Their discomfort pays off: as awards are handed out at the 2011 European Championship of Folklore, the only North American entry in the competition tops all European groups. Some 8,500 kilometers from home, the semi-professional troupe is named Absolute European Champion 2011 and awarded the grand prize medal.
But Cheremosh Artistic Director Mykola Kanevets says he’s most proud of the praise from local judges, fans and dancers. Some were surprised to see a high calibre of Ukrainian folk dance preserved in Canada. “Mostly what I was happy to see was when people came backstage and said they appreciate Cheremosh and how they dance,” says Kanevets. “That’s the best award for me.”
Kanevets has been the artistic force behind Cheremosh since 1991. “I have been Ukrainian dancing all my life,” he says. “It’s my life.”
He graduated as a Ballet Master and Choreographer from Kyiv’s National University of Culture and Performing Arts. He toured with the acclaimed Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company. As an instructor in Ukraine, he forged relationships with Canadian dance groups who were seeking authentic costume pieces and boots.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and travel restrictions eased, he visited a friend in Edmonton. He began teaching workshops and was quickly recruited by Cheremosh: “When I came to Canada twenty years ago,I saw passionate Ukrainian dancers who wanted to learn more, and I said I had to help as much as I can.”
Fast-forward twenty years. Kanevets has led his performers through numerous productions, including a 2007 China tour with Aboriginal troupe Blackfoot Medicine Speaks, and 2009’s “Razom: A Fusion of Ukrainian Dance,” featuring a cast of nearly 100 dancers from Cheremosh, Calgary’s Tryzub and Winnipeg’s Rusalka Ukrainian dance ensembles.
Kanevets dedicates himself full-time to the Cheremosh Ensemble and School of Dance. He instructs four different age groups.
“This is a serious job. If you want to see Ukrainian culture on a high level, you need a professional,” he says. He admits, not everyone sees dance instruction as a credible career, and he laughs about the time he fibbed about being a firefighter to appease a critic. “It’s lots and lots and lots of work,” he admits.
Daily, he’s at his desk by 9 a.m., working on choreography, music, costuming and exercises. He finds ideas in numerous sources, including one of his favourite pastimes, watching movies. “Music is very inspiring,” he says. “Some characters, some books, some movies, some melodies.”
Six days a week, he’s at the studio around 5 p.m. for rehearsals. Cheremosh typically performs Saturday nights, though his Saturday afternoons are dedicated to watching his 11-year-old daughter’s ballet class.
Mykola strives to set Cheremosh apart from other ensembles: “I feel proud and responsible when we come on stage with Ukrainian culture in Canada. We have to be at the highest level possible. We have a very strong training process,” he explains, combining basic ballet, character and technique.
He orders special costumes and music from Ukraine. Cheremosh’s music is specially arranged and recorded with an orchestra. Costumes are one-of a-kind designs. “You can’t find the same costume in the world,” he says. Once a set is produced, the material is destroyed to prevent copies.
His dancers notice these details. “Mykola Kanevets is truly dedicated to the maintenance of traditional Ukrainian dance in Alberta,” says Brooke Miller. She notes his “attention to regional authenticity in the context of a theatrical ensemble.” Miller also values his team building skills. “He interacts with his dancers in a way that promotes an atmosphere of family.”
Kanevets says, “I enjoy working with people. Sometimes it’s hard, every person has a different character and attitude. It takes emotional energy to get a big group of people onto one target of what we have to do together.”
He credits a group effort for Cheremosh’s success. “I am very lucky. Many volunteers create everything possible,” he says.
That support will play a huge role in next year’s proposed Ukrainian tour, which will cover six regions and include workshops with Hutzul and Bukovynian state ensembles.
He hopes the tour inspires his dancers and enhances their performance back home. “If you ask other nationalities in Canada what they know about Ukrainians, they say food and dance,” says Kanevets. “The better quality on stage, the more people of other nationalities will respect Ukrainian dancing.”