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Interview: Bruce Jackson And Yuri Hreshchychyn on DAKHABRAKHA and the film EARTH at ArtPark

Fundraising performance for Ukraine promises a new perspective on a famous film.

Interview: Bruce Jackson And Yuri Hreshchychyn on DAKHABRAKHA and the film EARTH at ArtPark

DakhaBrakha returns to ArtPark July 14th for a reception, fundraising concert, and talkback. Originating from the Ukrainian experimental theatre group, Dakh, under the artistic direction of Vladislav Troitsky, the band of four friends has played worldwide in a mission to spread and celebrate Ukrainian culture. They have toured numerous times across North America, with featured performances everywhere from Toronto's Koerner Hall, to the New Orleans Jazz festival, to NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts.

At Artpark, DakhaBrakha will perform their original score for Alexander Dovhenko's controversial 1930 silent film, "Earth." The evening will begin with a reception hosted by the Ukrainian-American and Polish-American communities of western New York and the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Centre of Buffalo, followed by the live performance of the score alongside the film. Finally, Professor Bruce Jackson of SUNY Buffalo, the former director of the Newport Folk Festival, former president of the American Folklore Society, and a Grammy nominee for his recordings of folk music in segregated prisons done with Pete Seeger, will be doing a talkback about the film after the show.

Professor Jackson and Yuri Hreshchyshyn of the Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Centre spoke to BroadwayWorld about the event and DakhaBrakha.

What first attracted you to the group DakhaBrakha, and what do you enjoy most about their music?

JACKSON: They are an absolutely fascinating group. When I listen to them, they just lit me up, because they use a lot of traditional Ukrainian music, but they use everybody else's music, too. Their instrumentation is all over the world. They use Arabic music, African drums, Aboriginal Australian instruments. They have a unique sound that brings together the best of jazz style with Ukrainian folk tradition, from people whose tradition it naturally is. They searched out a lot of these traditional songs and learned them. It is their culture and they perform it, but to it they bring an extraordinary knowledge of the world's music. They incorporate it into their music, like a chef might. They're an international group.

HRESHCHYSHYN: What attracts me is just the genuineness. It is very authentic, original music, and I like the way they experiment with sounds. It's not just the music, but the atmosphere that they create. On, or even around the stage, it is so unique. They mimic the sounds of nature.

What is a DakhaBrakha performance like for the audience?

JACKSON: They're visually fantastic to look at. I mean, their performances are as theatrical as any rock star. If you think of Mick Jagger on stage, they're like that, because every one of them is fascinating to watch. Their faces are great, and the way they interact with one another physically, not just musically, during every performance, you can just feel it, even through the distance of a recorded video. They are as much of an acting group as a musical group for me. There's a physicality to their performance; you can't separate that dancer from the dance.

Even if the audience is understanding not a word of what they're saying, by the way, it doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter that you don't know what Italian when you go to a Puccini opera. One of the reasons it works so well is because they physically are so great. The performances are a mixture of visual and oral and audio, and their style is something unique in all the world. I've never heard anything like they do things with their mouths that I can't believe some of those sounds are coming out of there! You watch them, and you think you're in an aviary at some point. So my fascination with that group is a combination of both the musical background and the various complex strands, cultural strands that go into what they do.

What really strikes you about the interactions they're having with each other when they're on stage first: it seems like they are having a hell of a lot of fun! They've been singing together since they were kids, so it's very intimate.

The reception before the show is a chance to bring the community together. Last time DakhaBrakha performed at ArtPark, they served borscht to the audience afterwards! Can you tell us about the event's goals, and the area's Ukrainian community?

HRESHCHYSHYN: the reception actually will be prior to the presentation on the main stage from 6 PM on. The goal is, hopefully, to get to a local community, and it's not just Ukrainian-Americans, but anybody interested in this issue of supporting humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. Part of DakhaBrakha's mission on this particular tour is to raise funds for organizations working in Ukraine. It's inspired people, and it makes the experience more complete by having a little bit of time ahead of the music itself.

There is a large community of Americans of Ukrainian descent in the Western New York area. There were several waves of immigration, the most significant of which would have been in the beginning of the 1900s, prior to the Russian revolution. For various economic and political reasons many Ukrainians found themselves migrating to Western Europe. The Ukrainian-American Civic Center opened in 1914. The Ukrainian Cultural Centre, Dnipro, was conceived from a later migration after World War II, and opened in 1955. The two centers work together so somewhat different demographics because of the history, and both have hosted quite a few fundraising events recently in support of humanitarian efforts.

This particular fundraiser is all about DakhaBrakha, supporting the organizations that they've chosen to work with within Ukraine, where the pressing concern is at the moment. Whether it's dealing with the food prices or the medical needs or the assistance to orphans, or direct military action, there are so many needs. It's a communal effort.

This is an event that's not just of interest to the Ukrainian community in the Buffalo area, but is of greater interest to the wider community, and areas with large Ukrainian populations, such as Toronto.

Interview: Bruce Jackson And Yuri Hreshchychyn on DAKHABRAKHA and the film EARTH at ArtPark

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What is the film about, and why does it have so much historical importance?

JACKSON: This film comes out in 1930, when the Soviets are pushing their first 5 year plan, and it's a film about collectivization. Basically, what the Soviets are doing is trying to get these small farm owners, which the Ukraine had many of, to go into collectives, which they quite naturally resisted. So the conflict in the film is between the traditionalists who want to keep their land and the others who go into the collective in a minute and honor the collective look to future. There's a scene at the end where a speaker says look at that Soviet airplane representing our new world. There's a whole crowd, you see them all look up, but it never shows you the airplane. We never look up. It's hard to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

If you just watch the film: is collectivization good, or is it bad? It could go either way.

In the version of the film you're seeing, so much of the film is about love with the land. Almost a pantheistic adoration of land. Instead of looking at the airplane, what we see are apples on trees, and then we see apples with drops of water, food on the ground. We see other fruit on trees, and then we see a heavy rain, and then we see the woman and a man. What we see is what those peasants have been doing for 1,000 years, this maintaining the way the land feeds them, and that's a big part of what the film was about. I think that's what upset the Soviets; they didn't show more of the tractor. They showed the apples.

There was another great scene with the tractor where there's a problem, and then we see two or three guys standing on top of the tractor pissing into the radiator because they realize it needs liquid. That pissed off the Soviets too, cause you see these peasants pissing into the radiator of their tractor.

How does our modern context potentially change the way we see the film today?

JACKSON: You can take the film either way, pro- or anti-Soviet, and I think the director was stunned when it was banned after it came out. So it has a really has a political history connected with that time, two years before the starvation started, being driven off their land by the thousands by the Soviets, and some would be sent to Siberia, to places where they could not possibly survive because they didn't have enough food or medicine. That's coming in the future. He doesn't know that but we do so part of our experience of the film is, we know what's going to happen. We also know what happened in 1920-21, with the war between the Soviets, and we also know what's happening now. That's all part of the experience we're going have at the theatre. That's part of what's going to be in our consciousness and theirs. The fact that our context changes in watching the film has a massive impact on how we see the film.

After I became familiar with DakhaBrakha, I rewatched the film. The opening sequence of the movie is a field of grain, wheat, and then a woman next to a sunflower. We're close up. Years ago, when I saw that, it would have been just a field of grain and a large sunflower. Given the political situation now, the war that's going on, we know how much of the world's food situation is being affected by the inability of the creating institutions to ship their grain. Everybody now knows that the sunflower and blue skies are the Ukrainian colors. Well, it totally changes the meaning for me of that black and white image.

The sunflower, the filmmaker knew, is a flower in which you see more seeds than any other flower. It's a pretty flower, but you look at it, and you are looking at a 1,000 potential flowers. The film is full of such imagery, and so it resonates for me now far more than it had in the past. The film itself is irresistible. Not a couple of years after this film Stalin was responsible for the death of 3 to 4 million Ukrainians. He starved them.

HRESHCHYSHYN: Aside from the industrial development and the architecture of the big cities and universities, separate of that there's an inherent strength in all of the villages of Ukraine. The lifestyle among the family farmers system remains now. Much of it has become industrialized as well the food industry in Ukraine. But every village is an independent state, if you will, and this will allow Ukraine to rebuild, perhaps more effectively and quicker that if they did not have this particular inherent strength, this skill sets of innovation of being able to survive on their own without the larger infrastructure. After this military conflict is over, one of the things that will help is its integral relationship with nature, and I imagine that this production will help to underline that for the audience.

Why is this print of Earth so important?

JACKSON: There are a lot of different versions of this film. Sometimes it really matters which edition of the film you see. This came out 1930; a week later, the Soviets pulled it. There's a great last 12 minutes of this film, a sequence of images. Some people are just absolutely still. A woman is having a baby. A man is running around the top of a hill, very low in the frame. Behind him, three crosses. He's confessing to a murder, yelling out, people are giving speeches, we are seeing the faces. Part of that is the fiancée of the murdered man in that scene we see her in her room going insane; she's naked. Well, Soviets were very prudish. They immediately cut that scene out, which was a critical part of the whole structure. It's like taking out the E chord. They just took it out. Over the years, there are different lengths of this. The original negative was destroyed by the Nazis when they bombed Kyiv in 1941. So there is no original. Instead, we have reconstruction from various prints, and what we have now is what's supposed to be the closest.

Another thing is the titles, the cards, which could change all the time. One of the reasons early film was international was that cards could be translated. However, in this film, the Soviets changed some of the cards. So scholars had to figure out what were probably the original titles. And then, what translations do we see at the bottom of the screen of those titles? How good are those translations into English? There's a lot of stuff going on with a lot of remove from the original, but this is as close as anybody's got to what it is.

Interview: Bruce Jackson And Yuri Hreshchychyn on DAKHABRAKHA and the film EARTH at ArtPark

Usually, if you watch a film, it doesn't have that element of live performance. In some ways the film is very static. How does DakhaBrakha's score for the film enhance the viewing experience?

JACKSON: Silent films were almost never performed in silence. There was always somebody playing piano. In big cities, there were orchestras. Big movies traveled. Some of them traveled with a few sheets of music; some of them traveled with actual scores. One of the great things about that is, every time you saw a film it was different. If you go see The Godfather now, when you saw it 3 years ago, you're seeing exactly the same thing. If you're seeing a film with a performance, it's always different. A live performance with the film is a synergistic artistic experience. One and one adds up to more than two, because it's live. Theatre doesn't get boring night after night after night because it's not the same. I'm looking forward to how they basically engage in a conversation with that film.

One of the things I'm curious about is the change between now and when they started performing this 10 years ago. They've always been very political; in their 2015 Brighton concert, he ends it with the Ukrainian flag, and he says, free Ukraine; he says the group is from a free Ukraine. They're already having problems with Russia. After all that's happened in the last year?

I can't imagine that they're static, because nothing else about this is static.

HRESHCHYSHYN: I have not seen the film yet myself, so I'm not familiar with it personally. So it's of interest to me just to see how they combine this, and the message they're trying to send. I will be translating for the group during the talkback as necessary, but they're quite fluent in English, so I'll be listening more than talking!

In 2017, a New York Times interviewer asked if their group was political or not, and they responded that with their work they support a Ukrainian cultural identity. Their purpose is not necessarily to be explicitly political, but their existence is political. They are ambassadors for Ukraine with their music, and one of their great fears is that Russia may cause this culture to cease to exist. It's interesting that, even in the last 4 years, they seem to be moving toward a more explicitly political standpoint. A more recent video is much more explicitly political, in its symbolism and visual imagery. Do you find their musical performance to be explicitly political?

JACKSON: Is their musical performance political? Yes, it is. I mean, there they are, dressed in these outfits in North America with those enormous hats. One of the women, I wonder how much her necklaces weigh? She wears about 9 or 10 of them. In every performance we're in traditional garb. They're making a statement with their physical presentation of themselves on stage every time they come out there. So before they utter a sound, they're announcing that Ukrainian traditional culture lives: you're looking at it. If you go to their website, there's a page of photographs of them done by different photographers. Each of the photographs is a very different style, but in every one of them they are in some kind of traditional garb. It is part of their presentation itself and that's a political statement.

A lot of people before this year weren't even thinking about Ukraine, and now it's at the forefront of everybody's mind, so I think it's going to be very interesting for them to do these shows in in North America, where suddenly a lot of people are just starting to get with the program.

One thing about the film, which I think is important: it is infused with an almost mystical love and adoration for the land, and this fertility, which transcends politics, and that also is part of them. That goes to their love of homeland. I think that's their connection with the film and that really does come through. That's what music, when it works, can do. It can just reach out, whether you know anything about the subject or the music.

HRESHCHYSHYN: The group has definitely said that with their work they support a Ukrainian cultural identity, and they are trying to be ambassadors for Ukraine with their music. Their very existence is an act of resistance, saying: We are here. We are Ukraine. This is our culture. This is who we are.

Artists and musicians seem to be some of the more forefront people that respond in times of emergency. In times of crisis. That's how we connect with other people, with not only our culture but other cultures. The human art that we make covers themes that are universal to us. And a lot of art is protest and that reclaiming of humanity that a lot of politics and conflict takes away from us.

You should not miss this opportunity, even if you're not somebody who is into experimental music or ethnically-inspired music. You'll find that just their scale, their ability to manipulate the atmosphere in the room, the sound is incredible. You won't be disappointed.

Photos of DakhaBrakha provided by ArtPark




From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia... (read more about this author)


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