Ethnochoreology - what's it all about?

Mrčevo villagers Mrčevo villagers at the wedding table

Each year, most university professors travel to conferences in their fields to learn and to share their perspectives on particular topics. Kule Centre professors Andriy Nahachewsky, Natalie Kononenko, and Micah True are no exceptions. For example, this summer Andriy travelled to a conference on ethnochoreology (the study of traditional dance). The conference was very enlightening, and also a lot of fun! 

The meeting was organized by the International Council for Traditional Music Study Group on Ethnochoreology, perhaps the largest international gathering of researchers of traditional dance. The group meets in a different place each time, usually with a strong and interesting traditional dance culture nearby. This symposium had 92 presenters arriving from about 30 countries, and included 6 opportunities to watch (and try!) the dances of the villages of Korcula, Croatia.

Andriy’s paper was connected with the theme of "Dance and Narrative." He brought some pictures/drawings of Ukrainian kolomyiky from the 1850s, and some similarly old verbal descriptions of a kolomyika, and then explored whether we can trust these sources as “true” descriptions. Of course, there are very valuable hints about the dance in such old sources, but the authours are naturally always biased. One of the authours in these examples was a Ukrainian Catholic priest (Ivan Vahylevych, 1839) and the other was a writer and socialite from the city (the infamous Leopold von Sacher Masoch, 1852). Each of the authors showed his own personality through the description he wrote. That shouldn’t be a surprise if we think about what we always do ourselves when we tell a story. Professional researchers should be careful when making firm conclusions about dances that are described 150 and 100 and even 10 years ago. Andriy put established theories in a new combination, and applied them to Ukrainian dance material. 

Andriy was the only Ukrainian dance scholar there. On the day of his presentation, other papers about Irish staged dance, Japanese No theatre, ballroom dancing in the Philippines, story-less ballet choreographies, being addicted to tango, early modern dancers in Norway, Punjabi women in London, Tewa aboriginies in Australia, and folk dance groups on the island of Mallorca were also presented.  Each day was just as diverse geographically. The perspectives of the researchers are sometimes very different, though there is also much that is shared. We agree a lot, and disagree a lot, learning all the while. There are not so many academic dance specialists in any one place (maybe 2 or 3 larger dance research programs in the whole world), but mostly we are single professors, grad students, or researchers – often alone in whatever city we live in. That means we are all normally “lonely,” except when we get together at conferences like this. We really benefit a lot from contact with each other, and we really have a great time.

On the day after the conference, about 30 participants got a special treat. We went with host Elsie Ivancich Dunin to the small mountain village of Mrčevo, near Dubrovnik. Some of the Mrčevo villagers have formed a performance group that reproduces some of their wedding traditions and performs them for tourists. We got to see them in their home village, performing in the same spaces as real weddings normally took place until the 1970s. Most of the dancers and singers were about 50 years old, knowing the dances and ceremonies from their youth. Most of their clothing was actual old clothing from their families. We saw various moments in the rituals, bartering for the bride (including a dance element to “see if she was not lame”), as well as singing while putting gifts into her bridal trunk, long blessing orations, and dancing the linđo(leendzho). We were offered a nice meal and had a great time visiting with the villagers for a while. This was an amazing experience, seeing the tradition in its original location. 

In Ukrainian dance, this kind of thing almost never happens. For several reasons, our traditions are WAY farther from the original source, both geographically and choreographically. Andriy really benefitted from the opportunity to see a Croatian group working in a very different revival format. We might all welcome the opportunity to experience and think about the possibilities…