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Dance Preview:Bulgarian tradition comes alive with Otets Paissii

Friday, November 16, 2001

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic

It's a cold, wintry Sunday afternoon, but the action is hot and heavy inside the Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in Homestead. Downstairs, Bulgarian nationals drop by to cast a vote for their country's president.

    Dance Preview


WHO: Bulgarian Folk Ensemble with Yanka Rupkina, Stoyan Kostov and Valeri Georgiev and a company of 45 dancers, singers and musicians.

WHERE: Carnegie Library of Homestead Music Hall.

WHEN: Sunday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $10; 412-394-3353.


But those impetuous Bulgarian rhythms threaten to drown out most political conversations because Otets Paissii, the latest incarnation of the Bulgarian Folk Ensemble, is rehearsing upstairs.

There four young women, who between them span seven Eastern European cultures, fly through the infectious Shopski Igri Dance under the watchful eyes of a gallery of Bulgarian portraits, including Father Otets Paissii himself, famed leader and historian.

But another pair of watchful eyes, belonging to artistic director Smilen Savov, is anxiously checking for any mistakes, prodding his charges to lift up their heads, to smile. It's only a week until the group's fall concert, their most ambitious project in years, one that will bring in the Bulgarian folk-singing star, Yanka Rupkina.

Rupkina has won a Grammy Award with her choir, "The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices," has worked with Linda Ronstadt and British pop singer Kate Bush and is admired by The Beatles' George Harrison, who called her "the best singer on the planet."

Savov has requested that she treat the audience to "Tudoro Le," which contains a flowing, free-form phrasing that will contrast with the mind-boggling Bulgarian rhythms that will dominate the program. Later she will offer some of her most popular folk songs.

She is only one of several outstanding Bulgarian artists who will gather to perform with the young troupe. Stoyan Kostov, renowned tambura virtuoso who now lives in Mt. Lebanon, will play "Rachenitsa." Valeri Georgiev, one of Bulgaria's foremost kaval players (shepherd's flute), will travel from Washington, D.C., for a few solo turns. And bass-baritone Guenko Guechev, formerly of the Sofia National Opera and currently adjunct professor of voice in the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University, will perform "Vino Piju."

The orchestra will have its own all-star line-up, including former Duquesne University Tamburitzan director Walter Kolar, assistant director Steve Kovacev and distinguished alumni such as David Kolar, Richard Danchik, Larry Shuga and Ed Markoff.

Savov came to the Tammies after graduating from the State Choreography School in Bulgaria and a two-year performing stint. He graduated from Duquesne University with an undergraduate degree in media communications and a master's in multimedia technology. Today Savov is a Web design developer for UPMC and teaches folk and character dance at Point Park College.

This ensemble consumes him the rest of the time. "I tried to use every single region, every single rhythm," Savov says. "Sometimes I didn't go to sleep."

Yet he wants his family-affair troupe -- from a children's group and teens to experienced adults and talented second-generation performers like Tonya Karuczun -- "to relax, feel comfortable and have fun."

He plans to put 25 dancers and about 17 singers and musicians through a performance that has a "symbolic flow of freedom and purification."

The program will begin with ritual: masked figures to drive evil away, followed by fire dancers and the blessing of bread and wine. Then the dancing begins -- a Thracian suite, dances from Dobrudza, a Macedonian Sabre duet, "Petieta (Fighting Roosters)," the trademark "Shoppe Suite" and, finally, a village celebration made famous by the equally famous folk group, Pirin.

Behind the scenes (and the driving force) will be another familiar face, Patricia French. Between her and Walter Kolar, the pair have devoted more than a century to local folk dance, from the Tamburitzans (he the founder, she a subsequent member) to Pittsburgh International Folk Theatre and now the cultural center, where French is president.

"I feel this is my legacy," she says. "Immigrants built this place and my parents were members. These were Americans that kept the Bulgarian tradition alive." She talks about the building where she once played in the "dungeon," soon to be fixed as part of a $1 million renovation. A soup kitchen that sells homemade recipes every Saturday morning (Thracian chicken with farina dumplings is a favorite) and pays for building expenses. The library, folk art and music collections that truly harbor a national significance and pride.

"I believe in preserving tradition, the beauty of the culture and music that we love," French explains. And upstairs it is being passed on by others like Savov, Karuczan and a flock of children with a fire in their feet, all propelled by the hypnotic rhythms of Bulgaria.

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