Friday, March 1, 2024

The Ukrainian dance company that finds strength in tradition

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Our annual Global Women portfolio captures the many ways that women around the world present and represent themselves. Recent history has shown how quickly things can come undone—with that in mind, we found ourselves thinking about what endures. These six stories, each in their own way, are about traditions: the great effort it takes to preserve them, and, in some cases, the ways in which they’re radically reimagined.

From afar, the dancers of Syzokryli look like dolls with floralhalos–vinki– around their heads. Up close, their faces tell a different, fiercer story. Today, the women of this Ukrainian dance company have come together to perform at a small studio a few blocks from Union Square. The modest room, which is packed with roughly 11 women (plus 10 apprentices) ranging from their early teens to their late 30s, gets blisteringly hot after each routine. The footwork is intricate, fast, and executed with almost military precision. By the end, beads of sweat glisten on top of their self-administered, stage-ready makeup: red lips and pale powdered faces with dollops of blush. They wear two braids fastened at the top of the head–not a flyaway in sight.

Ania Lonkevych, Syzokryli’s Executive Director, took over the dance company and its summer programs from her late mother, Roma Pryma-Bocharevsky, who founded Syzokryli in 1978. “Syzokryli–that’s the adjective: shimmery, fast, graceful, elegant and powerful,” says Lonkevych. Her mother, “wanted all of those attributes in her dance group,” she says. Lonkevych is wearing a traditional Hustul necklace composed of coral beads and bronze Zgardas, which are protective cross amulets hailing from pre-Christian times.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

The dancer Roma Pryma-Bocharevsky founded the Syzokryli Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in 1978 in the United States. Bocharevsky, who was trained in ballet, grew up in the Western city of Lviv in Ukraine, where she performed at the Lviv Opera Ballet Theatre. After World War II, she studied in Vienna, Austria and attended the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and later became a soloist at the National Theater in Innsbruck. In her twenties, she emigrated to Canada where she danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Eventually, she moved to the United States where she lived in New York and studied under Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Kathryn Dunham.

Pryma-Bocharevsky founded Syzokryli when her daughter, Ania Lonkevych, a former attorney and now Executive Director of the company, was only 13. (Pryma-Bocharevsky passed away in 2004.) “I was the youngest member, the only original member—all of the choreography was set on me,” says Lonkevych. “At home, if she needed a partner or a set of hands, it was me or my brother.” Today, the Syzokryli women endearingly but respectfully refer to Lonkevych as Pani Ania, or “teacher Ania.” Some even lovingly refer to her as their mother. “Every year, my daughter says ‘Mama, how many adopted kids do you have now?’” says Lonkevych. “I yell at them as if they are my own!”

Dancers warming up.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

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