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Barynya’s Russian folk dance warms the soul

By Joshua Bartlett

Barynya.

“Nobody can pronounce it right and nobody can remember it,” jokes Barynya’s artistic director, Mikhail Smirnov. As for the pronunciation, it’s “bar-EEN-yah.” And as for the Russian folk dance ensemble, with its dynamic, nonstop energy and authentic flavor, it makes an unmistakable impression on the audience’s memory.

In Kazachiy, or “Cossack Dance,” the men perform highly percussive movements while the women do traveling, turning steps. (Photo courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

Based in Brooklyn, New York, Barynya prides itself on being one of the top Russian folk dance troupes in the world; others include The Russian Collection in San Francisco, the Ukrainian Cossack dancers from New York, the Kalinka dancers from Baltimore, and of course the iconic Moiseyev Dance Company, which inspired all subsequent Russian folk dance troupes. Barynya consists of eight dancers, six musicians, and four singers who bring to life the dances of Russia and its associated territories and ethnicities. Founded by Smirnov in 1991, it began as a trio, with a dancer/singer, a dancer, and Smirnov as musician/emcee. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Barynya now boasts a cast of fine performers, all of whom trained in Russia and worked with dance companies there before coming to live in America. Smirnov still acts as emcee, cracking jokes between numbers and adding a jovial temperament to the festive athleticism.

Smirnov studied at the Moscow State University of Culture and Arts, where he trained as a folk choir conductor. During his time there, he studied folk dance for four years. Before coming to the United States in 1991, Smirnov was a soloist in several Russian folk dance and music groups, including the Moscow State Musical Folklore Theatre “Russkaya Pesnya” (“Russian song”), under the direction of Nadezhda Babkina. At the age of 24, he formed Barynya. The troupe gets its name from one of the most popular Russian folk dances, one that always begins the company’s performances.

The troupe evokes a folksy fire similar to that of the Moiseyev company, but in a more intimate, casual setting, which gives Barynya a unique quality. But the company emulates the range of dances that the Moiseyev troupe strives to present. In addition to the Russian songs and dances, there are Cossack, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Gypsy numbers, all choreographed to preserve the traditions, yet framed and contrasted in ways that make them come alive with a contemporary theatricality. Ninety percent of the vivid costumes were done by Svetlana Gavrilova.

On a complete program, Barynya typically includes more than 25 songs and dances. (The company also performs with fewer cast members and tailors shows for parties and other venues.) Two pieces include choreography by Igor Moiseyev, the late founder of the Moiseyev troupe: the traditional Nanaitsky (The Fight of Two Kids) and Yablochko (The Sailors’ Dance). Both are emblematic of the Russian style that is highly physical, earthy, and packed with unexpected twists.

Nanaitsky derives from a style of wrestling popular among people in the northern regions of Russia. A man on all fours, in an ingenious costume, depicts two children wrestling. His arms are the legs of one wrestler, while his legs provide the lower limbs of the other child. He rolls on the ground, falls down in a stalemate, upends one opponent at a time, and finally exposes the trick by throwing off the costume.

The Sailors’ Dance, a familiar classic, features a quartet of four macho sailors and their female “mates.” “Russian dance is always characterized by dancers on their knees and kicking their legs,” says Smirnov. (The trademark bent-kneed kicks are called preesyadkees in Russian and polzoonok in Ukrainian.) The Sailors’ Dance exemplifies the genre of Socialist realism, which sought to depict Russian life and history during the Communist era.

The program almost always opens with Barynya, which combines lighthearted, rhythmic choreography with short, humorous sung verses. (The name is a sort of slang for a woman of a higher class, literally “landlady.”) “This is a nice beginning for the program,” says Smirnov. “It’s not too difficult and it gives the dancers a chance to warm up.” That’s a good thing, because these dancers work hard nonstop (apart from costume changes) for a solid two hours.

“Very often after our workshops are over we see kids trying to do some moves of Russian dancing. We love to see it. And kids seem to like Russian folk dancing, especially the boys.” —Mikhail Smirnov

The troupe’s musical instruments are folksy in nature but sophisticated in sound—and all performances feature live musicians. The triangular balalaikas are rich in sound; the contrabass balalaika, which looms like a stealth bomber, features a deep, sonorous tone. In addition to the percussions and harmonica, the ensemble includes a garmoshka, a Russian button accordion, which Smirnov plays. Two lead vocals, a male and a female, sing traditional Russian and ethnic songs, such as “Subboteya” (“Saturday Affair”), in which a young girl explains to her boyfriend the rules of behavior (“You have to bring me gifts, take me out all the time”); and “Volga Boatmen” with its familiar heavy first four notes.

The diversity of the program, however, really emerges in the dancing, such as the quintessential Cossack dances. The Cossacks were established as a military caste in 1835 and obliged to serve until they were no longer capable. Their name comes from the Turkish word “kazak,” meaning an adventurer or free man—and their style of dancing reflects that—wild, free, and rebellious.

Kazachiy, or “Cossack Dance,” for six men and women, revels in its warrior’s delight. “The dance is usually an imitation of fighting. The dancers try to overpower each other. It’s like a competition,” says Smirnov. The men perform highly percussive movements while the women do traveling, turning percussive steps reminiscent of Ann Miller in a scene-stealing frenzy.

The Ukrainian dance Gopak probably represents the type of Slavic dancing most familiar to audiences for Russian folk dancing. The dance form, often inserted into ballets and operas, originated in the 16th century as celebratory rituals for participants in battle. The dances were usually improvisational in form, with wildly acrobatic jumps and feats of speed and strength. In the Barynya production, Gopak, choreographed by Andrij Cybyk, follows suit. The men jump in splits à la seconde and perform back flips while the women perform consecutive pirouettes. The mood is festive and ecstatic. “There are lots of tricks, moves on the floor, squatting, and jumping in Ukrainian dance,” says Smirnov.

One of the most difficult numbers in the show, choreographed by Alexander Rudoy, is Evreiskaya Svad’ba, which re-creates a Jewish wedding dance from the Odessa region. Bearing some resemblance to the choreography that Jerome Robbins made famous in Fiddler on the Roof, the dance begins with three women holding hands and balancing lit candles on their heads. The men dance with bottles perched on their hats, then proceed to sit on the floor and stand up without disturbing the balance of the glass containers. The women then dance with handkerchiefs and the finale ends with a euphoric, life-affirming joyousness and faith.

Some of the most famous songs in the Russian tradition are Gypsy songs such as “Dark Eyes,” which speaks of “dark eyes, flaming eyes” that “implore me into faraway lands where love reigns, where peace reigns, where there is no suffering, where war is forbidden.”

According to Smirnov, Gypsy culture is very popular in Russia because there is a long history of Gypsy settlements. Russian Gypsies can be divided into two big groups, the Roma and Luli. The Roma first appeared in Russia in the 16th century but it was only at the beginning of the 19th century that they came to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Two Guitars, a dance set to the popular Gypsy song of the same name, has a flamenco-like passion. Characterized by stealthy walks, fluttering hands, and deep backbends, it’s a real showstopper.

When on tour (which is to say constantly) Barynya holds workshops for boys and girls in local schools. “We show them how to do all those moves without hurting themselves. Dancers in Russia go to school for four years and do training eight hours a day,” says Smirnov. While occasionally they teach adults, he says generally it’s not a good idea. “You can break your knees. Kids can survive Russian dance,” he adds with a chuckle.

In Smirnov’s opinion, the genesis of Russian folk dancing came with the Skomorokhi—medieval street entertainers who were mostly denounced by the church. They moved from one village to another, wherever there were festivals, learning new tricks and dances from the locals. Eventually they developed a body of work, including the Cossack dances and other indigenous choreography.

Then, in 1937, Igor Moiseyev formed the first professional Russian folk ensemble. Smirnov credits him with producing and maintaining the best academic ensemble of folk dancing in the world. With the Moiseyev ensemble came a blueprint for folk choreography with an improvisational feel.

Surprisingly, there is not a single school devoted to Russian folk dancing in New York—or in America, for that matter. “There is not enough demand for it,” says Smirnov. “If you want to learn Russian dancing, you have to go to Russia to do it.” Russian ballet dancers only learn Russian folk dancing if they choose to study it. “Most Russian ballet dancers cannot do a preesyadkee,” says Smirnov.

Barynya only gives workshops when schools or colleges request them, and those attending the schools may participate. “Very often after our workshops are over we see kids trying to do some moves of Russian dancing. We love to see it. And kids seem to like Russian folk dancing, especially the boys,” he says. Will Smirnov teach in a school if invited? “Of course,” he says, smiling. “If they pay.”

Barynya performed at the black-tie gala after former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev received the Liberty Medal in 2008, presented to him by President George H.W. Bush. In January of the following year, Barynya performed a Cossack dance on NBC’s Superstars of Dance, produced by Nigel Lythgoe of So You Think You Can Dance fame.

Smirnov procures his numerous touring dates by attending five annual booking conferences for the performing arts. A 20th-anniversary concert is planned for 2011, although the date and venue have not been set. “For the celebration we will invite all dancers, musicians, and singers who ever performed with Barynya,” says Smirnov.

“Audiences love Barynya because they have very good dancers and professional singers and musicians,” he says. “It’s not like other companies where they perform the same dance again and again. We have such a variety. I am introducing each number and I make lots of jokes and people love to laugh. It makes it all much more interesting.”

When you hear the audience clapping along with familiar tunes, gasping at the pyrotechnics, and smiling at the peppery patter, you have to agree that a bit of the Old Country still exists. But here in America, it comes with a fresh twist.

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