Dancing at its best
Spills and thrills: Amal Choucri Catta finds them all in Ukraine
Virsky National Dance Company of Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Vantuch. Cairo Opera House, Main Hall, 12 to 17 March, 8pm; Alexandria Opera House, 19 and 20 March, 8pm.
The Virsky Dance Company's phenomenal performance at Cairo Opera's Main Hall three years ago has lived long in the memory. They danced their way into the hearts of Cairene audiences from 24 to 29 January 2003, playing to full houses, and when they left I am sure I was not alone in hoping they would soon return. And return they did, for five nights at Cairo Opera's Main Hall, from 12 to 17 March, and then on to Alexandria where, at the Sayed Darwish Theatre, they performed on 19 and 20 March.
Audiences again applauded their extraordinary discipline and unbelievable dancing skills. The programme, as before, began with an eloquent greeting, executed with great dignity by the entire ensemble of some 60 Ukrainian dancers in national costume, with three women-dancers at the forefront presenting bread and salt as a symbol of friendship and peace.
As the music -- beautifully performed by an orchestra of 25 musicians -- reached its end the three bread-and-salt maidens disappeared, leaving the stage to "Ukraine, my Ukraine", a picturesque dance giving the audience an overview of the programme of 12 dances drawn from different regions, with lots of somersaults, pirouettes, high jumps and leaps.
The National Virsky dancers do not expect audiences to wait idly between one dance and the next: they follow each other with breathtaking speed, providing a feast of colour, with whites, blues and reds pursuing greens, yellows and lilacs. They are all as captivating, as thrilling as ever.
Originally founded by Pavlo Virsky in 1937, the National Virsky Dance Company was already recognised as Ukraine's official song-and-dance company by 1940. During World War II Virsky created a number of dances, among which "Hopag" was awarded several prizes prior to its creator's death in 1975. When Myroslav Vantuch was appointed artistic director of the company he founded a choreographic school for children, which eventually became the Ballet School of the Ukraine National Dance Company. The Pavlo Virsky ensemble made their American debut at the old Metropolitan Opera in 1958 and have returned several times. They have toured over 60 countries. Ten years ago, while on a trip to Asia and the Americas, they stopped en route to perform in Cairo with enormous success.
On Cairo Opera's Main Stage, last week, their second dance, "Povzunets", turned out to be a delightful Cossack comedy, performed by 10 acrobats doing their utmost to impress an enthused audience who applauded every intrepid leap, bold somersault and amazing split. As they shouted their last good- humoured "Hey" the stage turned a vermillion hue and the music took a romantic turn. The rose-tinted charm was soon broken, however, leaving a group of lovely gypsies trying to steal the show. Bright lights revealed multi-coloured embroidered costumes. The girls twisted and turned and whirled around, performing endless splits and breathtaking pirouettes as they joined the young men in an ardent gypsy dance.
It was in 1991 that Ukraine appeared on the map as a modern independent state. Its history, however, dates back to the 9th century, from which beginnings it would emerge as one of the most powerful states of Mediaeval Europe. Ukraine is the second largest country in Eastern Europe, with over 50 million inhabitants. And it is the Ukrainian people -- their culture and customs, life and their relationship to one another and to nature -- that is invariably emphasised in their dance.
There were, naturally, repetitions in one or the other of the choreographic sequences presented, but the audience loved them. They adored the "Kozachok", and the dance with tambourines and glamorous girls drifting elegantly into the "Russian Suite", reminiscent of the Russian Gzhel, who performed sublimely on the Main Stage some years ago. The girls in long silver gowns with assorted crowns kept gliding onto the stage like 22 swans, meditatively executing a romantic dance to an enrapturing tune. The Russian Suite closed spectacularly, with 12 of the youngest dancers appearing on stage to join their 50 elders. They were loudly cheered by an ecstatic audience.
The second part of the show opened with "The Carpathians", a dance introducing three youths blowing serene tunes on super-long trembita mountain horns. The echoes seemed to convey the melody to the farthest corners of Carpathia's three regions, each of which was illustrated by a song -- the son of the mountain, the song of running water and the song of the sun. This was followed by "Verbyshenka" -- the crying tree -- a meditation on the struggles of a woman who resists all storms and tempests as she confronts her daily life. It was a charming, sensitive dance, performed with ardour by a group of young women who then vanished in the aisles, leaving the stage to a group of handsome young sailors. "Peter Piperclay" evoked a love of the sea and of freedom. The sailor's fascinating acrobats were followed by "Under the Cherry Tree", a choreographic recreation of scenes from an old Ukrainian puppet show, immortalised in a folk song and mocking an old man's attempt to seduce a young girl.
The audience was clearly hoping for more. They were not to be disappointed. The entire ensemble had time to change for the last sensational dance, the "Gopak", a feast of colour, with fabulous costumes, wonderful music and excellent choreography. They glided, twisted and turned, the high jumps, splits and unbelievable laps executed to perfection. This was not just folklore, it was dancing at its best -- a spectacular show.