Spend any time in central Alberta and you’ll realize how much the Ukrainian culture has helped define our regional identity. Edmonton’s Ukrainian Shumka Dancers have played a big role in that. Not only have they been around nearly 60 years, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Shumka may be the best known Ukrainian dance company in Canada. What you might not know is that a lot of Shumka’s success has come under the guidance of John Pichlyk. Gregarious and gifted with a booming voice, the long-time resident of St. Albert and Sturgeon County was Shumka’s Artistic Director from 1982 to 1996 and currently serves as its Chair. T8N recently had the opportunity to sit down with John to discuss all things Shumka. Here’s what we learned.
t8n: How would you describe Ukrainian dance to someone?
JP: I think what’s important to understand is that, culturally, movement and dance represent the lifestyle, the beliefs, the values of the people. (Ukraine) is an agrarian society, in many ways, that follows the cycles. Within that cycle of life, there’s a need to find a way to express that joy, that hope, that longing, and people turn to song or dance, to movement. A lot of the lexicon of movement has ties to things that are relevant within that cycle and that thought process. You see a lot of braiding—of hair, or on top of an Easter bread—and there’s a step in Ukrainian dance that braids your feet. And some of the big kicks that you see in Ukrainian dance, a lot of that is tied to the Cossacks that would protect the homeland. There’s talk that some of the kicks are the thrusts that you’d have to make on horseback in battle. Ultimately, what happens is that the lexicon we see today is tied to history, to the land, and that’s why every culture has its different visual presentations, because their story is different, their history is different.
t8n: That tie to the land, it also applies here in Alberta, yes?
JP: That’s a good point, because in years gone by, Shumka has always portrayed a romantic time frame in our presentations on stage, you know, that village life. And it was important to do so. You end up getting this stereotype, and Ukrainian dance shouldn’t be stereotypical. Every person is different, with different views, and dance should represent those people. It’s really exciting to me, and I applaud Shumka for being able to have the courage to try to represent the feeling of the soul of the people within genres that aren’t stereotypical. And I think that’s really important if dance is going to grow. It’s bigger than the guy that does the splits every time at the end of the Hopak (a.k.a. Ukraine’s national folk dance).
t8n: Can you tell us a bit about Shumka’s history?
JP: It’s been around since 1959. I believe that Shumka is the oldest North American Ukrainian dance company. At that point in time, there were all these dance groups in church basements throughout the community. One of the main founding fathers was Chester Kuc, and what he did was take the elite from all these different church groups and form a company that would be able to boldly represent what we all believe in. And that was the initial forming of the company, and we’ve never looked back.
t8n: What led to you becoming a dancer?
JP: I went to a private boys’ school in Roblin, Manitoba. At the end of each year, we would go out through rural Manitoba, all these small towns, and there’d be this concert of song, dance, poetry, whatever. I was physically active, so I got into dance. I realized, physically, I could handle it, but all the finesse that came with that physicality was a prerequisite that I did not have. So that’s when I made a good decision, and for a period of about 10 years I tried anything I could. I took ballet, character class, contemporary, went to New York for a number of years, I think five summers, just to try to make up for lost time and try to equip myself. That’s been really helpful to me in terms of my contribution to Shumka, and it continues to this day.
t8n: What kind of cultural role does Shumka play in the Edmonton area, through its programs and its touring?
JP: There’s a very broad perspective that we’re trying to encourage. It started with an outreach program trying to go into the public school system and take some of the values that we feel are applicable and motivate kids to understand culture and the ethnic diversity within our mosaic of multiculturalism. That’s really, really important. Some of the work that we’re going forward with in our new season, with Ancestors & Elders (April 2018), that’s a big one for us. We’re honouring the relationship between indigenous First Nations and the Ukrainian settlement. That’s a continuation of that outreach, to try to make yourself part of a bigger community, because that’s what we are and that’s what we need to be. That whole outreach is critical, not just for the survival of Shumka, but for the survival and relevancy of Ukrainian dance as an entity. It has the raw energy, it has the power, it has the ability to impress, but if you don’t give it the context in which to be worthwhile, it becomes… movement. And movement without emotion and context is not sustaining.
t8n: Any moments with Shumka that you’re especially proud of?
JP: When I see a person who knows how to move, knows how to dance, and they come to Shumka… they don’t realize that it’s a personal journey of discovery. You’re using the tools of your trade, but you need to find a context and a purpose and emotion. And that mixture all of a sudden blossoms. This individual that could jump backflips across the room, somehow his backflip looks different. That’s what performing is. That’s one of my biggest success stories for me, personally, whenever I see that happen. t8n