Entering the door of Chester Kuc’s residence may give one the sense that they’ve been transported back in time. Not only is every wall space and shelf covered with hundreds of traditional Ukrainian folk art items — much of it created by Kuc and his wife, Luba, themselves — there’s a not a photograph or modern artifact in sight, save for one thing: a prominently framed Edmonton Journal article hanging on the living room wall. The yellowed paper boasts the headline “The Father of Ukrainian Dance.” Kuc appears on the page with a group of dancers, smiling widely.
Celebrated as the founding Artistic Director of The Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, and later establishing another of Edmonton’s premiere Ukrainian dance groups, the Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company, Kuc will correctly advise that Vasyl Avramenko was the true father of the folk dance, in Canada at least. After all, it was from Avramenko, the oft-travelling teacher, that Kuc learned his very first Poltava and Hutzul steps in the 1930s and ’40s.
In fact, whenever Avramenko came through Edmonton, Kuc’s father wouldmake sure young Chester attended the dance classes: “[Avramenko] had a set repertoire, so every time he came you were doing the same dances. You knew them forwards and backwards,” Kuc explains, noting that it wasn’t until he saw The Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in Winnipeg at age 14 that he became interested in exploring Ukraine’s lesser-known regional dances.
“Back then you noticed that young people would dance until they were 16 or 17, and then they would drop out. [Shumka] came about because I had a vision that we had to do something different. We had to get out of that sort of rut we were in.”
In 1959, when a number of talented dancers were pooled from a number of local community and church groups under the Shumka banner, Chester’s father (again pushing him along) suggested that the new troupe try to book the just-built Jubilee Auditorium stage. He even lent Chester the $400 fee.
“None of our Ukrainian groups had ventured into a facility that large before. I guess it made an impression. It got us out of that Mickey Mouse-type of performing.”
When the renowned Virksy National Dance Ensemble of Ukraine visited Edmonton, it changed the way Kuc would view the potential for Ukrainian dance in Canada.
“With Virsky you could see therewas ballet training in there, there was a variety of regional dances which we just had no knowledge of. I think after seeing a professional dance ensemble, it gave me incentive. Whoever thought of taking ballet? We never even did warm ups or anything in those days,” he laughs.
After a decade with Shumka, which clearly raised the bar for every subsequent dance group in Alberta, Kuc left the group to again “try something different.” Though it’s rumoured that he started Cheremosh to rival Shumka’s successes, the now 80-year-old notes that his next endeavour was motivated by a hunger to return to the roots of the regional dances.
“I guess I’m one of these traditionalists,” he says. “It’s like when I write pysanky: I wrote all sorts of them, but I wanted to get back to the roots of the pysanka. There’s more meaning to me because of the symbolism in it.”
Though Kuc’s days with both dance groups are three decades behind him, he still attends performances regularly. Since his departure from Cheremosh in 1979, he’s gone on to organize one of the largest one-man shows ever held at the Royal Alberta Museum. Pysanky: The Art and Passion of Chester Kuc (2006) exhibited over 2,500 of Kuc’s decorated eggs.
“Just like with the dancing, I had to do something that was different, unique — and what I did there was also educational. I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes: many people didn’t even know that Ukrainians had different regional designs. In the colours from East to West, and how intricate the designs were for Bukovyna and Hutzulshchyna, the [various] pysanky were like night and day.”
As for that rivalry and ever-rising bar? “It’s good to have competition,” Kuc says. “It keeps you on your toes, it keeps the standard of things much higher. When you have other groups you always have something to compare with. In fact I never dreamt that Shumka would evolve to what it is today, but thank God there were young people that were determined and wanted to continue.”