The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause

Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko

Orest T. Martynowych (Author)

The quixotic and volatile Vasile Avramenko (1895–1981) used folk dance and film in a life-long crusade to promote Ukraine’s struggle for independence to North American audiences. Energetic and charismatic, but also manipulative, impractical and vain, he was a controversial figure for decades.

Born in a village near Kyiv, Avramenko established himself as a performer and dance teacher among Ukrainian émigrés in central Europe. He immigrated to Canada in 1925 and organized a network of Ukrainian folk dance schools by appealing to the new immigrants’ patriotism and to their yearning for cultural survival. Determined to conquer Broadway, he moved to New York City in 1929, oversaw his expanding web of dance schools, and began to stage elaborate (money-losing) spectacles of dance and music.

By the mid-1930s, Avramenko’s frenetic activities expanded to filmmaking. He called for the creation of a “Ukrainian Hollywood” and begged and borrowed enough money to produce two feature films with director Edgar G. Ulmer, the “king of ethnic and B movies.” After the Second World War Avramenko’s career declined and his last decades were spent travelling as far as Australia and Israel in fruitless attempts to entice sponsors to fund his dance spectacles.

Based on extensive original research, The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause provides a vivid portrait of how culture and politics can intersect in a diaspora community.

Awards

  • FINALIST, Kobzar Literary Award (2016 )
  • WINNER, Manitoba Day Awards, Association of Manitoba Archives (2016)
  • NOMINEE, Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction, Manitoba Book Awards (2015)

Reviews

“This book stands apart from other studies of Ukrainians in Canada and the US by reaching beyond the politics, organizations, and churches of the Ukrainian community. Through his biography of Vasile Avramenko, Martynowych explores the passions of common folk, who were trying to fit into the North American cultural landscape.”

– Bohdan Y. Nebesio, Brock University, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies

“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.”

– Svitlana (Lana) Krys, MacEwan University, Canadian Journal of History (Link)

“The is the delightful and thoroughly researched story of a little-known Ukrainian personality, Vasile Avramenko, who left his mark both in show business and on the Ukrainian community at large. Martynowych does not dwell exclusively but puts him in historical and geographic context at every turn of his fascinating life. An exemplary biography.”

– Raymond Hebert, Nadine MacKenzie, and Noah Richler, Judges, Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction, 2015 Manitoba Book Awards

“In the course of producing this fine little monograph on Avramenko, Martynowych has also provided readers with a brilliant little primer on Ukrainian diasporic politics, Ukrainian volunteerism in North America, the changing nature of the diasporic community over the years, and, perhaps most surprisingly, on North American popular culture during the 1920s and 1930s. Quite an achievement for 155 pages.”

– Jim Mochoruk, University of North Dakota, Manitoba History

The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause is the terrific new book by Orest T. Martynowych which combines meticulously researched scholarship with a compulsive prose style, handily delivering superb non-fiction literature which details the life and career of a visionary madman devoted to maintaining and promoting Ukrainian culture throughout the world in spite of its repression under both Communism and intensely rigid policies of Russification in post-revolutionary Soviet-dominated Ukraine.”

– Greg Klymkiw, The Film Corner (Link)

“Martynowych succeeds beautifully at telling a life story that is captivating to read and powerfully convincing. Avramenko was a pioneer of monumental importance, yet his story does not fit the archetype of the Ukrainian immigrant. It is an edifying text for anyone interested in studies of folk dance and cultural production, and indispensable for those in Ukrainian studies.”

– Marcia Ostashewski, Department of History and Culture, Cape Breton University

The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause will be of interest to many Manitobans, including those who learned Ukrainian dancing from Avramenko or from his original students, those who performed in his films, and those who lost their money through investing in his projects. […] Some readers who remember Avramenko may question why Martynowych ‘tarnishes’ the reputation of a great man. But the author simply presents the truths of a well-documented life— the readers can decide. Now we know about the whole person, not just the persona.”

– Orysia Tracz, Winnipeg Free Press (Link)

“Vasile Avramenko today enjoys legendary status as an impresario and populizer of Ukrainian dance. […] This study is indispensable reading for understanding how popular art forms developed in North America—particularly for seeing how the local and ‘ethnic’ intersected with the commercial and ‘mainstream.’”

– Myroslav Shkandrij, Ukrainian Sun

About the Author

Orest T. Martynowych is a historian at the Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies, University of Manitoba. He is the author of Ukrainians in Canada: The Formative Years, 1891-1924.

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