Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dancing Bears

At one point, as I sat searching for something very specific, I came across a snippet of a story that, no matter how hard I looked, didn't have any further information. What I cam across was the first documented moment of folk dance and music in medieval Russia which dated back to 907. Now, the reason there isn't much here is because most things found in the beginning sections of the Chronicles are more or less just anecdotes from the earlier periods. The Chronicles were originally a history of Russia from 850 to 1110 that was complied in 1113, but many additions were added through the years.

In either case, this small snippet told the tale of Grand Russian Prince Oleg who, at a large celebration in honor of his victory over the Greeks at Constantinople, was presented a group of dancers. There were 16 male dancers dressed as bears and 4 bears dressed as male dancers. When the dance, and the feast, were over, Oleg commanded the bears to be released and the dancers executed.

That is about all the snippet says, though further research shows that Oleg was thought to be partially blind and perhaps took the dancers to be from a tribe in the North who owed him 100 tiger skins in tribute. Now, the thing that I find to be interesting and what originally caught my eye and made me say 'there is a story in here somewhere' is that the story doesn't well describe whether he wanted the dancers executed, or the bears dressed up as dancers executed.

One of the other interesting things the Chronicles tell about Oleg is that he was known as The Seer. He had a prophetic vision of his death which did, in fact, come to pass. But that is another story.

This story has been sitting on the back burner for almost two years, waiting for the perfect inspiration. Where that inspiration finally came from was my decision to compete at King and Queen's bardic and they requested that the first round piece be documentable and about 12th Night. Now, I don't really know much about 12th Night, but what I -do- know is that Russians celebrated every event they could with dance. And what story would be better than the first story of dance in Russia. So, using some creative license, this is the story I came up with.


Let me tell you a story that happened on the night of the epiphany many years ago. On this night, Great Russian Prince Oleg had a strange dream. In this dream he was offered bears as tribute. But instead of being pleased with the gift, he drew his dagger and leapt upon the bears, skinning each where they stood. Out of those wound poured not blood, but gold and rubies.

Oleg awoke, confused. He began questioning his advisors what such a prophetic dream could mean. None could give him an answer. After months of this, even the Boyars began to call Oleg a fool for holding on to such nonesense. So Oleg pushed aside the dream and instead worked on mastering the art of war.

It wasn't long before Oleg had brought his armies to the border and conquered Tsargav, the great city of Constantinople. A grand feast was prepared in Kiev on the anniversary of his dream, that night of epiphany. Boyars and Boiarynias from far and wide came bearing gifts fit for their prince.

One tribe from the North gave their sons skins and instruments to bring to Kiev so they may entertain the prince. Upon arriving at the hall, the musicians were sent inside so they may set up while the rest of the men spoke with the captain of the guard. As they dressed in their skins, they explained to him their plan and asked he announce their arrival before they enter. The captain seemed amused with the idea and was happy to enter the hall ahead of them.

"Behold! A grand tribute for Great Prince Oleg!"

Into the hall loped sixteen bears on all fours. The people gasped. Oleg was delighted.

"A glorious gift! Skin them."

The bears gasped. The captain wasn't certain he had heard Oleg correctly.

"Gozposhin, skin them?"

"Yes. Skin them. Do you dare question me?"

To save his own hide, the captain approached one of the bears, but his eyes were wide with fear. The bear appeared to offer the guard desperate instructions, which appeared to calm him. Carefully he drew his dagger and even more carefully he eased the furs off of each creature. Suddenly the sixteen majestic bears transformed into sixteen scrawny peasants. Oleg was not pleased.

"Is this some kind of trick, captain?"

The musicians, seeing their friends in trouble, called for music. As the tune filled the hall, the captain looked expectantly at the former bears who, in turn, looked at one another.

"What do we do now?"

"We follow through with the plan."

"But we were to dance as bears."

"Then we will dance as bears. Our lives may depend on it."

Suddenly each man leapt into the air, twisting and spinning like bears in battle: strong and graceful. The room filled with laughter. A man called out, "What a miracle!" A miracle that Oleg was all too quick to accept as his own.

"Behold, boyars and boiarynias. Did my dream not tell us true? For this is my true gift. More valuable than bears. More precious than jewels."

Oleg was happy. The people were happy. The captain was happy. But none were more happy than the bears.

On this day the Barynya, the bear dance, was born. All of Russia praised Oleg's name in gratitude for the gift of dance he had given to them.

And never again would any doubt Oleg's prophetic dreams.