University conference shows how Russian, Eastern European arts affect the world

Posted by Rebecca Sedlak on Sunday, May. 20 at 3:32 pm.

Did you know that the word “robot” comes from the Czech language?

In 1920, Czech science-fiction writer Karel Capek wrote a play about a factory that made artificial people called robots. In Slavic languages, the word “robota” means “serf labor” or “hard work.” The word entered our modern global vocabulary, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Such a participation of Slavic arts in world culture is what this weekend’s Russian and East European Arts, World Stage conference set out to explore. The conference ran May 17-19 on campus and was presented by the Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Center at the University.

Associate professors and REEESC directors Katya Hokanson and Jenifer Presto organized the conference to look at cross-cultural intersections of Russia and Eastern Europe with the rest of the world.

“This conference was designed to examine how Russian and East European arts have affected other countries internationally,” Hokanson said.

“We thought it would be really fascinating to put together this conference,” Presto said.

Supported by a long list of sponsors, including the College of Arts and Sciences, the conference brought together Slavic scholars from the University, as well as non-Slavic scholars like music and comparative literature professors, regional colleagues from other Oregon universities and the greater Pacific Northwest, and scholars from as far away as Cornell University and New York University.

The conference consisted of live music and dance, a drama performance, five scholarly panels and two keynote addresses. It explored many different arts, including visual arts like painting and cinema, as well as literature and poetry.

An exhibit in the display cases on the first floor of the Knight Library, curated by Slavic librarian Heghine Hakobyan, gives a general overview of the large amount that Russian and Eastern European arts has contributed to the world. For example, Sergei Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes company in the early 20th century, which produced a flood of famous dancers and choreographers, reinvigorated ballet and created many ground-breaking ballets by composers like Debussy, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. Another art form first produced in Russia was the idea of method acting, created by Konstantin Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold, a system that is still used almost 100 years later by actors such as Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis. Film montage also stems from Russian cinema.

The conference kicked off Thursday night with traditional Balkan folk music by the Eugene-based band Kef and University instructor of ethnomusicology Mark Levy and anthropology professor Carol Silverman. The band, comprised of guitar, cello, clarinet, percussion, accordion, two trumpets and vocals, played celebratory Bulgarian dances, as well as Macedonian, Romany and Serbian dances. The persistent tempo of the drum mixed with the lively, frantic twittering of the trumpets and clarinet made the audience want to clap.

“This is dance music,” Levy said. “It’s not music you can just sit down to.”

Many of the songs concerned unrequited love, a common theme in Balkan and Russian music.

“The happy ending is a very American idea,” Hokanson said. “It’s not really a big thing in a lot of the rest of the world.”

The theatrical performance, titled “To Hell with Meyerhold: History and Unforgetting,” occurred Friday night. It consisted of excerpts from associate professor Julia Nemirovskaya’s original play “Meyerhold in Hell.” Directed by theater arts associate professor John Schmor and performed by University students, the performance focused on Vsevolod Meyerhold’s life and theater theories.

Scholars presented their papers during the panels, which centered on different themes such as “Encountering the Other” and “Empire and Global Engagements.” The three presenters on the first panel, “Visualizing Culture,” talked respectively about a painter, a filmmaker and a poet, but all three were connected to the ideas of denial and the return of the repressed (including Jewish culture, homoeroticism, and creation and death).

“I think it’s been a great success,” Presto said of the conference as a whole. “It’s provided a dialogue on a number of levels, between Slavic scholars, between Slavic and non-Slavic studies, between faculty and students, between the local community and the Pacific Northwest and even people from farther away in the U.S. I think it’s been a diverse conference in a lot of regards.”

This is the first time REEESC has held a conference, and its success has spurred talk of making it an ongoing event.

“It’s neat to have more people around. They have great experiences and knowledge, and we can have meaningful discussion,” Hokanson said. “When you’re in the Spanish or the Romance Languages departments you’ve always got a lot of people in your field. But there’s only about four or five of us, so for us it’s really nice to get together like this.”