Alaskans, Russians discover common ground to dance on

Before iron curtain, Native peoples shared similar traditions

Posted: Monday, September 07, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Four years of training and research culminated in a trip to the Chukotka, Russia, last month when the Sivulliq Youth Media students filmed Russian dancers for "The Lost Dances," a DVD that will trace the shared traditions of Russian and Alaska indigenous song and dance.

"It was exciting, and it didn't hit me until the middle of the week that - wow, we're in Russia," said Denali Whiting, 17. "We've been working and training to do it, so we were ready for it. I felt pretty confident."

Whiting, now a senior in high school, first got involved in the project when she was in eighth grade. She was interested in photography and her father heard that a summer workshop in filmmaking was being offered. But what started as "just a summer thing" grew into an international, multiyear project to film "lost" indigenous dance on both sides of the Bering Strait.

In addition to Whiting, students Frank Ferguson, Richard Atoruk and Jacqui Lambert spent three days in the Provideniya and three in New Chaplino. They were accompanied by instructor and director Norman Jayo, photography instructor Minne Naylor, Barrow dancers Mary and Clara Sage and executive producer D'Anne Hamilton.

"The idea of the lost dances is that they're not really lost, they can be found again over time," said Hamilton, economic development director for the Northwest Arctic Borough, who has coordinated the project since it began four years ago.

The film touches on the ways that, for the past hundred years or so, indigenous Russians and their Alaska counterparts have helped keep each other's heritage of song and dance alive, despite cultural oppression, forced relocations and political upheaval. Russian groups are closely related to the Alaskans of St. Lawrence Island and used to make regular trips to Kotzebue for trade fairs, where they would share dances. Most of the characteristic dance movements such as walking, hunting and paddling are the same.

"Alaska and Russian dancers dance to the same songs and pretty much their history of dancing is the same because it came from the same people, and there was always that connection before the iron curtain. There was always the traditional connection," Whiting said.


During the Cold War, travel between the two nations was halted. But the Russians could still hear indigenous songs on the radio, which they sometimes adapted to different motions. They also replaced Alaska geographical references with descriptions of their own landscapes. Then, when the first Russians started traveling to Alaska again in the 1990s "they brought back the memory of how people used to dance," Hamilton said. "We'd been dancing primarily for tourists and there seems to have been a loss in the nuance of the dance. (The Russians) began working with our dance groups and teaching Russian movement to our students and that helped revive the nuance."

The exchange continued with this trip, when Barrow dancers Mary and Clara Sage and Kotzebue dancers Atoruk and Lambert (who were also students on the project) joined the Russians in dance. Hamilton said that Atoruk, in particular, made a big impression.

"Their young people were amazed by the spirit of his dancing," Hamilton said. "It's like it came full circle."

The group started filming dancers in their hometown of Kotzebue and also at the last Inuit Circumpolar Conference. On this trip, they got up at 8 a.m. each morning to practice their camera skills and spent the days working with the dancers. Hamilton said that three students would simultaneously film the dancers while another logged tape. Working with a translator, the students interviewed the Russians and also interviewed each other for the film. At night they shared tea with their hosts

Whiting said that learning the skills it took to complete the project required some work, but was worth it.

"All of us are interested in multimedia anyways, we can use what we learned for jobs in the future. I'm looking forward to using that in my resume because I'd like to get into writing and photography," Whiting said.

It's technically the group's second film; they produced a 10-minute piece "Teaching the Dances of Kotzebue" in 2006 which Hamilton called "a taste of what's to come" in the full-length documentary. The video features Martin Woods of Kotzebue dancing a Paul Green dance and Victoria Owens, a renowned traditional Russian dancer living in Kotzebue, performing her famous squirrel dance.

"The Lost Dances" will finish post-production and be ready for distribution in 2010. Hamilton said a 10-minute companion piece, "Finding the Lost Dances," will be issued at the same time. Currently the plan is to distribute the films at National Parks Service offices, though Hamilton said she was researching other marketing opportunities - like making films of specific dances and offering them on iTunes.

She said that in addition to giving a handful of students some cool technical skills, the project will educate the world about Native community and educate the Native community about marketing to the world.

"We can start marketing and distributing Native content and show the community how you can build business in rural economies. Multimedia is all the tools of the Internet, it's all content we need to become more comfortable with to build economic opportunity," Hamilton said.

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