Chester Kuc dedicated his life to preserving and sharing the rich cultural heritage of Ukrainian dance, art and music. Born in Edmonton, he was meticulous and tireless as he pursued this passion but was also a dedicated son, husband and father who shared his wonderful sense of humour, style and caring nature with all who had the pleasure of knowing him. He was a visionary, an artist, a mentor, a friend. His influence is of global significance.
Chester and his wife Luba (née Yusypchuk) began early dance training under Ukrainian dance master Vasyl Avramenko, the father of Ukrainian dance in North America. They both excelled musically, each completing degrees in violin and advanced studies in piano. Luba was a well-known violinist, a soloist locally and nationally. Chester taught dancing wherever there was interest – at churches, halls and schools. He organized and produced numerous major productions across Canada with various dance troupes. With Luba at his side, he founded the Ukrainian National Federation (UNF) School of Dancing, one of the largest dance schools in Edmonton with more than 350 students annually. His school was housed at the UNF Hall, also home to Cheremosh for approximately 20 years. For over 35 years, Chester taught dancing to thousands of students – many of whom went on to share their skills and love of Ukrainian dance with countless others. Students fondly recall that he provided not only dance instruction, but also piano accompaniment at rehearsals and annual concerts at the Jubilee Auditorium. Chester was the Founder and Artistic Director of two vibrant, Edmonton-based companies – Shumka (1959) and Cheremosh (1969) – both of international acclaim. He did all of this while working full-time for the Govt. of Alberta.
Connecting generations of dancers
In 1969, members of the local Ukrainian National Youth Federation (MYHO) asked Chester to form a new dance group. Then known as Veselka, this group of 19 dancers would become the semi-professional Cheremosh Ukrainian Dancers, now known as Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company. Competition at auditions was brisk and the company grew to over 60 members. Ukrainian Cheremosh Society, with elected executive officers, was created and strongly supported by the parent community. Junior Cheremosh, now Cheremshyna, and a younger Girls Group were established. Chester was the Artistic Director and Luba was the Costume Designer and Wardrobe Mistress for the society and school of dance. Together, they inspired innovative development of Ukrainian folk dance while maintaining the national character and originality of the steps, music and costuming. They incorporated regional dances of Ukraine into repertoire, presenting unique choreography, music and colourful costumes new to their audiences in Canada and around the world. Their efforts with Cheremosh showcased the most authentic and varied wardrobe of any Ukrainian dance group in Canada. Luba spent innumerable hours researching designs, sourcing authentic fabrics and teaching dancers, parents and grandparents to meticulously embroider and construct intricate costumes, many requiring countless hours and often months to complete. Chester and Luba initiated the purchase of varied regional costumes from Ukraine – also a first in the dance community. They designed many costumes themselves, perhaps most significantly, the signature Hopak costume and embroidered blue skirt worn exclusively by hundreds of Cheremosh dancers for nearly 40 years. These hand-made, cherished heirloom pieces connect generations of dancers.
From 1969 until 1981, the Kucs devoted countless volunteer hours and relentless energy to establish Cheremosh as one of the premier dance groups in Canada. Chester incorporated live orchestral accompaniment for large productions; ballet training was introduced. Renowned guest artists, including solo vocalists, choirs and musicians, were invited to join Cheremosh on stage. Innovation augmented tradition and artistry, as exemplified in an operatic staging of a traditional Ukrainian wedding. Chester and Luba accompanied the ensemble on provincial, national and international tours across North America and Europe. Under Chester’s leadership, Cheremosh entertained audiences across western and eastern Canada and destinations in the United States such as Spokane (Expo ’74 World’s Fair), San Francisco, Disneyland, San Diego and New Jersey. Internationally, Chester took the group to England in 1977, and in 1981, prior to his retirement, Chester joined the entire ensemble for a dance workshop in Kyiv – the first visit by an entire Canadian dance group to the homeland. With the international stage set, Cheremosh has continued to tour abroad, performing in countries such as Scotland, Bulgaria, Mexico and China – with a momentous return to Ukraine in May 2013.
In recognition of their contributions to Cheremosh, on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary, Chester and Luba were honoured by Ukrainian Cheremosh Society as Honourary Lifetime Members. Prior to the Cheremosh 40th Anniversary celebration held in 2010, the Boardroom of the Cheremosh Studio was dedicated in honour of Mr. and Mrs. Kuc, paying tribute to their pivotal vision and dedication. Over the years, the Kucs continued to support Cheremosh endeavours and assisted with archives. What they created in 1969 has grown to include over 350 Cheremosh alumni, including their daughters, Larysa and Daria, in addition to the 50 – 55 current dancers. Many Cheremosh alumni maintain close friendships with those they danced with decades ago; new generations of dancers are continuing the journey. Chester’s commitment, expertise and energy provided a legacy of unparalleled opportunities for dancers and their families.
Mr. Kuc was truly instrumental and inspirational in preserving all forms of Ukrainian art – including dance, music, pysanky (Ukrainian eggs), embroidery, etc. – laying the foundation for, and fostering the development of, Ukrainian dance in Alberta and nation-wide with his high, authentic standard of excellence. His own exquisite art – including over 2500 pysanky and petit point embroidery – was showcased at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton and in many exhibits. Chester and Luba created and published embroidery charts based on original designs by Chester as well as Michael Bilas, a famous artist from Ukraine. Untiring, avid supporters and volunteers in the community, together Chester and Luba organized countless events highlighting fine art from Ukraine. Chester received numerous community, provincial and national awards over his lifetime, including an Alberta Achievement Award in recognition of outstanding service in the field of ethno-cultural activities (1974) and the prestigious Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2003) for past voluntary contributions. His life’s work reflects extraordinary talent and passion danced from his soul.
Words cannot adequately express our deep appreciation and admiration. We are eternally grateful for Chester’s incredible vision, leadership, creativity, inspiration, tireless work and passion over the decades. His dedication, determination and pride have beautifully preserved the rich tradition and heritage of Ukrainian dance and led to the 44-year journey that Cheremosh continues today. We honour and treasure our memories of times shared and will always remember Mr. Kuc’s legacy. With heartfelt gratitude and prayers for eternal peace, from your entire Cheremosh family … past, present and future.