A little over two miles of water separates the Bering Strait islands of Little Diomede and Big Diomede, making the distance between Alaska and Siberia less than the stretch between downtown Juneau and Lemon Creek.
This proximity, called into doubt during the recent Presidential election, will be celebrated next weekend with White Nights, a festival of Russian culture organized by Alexander Dolitsky, president of the Alaska Siberia Research Center.
The event calls attention to both our physical closeness to Russia and to the long-standing historical connection between the two land masses. Organized as part of the Russian Compatriot Program, of which Dolitsky is a delegate, it serves to promote Russian heritage and culture, foster good relations between the neighboring countries, and to reach out to Russian diaspora.
The festival, sponsored by the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United States and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and partially by the City and Borough of Juneau, runs from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. next Saturday, June 20, at Centennial Hall.
In Russia, the term white nights refers to the long summer days around the solstice often celebrated with festivals in some northern Russian cities, including, most famously, St. Petersburg. This marks the second year for Juneau's White Nights, and this year the lineup, venue, and duration of the festival represent a distinct expansion over last year's event.
"The concert itself will be better organized with better representation of different genres," Dolitsky said. "At this point it is a good mix."
Dolitsky, who has lived in Juneau since 1986, said the festival features both Russian and American performers, and is open to all.
"Its not enough to be Russian - you have know how to play Russian music," Dolitsky said.
An afternoon and an evening program is scheduled, with a break in between, and each session will be unique.
A dignified beginning
The beginning of the festival will include brief comments from Russian dignitaries Yuriy Gerasin, the Council General of the Russian Federation, and Veronika Krasheninnikova, representative of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, as well as from Mayor Bruce Botelho and Sen. Dennis Egan. Jeff Brown will emcee.
New to this year's program is the Sudarushka dancers, formed in 2003 by Anchorage-based Elena Farkas. Farkas, who moved to the U.S. in 1992 after marrying an American, was inspired to form the group as a way to maintain and share Russian culture with her community - and to keep her children and those of her friends involved in their heritage. Farkas used to run a bookstore in Anchorage that served as a gathering place for the Russian-American community, and when it closed she pursued her dream of organizing a dance group. Because none of the women she recruited to be in the group were professional dancers, Farkas decided to start with a style that was not too technically demanding.
"Because we were not physically prepared we decided to start with the slow dance to feel more confident," she said.
Two of the four dances on the White Nights program are slow dances, "Moscow Nights" and "Volga River," and consist of elegant movements.
"The dancers will slide and flow like they have roller skates," Farkas said.
The group sews their own costumes and headpieces, often in very elaborate designs, and changes costumes depending on the dance.
"They have a great desire to share their culture with people in Alaska," she said.
Farkas said she has great appreciation for the New Archangel Dancers from Sitka, and their enthusiasm for Russian culture.
"I really love the group," she said. "They're so in love with Russian dance."
Another new addition this year is the Kodiak Russian Players, a vocal and instrumental group of five. The band was formed to accompany the play "The Cry of the Wild Ram," an outdoor, historical-based show depicting the interactions between the Russians and the Yupik natives. The play, written by Frank Brink, ran for 26 years in Kodiak, and when it finished up in 1992, the band kept going.
"Our main focus is going to be on songs from the play, and we'll do some more traditional songs as well," said Casey Janz, alto balalaika player with the band.
Jenny Stolberg, balalaika player with the SitNiks and dance director for the New Archangel Dancers, said she is eager to see the new acts at this year's festival. Stolberg and fellow SitNik Kris Fulton danced with the New Archangel Dancers for more than 20 years before bowing out. In that time they built up a store of knowledge about and enthusiasm for Russian music, and, after leaving the dance group, formed the music group the SitNiks. Both were inspired by a convention of the Balalaika and Domra Association of America in 2003, and soon after taught themselves to play traditional Russian instruments.
"I had a balaika that somebody gave me in college and it kept following me around, so I decided, 'how hard can this be, it only has three strings?' and I started playing it," Stolberg said.
The SitNiks perform traditional Russian folk songs and a few more modern pieces.
Fulton, who plays domra with the group, said her appreciation for Russian culture has been nourished by living in Sitka.
"I have grown to love and respect the music and enjoy the connection," Fulton said.
For a full listing of acts, see the sidebar on B1.
White Nights of the future
Looking ahead to next year, Dolitsky said he hopes to put together a two-day event and include an exhibit of Russian art and possibly a costume parade. An art show was considered for this year's event, but logistical complications prevented it from happening.
However, visual art will be provided in the form of Charles Rohbacker's Russian icons, on display in the Centennial Hall lobby. The show is called "Windows into Heaven."
The White Nights festival is free, but a $10 donation is suggested.