The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko by Orest T. Martynowych (review)
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The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko, by Orest T. Martynowych. Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2014. xi, 219 pp. $27.95 Cdn (paper).

The book under review is a well-written, carefully researched, and sensibly critical biography of an outstanding showman, dance master, filmmaker, cultural activist, and extraordinary individual, Vasile Avramenko (1895–1981), who made a name for himself in the Ukrainian communities of Canada and the United States during the interwar and post-WWII period. While praised for his creative accomplishments, such as the institutionalization and promotion of Ukrainian folk dancing, and the production of two Ukrainian feature films, Avramenko also suffered from many flaws, including narcissism, disregard of commitment, and financial manipulations, which turned him into a fugitive in the 1940s. Orest T. Martynowych is careful in building a comprehensive portrayal of Avramenko, and through it, he shows Avramenko’s extraordinary devotion to the Ukrainian cause, despite his means. Avramenko’s determination to draw the attention of the world to ‘‘the Ukrainian people and their struggle for independence by showcasing their folk culture’’ (150–1) did much for the preservation of the Ukrainian culture among the émigrés and laid the groundwork for the establishment of powerful and organized Ukrainian diasporas, especially in Canada. Therefore, this well-thought-out portrayal of Avramenko is very timely. [End Page 434]

Martynowych’s book is of a rare quality, which turns this researched biography into creative non-fiction while preserving its academic qualities. Its engaging narrative flow focuses on Avramenko but also presents the turbulent history of the twentieth century that shaped him. That epoch saw devastating World Wars; the concept and realization of Ukrainian state-hood; the growth of the Ukrainian diaspora and its prominent members; as well as Hollywood’s Golden Age, which featured the pioneering of B and ‘‘ethnic’’ movies, and the appearance of a group of actors of Ukrainian descent, whom Avramenko tried to recruit for his cinematic projects. The way it is written, The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause is as much a tribute to that age as it is to Avramenko. Thanks to Martynowych’s careful study of Avramenko’s extensive archives, the book also features a number of key photographs that provide a visual accompaniment to his portrayal of this enigmatic and Gatsbyesque Ukrainian and those who surrounded him.

It was during the 1917–1921 civil war that unfolded on the territory of present-day Ukraine that Avramenko found his calling and first used his creative talents as a propaganda tool under the patronage of Symon Petliura, the head of the short-lived Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1919–23. Following this experience, Avramenko organized a number of dance schools first in Polish-occupied eastern Galicia and later amon gémigré communities in interwar Central Europe, Canada, the US, and elsewhere in order to ‘‘demonstrate the beauty of Ukrainian folk dance to the world’’ (17) and lobby for the support of Ukrainian statehood. His initial efforts were quite successful, as he preached dance as a means to unite the growing second generation of the émigré community around their heritage and resist assimilation into Anglophone culture. Avramenko’s downfall came amidst the Great Depression and WWII with the failure of his greatest ambition, the formation of a ‘‘Ukrainian Hollywood,’’ which was simply unsustainable, as the financial flops of his two Ukrainian movies, Natalka Poltavka (1936) and Cossacks in Exile (1938) demonstrated. His subsequent activities became even more frenetic, demanding grand tours and large financial commitments, which came as a result of endless fundraising and borrowing. The latter lacked transparency and ultimately bankrupted him in the US. In Canada, as the monograph shows, his reputation was less tarnished. Thanks to his many dance students, Avramenko experienced a wave of second recognition, which led to the establishment of his myth. This myth survived well after his death, as seen in Martynowych’s epilogue, which presents an overview of some uncritical acclamations bestowed on Avramenko both throughout the diaspora and in Ukraine. Hence, one of the goals of Martynowych’s book was to read behind the myth and deconstruct its political and...