Inside the New York City Dance Company Celebrating Its Ukrainian Heritage
Women Who Travel

Inside the New York City Dance Company Celebrating Its Ukrainian Heritage

Founded in the 1970s, the Syzokryli Ukrainian Dance Ensemble is finding strength in tradition.

From afar, the dancers of Syzokryli look like dolls with floral halos—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, 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.

The dancer Roma Pryma-Bohachevsky founded the Syzokryli Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in 1978 in the United States. Pryma-Bohachevsky, 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 attended Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts and later became a soloist at the National Theatre in Innsbruck, Austria. In her 20s, she immigrated to Canada, where she danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Eventually, she moved to New York, studying under Martha Graham, José Limón, and Katherine Dunham.

Ania Bohachevsky Lonkevych, Syzokryli’s executive director, took over the dance company and its summer programs from her late mother, Roma Pryma-Bohachevsky, who founded the ensemble 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 Hutsul necklace composed of coral beads and bronze zgardas, protective cross amulets hailing from pre-Christian times.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

Pryma-Bohachevsky founded Syzokryli when her daughter, Ania Bohachevsky Lonkevych (a former attorney and now executive director of the company), was only 13. (Pryma-Bohachevsky 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!”

Lonkevych’s own daughter Roma, 20—who is named after the great Pryma-Bohachevsky—is also a dancer and choreographer. When she dances, she wears her great-grandmother’s hundred-year-old sleeves from the Poltava region of Ukraine. Her grandmother also wore them, converting the garment from a shirt to sleeves, as did her mother. “It is a responsibility that I have to uphold,” says Roma. The love of dance is passed down among generations for many of the women of Syzokryli: They danced in the company, and now their children dance. Today there are roughly 35 members in the company, including 18 women and girls. The company has modest means and is reliant on donations. Lonkevych, who grew up in the Ukrainian heart of the East Village, notes that the dance company is able to function today thanks to the patronage of Suzanne Johnson, a fellow Ukrainian-American East Villager and member of the Robert W. Johnson IV Charitable Trust.

Many of the women have known each other since they were children.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

There are a handful of expat Ukrainian dance companies around the world, but what sets Syzokryli apart is the addition of ballet and interpretive dance to the centuries-old footwork and routines. (Last year Roma choreographed a hip-hop routine using Ukrainian rap.) “She wasn’t strictly a folk dancer,” says Lonkevych of her late mother. That merger of dance styles is evident: The routines are both magical and dramatic and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Dana Kurylyk, 27, who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States as a child, has been a member of Syzokrli since 2013. “Ukrainian culture is so community based or else we would not have survived the things historically that we have survived,” she says.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

“What we are doing is so intense,” says Dianna Shmerykowsky, 39, who has been a member since 1997. “In other groups it is beautiful. It looks elegant and unified. But the energy and passion is different because they aren’t focusing on that. It is mechanical in some ways. The heart is different.” One dance, “Fight for Ukraine,” lasts for a harrowing 15 minutes. Pryma-Bohachevsky created the dance after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and it features scenes depicting Soviets, a cross, and Ukrainian peasants. “It wrecks you to perform it because you think about what you’re representing on that stage,” says Anastasia Hanifin, 20. “When we performed it again in summer, we were all in tears.”

Tatiana Ozaruk, 29, is a soloist and senior member of Syzokryli. Her mother is Dominican, and her father is Ukrainian. She has been dancing with the company since 2010. She has a tattoo on her arm of a dancer, which is partially inspired by a solo she danced in “Fight for Freedom” with Syzokryli. “I like the notion of looking upwards and outwards,” she says.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

In national dances like the hopak, men historically perform sets of gravity-defying acrobatics, and the male dancers can easily dominate the stage. “People think women are weak, dainty, and delicate, but [Pryma-Bohachevsky] wanted to show what they really are,” says Shmerykowsky. “Powerful, graceful, and a force to be reckoned with. The women aren’t just there to stand and look pretty. They are also moving and active.” The name Syzokryli itself reflects the tough but beautiful ethos of the company. While there’s no direct translation, Lonkevych notes that it is “a poetic adjective frequently used to describe an eagle. It evokes the image of shimmering wings, graceful, poised and powerful and athletic.”

A dancer helping to button a vest. Lonkevych re-creates much of the costumes in America, referencing books on traditional dress to make them as authentic as possible. Her main goal is to make the dancers comfortable in beautiful clothes, which sometimes means forgoing traditional fabrics. “In [the dance] hutsul, we aren’t going to be using real sheepskin vests!”

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

Many of the young women here playfully abridge the name Syzokryli to simply “Syzo.” They are in high school and college and professionals. They’ve known each other for years after training in Pryma-Bohachevsky’s summer dance camps as children. Now they all travel to practice with the company once a week at the Ukrainian American Youth Association building in the historically Ukrainian heart of New York in the East Village. (Prior to COVID, they’d dance at Playwrights Rehearsal Studios.) Many of them are first-, second-, or third-generation Ukrainians. “I have been dancing Ukrainian tantzi [dance] since I was six, and I have been dancing at Syzokryli since I was 15,” says Hanifin. “I’ve been with Ania my whole life. They are like my parents. They kind of raised us.”

Larissa Pagan, 52, is Syzokryli’s assistant artistic director. Pagan has been a member of Syzokryli since 1991. She wears a ​​modernized version of a Lemko gerden, a seed bead collar made by her grandmother.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

Ksenya Hentisz, 36, a soloist and senior member of Syzokryli, has been dancing with the company since 2000. “I feel so much of what we do in this ensemble is embody and represent to audiences the Ukrainian spirit. Now the world is getting to know what Ukrainians are all about: a brave, strong, and also a devil-may-care attitude,” she says. “It’s something that has always been this way in the dances, but now it is much more important to express that to our audiences, to the world.”

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

The company’s bond has only strengthened since Ukraine’s war with Russia began in February 2022. And their connection to the company has helped several women find a new appreciation for their roots. Daria Gaidamark’s parents immigrated to America in the late ’90s from a region of Ukraine where more people speak Russian than Ukrainian. She discovered Syzokryli when her parents took her to a performance at the Soyuzivka Heritage Center in upstate New York, Syzokryli’s summer-camp headquarters.

Gaidamark has now been dancing with the group for five years. “This is my only cultural outlet, if that makes sense,” she says. “I think doing Syzo and sending videos back to Ukraine, and then hearing, ‘You guys nailed it’—that was really crazy.” Every weekend Gaidamark takes the bus from Binghamton University in New York to visit her parents in Brooklyn but also to train at Syzokryli. “You’re visiting your parents from school, but you’re visiting a second home.”

Over the years, Syzokryli has had a handful of participants who are not fully Ukrainian and simply love the dance. Artistic director Orlando Pagan is from Puerto Rico and has been dancing with Syzokryli since the ’90s. (He met his now wife, who is Syzokryli’s assistant artistic director, while dancing at the company. That’s not uncommon: A handful of women have met their spouses at the company.) Tatiana Ozaruk, 29, has been dancing with Syzokryli since 2010 and has a Dominican mother and a Ukrainian father. She has the Ukrainian coat of arms, the tryzub, tattooed on her wrist. When the war started, she felt a shift personally and within the company. “I felt like I was summoned back to practice. I needed to do something that felt helpful, vivacious, fun, and spirited,” she says. “I felt the emotional depths I wanted to share with the rest of the audience.”

Dianna Shmerykowsky, 39, whose mother passed away when she was a child, is a cousin of executive director Ania Lonkevych. “It was an instinctual thing, but at the same time, an obligation. As I grew older it became something I wanted to continue in order to continue my mom’s legacy,” Shmerykoswky says.

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

“It is a character builder,” Shmerykowsky says. “There is a sense of ownership and how you present yourself. With our girls, there’s a sense of unity and closeness in our cultural connections that binds us.”

Photographed by Mayan Toledano

Dance has always offered the dancers a gateway into Ukrainian history and culture. Each woman notes how Syzokryli has helped shape them beyond the studio, the intense summer programs, or the performances, teaching them discipline and dedication. Ultimately, it’s a link back home. “We are expressing our love of our culture, of each region, through each step, and it brings us all back home,” says Shmerykowsky. “It reminds us of a tradition and connects us with our heritage.”

Photographer and Director: Mayan Toledano
Writer: Liana Satenstein
Cinematographer: Mika Altskan
Production: Lev Khayznikov 
Color: Sofie Borup, Company3
Music: “Nocturne” by Yury Revich Olario 
Sound on Set: Nikita Zarkh
Sound Design and Mix: Manu Brochet
Studio: Gibney
Vogue Visual Editor: Landon Phillips 

Special thanks to Underhill Productions and Gibney (890 Broadway, fifth floor).

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Directed by Mayan Toledano