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  • Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation
  • Robert Crane
Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation. Edited by Irena R. Makaryk and Virlana Tkacz. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010; pp. 680.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Kyiv (Russian: Kiev), the capital of present-day Ukraine, was a vibrant multiethnic city (the fifth largest in the Russian Empire), boasting an exciting cultural scene that was home to many of the luminaries of what is usually referred to as the “Russian” avant-garde, including painter and scene designer Alexandra Exter, filmmaker Grigory Kozintsev, and director Les Kurbas. Modernism in Kyiv, a massive, richly illustrated collection of essays, provides a spectacular introduction to the artistic life of this city. The twenty essays, which are interspersed with translations of poems, excerpts from diaries, and programmatic statements, gather new work by top North American and European scholars of Ukrainian culture and introduce a number of Ukrainian scholars to an Anglophone audience. The volume will be of special interest to theatre scholars, because the book’s editors, Irena Makaryk and Virlana Tkacz, have chosen to use theatre in general and the work of Kurbas in particular as the axis around which the collection is organized. Thus art historian Myroslava Mudrak’s essay on Ukrainian graphic arts pays special attention to their application in theatre and performance, while Oleh Sydor-Hybelynda’s contribution on Kyiv’s pre-revolutionary cinema explores that repertoire through the lens of Kurbas’s experience of cinema spectatorship. [End Page 471]

The goals of Modernism in Kyiv bring a pair of spatial tensions into focus. The first relates to Kyiv’s place on the map of modernism: on the one hand, as Makaryk makes clear in the introduction, the volume is an illustration of modernism on the margins, one that shows that “[g]reat works of art . . . could be . . . found as easily in the ‘periphery’ as in the ‘centre’”; on the other, it seeks to add “Kyiv to the list of such major centres of modernist discourse as Paris, Vienna, London and New York,” in effect denying that it was on the periphery in the first place (4). The second tension is grounded in the relationship of a territory to the people who inhabit it: while the collection stresses the multiethnic character of the city’s cultural life, exploring “the wide variety of cultural activities of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles, and others” (ibid.), it simultaneously seeks to establish “the particularly Ukrainian aspects of modernism in Kyiv” (21; emphasis added). Rather than damage the coherence of the volume, these sometimes contradictory goals lend a fascinating dynamism to the discussions among the chapters in the book.

Several of the book’s essays offer helpful portraits of the theatrical scene in Kyiv. Mayhill Fowler employs a “situational approach” (28) to examine the city’s theatrical landscape in 1907—a decade before the arrival of Kurbas. This approach entails excavating the establishment of the first permanent and stationary Ukrainian-language theatre alongside the influence of touring Russian troupes (including those of Komisarzhevskaia and Meyerhold), rather than ignoring the latter based on strict geographic categories that might leave these artists beyond the scope of an essay on Ukrainian theatre. Hanna Veselovska follows the sometimes tortuous histories of the city’s theatres through the Revolution, the civil war (during which Kyiv was captured six different times by various armies), and their nationalization during the Soviet period. Elsewhere, Gennady Estraikh analyzes the relationship between Yiddish and Ukrainian theatres in the immediate post-revolutionary period, Dmytro Horbachov touches on the generation of theatre designers trained in Exter’s workshop, and Maria Ratanova discusses the modern choreography of Bronislava Nijinska.

The real heart of the collection, however, lies in the seven essays that focus on the work of Kurbas, whom Meyerhold called the greatest director in the Soviet Union. Taken together, these essays offer an excellent overview of this avant-garde director’s career, following him from his early work at the Young Theatre, to his masterful productions at the Berezil Theatre, to his arrest and 1937 execution during the Stalinist Terror. Key productions, including Gas, Jimmie Higgins, Macbeth, The People’s Malakhy, and Malenka Grasa, are discussed in depth, each...


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