Derek Schofield, chairman of Sidmouth FolkWeek Ltd, writes for the Herald.
From the mid-1960s the Sidmouth Folk Festival invited international dance groups, first to perform in Blackmore and Connaught Gardens and later in the outdoor arena at The Knowle.
As I discovered while writing the festival’s history, The First Week in August, published for the fiftieth festival in 2004, some of the dancers were emigrant groups from Eastern Europe but settled in the UK. They are a timely reminder of the upheavals in Europe after the end of the war.
In 1969 and again in 1971, the Manchester-based Orlyk Ukrainian Folk Dance Ensemble impressed Sidmouth audiences with their bright, colorful costumes and exciting dances. Other Ukrainian dance groups based in the UK, mainly spin-offs from Orlyk, came in 1974, 1981 (the Czuplak group from Nottingham) and 1986. In 1983 the Vesna group from Ukraine visited the festival (although at the time they were presented as being from the USSR).
When I was arena director for the festival in the 1990s, the group Halychyna from Lviv Ukraine were guests during my first year in the role, 1992, and they returned for the fiftieth festival in 2004. Additionally, the Yatran group from Kirovohrad came in 1998 – all this testifies to the popularity of Ukrainian music and dance at the festival.
The highlight of any performance, accompanied by accordions and stringed instruments called balalaikas, was the hopak dance, with the fast movements of the women and the high kicks and athleticism of the men.
In 1977, Ukrainians who had settled in Canada after World War II, the Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, were guests of the festival. Naomi Martin, 13, who was visiting family in Sidmouth, was ‘bewitched’. Naomi now says, “I fell in love with this music on the spot and its power over me has never left me.”
At 16, Naomi began learning Russian, studying it at university and completing three study trips to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. After living in Poland for a year, Naomi worked in cultural and educational exchanges between the United Kingdom and the USSR and then between this country and the newly independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Naomi returned to the Sidmouth Festival, working as a volunteer team guide and performer for dance groups from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Poland and elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, looking back, she can still see in her mind the group Cheremosh, filling the stage at the Knowle. “A bold song, wild and exciting music, breathtaking agility and a musical tune that makes me cry every time I hear it,” said Naomi.
In a message to Cheremosh on social media, Naomi recently wrote, “Did you know what a profound effect these concerts would have on a little person with no family connection to Ukraine?”
The Sidmouth Folk Festival continues to be England’s premier folk event and returns this year with a hugely varied program of folk music, dance and song, with a full program of workshops, the children’s festival and events for young people – Shooting Roots.
Festival artists will come from all parts of this country, as well as Ireland, Canada and Australia. As the festival’s former president, the late Reverend David Slater wrote, cherishing the festival, “be proud of your own country and be friends with the world”.
And, although there are no international dance groups this year, the city and East Devon have recently welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the current conflict. Who knows what impact they might have on the cultural life of this country? With Naomi, we can look forward to wild and exciting music in the future.