To Ukraine in Search of Authentic Hutsul Dance

This past summer of 2008, Ethnic Dance Theatre's Artistic Director Donald LaCourse and I traveled to the Carpathian Mountain region of Ukraine in search of authentic Hutsul folk dance. The Hutsuls are oft considered as having, best among Ukrainians, preserved their traditional culture. On our trip we met a variety of interesting, highly animated individuals steeped in Hutsul music, dance, and culture and gathered a wealth of material over a three-week period.


Highlights of our trip:

On our first day in Kolomyja, a town at the northern edge of the Carpathian Mountains in the state of Ivano-Frnakivsk, we met Mykola Savchuk. Mykola is a retired musician who for years played accordion in a Hutsul wedding band, and is a self-trained folklorist who currently works as a local journalist. Mykola also is a humoryst (comedian) with a degree of local recognition in his part of Ukraine who also has toured Ukrainian communities in North America. Most of all, Mykola is steeped in the traditions (including the unique sense of humor!) of the Hutsul-inhabited region of Ukraine in general and of his home village of Velykyj Kljuchiv in particular. Mykola gifted us a pamphlet he wrote about the dance Hutsulka and shared with us his musical (and comedic!) talent; he also took us to his home village, where he danced Hutsulka for us with his mother, sister and niece.

We also traveled up the mountains to the village of Bukovets in search of Mykhajlo Tafijchuk. Mr. Tafijchuk is a renowned, 72-year-old Hutsul musician, instrument-maker and blacksmith whose knowledge of the Hutsul musical tradition is vast. He was born and raised on the mountain and can recall the days "when only our (i.e., Hutsul) dances were done at weddings and village events." Many of Mr. Tafijchuk's eight children have followed in their father's footsteps as musicians and blacksmiths, and today the Tafijchuk Family Orchestra is a much sought-after talent for folk festivals in Ukraine and abroad. The Tafijchuk's are the real deal--their knowledge and musical skill was honed on the mountain, transmitted to them via tradition; they are among a dying breed of players without any formal education or musical training who learned to play music within their families and/or from others in their villages, or who simply taught themselves to play various instruments--as Mr. Tafijchuk says he did!

We also visited Vasyl Vandzhuraky, a fellow who for years led a Hutsul folk dance group with his brother that was highly regarded for authenticity. Mr. Vandzhuraky lives in Vipche, a village located nearly at the top of a mountain in one of the highest ranges of the Carpathians. The journey to his village high above the town of Verkhovyna was an experience mixed with beauty and terror for us flatlanders from Minnesota--the views were breathtaking but the road up the mountain was steep and narrow with a shoulder-less edge that dropped precipitously. Suffering a bad hip, the elderly Mr. Vandzhuraky was unable to demonstrate dance steps for us; however, we had an informative conversation with him about village life, Hutsul dances and the successes of his dance troupe over the years. Most importantly, I asked him to sing for us some kolomyjky (couplets traditionally sung or shouted while dancing), and he proceeded to dazzle us with a stream of kolomyjky that lasted for many uninterrupted minutes!

Also, with the help of Vasyl Labachuk (click for photo of Vasyl Labachuk) and his fellow Hutsul wedding musicians, we were able to attend weddings in the villages of Rungury and Kosmach. Many old traditions and dances are still practiced, especially at weddings throughout Hutsulshchyna. Our experiences at the weddings were nothing short of fantastic. In addition to observing a variety of wedding-specific traditions and rituals, we were able to observe, film and even dance the Hutsulka, Arkan, and Kovalivka. In particular, the way Arkan is danced in Rungury (and the neighboring village of Sloboda) is reputed to be among the most authentic in Hutsulshchyna. We had a number of very informative conversations about Hutsul language, culture, music and dance with a variety of people; a particularly informative conversation was with the 62 year old fellow who led the dances (as caller) at the wedding in Rungury.We are quite grateful to Vasyl Labachuk and the village musicians (mostly from the village of Jabloniv and surrounding villages) who arranged for us to attend these weddings. Also, as a number of them are school teachers instructing in music, we were able to visit a couple of schools to see youngsters performing their Hutsul songs and dances!

Perhaps best of all, Donald LaCourse, whom I personally consider both mentor and friend, told me that his time in Ukraine was one of the best experiences he's had while traveling abroad to study dance. Don has always had a special appreciation of Ukrainian dance; it was in 1970, while dancing in a Minneapolis-area Ukrainian folk dance group that he first met Jonathan Frey with whom he would, a few years later in 1974, co-found the Ethnic Dance Theatre. Don and Jon were among the first (if not the first!) non-Ukrainians to dance in the Ukrainian community group at that time! Don has ever since intended to travel to Ukraine to study Ukrainian dance, but the proverbial stars simply never lined up for such a trip. Thus it was an honor for me to be his guide in Ukraine this past August and September of 2008, and I am thrilled to be involved in the new suite of dances that Don has choreographed and arranged based mostly on material we gathered this summer.

On our trip we were accompanied by Daniel Palahniuk, a good friend and fellow diaspora-Ukrainian who is a Minneapolis-based artist. Daniel is a videographer, filmmaker and photographer who works in both traditional and digital formats and is a co-founder and organizer of Art of This!, an up and coming art gallery in Minneapolis. Daniel and I filmed as much as we could in the course of our trip, and now are working on producing a documentary video about Hutsul dance as done today in the villages of Hutsulshchyna.

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Donald LaCourse is involved in this documentary in an advisory capacity, with his input a highly valued part of the post-production process. The documentary will not be ready before the Fall of 2009, but in the meantime you can check on our progress here.

Don and I hope that our work with the Ethnic Dance Theatre and the documentary video will be just a beginning and that the project represented in this website will grow into an online archives and information center about authentic Hutsul dance. Most of all, we hope that this project will grow into a collaboration with others who are knowledgeable and passionate about authentic Hutsul dance. Have a look around this website to get an idea about this Hutsul Dance Project.

Finally, Don, Daniel and I would like to thank everyone in the Ethnic Dance Theatre community that contributed last summer to our project before our departure for Ukraine. Your donations were a tremendous help!


Welcome Mykhajlo Tafijchuk to the USA!

We've recently learned that Mykhajlo Tafijchuk, a renowned Hutsul musician, instrument maker and blacksmith, is in New York with his son (also an accomplished musician and instrument maker) for a series of performances with the Yara Arts Group!

We visited Pan (Mr.) Tafijchuk this past summer in his village of Bukovets, located part way up the mountain from Kosiv to Verkhovyna in the state of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. We learned a great deal from him, and purchased a sopilka, telynka, fuljara and drum cymbal that were handmade by him. Have a look at some video clips from that visit here and here.

Read more about Yara's upcoming performances here.


We're back from Ukraine. . .

Our trip to Ukraine was a great success. We met a variety of interesting, highly-animated individuals steeped in Hutsul music, dance, and folk culture and gathered a wealth of material over a three week period. Now back in Minneapolis, we are already working on both the documentary film and the choreography that will be, we hope, just the first results of this project.

Click here to read more details about the Hutsul Village Project.

Daniel and Stefan have each worked-up a short, 30 minute piece from the hours of video and audio we captured while in Hutsulshchyna (click here to read about the current principals involved in this project). We have held two informal dinner parties at our homes at which both of these 30 minute vignettes were well recieved. People gave us some terrific feedback, and we were pleased to provide this avenue for enthusiastic supporters, many of whom have contributed financially to our project, to have input. We will continue to have these informal dinner parties during the editing process in order to receive as much feedback from our supporters as possible.

The post-production process that is emerging from these two vignettes is that Stefan will do initial edits while Daniel will add style and further artistic touch; Stefan will work on sequence, Daniel on transitions, sound, image quality, etc. We are determined that our doc will stand strongly on its own as an artistic work, regardless of its specific content; that is, we don't want to make a standard, dull documentary!

Donald has been working on a new Hutsul suite of song, music and dance for the Minneapolis-based Ethnic Dance Theatre (EDT). The new suite features music and footwork we gathered this past summer in Hutsulshchyna and will be the finale for EDT's Spring 2009 show entitled The Kaiser's Jubilee, a concert of song, music and dance from the former Habsburg realms in Central and Southern Europe. Donald LaCourse is the artistic director of EDT and Stefan is a dancer in the company; EDT is celebrating its 35th Anniversary this season of 2008-2009!

We are also excited to learn that one of our contacts, Mykhajlo Tafijchuk, is in NYC for a performance with the Yara Arts Group. Donald and Stefan have their tickets to NYC and will be at the show December 28th!

Please keep in mind that we are always looking to expand this project to include others. Do you have footage of dance to share with us? Field recordings of authentic Hutsul music? Sheet music, notation? Would you like to join us in an advisory manner? Do you have websites you can suggest for our links section? Please write to Stefan here.