Festival to highlight Russian culture through dance and music

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008

Russian culture played a significant role in Alaska's past and Alexander Dolitsky wants to ensure it continues to do so well into the future.

Courtesy Of The Sitniks
Courtesy Of The Sitniks

The Alaska-Siberia Research Center, headed by Dolitsky, is coordinating "White Nights," a first-of-its-kind festival of Russian culture in Juneau on summer solstice. The festival, sponsored by the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, D.C. and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will be held from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 21, at Marine Park downtown and will include Russian dancing and music, as well as local, national and international dignitaries. Admission is free.

With upwards of 30 million Russians and former-Soviet expatriates living abroad, the government established the Russian Compatriot Program earlier this decade to help protect, preserve and promote its cultural heritage, Dolitsky said. As a nominated delegate of the program, Dolitsky proposed a festival in Alaska's capital highlighting Russian culture in the Last Frontier.

"We received this grant, and in fact it will be the first festival of Russian culture 'White Nights' in the United States - certainly in Alaska," he said, adding that he hopes to make it an annual event. "We've never had anything like that."

The three-hour cultural festival will include the New Archangel Dancers from Sitka, music by the Fiery Gypsies of Juneau, the Russian-American Colony Singers from Anchorage, and the Sitka-based Russian folk music group the SitNiks. Dignitaries expected to attend include Nikolay N. Vinogradov, the deputy council general of the Russian Federation; Juneau mayor Bruce Botelho; state senator Kim Elton, D-Juneau; and U.S. senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Local radio personality and magician Jeff Brown will be the master of ceremonies.

"This type of program not only helps to preserve the Russian heritage in Alaska, but it strengthens Russian-American relations," Dolitsky said. "It's really more than just a festival in Alaska, it's really kind of strengthening the relationship between two countries."

Eight of the 30 active members of the all-female New Archangel Dancers will perform seven dances from the group's 40-dance repertoire, said dancer and board chairman Linda Speerstra.

"We're so excited to be invited and we really hope that this festival continues every year," she said. "I think we can really fill a niche for continuing to promote the Russian culture here in Alaska."

One of the main goals of the dance troupe is to promote and encourage interest in Russian history and culture in Alaska through sharing the dancing and music evident in the Russian-American period of the 18th and 19th centuries, Speerstra said.

"Our costuming is very authentic to the regions that we represent and we have Russian choreographers that teach us the dances and then they also give us the costume designs," she said.

The SitNiks have been playing Russian folk music for the past several years after becoming fascinated by their regional instruments, said prima balalaika player Jeanne Stolberg. The prima balalaika is a traditional triangular-shaped wooden instrument with three strings that somewhat resembles a guitar.

"We just thought, there's no Russian music group here (in Sitka) and we were interested in the instruments," she said. "Sitka was the capital of Russian America back in the 1800s so there seems to be a lot of that history floating around here. It's kind of in the atmosphere around here."

Prima dorma player Kris Fulton said the group is excited to bring Russian cultural music to Juneau.

"The Russian instruments are different too and I don't think a lot of people in Juneau or Southeast have heard a lot of Russian instruments," she said. "They do sound a little different and they do look a little different."

Dolitsky said he hopes the festival will become an annual event and continue to strengthen the ties between Russia and the United States and preserve the region's historical connection shared by the two countries.

"We're hoping that this initiative will continue," he said. "It's not a tradition yet. We're just about to start a new tradition."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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