Eighteen dancers from the Ukrainian National Federation Dance School struck out on their own in 1962 and formed a humble dance ensemble, bonded by their shared Ukrainian heritage and passion for dance.
Little did they know that 50 years later, Rusalka -- named for the seductive water nymph of Ukrainian folklore -- would be regarded as Winnipeg's première Ukrainian dance ensemble. Over the past five decades, Rusalka has delighted audiences all over the world with its kinetic performances, dancing for the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. Many Rusalka dancers have gone on to have careers in the arts -- actress Mimi Kuzyk is an alumna.
More than just entertainment, Rusalka is a vital part of Winnipeg's large and vibrant Ukrainian community; in fact, it still calls the historic UNF Hall on north Main Street home. There have been more than a few Rusalka marriages and many founding members, such as Myron Tarasiuk, have children who dance in the ensemble. He will perform along with his daughter Andriana at the 50th anniversary gala concert Sunday at the Centennial Concert Hall.
Tarasiuk, 63, danced with Rusalka from 1962 until 1984. He recalls those formative years and having to explain to people that Rusalka, despite bearing a name that started with the same three letters, wasn't a Russian dance troupe. It's a telling anecdote about public perception at the time; Ukraine wouldn't gain independence from the Soviet Union until 1991 and it became part of Rusalka's raison d'etre to familiarize people with the history and culture of Ukraine.
In 50 years of highlights, 1979 sticks out for Tarasiuk. That was the year Rusalka first toured Ukraine.
"It was a year I will never forget," says Tarasiuk, who is also a teacher in the English/Ukrainian bilingual program in the Seven Oaks School Division. "First of all we were, to my knowledge, the first Western troupe to perform in Ukraine when it was still under the Communist regime. That was an achievement in itself. And to top it off, we were dancing in front of relatives we never met before. Embarrassingly, I remember losing focus during a dance because I was so focused on the fact a grandfather I'd never met was in the audience. It was a very emotional trip."
For Rusalka dancer/board member Patrick Kuzyk, who danced from 1977 to 1989, that first tour to Ukraine was an eye-opener. He was 19 at the time. "It really focused my desire to discover and preserve my Ukrainian heritage," Kuzyk says.
The 1979 trip was in stark contrast to Rusalka's most recent Ukrainian tour. In August, the ensemble performed as part of Independence Day celebrations in Lviv.
"I'm in the same place, watching my daughter perform, my son perform and my niece perform on Independence Day," Tarasiuk marvels. "You never forget something like that. In 1979, everything in Ukraine was grey. There was nothing to do. There was propaganda everywhere. Now, everything is in colour. There are bars and cafes. It's alive."
Kuzyk says Rusalka's longevity can be owed to the dedicated generations of families who have tirelessly volunteered their time, energy and money.
"I can't believe the group has made it to 50 years, but I am thrilled it's made it," Tarasiuk says. "As with all performing companies, you have your highs and lows and budgets are drained."
Rusalka's legacy is being carried on by "the kids," many of them second- and third-generation Canadians who want to keep their Ukrainian culture alive.
"You want to see young people involved and engaged. For them, it's fun. And for the Ukrainian community, it's a great thing. It offers a tie to our ancestral roots. There are such good kids in this group; I can't say enough about them," Tarasiuk says.
Kids like Kuzyk's 17-year-old daughter Kathryn, who grew up surrounded by Rusalka, always dreamed of being a dancer. That dream became reality in 2011.
"The opportunities still surprise me," she says.