The audience at the London Ukrainian Club were, on 12th March 2016, entertained by the Volya Male Voice Choir and Podilya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, which had travelled down from their base in Manchester. There was something of a family atmosphere in the hall as, over two hours, we were given a short series of dances alternating with another such series of songs, sung entirely in Ukrainian. It was a clever mix, with a pleasing variety of styles within each genre.
The choir comprised twelve men of widely different ages, dressed in traditional clothes: blue Cossack-style trousers, white smock-shirts with red trimmings, a broad red cummerbund and red boots. Standing in two rows facing their conductor, they harmonised well: there were a few solos here and there, some descants and a bit of call and response. The audience clapped along and a few even joined in the more light-hearted numbers. The twelve songs ranged from war (‘Tomorrow on the Long Road’ and ‘The Burial Mound’) to politics (‘We Were Born at an Important Hour’) to the more humorous Cossack song ‘Unsaddle the Horses, Lads’. There was no musical accompaniment apart from a melodeon – once – and a piano in the final number which, like the two preceding it, had lyrics taken from Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko.
Interspersing these songs was the dancing: 23 men and women in various combinations, on a small stage yet with barely a brush of the back curtain. The male dancers dressed rather like their colleagues in the choir but varied the colours throughout, while the young women, making many changes, were magnificently attired, starting off in multi-coloured head-dresses with ribbons flowing behind, red skirts with white aprons above them, red beads and red boots. For some dances they wore skirts that billowed out as they span round, while in more sombre numbers they dressed in black to match the mood of the music – commemorating those who’d died in the recent Ukrainian Revolution, and ending with a prayer. The dancers were all young and they clearly enjoyed themselves – the women in particular beaming during the lighter numbers.
One thing that struck you was how fit they must be: limber through twelve gruelling dances, many four minutes long. There were classic Cossack moves, the men squatting and kicking their legs out horizontally, backs always ramrod straight. The audience clearly loved this, just as they did the dancers’ high leaps while doing the splits. Other routines were kaleidoscopic in nature as the members of the ensemble flowed in and out of different combinations, spinning fast with arms outstretched. Some of these steps, it occurred to you, might have inspired the early breakdancers.
The first dance was one of welcome and at its culmination a dancer brought a tureen to the front of the stage as a symbol of hospitality. There was a range of tempos and moods and other dances reflected youth and vitality, tragic loss, the joy and humour of courtship. The funniest dealt with an older man flirting with some of the younger women till his battleaxe of a wife appeared and promptly slapped him on the face, propelling him – most convincingly – to the floor. The longest dance was the finale, called a hopak, which lasted seven minutes and featured most of the ensemble.
There were about a hundred and thirty people in the audience – enthusiastic throughout, with an unusual ability to clap in time to both dances and songs. When the entire group assembled at the end for photographs, there was applause all round – and one stray wolf whistle, at which the dancers grinned. Highly recommended: catch them, if they make the trip down south again.
More information on the Podilya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble can be found on their website www.podilya.org, or by clicking on any of the photographs above.