Shumka faces sustainability crisis

Dramatic Finale of Shumka’s Kobzar (2016). Photo: Slavko Sekunda

Ukrainian performing arts groups falling through the cracks of current government support programs.

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau Chief.

Canada’s main semi-professional Ukrainian performing arts group, the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers, is working to avert a sustainability crisis during this pandemic that may affect its future viability.

Darka Tarnawsky

“With all of our regular revenue sources on hold, operations continue to be tenuous,” says Shumka’s Executive Director Darka Tarnawsky.

“And the longer the situation persists, the more difficult it becomes. We have a reserve fund in place, but that is finite. We are accessing temporary wage subsidies and the CEBA loan/partial grant. We do not qualify for the current federal emergency subsidies for the arts but are hoping the second stage of this funding stream will consider those arts organizations who fall through the cracks. Another program on which we rely, the Alberta Lottery Fund Community Investment Program, was just cancelled by the province and there is no word on how casinos will be rescheduled once the dust settles.”

Shumka had dates in April that were cancelled due to the pandemic.

“While this sounds bleak, we continue to research and apply for various support programs and ensure the three levels of government are reminded of our areas of need. Currently, we are especially thankful to the supporters who have stepped up with a donation to help us through these rough waters,” she told New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

While the federal government has announced a $500 million program to support arts, culture and sports, only performing arts groups considered fully professional are eligible for support in the first stage. Shumka doesn’t qualify because while its members earn money, they are unable to make a living from what they get and need to hold second jobs. The vast majority of Ukrainian performing arts organizations have amateur status and are also ineligible. At this stage the amount of money which maybe made available in the second phase is very much up in the air. (See editorial on Page 4).

The situation raises many questions.

“What threat is this to our Ukrainian identity in Canada? Will a natural selection of survival in the arts affect the visibility and strength of our diaspora? What can we, as a community, do to support the decades of work that has been done by our Ukrainian Canadian artists and arts organizations? How can we sustain this important element of our community in Canada?” queried Tarnawsky.

“The COVID-19 situation will test our sustainability like never before. We have worked hard to prepare for a national tour, administratively and artistically, and now we are shut down at the ticket sales stage. This is just one of our programs that has been put on hold indefinitely, and the word on presenting large-scale productions in large theatres (which is what we do), is that the earliest we may resume would be next year. And of course, nothing is guaranteed. Right now, the sheer number of performers we have on stage for a Shumka production wouldn’t be allowed by government safety standards, let alone the number of people in the audience. We aren’t even certain of when we can rehearse together again.

“Each week that goes by is a roller coaster of emotions… two steps forward, three steps back. But we continue to push forward with the creativity and support of a dedicated team. That first tour show is going to have an energy and electricity like never before,” she added.

Challenging times demand creative solutions. On an operational level, Shumka has made several changes to adapt to this pandemic:

  • Rehearsals – the Shumka Dance Centre studios are closed; the current company of 47 dancers rehearses by Zoom during regular rehearsal times. Ballet barre, stamina, circuit training, help to keep dancers in shape but with limited movement areas, (living rooms, kitchens), time will be needed to bring the production back together once full rehearsals are allowed.
  • Shumka School – the School had to close and several festival appearances, year-end show and syllabus exams cancelled. Shumka instructors developed a total of 29 class instruction videos for use by their students and the community at large. The School team also engaged Ukrainian dance students with online choreography contests and craft resources.
  • Outreach – Shumka’s popular outreach programs have successfully gone online, and a second session of Zoom classes – Seniors Can Shumka, Silver Swans and the new White Swans programs – will start in June. (With the online format, adults and seniors can participate from anywhere in the world.)
  • On that same note, the Shumka Artistic Team is starting a series of free Worldwide Workshops for Ukrainian dancers in June focusing on movement from different regions of Ukraine.
  • Shumka released its version of an “Isolation Hopak” on International Dance Day that has been seen by over 40,000 people around the planet.
  • Auditions – The company is holding auditions in June and implementing a new “video/one-on-one in person process” for safety reasons.
  • Summer Camps – Shumka’s annual Summer Camps will run, but in new ways, including online and in-person options (with smaller groups of dancers as per health regulations).

And the group has opened their video vault with free streaming of productions including Return of the Whirlwind and Shumka’s Kobzar. (Stay tuned for more of these in the future.)

“On a personal level, while it feels like this is an off-time from regular Shumka activities, it is anything but,” Tarnawsky said. “All we can do is take it day by day and week by week, until we know our true fate in this new reality. We see that people need the arts more than ever before but will Shumka’s presentation style (large shows with large audiences in large venues) survive the new realities we are facing?

“Thanks to our supporters, Shumka has persevered to a milestone 60 years. But these have been hard and uncertain days that have pushed our resources and creativity in full force. Now, more than ever, we encourage those who care about Shumka, its impact and future to come together in whatever way you can to ensure Shumka can endure this pandemic and come out stronger on the other end.

“I remain optimistic that we will weather this storm together. I see hope in the determination and resilience of the 47 company dancers who rehearse via Zoom in their make-shift home dance studios. I see hope and community in the next generation of young soloists and budding choreographers participating in the Shumka School online choreography contest. I’m inspired by the 35 seniors learning not only dance moves – but how to use technology and participate online to keep their cardio up and their friendships connected. And I’m wowed that over 40,000 people watched ISO Hopak and smiled, cried and shared the Shumka magic on International Dance Day.

“I am hopeful that with hard work and community support, the vibrant Ukrainian Canadian arts community will survive and thrive with a new pioneering spirit. It’s in our blood to do so,” Tarnawsky added.