Edmonton Journal: Life & Times: Alberta’s ‘father of Ukrainian dance’

EDMONTON – Chester Kuc stumbled onto a simple recipe for joy.

“All you need is a candle, wax and a stylus and an egg,” Kuc said of writing pysanky, the elaborate beeswax etchings that became the mania of his retirement years.

In workshops and classrooms, he’d freely pass it on to others. “I think anyone can do it. Practice makes perfect.”

The soft-spoken master pysankar had a knack for perfection and found plenty of things to practise. Apart from family and a career at the Court of Queen’s Bench, Kuc founded two semi-professional Ukrainian dance companies, oversaw a cultural museum and supported countless others, while creating hundreds of folk masterpieces of his own.

Kuc died Feb. 16, following a short hospitalization for heart failure and leukemia. He was 81.

The name “Chester” was a mistake recorded by Edmonton hospital staff shortly after he was born on April 15, 1931. His Polish mother had actually named him “Czeslaw.”

Kuc’s parents took pains to infuse their only child with authentic Ukrainian culture, endangered by the distractions of a new land and Stalinist Russia in the old. The recent immigrants moved into an apartment above the Ukrainian National Federation and regularly dispatched Kuc for language lessons. During summers, he was shipped off to Winnipeg’s Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre.

“From soup to nuts, you were being brainwashed,” he later kidded.

An accomplished musician, Kuc earned Royal Conservatory of Music associate certificates in piano and violin and toyed with a professional musical career. Musicality dovetailed with the rhythmic kicks, spins and leaps he learned from Vasyl Avramenko, the itinerant Ukrainian dance instructor who visited Edmonton in 1939. Fifteen years later, Kuc embarked on his own celebrated teaching career, adding his own flourishes, including orchestral accompaniments and a hint of ballet.

A court clerk by day, Kuc took his soft-soled dancing boots to any church or hall that would have him. He danced, designed displays and was the regular accompanist at most cultural performances. In 1959, he founded the Shumka dance company, hauling dancers from the basement of St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral onto the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium.

In 1960, he married Luba Yusypchuk, a fellow violinist who also grew up at the UNF. In a large group photo from the late 1930s, the two seven-year-olds sit side by side on the floor.

Their marriage lasted 52 years. Daughters Larysa and Daria became fixtures at the dance school Chester ran four nights a week, where Luba taught other mothers to sew authentic dance costumes.

With others wanting to move Shumka in different directions, Kuc stepped aside in September 1968. “I thought I had done enough of dancing,” he later told the Journal.

He hadn’t. Soon afterwards, a group of about 20 teens from the Ukrainian National Federation asked him to teach them more advanced dances. Within a year, another dance company had been formed, named after a raging Carpathian river. The Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company would tour internationally and blend tradition and innovation, staging an operatic enactment of a traditional Ukrainian wedding two years before Kuc stepped down in 1981.

Gail Wacko, the company’s alumni director, said Kuc “created our destiny and led our journey … We are humbled and forever grateful for Mr. Kuc’s visionary leadership, talent, knowledge, inspiration, tireless work, and passion over the many years.”

Pupils remember Kuc as an exacting taskmaster. He’d sit and shout from the piano, one hand on the keys keeping the beat, the other gesticulating to ensure every toe and knee was in place.

“He was very rigid because he cared so much,” said Gene Zwozdesky, a Shumka dancer during Kuc’s tenure.

Inspired by Alberta’s “Father of Ukrainian Dance,” Zwozdesky spent a quarter-century composing, arranging and directing music for Shumka and Cheremosh before entering politics in 1993. His current gig as Speaker of the Alberta legislature owes no small part to lessons learned from Kuc.

“Going from the conductor’s podium to the speaker’s podium appears to have been a fairly natural progression,” Zwozdesky said. “He was a great inspiration.”

At the courts, Kuc moved up to trial co-ordinator, eventually retiring as a supervisor. In his later years, he traded the kinetic life of dance for the more contemplative art of curation, but it left him no less busy. Kuc served as president of the St. John’s Ukrainian Museum until 1997, and amassed and created a vast collection of folk art of his own. He also worked part-time at a men’s clothing store in West Edmonton Mall.

As fissures began appearing in the Iron Curtain, Chester and Luba explored Ukraine’s 16 distinct regions. The couple befriended artists and museum staff, and photographed and collected textiles, paintings and ceramics.

Intricate works adorn the walls and shelves of the couple’s east-end home.

Apart from pysanky, Kuc mastered single-thread petit point and created miniature replicas of tapestries and ritual towels. Friend and fellow collector Nadia Cyncar is not alone in calling the house a living museum.

“Every time he got something from Ukraine, he would phone me, ‘Come here,’ ” said Cyncar, who met Kuc in 1948 at the UNF.

“He just wanted to show the Ukrainian culture on a higher level, and not only for Ukrainians.”

In recent years, Kuc’s health gradually faltered and hospitalizations became more frequent. Weakened by a heart attack and bouts of pneumonia, he continued to embroider and write pysanky. He hated sitting still, leaving a final piece of half-finished embroidery.

Many of Chester’s works and collections have already gone to museums in Canada and Ukraine, but Luba now has to find places for the rest.

“I have a lot of work to do,” she said. “We want it to be spread out.”

In the spring of 2006, the Royal Alberta Museum honoured Kuc with an exhibition of more than 2,500 unique pysanky he had created over eight years.

Each blown-out, dyed egg represents hours of meticulous labour. Not content just with detail, Kuc recreated millennium-old symbols and motifs originating from individual villages in Ukraine, lost over time and under Soviet disdain for religion.

He called the collection an egg-stravaganza, but each pysanky was a study in perfection, a small labour of joy.



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