Ranjana Thapalyal: Certainty and its Refractions in Ayla Dmyterko’s Solastalgic Soliloquy
Seen today as the world stands unevenly still, in a collective and reluctant stand-off with mortality, Ayla Dmyterko’s lone dance with cultural time takes on multiple resonances. Quarantine, isolation, fear of disease, mental and physical re-location, uncertain futures—all the hallmarks of immigration experience—these are now part of the daily routines of previously settled societies, impacting even more unbearably on those in transit. It should make empathy a little easier to come by.
Instead, in the midst of pandemic, the seemingly calm extinguishing of a life on a busy American street in broad daylight, by an unrestrained police force even as witnesses record and cry out, demonstrates the banality with which systemic violence expresses itself. This ever was the other face of organised pogroms. These ever were the most compelling reasons for emigration and the making of diaspora cultures, all too often complicit or explicit in serving their escaped injustices on others. Alongside this, the exquisite impossibility and inevitable pull of preserving the past while adjusting to the present as generational memory fades and morphs, a struggle so familiar to diaspora culture.
Ayla Dmyterko’s art and research engages with such transformations. The quiet but unmistakable tension in Solastalgic Soliloquy’s gradually dishevelled, twirling ballerina evokes many of the contradictions of diasporic cultural memory. In the film, ambiguities arising from nostalgia manifest as a troubled relationship with the self; or the self that is taught to carry cultural heritage in a particular way.
Dmyterko’s deliberate filmic homage to Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov is interesting in both its recognisable traits and in its deviations. Parajanov’s mythic visual language and elaborate costuming are hinted at, but in the form of modern stage equivalents of folkloric dress. Imported by the Saskatchewan Ukrainian Cultural Centre for children to learn traditional dance, the costumes are painstakingly maintained by volunteers in the community. In an unintended paralleling of reality and its permutations, costume patterns often consist of simplified, enlarged applique patches, representing smaller motifs that once would have been embroidered, and regionally specific. In the fixed, forward facing and seemingly unseeing gaze of Dmyterko’s dancer lies another nod to Parajanov, with the injection of a more personal and emotive interpretation of this bodily demeanour. As encountered in Parajanov’s ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ (1969) for example, this gaze remains inscrutable throughout. By contrast, Dmyterko’s protagonist shares with us an increasing anxiety through subtly shifting expressions, as she loses control of headdress and props, and perhaps exact instruction, while somehow appearing not to miss a step.
Solastalgic Soliloquy also layers auto-ethnographic elements. Dmyterko learned Ukrainian dance throughout her childhood and young adulthood from former Soviet ballet trainers. Her mother is one of the volunteers who regularly repairs and conserves costumes. Dancing alongside her brother with her father playing accordion in the orchestra, and her mother working backstage, are part of her Canadian upbringing. She also taught dance for some time. Despite this, when Dmyterko first started working as an artist with Ukrainian identity and history, she had only recently learned of the persecution that led her own grandparents to flee, eventually arriving in North America having been turned away at Glasgow ports. Attempting to come to terms with this silence on trauma, she reworked family photographs, pondering to what extent this hidden history had been present in the minds of the older generation, as they translated all memories into an insistence on the perpetuation of only joyful ones. This early work is structured by gaps, focussed on motif and reproduction in a knowingly refracted manner. Solastalgic Soliloquy takes these concepts further.
And so, mesmerised as we are by the carefully curated folkloric regalia, in their newness they remind us that although ways of being are embedded in custom and ritual, they can easily shed nuance and become signs for something else entirely. The beautiful idea of celebrating survival and brave ancestors, of instilling self-worth and unique identity in a new land by re-enacting the motherland, when performed alongside incomplete narratives, can evolve into what Svetlana Boym has called ‘restorative nostalgia’. A nostalgia that incorporates nationalism, isolationism, and either the perpetuation of old enmities, or their relocation onto contemporary encounters. Dmyterko frequently references Boym. The fact that her forefathers settled on land once belonging to First Nation Peoples is not lost on her,
‘As settlers, my family were tools in the Canadian colonist project via the crown, [causing] acute trauma in Indigenous communities.’ 
She probes therefore Ukrainian geographical and diasporic culture, but also the dynamics of cultural and political change in general, and the ethics of recounting subjective histories. In this greater landscape she looks to ideas in transcultural education and adaptive, mutually person-centred research encounters to inform a broader understanding of cultural self-image. She comments that she is interested,
‘not only [in] preservation of cultural memory, but rather questioning how diasporic tendencies exist or cease amidst globalisation.’
At worst, the conservative tendency of ‘restorative nostalgia’ can attach itself to the most xenophobic aspects of adopted nations. Ironically, its tropes can also hasten the demise of homeland memory, as the cultural memory of successive generations begins to absorb influences, politics, and aesthetics of their space and time. Thus, Boym’s definition of another related but more ‘reflective nostalgia’ which has the potential to be more reflexive becomes significant:
‘While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one’s homeland with paranoid determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Home, after all, is not a gated community.’ 
What can be more threatening to nostalgia for a half remembered past, than the reality of its disappearance, or not-quite-as-imagined-ness on a return to geographical point of origination? Yet Dmyterko has made just this kind of return, literally and metaphorically, and harnessed the slippages available in art and postcolonial theory. Herein lies the potency that laces the poetry of Solastalgic Soliloquy. In a twice occurring image, blue ground is intersected by a pipe, bordered by wreaths of greenery that are being set on fire. On its second appearance, the camera has zoomed out. The blue is revealed as a wall reflected in a puddle of water, and the pipe runs along the ground through two gate posts. Hints appear of the recent war and ongoing political standoff between Russia and Ukraine , arguably exacerbated by EU requirements for Ukraine’s special agreement.  They shed light also on the ecological anxiety indicated by solastalgia in the title. We are brought into greater awareness of the realities of the little dancer and the jewellery box she is sited in.
More startling and direct are gradually inserted headshots of the dancer in a cream coloured headdress, reminiscent of wax wreaths made traditionally by brides as votive objects for their new homes. Placed on the dancer’s head, the lighting of the wreath, candle by candle, conveys a more alarming version of the quiet panic of the twirling dancer. Struggles of self-restrictive nostalgia, burdens sometimes placed on younger generations by diasporic communities, and/or painful rejection by host societies, find an apt metaphor here. In yet another layer of meaning, two dislocated plaits hang separated from the dancer’s hair on a tantalisingly thin thread, appearing to hover yet weigh down, like memory itself. The plaits were once Dmyterko’s own, cut off at the time of making the film, as a signal of readiness for change. Learned in a workshop given by Janine Windolf, a Cree story-keeper  who mentored Dmyterko while working with Indigenous students, this signalling of change is key to Solastalgic Soliloquy.
In its entirety, like the poetry of Sayat Nova whom Dmyterko also references, the film bears a hauntological quality underlying its simplicity and poise. Seen at the current moment of potential political change, it becomes suggestive of conversations that must be had if change is really to come.
 ‘Our Ancestors Exist as a Reliquary of Whispers-Sites of Return, Reclamation and Interstice in Cultural Memory Studies’ published in KAJET journal 2020 http://kajetjournal.com/2020/06/18/our-ancestors-exist-as-a-reliquary-of-whispers/
 Svetlana Boym ‘Nostalgia’ in Atlas of Transformation. http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/n/nostalgia/nostalgia-svetlana-boym.html accessed 7/06/2020.
 ‘Ukraine Crisis Timeline’ in BBC News website 13 November 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26248275 accessed 08/06 2020.
 ‘Ukraine and Russia: On-shore versus off-shore pipelines’ in EURACTIV Media Network 23 December, 2019. https://www.euractiv.com/secti… accessed 08/06 2020
 Janine Windolf filmmaker, educator, and storyteller currently Associate Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. https://www.nfb.ca/directors/janine-windolph/ accessed 13/06 2020
Currently based in Glasgow, Ayla Dmyterko works with moving image, painting, sculpture and installation to examine contemporary discourse surrounding patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism in relation to her own experience of the Ukranian diaspora in Canada.
Thanks to Anika Ahuja, Soojin Chang, Nicholas Dmyterko, Mood Hussain and Paige Silverman for their assistance on Solastalgic Soliloquy.
Ranjana Thapalyal is an inter-disciplinary artist and academic based in Scotland. Her practice spans several media including ceramics and painting. Previous publications and ongoing research engage with concepts of ‘self’ in South Asian and West African traditions, feminist readings of ancient philosophies of the South, cultural politics in visual art and anti-racist, decolonising strategies for art pedagogy.