in Yemen, things in Ukraine under Stalin got worse with time. People weakened by hunger succumbed to diseases well-fed people would just throw off. By June of 1933, 30,000 people per day died in Ukraine. Nearly 10,000 of those daily deaths were in children under 10 years of age. Excluding the Soviet’s deportations, executions and deaths from ordinary causes, millions of Ukrainians died in two years between 1932 and 1934.

The Holodomor echoes the Irish potato famine, where the British absentee property owners exported more than enough food from Ireland to feed all their starving tenant farmers who had grown that food. Just as in Ireland, where the population dropped to less than half because of starvation or immigration with Ireland’s population still not back to pre-hunger levels, in Ukraine, from a population of about 23 million, a UN joint statement signed by 25 countries in 2003 declared that 7 to 10 million people perished. This number continues to be disputed by Russia.

Judging by the reactions heard at the Dakh Daughters’ performance, Ukrainians, both those still living in their homeland and those long-established in Canada have not forgotten. It adds extra poignancy and urgency to the performers’ call for peace and to their song, where the backdrop was a moving image from a rain-drop covered train, the sound of the clacking rails a background and the haunting melody spoke of a goodbye, never to see this person again.

The ending was much more upbeat but no less meaningful.

As the crowd stood and danced along to the encore, called for after two enthusiastic curtain calls, the Dakh Daughters ended the evening with shouts, in English of “Support to the Black Sea and Crimea. No War!” and “A world without war,” to a huge cheer from the audience. It was in reference to Russia’s invasion of the Florida of eastern Europe, Crimea, and Russia’s use of the sea ports there on the Black Sea to position the Russian navy.

Anastasia Solonenko, a young women from Ukraine, living in Canada said after the performance, “This is modern cabaret-style Ukrainian entertainment. This style--with the shaking voice--I grew up with that!” She said it made her home sick and now vows to go back for a visit.

The Dakh Daughters for the audience, young and old, offered a chance to dance and celebrate in Baba’s language. To be proud of the vibrant Ukrainian culture that they brought with them and that lives on, continuing to evolve.

The performers were spot-on. Their timing, their stage-craft and their music spoke of years of experience and belied their young years. When the cellist on one side of the stage bowed in perfect time with the bowing of the bass player behind her on the other side of the stage, their musical skill shone. There wasn’t a note or move out of place in this raucous show. Though, be warned it gets very loud sometimes

There were touches of traditional Ukrainian crafts in the backdrop from time to time, with woven patterns projected at one point.

Above all, the Dakh Daughters gave me both a new appreciation for modern Ukrainian culture and a renewed appreciation for Canada. When our young people slept out at Richmond City Hall to protest those opposed to modular housing for homeless people, the most they worried about was getting cold. In Ukraine, when a large crowd assembled to object to what many thought was a fixed election that saw a pro-Russian government elected in Ukraine, 80 were shot dead and many others injured.

For a local taste of Ukrainian culture, consider popping in to the reasonably-priced meal of homemade national favourites at the Ukrainian Community Centre of Ivan Franko on the third Friday of the month at 5311 Francis Rd. Or consider joining the Ukrainians of Richmond for the New Year celebration, Malanka on Saturday Jan. 26. Tickets must be pre-purchased by calling (604) 274-4119.

Click here for more information or to purchase tickets for the Cultch’s presentation of the Dakh Daughters at the York Theatre.

As the Dakh Daughters and the audience taught me, culture moves and changes but Baba’s songs and cooking still evoke comfort and memories.

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