Nutcracker ballet stamped with Ukrainian flair comes to Victoria this weekend

ON STAGE

What: Dance Victoria presents The Nutcracker, featuring Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, the Victoria Symphony and Ukraine’s Kyiv Ballet
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Nov. 29-30, 7 p.m.; Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 1 p.m.
Tickets: $49-$117.50 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca

Christmas goes by another name in arts communities across Canada.

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“Nutcracker season” is the time of year when a variety of organizations in each city stage their version of the two-act ballet with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. No two versions are alike, as the companies strive to play to their own strengths. A presentation by Dance Victoria opening this weekend at the Royal Theatre might have all comers beat, however.

This version of The Nutcracker — which runs for four performances beginning Friday — has roots in Edmonton’s Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, Canada’s only professional Ukrainian dance company.

The company’s Nutcracker (which dates back to the late 1990s) mixes traditional ballet and folkloric dance from Ukraine with Tchaikovsky’s rousing score, one of the most well-known classical compositions in the world.

Les Sereda, senior creative director of Shumka, danced with the Edmonton company for more than a decade, so he knows what The Nutcracker offers both on stage and behind the scenes, and is proud of how a collaboration between a variety of artistic mediums can have such a seamless feel. “[Shumka has] always tried to find new ways to tell stories with Ukrainian dance,” he said.

“Throughout our history, we’ve tried to push the envelope of what is the art form, and The Nutcracker has allowed us to look at the dance through our Ukrainian lens, but elevate it, in a way. We always try to create art that has a universal appeal, but will have a few of those cultural elements where someone who grew up in a Ukrainian community will say: ‘Yup, I remember doing that at my grandparents’ house.”

Dance Victoria and dancers and choreographers from Shumka will be joined at the Royal Theatre this weekend by a cast and crew of 95 collaborators, including the Victoria Symphony, Ukraine’s Kyiv Ballet, Edmonton’s Mattierin Irish Dance and Victoria’s Veselka Dance.

For Sereda, a big part of the appeal of the Victoria performances is the presence of the Victoria Symphony, which will engage its full orchestra. “To do this with a live orchestra, it’s such a treat,” he said.

“That’s how we’d love to do all our work, but unfortunately, it is not always possible, so we’re really excited about that.”

Many of the principals and soloists are provided by the Kyiv Ballet, the National Ballet of Ukraine. Sets and costumes are designed by Maria Levitska, on loan from the National Opera of Ukraine, while choreography is done by John Pichlyk of Shumka and Viktor Lytvynov of the Kyiv Ballet of the National Opera of Ukraine and the Municipal Opera and Ballet Theatre of Kyiv, who has worked with touring productions starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and Andrea Bocelli.

Members of the Ukrainian community in Victoria will find much to celebrate, including several Ukrainian Christmas traditions — carolling and puppet theatre being the most notable — that are threaded into the performance.

“When people think of Ukrainian dance, they think of men in baggy pants and women in skirts with flowers in their hair,” Sereda said. “That’s the stereotype, and we’re very proud of that. But we try to take those dance characteristics and elevate them in the structure of a classical ballet show. We try and bring those two worlds together.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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