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Hromovytsya, a Ukrainian dance ensemble from Chicago

 

A Ukrainian dance ensemble from Chicago, Hromovytsya, toured Ukraine in July this year, and in the period of ten days, from 4th to 14th, performed in Kyiv, Lviv, Ternopil, Kalush, Kolomyia, and Uzhgorod, filling concert halls to capacity. It was the first time the Hromovytsya dancers of Ukrainian descent visited the land of their ancestors.

 

I went to see Hromovytsya perform in Kyiv in the National Music Theatre. It was a full house, with people, for whom there were not enough seats, standing in the aisles. I was told it was like this practically everywhere where Hromovytsya went. I think such a reception was more than a manifestation of peoples appreciation of their dancing skills  there was also some powerful positive energy pouring from the stage into the audience, energy born out of love for the Ukrainian land.

Some people express their feelings in poetry or in songs; others in art, and still others can do it through the medium of dance. The Hromovytsya dancers have spent many years perfecting their performance and it shows, but there is also something else which stands above the mere skill  it is a deeply-rooted, probably at the genetic level, understanding of the essence of  or rather feeling  Ukrainian culture. Roksana Dyka-Pylypchak, the artistic director, says that the Hromovytsya dancers are not just performers  they are creators; they share their ideas, they seek the best way to realize these ideas, they are united in a joint effort.

Hromovytsya is a closely knit body of people who thoroughly enjoy each others company and what they do on stage. Even after their rehearsals which may last up to 10 hours in a row they are not in a hurry to go back home  they often stay together to relax and rest after such a considerable strain. They have learnt to turn music into body movement, and they do it as naturally as one breathes.

 

Hromovytsya was founded by Roksana Dyka and her future husband, Ivan Pylypchak, back in 1980. Then there were only eight people  four men and four women in the ensemble with Dyka-Pylypchak combining the functions of artistic director and choreographer (incidentally, the Dyka-Pylypchak couples two children, Roman, 15, and Danusya, 12, are now the youngest members of the ensemble).

Roksana Dyka-Pylypchak, a pharmacologist by education, is a great enthusiast of Ukrainian dance. She says she admired Ukrainian dance in her childhood when she saw Ukrainian dances performed by dancers of Ukrainian descent. I wanted to go to Ukraine so much, and for me it was not just longing to see architectural or historical landmarks  it was love for this land that pulled me like a powerful magnet. And I dreamed of taking Hromovytsya along to perform in Ukraine. We wanted to show that though we live far from Ukraine, we, people of Ukrainian descent, love and cherish Ukrainian culture. We are proud to be ethnic Ukrainians. We do our best to maintain Ukrainian cultural traditions in the US city of Chicago, so far from Ukraine, the native land of our ancestors. It feels so good to be wearing embroidered shirts, Ukrainian style, with the word Hromovytsya emblazoned on them. Even the buttons carry that name! We are Americans but our blood is Ukrainian.

 

Hromovytsya was founded at the parish of St Volodymyr and St Olga in Chicago (incidentally, Chicago is a sister-city of Kyiv). The parish itself was established by Patriarch Yosyp Slipy, head of the Greco-Catholic Church in the late 1970s (Yosyp Slipy, before immigrating to the USA, was a prisoner of conscience in the former Soviet Union, spending 18 years in the GULAG camps). The idea was to provide not only a religious centre for Americans of Ukrainian descent but also an opportunity for them to learn and maintain Ukrainian cultural traditions. One of the major cultural ventures of the parish is the publication of the Encyclopaedia of Ukrainian Diaspora (incidentally, Chicagos Ukrainian community of 200,000 people is the biggest one in the USA).

 

Hromovytsya is made up of 50 Ukrainian dance enthusiasts, aged between 12 and 35, all of them born in America of Ukrainian parents. Most of them are students, some already work. Their enthusiasm is not limited to learning and performing Ukrainian dances  they are enthusiasts of Ukrainian culture and want to make it known all around the world. Dance is their way of letting people know what Ukrainian culture is  through one of its aspects.

Says Roksana Dyka-Pylypchak: We have performed many times for American audiences and invariably they greatly enjoyed it. We do not perform Ukrainian dances in a strictly traditional way, we add something of our own. In such an approach we are not alone. The Irish dance group, for example, Lord of the Dance, does the same. We are an amateur group but not amateurish  I want our dances to look and feel professional. I attended lectures in American ballet schools, music school, I attended special courses in New York, conducted by Ryma Pryma-Bohachevska, a professional dancer. I attended the performances of dance groups, I watched the tapes with performances of professional dancers  and used the accumulated experience and knowledge in staging Hromovytsya dances. There are elements of ballet in our performances, not only folk dances. We also use all kinds of music, American included. I keep abreast of whats happening in the world of dance and keep introducing new elements into our own dances. At the same time, we are careful to preserve the traditional core. We are always working ever harder to improve our dancing so that people would never think we are amateurs. We want the whole world to admire Ukrainian dance, we want people to be able to tell the difference between the Ukrainian and, say, Russian or Polish dance.

Hromovytsya dancers do include elements of jazz, hip-hop, salsa and swing; at the same time they introduce into their dances local features from the lands of Kyivshchyna, Lemkivshchyna, Boykivshchyna, Bukovyna and Volyn. Their performances in Ukraine also included a dance based on the themes of the traditional west-Ukrainian Hutsul wedding.

 

All the members of Hromovytsya are of Ukrainian descent not because they mistrust people of other ethnic origins but because they want the ensemble to possess the truly Ukrainian spirit. Many of the dancers wanted  or want  to marry people of Ukrainian descent so that they could share with their spouses and children the feelings of what it is like to be Ukrainian. Most of the Hromovytsya members are children of those immigrants who fled from the Soviet Union, escaping from the unbearable ideological pressure and repression.

It was not that easy for Hromovytsya to come to Ukraine because of financial reasons. Such a trip costs a lot of money and Hromovytsya members had been saving money for quite some time before they could afford it. To earn more money, they sold home-made cookies, staged performances, took part in festivals. The Hromovytsya Fan Club in Chicago also helped. They calculated they needed about 55,000 dollars for the trip and when they had accumulated enough money, off they went, taking along children, parents and other relatives.

Some organizations and companies in Ukraine, private and state, also contributed their help. In Kyiv, for example, the Kyiv City State Administration sponsored the Hromovytsya performances.

 

During the Hromovytsya performances, dances were interspersed with music played by a Ukrainian Canadian, Vasyl Popadyuk, a violinist, who combines Ukrainian folk music with jazz improvisations producing an exciting and original blend. He is a graduate of the Lysenko Music School in Kyiv and was, for some time, the first violin in the orchestra of the Ukrainian National Dance Ensemble Hopak. In addition to performing his own music, Vasyl Popadyuk writes music for Hromovytsya.

 

By Svitlana Abakumenko

Photos by Olha Soroka Striltschuk

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