An unspoken statement There is no mention of war at Folklorama’s Ukraine-Kyiv pavilion, but its continued existence delivers a message of solidarity
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In the summer of 2020, just as the tight restrictions in the first wave of COVID-19 were lifting, two of my friends moved to Winnipeg, drawn here for a job. They embraced the city as much as they could, trying out all its beers and patios and pubs. But in the lulls between waves, I’d regale them with tales of all the festivals that were still missing.
Folklorama, I told them. That was the ticket. The other summer festivals are more fashionable, surely, and certainly more modern and culturally enriching; but if they wanted to see the real peak Winnipeggery, the most earnest expression of the city, the most grassroots, the most unsullied by money or image management, then they needed to see Folklorama.
It wasn’t until we were on the threshold of our first pavilion on Sunday night, about to step into a school gymnasium where we’d drink German beers at a folding table, that I laughed, a little. I remembered how I’d gone through my own journey with Folklorama, from loving it as a kid, to thinking it hopelessly uncool in my teens, and now cherishing it as an adult.
“I hope I didn’t oversell it,” I told them. “I should be clear, Folklorama is… pretty down to earth.”
As it turns out, I didn’t hype it up too much: my friends loved our night at Folklorama. They understood right away the spirit of the thing; they saw the charm in its being so unvarnished. They got why it can be so entertaining, to jaunt from a pavilion with professional-level dancers, to one where the young performers’ grandparents clearly put them up to it.
It’s just people, really. That’s what makes it fun. It’s just people, it’s just Manitobans, it’s just us.
There are a few things I’ve learned about the cultures of the world from Folklorama. Some of it is about geography and folk arts; some of it is about the history of the communities that make up our province. Mostly though, it’s about food. Everyone has a sausage, that’s one of the biggest lessons. Everyone has a sausage, everyone has a pickle, everyone has a soup.
But not everyone has a war, and it’s in this moment that the impossibility of Folklorama’s vision comes into view.
On a recent weekday night, in the spacious halls of Maples Collegiate, the first of the festival’s two Ukrainian pavilions was filling up with visitors. The Ukraine-Kyiv pavilion, which wraps up Saturday, is reliably one of Folklorama’s most polished, owing to the basic fact that there are a whole lot of Ukrainians in this province, and this year is no exception.
The Ukraine-Kyiv pavilion is reliably one of Folklorama’s most polished, owing to the basic fact that there are a whole lot of Ukrainians in this province.
That’s another thing about Folklorama. The pavilions don’t tend to change too much. They prefer to keep their patterns: the same food, the same setups, the same dances; the same cheerful celebrations of what they bring to Manitoba. But the world changes around them, sometimes viciously, though they are not always free to name it.
I thought of this that night as the lights in Maples Collegiate went down, an emcee took the stage and the show began.
“Given the current circumstances,” the emcee said, organizers felt it was important to carry on sharing Ukraine’s culture.
That is about as close as participants at the festival’s two Ukrainian pavilions can get to referencing the war directly. They can thank their visitors for standing with Ukraine; they can mention proceeds will go to humanitarian efforts. But the war itself, the truth of it, the ruination of cities and people, Folklorama requires all that to stay an arm’s length away.
So: they can’t say the word “war”, for instance. They can say they’re thinking of their families back home. They can say “slava Ukraini,” glory to Ukraine, the traditional rallying cry of the nation; but if a visitor says it, participants can’t give its standard response, “heroyam slava,” glory to heroes. Folklorama would consider it too openly supportive of military action.
Folklorama has always maintained strict rules against overt political expression, and Ukraine isn’t the first pavilion that’s had to carry on while its homeland is in conflict.
If that is frustrating for any of the pavilion’s organizers or participants, many of whom have family in Ukraine or are newly fled here from the war themselves, they couldn’t officially say. Folklorama has always maintained strict rules against overt political expression, and Ukraine isn’t the first pavilion that’s had to carry on while its homeland is in conflict.
Still, it shades the experience intensely. For instance, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that when you walk into the cultural display room at the Ukraine-Kyiv pavilion, the first posters you see highlight regions of Ukraine that are under occupation, and the ones that have been the most brutalized in the fighting: Luhansk, Donetsk, Mariupol.
Maybe it is a coincidence, though. That’s the thing: when simply existing, in the current circumstances, is a statement of an unyielding resistance, then everything is political. And when the pavilion hosted a crossover performance on Sunday night, inviting Polish dancers for the first time, that was also a declaration of, shall we say, a very recently invigorated alliance.
Besides, whether the war can be openly named at the pavilions or not, Folklorama visitors all know it. The Ukraine-Kyiv pavilion has been busier this year than most, and it’s had an unusual amount of media attention. That is solidarity with a people beseiged by an actively deepening trauma. The volunteers and performers feel it. The visitors do, too.
In this way, the message of resilience is not lost, even if it must be carefully worded. It still lives in the platform Folklorama gives to claim a history, an identity and a culture. The festival asks us to experience these things in the world it creates, one that is uncomplicated and extricated from tension; but it’s in those tensions where we see the most human spirit.
They are still dancing in Ukraine, between the air raid sirens. They are still playing banduras in the streets in Lviv, still doing rock shows in Kyiv, still painting in Odesa. And in Winnipeg, bound by deep cultural ties that cross oceans and generations, that spirit also persists. Close to the heart, down to earth. Just people, just a community, shared with all of us.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, August 4, 2022 9:23 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Kyiv