Shumka means “whirlwind” and the Ukrainian dance company appropriately took the sold-out Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium by storm for its 50th Anniversary Concert with a truly memorable celebration filled with swirling colour, thrilling spectacle, powerful athleticism and genuine heart.
In Edmonton where the company is based, Shumka effectively stands for Ukrainian dancing; over the years the terms have become interchangeable if not synonymous. It’s simply a testament to how successfully the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers — a group that was founded in church basements and community halls in 1959 to preserve Ukrainian culture through dance — has not only achieved its original vision but also embraced a mandate of developing the art form in Canada and internationally.
It’s not to say that other Ukrainian dance groups don’t exist – Shumka’s founding Artistic Director Chester Kuc split with the group a decade into the company’s history and started up Cheremosh, another strong Ukrainian dance force among many others now in North America.
Today, Shumka is truly part of a larger Canadian family of world dance companies and as it marks its fiftieth anniversary, it is a great time for all of us in the Canadian dance scene to take pride in the rich diversity of our distinctively Canadian dance styles.
Billed as Canada’s Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, the company attracts versatile dancers from across the country to audition for the company, artists trained not only in Ukrainian folk dance, but also in classical ballet and contemporary dance.
The group is recognized by the Canada Council as a professional dance company, and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking in a live Shumka performance, then you know there’s no question of their professionalism, but the reality is that each Shumka dancer donates an average of 500 volunteer hours rehearsing and performing during any given year of a major tour.
As current artistic director Gordon Gordey puts it, “Ukrainian dance is big dance.” It demands very large ensembles, sometimes upwards of sixty dancers on stage at once to make up the criss-crossing choreographic patterns. Shumka dancers are paid for their performances and tours whenever possible, but for the most part, the company is comprised of dance artists with a diverse range of full-time careers as school teachers, dentists, lawyers, nurses, accountants and engineers, among others.
Over fifty years, Shumka has performed at World Expos and the Olympics. They have danced for US Presidents and royalty and have taken Canadian Ukrainian culture to the world, with international tours to Africa, Japan, Ukraine, China and Hong Kong.
To acknowledge these remarkable accomplishments, the anniversary concert began with congratulatory remarks from Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach. A ceremonial proclamation made by Minister of Culture and Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett granted the company status as Artists-in-Residence at the Jubilee Auditorium, now ranking them in the same honoured cultural echelon as Alberta Ballet and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
With the formalities out of the way, the first act burst open with “Touchstones in Tradition” — a thirty-minute flash through Shumka’s many eras with excerpts of traditional Ukrainian dance favourites like Avramenko’s Sword Dance and the charming Hutsul woodcutters, as well as the company’s more contemporary and theatrical dance spectacles including scenes from Shumka’s full-length “Cinderella” and their signature “Hopak”.
Conceived and directed by former artistic director John Pichlyk and one of the current artistic directors, Dave Ganert, “Touchstones in Tradition” — danced by current company dancers and many Shumka alumni — was much more than just a retrospective piece. It successfully traversed fifty years of a dancing people’s history — expressing the passion and pride that has driven the artistic endeavors of the company through the decades, revving the audience up with that boundless Shumka energy, and whisking us along with them on their inspirational joy ride.
The crowd roared and was audibly wowed on more than one occasion, clapping in time to the music, bouncing in their chairs, beaming from ear to ear.
Costume changes were facilitated by casual and playful violin performances by Vasyl Popadiuk. It was a shame that the audio was spotty on opening night because his live fiddling along with the recorded soundtrack otherwise would have worked seamlessly to bridge from one dance section to the next.
The Cinderella-Fairy Godmother scene first appeared a bit shaky, but the company’s crowning achievement to date soon got back on track, looking gorgeous once again in costumes designed by Ukraine’s leading opera and ballet designer Maria Levitska, hitting full stride as though in mid-cross Canada tour once more.
It was a pleasure to be reminded of just how captivating “Cinderella” is when done Shumka-style and to see again the sophistication of choreographer John Pichlyk’s work. His love-at-first-sight duet at the ball borrows from medieval hand dances and other Ukrainian folkloric hand gestures to deliver an authentic and tender pas de deux, arguably as breathtaking as any classical ballet Cinderella danced by Canada’s finest ballet companies today.
Ganert and Pichlyk were smart to end “Touchstones of Tradition” with a nod to their heritage and a bold glance to their future. A group of young children (dancers of the Shumka School of Dance) dressed in traditional Ukrainian dance costumes were presented holding golden wheat sheaths; a touching and symbolic passing of the torch in a simple yet powerful final tableau.
It was no surprise to see premieres of several new works, “The Eve of Kupalo — mystery masque” and “Carpathian Climes”, included in the anniversary program. Shumka has consistently worked to develop a broad repertoire of original dance theatre pieces, constantly pushing boundaries and challenging our expectations.
“The Eve of Kupalo — mystery masque”, a collaboration from the company’s two current artistic directors, conceived and directed by Gordon Gordey and choreographed by Dave Ganert, hoped to capture the essence of the folkloric summer solstice rituals in Ukraine and throughout European culture with the use of video projection onto scenic elements.
It was most successful in conjuring up a mysterious mood in early scenes with a Veed’ma witch and her followers casting magical spells to tempt the young lovers dancing in a dark and moody, swampy forest but things went from bizarre to downright creepy in later scenes when the choreography was weighed down by too many props and too much stagecraft: bodies wrapped in large sheets of fabric, faces obscured by masks, hands filled with candles and branches. I know the creative team was aiming for a psychedelic kaleidoscope but this eclectic mash-up never quite gelled.
Act two shone with the triumphant return of “Pathways to Hopak”, an exquisite contemporary piece choreographed by Kyiv Ballet’s Viktor Lytvynov, commissioned by the Canada Dance Festival in 2004. The piece feels like an homage to Jerome Robbins’ “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”, with young couples dressed in white floating across the vibrant and lush, Easter-egg-and-floral decorated backdrop, conveying in a contemporary movement lexicon the very same universal themes of the traditional Ukrainian Hopak — a celebration of a life worth living.
Like so many dance companies, Shumka has a lavish “Nutcracker” in their repertoire – a collaborative large scale touring production with the Kyiv Ballet, called The Nutcracker, a ballet fantasy. Anniversary concert audiences were treated to two “Nutcracker” excerpts – a distinctively Ukrainian “Trepak” from the Shumka artists and a lovely guest performance from Iuliia Shumak of Kyiv Ballet and Dmitri Dovgoselets of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancing the Act One pas de deux.
A brief video presentation of best wishes from former Shumka collaborators and celebrities like Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews was also a classy touch.
And what better way to celebrate Shumka’s fiftieth anniversary than with a new “50th Anniversary Hopak”?
Ganert pulled out all the stops with this fresh and fiery new expression of the sheer joy of movement, set on the entire company of fifty-eight dancers to an original symphonic score by Kyiv composer Yuri Shevchenko. It was a stellar performance and hopefully we’ll be seeing this new Shumka showstopper for many more years to come.