Steps towards cultural reconciliation


Shumka Dancers and Running Thunder Dancers premiere Ancestors and Elders

Ancestors and Elders
Shumka Ukrainian Dancers and Running Thunder Dancers
April 27 and 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
11455 – 87 Ave.
Tickets: $15 to $60 plus service charges. Visit

From the dazzling hopak and round dance, Shumka Ukrainian Dancers in a co-production with Running Thunder Dancers are redefining what Canadian dance can be.

For two years, Shumka and Running Thunder artists have worked side-by-side to present the iconic world premiere of Ancestors and Elders taking place at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on April 27 and 28.

In a world overcrowded with conflict and chaos, the two companies present a completely original work that tells stories of 19th century Ukrainian settlers and Indigenous populations sharing friendship.

Ancestors and Elders invites everyone to join in the first steps towards reconciliation where healing through storytelling, dance and music begins.

Co-directed by Calgary Métis writer-director Barry Bilinsky and Shumka dancer-choreographer Joseph Hoffman, the show features a creative team of more than 100 Alberta-based storytellers, designers, dancers, musicians and costume consultants.

Putting on a dance of this scale with 40 Shumka dancers and 15 Running Thunder dancers takes logistical as well as choreographic creativity.

Throughout the monumentally complex task, several top-tier artists were invited to contribute. They included poet laureate Anna Marie Sewell; composer/violinist Carissa Klopoushak; recording engineer Mike Romaniuk; visual artists Lana Whiskeyjack and Svitlana Kravchuk and costume designer Megan Koshka.

But it all began with a series of stories novelist Myrna Kostash wrote several years ago demystifying the relationship of Ukrainian settlers with Indigenous people during day-to-day interactions. The two stories that attracted Shumka’s attention were On Gifted Ground and Baba’s Other Children.

“They were very specific in their intent about speaking of the mutual experiences of Ukrainians and First Nations,” said Joseph Hoffman, a fourth generation Canadian of Ukrainian descent.

“What stood out was how they helped each other. Life was hard for Ukrainians. In a lot of cases they were not given much help. They were given scraps of land and the Indigenous populations were pushed off the land. Both were victims of circumstance and helped each other out.”

As Shumka executives started exploring the two cultural groups’ mutual history, they reached out to Calgary-based Barry Bilinsky, whose father is Polish and mother is Métis.

Bilinsky’s work spans several disciplines as theatre director, writer and clown-based performer. A graduate of the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Arts Program, he co-founded Fool Spectrum Theatre, and was artistic associate with several Indigenous arts organizations.

His latest directorial effort, the ground-breaking Pawâkan Macbeth, a co-production with Theatre Prospero that premiered in Nov. 2017, was an acclaimed triumph of Indigenous drama.

After reading Kostash’s stories, Bilinsky developed the concept and drafted the original proposal followed by thought-provoking round table discussions with Shumka chair John Pichlyk and management.

“That was a key moment where we eliminated differences in our perspective of history,” said Bilinsky. “We had to boil it down and couldn’t write any social or political information. We had to ask the question, ‘What really binds us?’”

And they realized that in both groups, it is strong women that lead the communities. It is women who practice cultural traditions and pass knowledge down generation to generation.

As Ancestors and Elders opens, two contemporary Ukrainian and Indigenous families perform at their respective cultural festivals. As the dance unfolds, the story snaps to the past where you see both cultural roots develop.

Both stories are told through the eyes of three women: a grandmother, a mother and her daughter.

“We see the connections. The grandmothers pass down the essence of their culture, but in both cases they didn’t have grandmothers. There’s a disconnect in the lineage. It was the young Ukrainians that immigrated to Canada – the 16- and 17-year-olds. The old people remained in Ukraine,” said Bilinksy.

He explained that since sage folk wisdom remained in the old country with the ancestors, the young pioneers had one less support in their struggles to survive.

Taking a deep breath, he added that the history of Indigenous people was different. Many young children were ripped from their families and placed in residential schools.

“Again there was a disconnect. But we made a decision not to go too deep into it. We didn’t want to capsize the story.”

Hoffman notes that Ancestors and Elders is filled with vignettes of kindness, compassion and human decency. In one, a young homesteading girl is sent to the woods to find firewood. She gets lost, but stumbles on a potlatch ceremony.

“Although they couldn’t communicate, the Indigenous family invites her to eat and after, help her find her homestead,” Hoffman said.

In another vignette, a Ukrainian woman searches for medicine but is unaccustomed to the different plants.

“She gets help from the kôhkom (grandmother). She helps her get to know the land she’s on. She takes what she can learn and helps keep her community strong.”

Shumka’s energetic moves are presented with trademark Ukrainian folk dances heavily influenced by contemporary ballet technique. The men in particular mesmerize with high jumps, kicks and toe-taps.

Instead, Running Thunder features a series of pulse-pounding powwow steps that connect to nature: Fancy Dance, Chicken Dance and Jingle Dance to name a few.

Running Thunder has earned accolades as “Alberta’s leading First Nations dance group.” As Canadian ambassadors, they performed in far-flung places such as New Zealand, Mongolia, Beijing, Shanghai, Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom.

Both Hoffman and Bilinsky arrive at the production’s opening feeling a sense of humility.

Bilinsky said, “This has been a real journey for both groups. It takes a lot of strength to get past our stories and on with the job. Some Indigenous children were adopted and had great relations. Some only experienced racism. But it’s been an incredible eye-opener and it’s been very humbling.”

“My only ties to the Ukrainian culture has been dancing,” said Hoffman, who has performed with Shumka for eight years. “I had to learn to speak intelligently about both cultures and listen to their voices. I’ve been trying to collect the voices of others. This is a celebration of a story that existed on both sides. My work has been to tell the stories, and build each up so it doesn’t stop when the show stops.”


About Author

Anna Borowiecki

Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.