Soyuzivka Heritage Center: alive and hopping as 2021 cultural festival kicks off summer season
KERHONKSON, NY – For more than 12 months, the Soyuzivka Heritage Center in Kerhonkson, NY, had rested in ominous silence, and for the second year in a row, the chances of the Soyuzivka Cultural Festival happening seemed slim. But after many grim warnings about COVID-19 and mandatory shutdowns, the Ukrainian community was running out of an opportunity to reconnect and celebrate the cultural ideals that unite its members.
Only continued efforts allowed dedicated organizers and sponsors to deliver a premier program on July 10, just three weeks after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the green light for major public events (readers can learn more about this topic in the adjacent sidebar). All of these issues were addressed at the festival’s VIP gala, which was held inside the Veselka auditorium on the evening of July 9.
Yuriy Symczyk, Director of Operations of the Ukrainian National Association (UNA), spoke on behalf of the long-time festival sponsor UNA, about the much-anticipated revival. He thanked Valentyna Tabaka, director of the Ukrainian National Foundation (UNF), for her tireless efforts in planning a strong artistic program and expressed his gratitude to the managers of Soyuzivka for their technical preparation.
But Mr. Symczyk’s main message was for the participants.
‘You did well to come here,’ said Mr Symczyk. “We are all here to sing, dance and reconnect. No Skype or Zoom meeting can ever replace that; otherwise, our hromada would disappear in isolation. But after breathing in the fresh, clean air of these beautiful surroundings and reconnecting with other Ukrainians, we will all come back stronger and spiritually refreshed.
The next speaker was Andrew Nynka, the new editor-in-chief of Svoboda and the Ukrainian Weekly. Mr. Nynka acknowledged the more than four decades of service of former editor Roma Hadzewycz, and reminded those gathered that Svoboda is the oldest continuously published Ukrainian-language newspaper in the world. Rather than settle for the mere survival of Ukrainian institutions and the diaspora community, Mr. Nynka insisted on a forward-looking agenda.
“I believe we can and must turn the conversation so that in the years to come we can talk about growth and success,” said Mr. Nynka. “What I see in the United States and Canada are millions of people – and there really are millions – who care deeply about Ukraine and Ukrainian causes. It is our challenge to figure out how to channel all this passion and love for Ukraine and our Diaspora into growth, so that our community no longer talks about surviving, but rather thriving. “
During the gala, attendees got a special preview of several artists scheduled for the big stage the next day. Singers Christina Yavdoshnyak, Anna Kosachevich, Anychka, Iryna Lonchyna and “Ukrainian Cowboy” Liubomyr Chermak took turns entertaining the donor audience in styles ranging from pop and folk to ballad and country. The program was smoothly guided by the gracious team of emcees, Andrij Dobriansky and Bohdan Tabaka, who exchanged pleasantries as they introduced the speakers and moderators.
UNF Treasurer and Board Member Roma Lisovich thanked the sponsors who helped make the weekend possible. These sponsors included Self Reliance Federal Credit Union (SRFCU) of New York, NY, UNA, SRFCU Chicago with New Jersey SRFCU branches in Newark, Whippany and Jersey City, Ukrainian Federal Credit Union of Rochester, NY, and NOVA Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union of Clifton, NJ
Additional donations were received from the Board of Directors of the National League of Ukrainian Women of America (UNWLA), Yaroslava Mulyk, Christine Nestor and the Erachshaw family. Ms. Lisovych stressed that the UNA and Ukrainian credit unions are the backbone of the Ukrainian community and urged everyone to become a member of these organizations.
“We are fortunate to be Ukrainian Americans. Be proud of our multi-heritage! Ms. Lisovich said.
After Reverend Ivan Kaszczak’s final blessing, the Brattia z Prykarpattia group provided music for the closing VIP dance.
The weather gods provided a pleasant sunny day on July 10, as vendors set up their stands and information stations along Poltava Road, including a special outdoor barbecue at the Veselka Gazebo. The afternoon program on the Veselka Patio featured vocalists Ms. Kosachevich, Ms. Yavdoshnyak, Mr. Chermak and Julia Busko, as well as the group Brattia z Prykarpattia. As master of ceremonies, Mr Dobriansky teamed up with News 10 ABC / Fox 23 anchor Lydia Kulbida in Albany. They recalled their dance history together, which began with the Roma Pryma Bohachevsky Dance Academy (RPB).
By early evening, spectators had started to migrate to the main show, which was held on the lower slopes of Soyuzivka behind the pool. As many listeners settled in rows of white chairs in front of the stage, others spread blankets, dotting the grassy hill above the tennis courts.
As always, the Ukrainian Veterans of America (UVA) Honor Guard presented flags for the national anthems (see box). As the concert unfolded, it became clear that all five singers were at the highest professional level and could have graced any stage in the world. And, once again, Mr. Dobriansky and Lydia Kulbida made sure things ran smoothly.
Ms. Yavdoshniak and Ms. Kosachevich, reprising their performance from the gala, presented a wide variety of hit songs and both were enthusiastically acclaimed by the audience (see box).
Julia Busko, a lively performer with an agile voice, who had previously performed in Soyuzivka, also participated in the concert. Finalist of the Chervona Ruta singing competition in Ukraine, she sang the famous song that gave its name to the festival (“Chervona Ruta” by Volodymyr Ivasiuk), as well as “Songs of Brave Girls” (Pisni Smilyvykh Divchat) and “Let Me Paint You the Stars ”(Namaliuj Tobi Zori). In an interview with The Ukrainian Weekly, she lamented what she sees as primitive regression in many song entries for the Eurovision Song Contest. Ukrainian songs form the solid core of Ms Busko’s repertoire, and she was delighted that her eight-month-old son heard her sing them that evening.
Ms. Lonchyna has also sung in Soyuzivka before. A dynamic performer who likes to get closer to her audience, she likes to compose her own songs and has already released four albums. Ever since she was in first grade, Ms. Lonchyna always had a song on her lips. She shared with this author that her songs are “the children of God” – a conversation with God and a light for everyone. Two of his original songs are “This is My Ukraine” and “Let Me Light Up the Stars”.
Anychka, a passionate singer with lemko roots, also attended the event. At the gala, she recalled the Polish operation Wisla, which forcibly uprooted her ancestors and thousands of Ukrainians from their former Lemko lands. His beloved Lemko folk songs form a central part of his repertoire, along with ballads and pop songs. The catchy syncopated Kucheri, Kucheri (O These Beautiful Curls) was an audience favorite. During her tour, she devoted many concerts to benefit wounded Ukrainian soldiers and was recognized by the Ukrainian Armed Forces for her commitment to the cause. A stylish performer, she accompanies her songs with expressive hand movements and gestures.
Trading Ukrainian steppe ponies for American mustangs, Mr. Chermak appeared wearing his iconic cowboy hat, to sing his country-style songs, composed by himself and his wife, Nataliya. The audience was particularly enchanted by a catchy melody, which rhymed “Tennessee” with “tsi pisni” (these songs)!
The RPB Dance Workshop always prides itself on pairing expressive choreography with authentic and brilliant costumes. This year, the performers presented dances by Volyn (choreography by co-director Orlando Pagan and his wife, Laryssa), a Lemko dance (choreography by co-director Anya Bohachevska) and the ever popular Pryvit (Greeting) and Hopak. A treat was Stefan Calka’s elegant red and black choreography “For Roma with Love”, which included a lovely solo by Marisa McDonald (for more on RPB Dance Workshop, see sidebar).
Gremo is singer and actor Alex Hramakouski. He was born in Belarus and became a champion in arm wrestling and bodybuilding, while also starring in Ukrainian movies, commercials and TV shows. In 2015 he moved to the United States, where he learned the Ukrainian language and started performing his Ukrainian compositions at festivals. In Soyuzivka as elsewhere, the catchy songs of his ensemble captured the attention of the spectators.
The festivities ended with a zabava dance and the group Brattia z Prykarpattia.