The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause
Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko
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.
- 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)
“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
“Martynovych is an extraordinary researcher and Avramenko, because he was so enamored of himself and his mission, left a huge archive. Using this, along with other data, the author has provided a much-needed book about a man who helped shape Ukrainian cultural expression in the West.”
– Natalie Kononenko, University of Alberta, Slavic and East European Journal
“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
“Martynowych has produced a well-balanced work, but more importantly it is the only source that depicts Vasile Avramenko without a heavily sugar-coated framework. Martynowych debunks a national myth that was carefully nurtured within his own community, and one can only marvel at the risk he and the University of Manitoba Press were taking with its publication. While it might shock some readers to find out that the dance master was a only a modestly talented choreographer (according to later performance expectations) and a deluded, envious, and egotistic character, I find this publication also makes Avramenko more real and more human.”
– Jennifer Boivin, University of Sudbury, H-Net Reviews (Link)
“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
“Historians of immigration, and of Eastern Europe more generally, will benefit from the view of interwar Ukrainian immigrant life to be gained by looking over the shoulder of the dynamic and ubiquitous Avramenko. This sympathetic study likewise casts light on immigrant cultural consumption andacculturation in North America during the period.”
– Rosamund Johnston, New York University, Harvard Ukrainian Studies
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.
- The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause: Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko
- Orest T. Martynowych (Author)
- Published October 2014, 219 pages
- Paper, ISBN: 978-088755-768-2, 6 × 9, $27.95
- Topic(s): Ethnic Studies, History, Immigration, Performing Arts
- Part of the U of M Press series: Studies in Immigration and Culture