Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble
Sept 6 at 8
$30–80
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave
iaahouston.com 

It’s difficult to capture the entirety of a country’s character in a single theatrical program—especially if the country represented is in the midst of political unrest and the audience has been bombarded with conflicting perspectives from the media. This Saturday the Indo-American Association will present STEPPES: A Crossover at the Wortham Theater Center in an effort to broaden its programming beyond its immediate cultural interests. STEPPES is the signature program of the celebrated Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. The company was founded in 1972 with the purpose of preserving Ukrainian culture through dance. Now, more than 40 years later, with Ukraine facing aggression by Russian military and pro-Russian rebels, Voloshky sees its mission as more significant than ever.

Ukrainian culture arises from a mix of ethnicities, traditions, and folklore, and Ukrainian dance is as varied as its people. “We conceived [STEPPES] by pulling choreography from all the regions of Ukraine,” explains artistic director Taras Lewyckyj. “It’s such a big country, which is ironically getting smaller as we speak.” Born to immigrant parents who survived German concentration camps only to be expelled from their country by Soviets, Lewyckyj became artistic director of the company in 1995 after first joining as a dancer in 1974. He explains that the Voloshky troupe was built by expat Ukrainians in the US who wanted to keep the distinct elements of their culture intact.

The dances in STEPPES are taken from the folk dances of each of the country’s geographic regions. From the west, there’s a dance from the Carpathian Mountains, “which has a very distinct style,” Lewyckyj says. “There’s Austro-Hungarian influence, Polish influence, and because it’s a mountainous region, there’s very fast footwork and syncopated steps. The houses are built on mountains, which means the rooms are smaller, which requires more intricate footwork.” In contrast, the dance from Central Ukraine includes broader, more sweeping passes across the floor. In the heart of the country, the halls and plazas are larger, which means more room to dance.

And then, of course, there’s the Hopok—a standard of Ukrainian dance ensembles. “It’s everyone showing off everything they can do,” says Lewyckyj. “It’s a complete hoedown where everyone takes turns outdoing one another.” The acrobatic feats in the Hopok are a signature characteristic of male Ukrainian dance; the female variations are filled with rapid spinning. Like most world dance ensembles, the Voloshky has organized its program around universal human themes. For example, there’s a courtship suite, in which the folk steps are used to convey the springtime romance of the boys and girls of the village. A fresh audience may not be familiar with the style of dance they are watching, but they’ll be able to identify with the narratives of each section.

Although Lewyckyj’s troupe draws its choreography from traditional folk dance, the performance is created with a theatrical setting in mind. “It’s definitely academic folk dance,” he says. “So it’s made for the stage.” Take for example a traditional circle dance. In anthropological terms, if it were taken directly from the field, the audience would only see the backs of the dancers. The shape of the dance inherently cuts the audience off. To make the transition to the stage workable, the circle is split, allowing the audience to see the footwork from the front.

Speaking with Lewyckyj, it’s clear where he stands on the current situation in Ukraine. He might even use Saturday’s performance as an opportunity to say a few words, just so the audience understands the conflict from an ethnic Ukrainian’s perspective. He doesn’t like the term civil war, as he feels that the military push from Russia is an attempt at invasion. What he wishes the audience leaves with on Saturday night is an understanding of the Ukrainian character. “I hope the performance goes deep enough so that audience understands and relates to our culture. I hope they see the spirit of freedom Ukrainians have always had, and that the dance shows a real yearning for that freedom.” 

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