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Dances With Cossacks
By Mae G. Banner

Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company
Proctor’s Theatre, Nov. 9

Circles, lines, chains—all the formations of Eastern European folk dancing—were elaborated to the nth degree in a festive show by the Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company. About 60 exuberant dancers, accompanied by a full orchestra, filled the stage at Proctor’s with all the colors of a basket of patterned Easter eggs.

Seen from the balcony, the changing patterns of regional dances from the Carpathian Mountains to the Black Sea resembled a finely calibrated halftime show, except that the choreography was much more sophisticated. General and artistic director Myroslav Vantukh has followed in the ballet-informed footsteps of the founding director, Pavlo Virsky. Both men transform folk material into spectacles of joyous theatricality.

The program of 14 dances was filled with variety. We saw courting dances, shepherd’s dances, gypsy dances, martial dances with long staffs or swords, and even a sailor’s dance, in which the typical squats and kicks of Ukrainian male dancing merge with the lilt of the hornpipe. Those heel-and-toe steps you may have learned in third-grade gym class are surprisingly versatile when they’re combined with kicks and spins in intricate group stagings.

The Virsky, now on a national tour, has performed some of these dances at Proctor’s before. This time, they were better than ever—clearer, more precise, and more expressive because every step and every path was so well honed. There was no clumping, nothing of the stereotyped peasant. Rather, the choreography showed a strong affinity with ballet. You could slide some of these dances into Balanchine’s Coppelia or Nutcracker without missing a beat.

Gender roles are highlighted with different vocabularies of steps for men and women, yet the Virsky women are more strong than simpering. In the Embroideresses dance, the women weave long colored ribbons into a cat’s cradle of colors, stepping in and out, over and under their ever-changing grid. The delicate mathematics of the dance was a Ukrainian version of double-dutch jump rope games.

What the women do with ribbons, the men do with long pointed sticks. Zaporozchi, billed as the national Ukrainian dance of Cossacks, presents warfare rituals of 12th-century tough guys defending their turf. These games of strike and counterstrike were training for serious battles. Translated into theater, the dance includes comic relief in the form of two interlopers who are first beaten and then accepted into the group.

The Cossack dances, like all the men’s dances, create frames to show off astounding solo turns that focus on each man’s particular forte: squat-kicks, pivoting kicks while balancing on one hand, mile-high split leaps, dizzying barrel turns, cartwheels, flips, handstands and headstands. Each athlete comes forward and, with no visible preparation, launches into his amazing feat, stops on a dime and comes up smiling. It’s very exciting and it always leaves the audience wanting more.

As generous as it is joyous, the Virsky troupe gives more. Every dance had its own curtain call in the form of a brief reprise of its final sequence, complete with male solo turns. Dancers stepped offstage in clean formation, and immediately returned to do it again.

Brilliant costumes added variety to the kaleidoscopic show. Paprika red, grassy green, patent-leather black and snow white dominated, but some dances sported billowing orange pants for the men, or cornflower-blue skirts and embroidered aprons for the women. Scores of regional patterns and styles were represented: caracul caps, round felt hats, flowered coronets; swing skirts, accordion-pleated skirts; wide-fringed pants, red capes, or shepherds’ cloaks.

The Gypsy Dance, based on material from Bessarabia, introduced women in harem-like costumes with head scarves, wide, long skirts and bare midriffs. When the women arched their backs and sank to the floor, their skirts spread like a field of flowers. Virile, thigh-slapping men entered and pulled their partners up for a passionate duet that flashed in a prism of color.

Because the Virsky dancers are thoroughly trained in a state-sponsored choreographic school, they have acquired the physical discipline that lets them dance freely. Their stagings are highly stylized and their dancing overflows with spirit. May they come back soon.

 


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