Ukrainian Albertans are using dance to fight back against the war
'This is the way that we show how proud we are of our culture,' says dancer
Shane Gibson stands tall at the front of the dance studio, shifting from his left foot to right foot, as he waits for the dancers to begin rehearsing their Bukovynian number.
It's a Ukrainian dance with steps that hail from the same region Gibson's family comes from in western Ukraine.
The number is part of a show the Tryzub Ukrainian Dance Society is remounting called Heroiam Slava, or Glory To The Heroes.
The show, a blend of traditional and contemporary dance, is one Gibson describes as a celebration of a "beautiful culture" that is interrupted by a war and then explores the effects it has on regular people.
WATCH VIDEO ABOVE | Preserving Ukrainian culture in the face of war
It showcases background images from the front lines of Ukraine's battlefield, and uses traditional costumes, as well as costumes that look like the uniforms of Ukrainian soldiers in 2014, when the Crimean Peninsula was seized from Ukraine by Russia.
"It's more relevant now than it ever has been," said Gibson, Tryzub's artistic director.
Tryzub, like many other Ukrainian dance groups across the province, is grappling with the impacts of Russia's now full-blown invasion into Ukraine — and a sense of urgency to show solidarity through dance.
Gibson began choreographing the show in 2017, after learning that two of his friends he had met through dancing in Ukraine had died on the front.
They had gone to fight after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and the fighting intensified in the Donbas region where Russia has been backing separatists.
"I found the opportunity to be able to tell a story because as artists, really, that's that's our only recourse to the world," said Gibson.
Heroiam Slava first hit the stage in 2019, and then it toured across Ukraine.
However, when news began emerging this year that Russia was on the verge of an invasion, which has now escalated into a full scale war in Ukraine, Gibson knew it was time to remount the show and bring it back to the stage this April.
"For all intents and purposes, I hoped that it would be a short-lived show, that it wouldn't be relevant two years later, let alone eight years later. And unfortunately, eight years later, it's now more relevant than it ever has been," he said.
"The timing is right to try to not just show our Ukrainian culture and celebrate it in a way that no one could ever take from us, but also to bring to light that disruption that is happening in people's lives."
Gibson, like many other dancers in the company, has family and friends in Ukraine whom he anxiously waits to hear updates from. Some are in bunkers and others are patrolling the streets as volunteers or as newly-joined members of the military.
For company dancers Alex Tarasenko and Christine Biss, bringing this show back is personal.
"To me, this is the way that we show how proud we are of our culture. I think that's really what a lot of what's happening right now is about. As Ukrainians, being very proud of their culture and being very unwilling to let their culture kind of fade into the distance," said Biss.
Tarasenko echoed this. "With the current situation, I think we've never had such strong emotions for this show," he said.
Groundswell of support across Alberta
And while themes of oppression, war and celebration have a long history in the repertoire of Ukrainian dance, a recent groundswell of support can be seen surging all across the diaspora dance community.
According to the province, more than 345,000 people with Ukrainian heritage call Alberta home, making it one of the largest diaspora communities in the world.
The Alberta Ukrainian Dance Association says there are about 70 Ukrainian dance companies in Alberta.
Edmonton in particular is home to a number of renowned groups, including the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, Volya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company, Viter Ukrainian Dancers and Folk Choir, Verkhovyna Song and Dance Ensemble and Vohon Ukrainian Dance Ensemble.
Many of these larger groups have taken a public stance in support of Ukraine, but it's also being seen and felt in smaller communities like Athabasca and Westlock.
Viter Ukrainian Dancers recently pivoted from throwing a Ukrainian New Years fundraiser in Edmonton, to hosting an event to raise money for the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.
Meanwhile, Shumka is charging forward with its 60th anniversary tour, and will be collecting donations for humanitarian aid for artists through the Canada Ukraine Foundation at tour performances. The group is also selling merchandise and organizing collaborations with Metro Cinema and Seachange Brewery to raise money for Ukraine, said executive director Darka Tarnawsky.
Cheremosh also said they will also be collecting donations while they are touring their 50th anniversary show.
"It is important to us to showcase Ukrainian joy and a thriving culture during these times," the company said in an email to CBC.
A few people in the dance community have also told CBC that a benefit concert is in the works that would bring all the major players in Alberta Ukrainian dance together.
"The common thread between everyone is we need to do something, because if we don't do anything, the crushing of the culture, and the destruction that's happening in Ukraine, and the trying to suppress Ukrainian culture that's happening right now — if we stop everything we're doing here, we're just letting that happen and sitting by and letting it be destroyed," said Emily Belke Farrell, president of the Alberta Ukrainian Dance Association.
"This is their chance to celebrate their ancestors who came over. This is their chance to say, 'We are Ukrainian, we love our Ukrainian roots and we are here to support in any way we can.'"