Authenticity in Performance: How Folklore Ensembles Present Russian Culture to Russians in the 1990s

This paper examines the concept of “authentic folklore” as it is portrayed by various Russian folk ensembles performing in Russia today. The paper is part of a larger study on the folklore revival movement from the 1960s to the present in Russia. My conclusions are based on my interpretations of performances (viewed live in Moscow and other cities in fall/winter 1998/99, and also earlier performances viewed on videotape) and interviews with performers, choreographers, musical directors, and folklorists (conducted in fall/winter 1998/99).

Using video and audio materials, I will illustrate three main approaches to performing authentic folklore on stage. These methods are used by members of the folklore revival movement to increase public awareness of ancient Russian village traditions. The first approach, which has been in use since the 1970s, involves bringing village dwellers to a city to perform their local folklore style. These groups are often groomed by a folklorist who may make recommendations about repertoire and presentation, and may appear onstage to comment on their performance. Two other approaches involve city dwellers who perform authentic folklore as professional, amateur, or student ensembles. Of these groups, some strive to perform only music, dance, and rituals as they might have been practiced for generations in particular villages. Other groups are more attentive to the demands of modern audiences. These often take their repertoire from all over Russia (not limiting themselves to a specific region), and include modern arrangements of old songs, staged scenes, or choreographed dances.

In analyzing these approaches, my focus will be on elucidating the conceptions of authenticity which inform them. Given that “authentic” folklore is a central concept in this movement, what various definitions of authenticity exist? Finally, I wish to suggest some of the ideological implications of these approaches: What messages about tradition and national identity are these groups sending, and why?