The Syzokryli Ukrainian Dance Ensemble was founded by Roma Pryma Bohachevsky to showcase, promote and elevate Ukrainian dance – a beautiful expression of Ukraine’s culture and its people, to evoke the rich Ukrainian spirit in contemporary audiences. The very name “Syzokryli” suggests images of graceful dancers as shimmery-winged birds fly together in harmonious and captivating movement. Bohachevsky drew on her heritage and training in classical and contemporary dance to create her own exquisite style of Ukrainian folk dance.
I sat down for conversation with Orlando and Larisa Pagan, a very positive, vibrant and inspirational couple. Orlando is an Artistic Director of this fabulous dance ensemble, and Larisa is assistant director and wardrobe mistress.
Syzokryli is such a vibrant, outstanding dance troop, founded by Roma Bohachevskiy. What was Roma’s vision and concept for the troop?
Roma Pryma’s vision was to put together an ensemble with strong ballet technique, and Ukrainian folk dance, as to create a group that would become a proper jewel of a Ukrainian dance ensemble in America. Roma Pryma wanted to create a dance company that not only had roots steeped in Ukrainian folk dance, but also reflected the genres and styles that influenced her, for example, modern dance, jazz, contemporary dance, and most importantly, ballet. She wanted to form a company that was not bound to any specific style.
Syzokryli was first established in 1978, presenting Ukrainian culture to the world. As time passed, how did the troop develop, and what changes took place?
The change was in the leadership, but the goal remained the same. It was to continue the group’s high level of excellence in ballet and Ukrainian folk dance. She also wanted her work to be continued by her students throughout her schools and summer camps. Many of those students, including myself, are now taking on those leadership roles and fulfilling her vision. We consider the children whom we now teach to be seeds that are planted. We water them, nurture them, watch them mature, and then, with enough love and guidance, we see them blossom.
In the early 90’s Syzokryli performed in Ukraine, as it was already established [what was established, the group or Ukraine], and Roma Bohachevsky was a very respected principal dancer. What impression did she leave on native Ukrainians during the tour, and how did that tour influence the dance troop?
During our tour of Ukraine, we performed in five cities over a two and a half week span, with a culminating performance at the opera house in Kiev. The response was the same in every city: We were greeted with such warm hospitality and were highly praised for our performance of Roma Pryma’s choreography. Later on it was wonderful to hear that the native Ukrainians audiences were amazed that a group of Ukrainian-American dancers were not only cultivating and perpetuating the folk dance art form, but also doing it at a high-quality level. The tour proved that we were good enough to perform on stages that had featured the best in Ukrainian folk dance. It was also wonderful to see Roma Pryma return to her homeland, as she was showered with praise, respect, and love. We all had tears in our eyes at the standing ovation which she received during her bow in Kiev, and when her brother, who traveled all the way from Lviv, presented her with flowers. It was very touching.
Ukrainian folklore in all its manifestations is extremely rich and diverse. How was the repertoire created and formed, and what was the reflexion of Ukrainian folk songs and their interpretation in the dance repertoire?
Roma Pryma created a platform that would not only depict the traditional Ukrainian folk dances within all of their regions, such as Bukovyna, Lemkivshchyna, Volyn, and Hutsulschina, but to depict Ukrainian folklore and rituals, using other styles of dance to portray Ukrainian themes. She didn’t want Syzokryli to be defined by a single description. Some examples include, “Fight For Freedom.” This was a dance she created to represent the subjugation of Ukrainians throughout history by the Russians. This is predominantly a ballet piece with modern dance. “The Ivasyuk Suite” is a piece that was comprised of several famous songs of Volodymyr Ivasyuk, the famous poet and writer whose life was tragically cut short. This dance included contemporary dance, tango, jazz, and ballet. And then, there is “Icona,” a ballet depicting the transition from Paganism to Christianity. This ballet was done with a mix of Ukrainian folk dance, ballet, and Martha Graham-influenced modern dance. Despite the differences in styles, what they had in common were the Ukrainian themes. It didn’t matter that it was ballet, Ukrainian dance, or modern. These dances never took away from that purpose. For her, dances were a window into Ukrainian culture, as she wanted to make sure you looked through it.
Undoubtedly, Ukrainian audiences (or audiences with Ukrainian roots) understand the concept and keep it very close to their hearts. How, in your opinion, do American and Canadian audiences perceive Ukrainian dance performed by Syzokryli, do they understand ethnic Ukrainian folklore in depth?
Great art can be appreciated, even if it is not totally understood. Art should be interpreted to make the viewer feel emotion or to inspire them. I can listen to a song in a language I don’t understand, but I may be moved to tears by it or may feel compelled to get up and dance to it. In that way, Ukrainian folk dance transcends the need for language and crosses cultural boundaries. So, do they understand it in depth? Maybe not entirely, but whether they know the language or not, they can feel a sense of Ukrainian pride. I am the perfect example of that, being a non-Ukrainian, but of Latin-American descent!
How do you manage to encourage the younger generation and develop their interest in modern folklore? How do you integrate your programs into modern Ukrainian culture to appeal to the young audience?
We lead by example. Whether it’s actually demonstrating the movements or acting emotion of a character in a dance, we, the instructors, the Syzokryli Dancers, work to instill the joy and passion that is imbedded in Ukrainian folk dance, and more importantly, in Roma Pryma’s works. When they see the effect of a grand movement, jump, or turn, it excites them and makes them want to also do them. One ritual that showcases and catches the young audience’s attention is the “Kolomayka,” an improvisational dance done within a circle created by onlookers. It is common in Ukrainian culture in North America to see young and old Ukrainian-Americans participate in this ritual, which takes place at social events and nearly every important Ukrainian function (like a wedding, a Debutante ball, or Malanka). The Kolamayka allows the dancer to showcase his or her best movements. Usually, everyone tries to outdo the other in a friendly game of competition. But the best part is when the youngest ones are standing around in the circle, just watching. We can see them absorbing the movements and imagining themselves being out there. Eventually, they want to learn more. So, they enroll in our classes and in the summer dance camps. Then they’re hooked. And sure enough, the next time there is a Kolomayka, those students are right in there. Lastly, I equate the concept of the Kolomayka and the movements of Ukrainian folk dance with break dancing and hip-hop. A person could draw parallels between the two, in terms of the pride and friendly competition that exists among the dancers and the similarity of the acrobatic and gravity-defying movements. For young Ukrainian-Americans, Ukrainian folk dance is their hip-hop!
Please tell us a little about how you teach future generations of dancers. What do you offer in your workshops and classes?
We offer strong ballet technique, as well as the Ukrainian folk dance curriculum. We make sure to do our best to teach them not only the steps and movements associated with each Ukrainian region and dance style, but we also try to instill in them the types of clothing and costumes that are appropriate for each region. Additionally, we teach them other styles of dance, like contemporary dance, hip-hop, and ballroom. But in the end, it’s about the roots. Ukrainian folk dance has ritualistic, social, and sometimes political themes, among many others. These must be portrayed through character and expression, which have to be taught, as well. We demonstrate the movements and talk about not only conveying these emotions through facial expressions, but also about expressing the emotion through movement and gesture. It’s the most important aspect of what we do, and is what sets Ukrainian folk dance apart from other styles of dance.
What makes Syzokryli so special? What is the secret ingredient to its success?
Roma Pryma! She passed on her passion and love and her vision. Everyone who has seen us perform has always said the same thing: We have heart! By that, they mean that we dance from the purest sense of our being, our soul! People cheer, laugh, and cry during and after some of our dances. And the pride that exudes from the dancers, especially during the climax of our Hopak dance, when the men depict the Kozaks riding down the hills of Ukraine on horseback, swords in hand, with the women twirling triumphantly alongside of them, is otherworldly! Everyone who watches it gets chills, even non-Ukrainians! This is what Roma Pryma instilled in us, which was the secret to her success: to make the audience experience and feel what we are feeling onstage. Another ingredient is the fact that we are like a family. We care about our dancers, and we want to make sure that they are doing well in school, at work, and at home. There is a strong love and support system within Syzokryli. Even those who don’t dance with us anymore can always come home and feel as if they have never left.
Orlando, being a great choreographer for this fabulous dance ensemble, please share what inspires you, and how did you end up choreographing a Ukrainian dance troop coming from totally different background?
My main inspiration is Roma Pryma. She instilled in me a love and passion for an art form that was totally unfamiliar to me. Not only that, she gave me the confidence to resume my dance career at a time when I had stopped performing and felt lost in life. With her support and guidance, I became a member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, and that eventually set the stage for everything that followed in my career as a Ukrainian dance instructor and eventual artistic director of Syzokryli. The reason why I became a Ukrainian folk dancer was because Roma Pryma needed dancers at a time when the ensemble was going through a transition. A friend of mine, Kathryn Caballero, who also happens to be Puerto Rican, had studied with Roma Pryma since childhood on the lower east side of Manhattan. She called me up one day when I was around 19 years of age and asked me if I would be interested in checking out the Syzokryli dance ensemble and possibly becoming a member. At this stage in my life, I had studied and trained all over Manhattan at some of the best schools in the country (Alvin Ailey, School of American Ballet, and Performing Arts High School, to name a few). I was well versed in many styles of dance, from ballet, modern, jazz, African, tap, and hip-hop. So, I figured that exploring another style would just add to my repertoire. I came down on a Saturday afternoon and entered the studio, where I met Roma Pryma. I was immediately impressed with the way she carried herself: her elegance, grace, charm, the way she was dressed, and then, later, the way she taught her class. She not only commanded such respect and discipline, but also made it fun and entertaining. I had never met anyone like her before. And as the class continued, I realized that I had never seen anything like Ukrainian folk dance before. The athleticism of the men’s jumps in the air and the strength and poise of the squat movements blew me away. The faster-than normal turns by the women, done with different arm and leg positions, were a revelation. The music moved me in the way that Salsa music does. I felt it in my soul and in my heart. Before the class was over, I had come to the realization that I wanted to be part of this. Thirty years later, I’m still here.
What can we expect from Syzokryli in the next year or two? Any interesting plans, ideas, inspirations?
We want to continue to maintain the ensemble’s level of excellence and expose our ensemble to new audiences. We would love to go back to Ukraine. We have been asked to perform in Australia and would love to go to Brazil, where there are strong Ukrainian communities. It’s a challenge to try and make these things happen. It takes funding and support. But I have faith. I also want to continue to work hard to create new works for the ensemble, to entertain our audiences, and to maintain and perpetuate Roma Pryma’s legacy and vision.
And our last question, but it is a very important one for InLove. Being in love, what does it mean to you and to Larissa, please share…
Being in love means respecting one another, empathizing with each other, and knowing how to make each other smile and laugh. Most of all, the fact that Larisa and I can share our love of Ukrainian folk dance together, while being in love, is both very special and unique. The first time I walked into Roma Pryma’s dance studio I fell in love with Ukrainian dance, just like I did when I first looked into Larisa’s eyes.
Photographer: Vital Agibalow for HENSEL
Makeup: Kate Romanoff
Hair: Pamela Baumgartner
Stylist: Elena Vasilevsky
Assistant Stylist: Anya Katsevman
To subscribe or purchase the magazine http://inlovemag.com/subscribe/