October 1977, Philadelphia: They stood outside the Locust Street Theatre in their Sunday best, men in suits with Ukrainian flag pins on their lapels, women in wool coats over dresses and colorful embroidered blouses. Young and old, they had come with chants on their lips and signs painted in protest: The USSR had spent decades pushing to homogenize Ukraine’s traditional language and culture into Soviet uniformity, and the Ukrainian families living in the United States were pained to see their heritage being lost back home.
Inside the theatre stood the trigger for their protest, the exception that proved the rule: the 65 dancers and musicians of the Yatran Ukrainian Dance Company, dispatched to the U.S. in a grand gesture by the Soviets for what was to be a once-in-a-lifetime 46-city U.S. tour. Leading the troupe was Anatolij Krivokhija, their artistic director—a choreographer whose brilliance had demanded recognition both from Ukrainian audiences and the Soviet government, garnering him not just the title of People’s Artist of Ukraine but the USSR’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Lenin.
The world paid attention whenever Soviet dancers, artists, writers and scientists were allowed to travel outside of the USSR, because for the past 30 years of the Cold War, it had happened so seldom. Now, the Yatran troupe was garnering praise from critics and audiences alike. The New York Times’s Clive Barnes had raved: “Among the world’s best… We forget how many of the folklorist dances we think of as ‘typically Russian’ are, in fact, Ukrainian.”
It was quite a show. In a kaleidoscope of color, female dancers formed neat lines of intricate steps and pirouettes, while their rainbow-colored ribbons swirled around the heads of the men kicking in perfect syncopation at their feet. Soloists took turns at center stage, their movements conjuring joy, love and loss as, behind it all, musicians echoed the same life rhythms with rich violins and voices.
One young Ukrainian American from Philadelphia sitting in the audience, Taras Lewyckyj, was struck by the bold, pointedly non-communist vibe of the performance. “The choreographies were more about the individuals,” he recalls, “as opposed to just more people doing the same actions.”
“During that period of the Cold War, dance became a leading form of diplomacy,” explains Anthony Shay, professor of dance history at Pomona College. “They’re not just pretty dances set on the stage. There’s a message behind them, and that message is invariably political.”
Indeed: After 10 sold-out performances in Philadelphia, Yatran was mysteriously shut down and recalled by the Soviet government. Back home in the USSR, the troupe’s artistic director Krivokhija was fired and blacklisted. It was rumored that he had died, and an obituary was released. Like so many others who threatened Soviet ideals during the Cold War, Krivokhija was silenced and his choreography effectively erased.
But there were those who saw Yatran perform who never forgot—those like Lewyckyj, for whom it was a profoundly singular experience, one whose impact is still reverberating through his life in Philly today.
More than 60,000 Ukrainian Americans live in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, making it the third largest community in the United States. Last year, more than 2,000 people celebrated Ukraine’s Independence Day by attending the region’s annual Ukrainian Folk Festival, which returns this Sunday, Aug. 24, to Horsham, Pa., 20 miles north of the city.
As he grew up, Taras Lewyckyj continued to dance and pursue a life in the arts, maintaining his connection to Philly’s Ukrainian community even as he travelled overseas to work with teachers in Ukraine and other parts of Europe. He became the first foreigner to receive a degree in Ukrainian dance methodology from the Kyiv University of Culture and Performing Arts, and in 1995 he became the artistic director of Philadelphia’s Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, based in Jenkintown, also home to a Ukrainian language school and several other Ukrainian organizations.
Lewyckyj had never forgotten the majesty of the Yatran dancers he had seen and met in 1977. So when, while visiting the newly independent Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s breakdown in the ’90s and studying with dancers and musicians there, he learned to his amazement that the discredited Yatran director Krivokhija was, in fact, still alive and teaching in the Ukrainian city of Kirovohrad, Lewyckyj eagerly reached out to contact the choreographer.
“I approached Anatlolij Krivokhija about reviving the Yatran program because it was an inspiration to me,” he says. “I wanted it somewhere so that I could pull from it to create new works, and he was very reluctant. Several more years passed, and each year I would ask him, and he finally said, ‘Well, we could recreate something like it.’ He was 85 years old, so we knew time was of the essence.”
Lewyckyj began to collaborate with Krivokhija to create a new performance based on Yatran’s tour in 1977. After six years of travel, online communication and collaboration with Ukrainian native groups including the Kirovohrad Philharmonic, they finally completed the concert—including the restoration of the original musical score and costumes. It was performed to the delight of audiences in Kirovohrad.
With support from the Ukrainian community in Philadelphia, Lewyckyj returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2012 with 25 Ukrainian dancers and musicians. They were welcomed into the community, housed and fed, and began working with Voloshky to stage a collaborative performance for audiences in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
After several successful concerts, the dancers returned home. Working together, Lewyckyj and Krivokhija had successfully recreated Yatran’s unforgettable program—but once again, it was met with political dissonance and came at a great cost. Upon their return to Ukraine, Krivokhija and many key dancers and musicians were fired from the Kirovohrad Philharmonic, seemingly due to politics.
Lewyckyj describes Krivokhija as “devastated” at once again being stripped of his position—but the Ukrainian choreographer is proud that his work will live on. Thanks in part to a grant by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Lewyckyj was able to work with videographer Henry Nevison to record the Yatran revival’s preparation and performance; a documentary film is now in the works, titled Dancing Diplomats, that explores the dramatic conflict between Ukrainian and Russian politics and culture.
Juxtaposed with footage of dancers working together to preserve and share their heritage, Dancing Diplomats presents images from the conflicts that were stirring in Ukraine in 2012, when the Ukrainian Parliament passed a bill allowing local and regional governments to grant official status to Russian and other languages—a step toward aligning the nation with Russia rather than the European Union, which popular favor preferred. Hundreds of protestors clashed with riot police in Kyiv—a precursor to the massive “EuroMaidan” demonstration that would unfold there a year later protesting against the president and his corrupt regime, leading to the president fleeing the country and a new government being elected. Following the Maidan, of course, conflict between Ukraine and Russia escalated: The Crimea region was annexed by Russia; Russian-backed separatists declared the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to be independent; and a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down, seemingly by separatists, near the Ukraine–Russia border.
As the visiting Ukrainian dancers watched the early preludes to these events unfolding in Ukraine from the homes of their Philadelphia hosts in 2012, Lewyckyj remembers, they kept saying over and over: “It’s okay. It will be all right.” They used the words like a mantra, a comforting collection of words in a foreign tongue. Maybe saying it would help the words become true.
“Somebody blurted out, ‘We shall overcome,’ and that song just became a motto of this project during the making of it,” Lewyckyj explains in Dancing Diplomats, “We very quickly wrote to Kyiv, to my friend, and I said, ‘Can you orchestrate this for this orchestra?’ And we tried it out as part of a closing. Because the show becomes part of overcoming a lot, part of changing and adapting.”
Today, he remains hopeful amid the political conflict. “Ukraine is now at a crossroads in its democracy,” he says. “Some call it a crossroads or tipping point. If nothing else, the arts can be, maybe, an example or a tool to pull this together and to get people to talk and to work together again—like we did.”
The Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble performs Sun., Aug. 24 at the 23rd annual Ukrainian Folk Festival. Festival: noon–8pm. Concert: 1:30pm. $10-$15. With Iskra Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, violinist Innesa Tymochko Dekajlo, Vox Ethnika band, and the Spiv Zhytthia a cappella chamber choir. Lower State & County Line Roads, Horsham. More info: tryzub.org
The documentary film Dancing Diplomats will screen Mon., Sept. 15 at the Free Library of Philadelphia. More info: freelibrary.org
Valya Dudycz Lupescu is the author of the Amazon bestselling novel The Silence of Trees, about a woman’s journey from World War II-era Ukraine to America. More info: vdlupescu.com
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2