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Dancers from the Edmonton-based troupe Shumka perform on stage. (Handout)
Dancers from the Edmonton-based troupe Shumka perform on stage. (Handout)

Review

Keeping Ukrainian dance alive and well Add to ...

Shumka at 50

  • Ukrainian Shumka Dancers
  • Sony Centre In Toronto on Saturday

The young men of the 1970s south Bronx, credited with establishing the hip-hop craze, would be very surprised to learn that the Ukrainians have been dancing that way for countless generations.

Those urban street kids need just one look at a Ukrainian hopak to know what I mean. And in the hands (and feet) of Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, a hopak in full tilt is goosebump-inducing excitement – the men with their breathtaking gymnastic tricks and the women with their fast turns and jumps.

Shumka means whirlwind in English, and that is the perfect name for this 40-member, Edmonton-based dance troupe. Shumka at 50 celebrates the company’s golden anniversary with a production that’s crammed full of spectacular costumes, lavish scenic backdrops, and, of course, virtuoso dance.

In its very beginnings, shumka was created by Ukrainian immigrants to keep their dance tradition alive in the New World, rooted in both the kolomeyka and the hopak.

Kolomeyka is the folk dance performed at festivals in rural villages in the Ukraine. Dancers form a circle and soloists perform in the middle. The all-male hopak is the fiery Cossack dance that celebrates success in battle. A shumka hopak combines these two traditions, allowing both men and women to show off their virtuosity.

It is important to note that the talented shumka dancers have day jobs. They have always been volunteers drawn from the community at large. During the creative process of pulling a show together, they rehearse on short, paid contracts.

In the last 25 years or so, shumka has extended its scope. It is no longer just an ethnic dance company faithfully recreating traditional Ukrainian dance. It also produces original choreographed production numbers to commissioned music. In fact, shumka could really be called a ballet company The five-part anniversary program draws on the talents of current artistic director Dave Ganert, former artistic directors Gordon Gordey and John Pichlyk, and venerated Ukrainian guest choreographer Viktor Lytvynov.

Direct links to the homeland are found in the music and design. The lush original scores are by Ukrainian symphonic composers Yuri Shevchenko and Andrij Shoost. The lavish sets and costumes are by Kyiv-based Maria Levitska. Canadian Pierre Lavoie crafted the atmospheric lighting.

For the opening number, Ganert and Pichlyk collaborated on Harvest Angels (with additional choreography by Tasha Orysluk). Five very balletic women carrying wheat sheaves, the muses of autumn, gracefully interweave between spirited harvest dances from four different regions in the Ukraine.

In shumka tradition, a hopak usually concludes both acts. Gordey, Lytvynov and Ganert created the ambitious Pathways to Hopak, the first act closer.

The premise here is to trace the journey that leads to a celebration of life. A series of dances evoke youth, romance, war, death and grief before breaking out in the thrilling hopak. In fact, at this point of the show, it was hard to imagine how a second act hopak could be any more exciting than this.

The four creators (with Orysluk) all worked on the delightful A Cobbler’s Gift. Three shoemakers, who craft the leather boots that are so much a part of traditional Ukrainian dress, try to win the hearts of young ladies. The most charming sequence has the men putting their hands inside the boots and performing a boot puppet dance.

Shumka always tries its hand at narrative. The Eve of Kupalo created by Gordey, Ganert and Pichlyk brings to life the Ukrainian myths around the summer solstice, the night when fantastical creatures become human and young girls look for true love.

The ending is Ganert’s eagerly anticipated 50th Anniversary Hopak. Waves of dancers keep coming on stage, the group dances punctuated by solo turns. The men perform mind-boggling moves like aerial split jumps, intricate foot and arm movements in deep plié positions, and horizontal body twists. The women astound with their whirling dervish speed.

Shumka gives bang for the buck. This vibrant company is consummately professional, well-rehearsed, and high energy. They never disappoint.

(Beginning in Feb., 2012, Shumka at 50 will tour across Canada.)

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