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Westwind History

For the past five decades, Westwind International Folk Ensemble has pursued its original dedication to the preservation of folk cultures through their traditions of dance, music, song and custom. Over time, Westwind has earned the regard of its audience for its adherence to authenticity, sense of cultural community, and respect for theatrical craft.

The Company began in the summer of 1959 when UCLA instructor Michael Janusz organized a chorus, "The Los Angeles International Folk Chorus," whose first full concert was a part of the second annual UCLA Folk Festival in the summer of 1960. As a result of this initial contact with the wider folk dance community, Westwind members found many dancers interested in the new group. In 1961 dancers joined the ensemble, with Robin and Vince Evanchuk organizing the dance material. An orchestra soon followed, ultimately directed by the talented Victor Pierce. Looking back at those early days, perhaps we can see a pattern -the first two suites were from Russia and the United States, both of which integrated music, song, and dance! The first performance as Westwind International Folk Ensemble was presented in 1961, and the group quickly grew to include more than fifty members. New repertoire featured Ukrainian Wedding Suite (Ternopil'ska Vesily) and Emil Cossetto's beloved, Ladarke. In 1962, Robin Evanchuk and Ruth Garber conducted primary research for the Shaker Worship Service that was given to Westwind. Neal Sandler and Anthony Ivancich became Directors in 1964, and in 1966 the Ensemble split into its Northern and Southern counterparts with Neal's move to the Bay Area (West\wind's southern group later folded).

Westwind's steady growth and refinement over the next 15 years saw the addition of new repertoire, costumes, directorial challenges, artistic exploration, and organizational stability. The Company was incorporated in 1974, the same year that the then-new Thracian Suite (Bulgaria) was taped for the Bay Area's Channel 4, and that presentations of the Shaker Worship Service and Russian City Quadrilles were aired on Channel 9. In 1975, the East Texas Knockdown was chosen for the premier broadcast of ARTBeat (Channel 9), and 1977 saw Westwind's first recording: an album of traditional American music and song. Later that year Westwind made its now well-known national television debut as part of a Coca-Cola commercial. The Company crowned its decade of achievements with its appearance at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium as part of the Zellerbach Dance Series in the spring of 1976 (Neal Sandler, director in his final season), and again in 1980 (Lise Liepman, director). In late '76, then-director Jeff O'Connor led the Ensemble on tour to folk festivals in France and Spain. The Ensemble would not tour again until 1989. The Company then participated in Festivals in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy under the management of Mary Kay Stuvland and the directorship of Lynn Anne Hanson (this tour was followed by others to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey in '91, '93, and '95).

The 1980's saw Westwind in transition, with the input of several directors adding to the rich mix of artistic tradition within the company: Alix Cordray; Vina Cera; Lise Liepman; Harry Browser; the team of David Reyna, Allendreth Stead, and Suzanne Bogas; Marion-Roth Cramer; and Frank Montoya. Roth-Cramer, together with choral director and former dancer, Bon Brown, encouraged Westwind back to the stage after a hiatus of a half-dozen years. Roth-Cramer first organized a joint tour-de-force (with Lowiczanie Polish Dance Ensemble and Neva Russian Dance Ensemble, '86, '87, '88) as the World Dance concerts, and then prepared Westwind's Home Show in San Francisco in 1988. During the first half of this period, long-time performing member, Dan Roland, served with intense dedication in the roles of business manager, publicist, producer, and company manager. Throughout these decades and into the '90's a number of skilled and talented musicians served as instrumental music director to lead the Westwind band members through the many diverse styles required to provide live musical accompaniment for Westwind programs - an honored tradition of the Ensemble. Of the scores of musicians who contributed in countless wonderful ways through the years, the never-stinting dedication of David Reyna shines.

Hilary Roberts bridged the '80's and '90's with her eight-year tenure as artistic director. As director, she continued to add repertoire, to tour and build performance opportunities, to work closely with musicians, choral directors, costume directors, and performers to form the close teams necessary to bring Westwind's brand of magic to the stage. Under Roberts' direction, home seasons ultimately created a style that uniquely positions Westwind among other multi-cultural performance troupes. In 1993, Westwind became the first dance company to be commissioned by World Arts West of San Francisco (producers of the SF Ethnic Dance Festival) to produce new work for the Festival. Palestinian Wedding Suite was a collaborative effort of young choreographer/dancer Elias Koury, Roberts, and the Palestinian community. Another milestone for the '90's occurred in 1995 when choral director Peggy Eagan created Westwind Voices, a separate chorus of Westwind, giving performers the opportunity to specialize in dancing or singing. Two choral concerts were produced in 1996, adding to the repertoire the Irish choral piece, "American Wake." In 1996, after 37 years of dedication and hard work Westwind was honored with an Isadora Duncan Award nomination for one of the company's oldest and most revered pieces, the Shaker Worship Service.

In 1997 Mr. Petur Iliev was chosen to lead Westwind into the next century. Mr. Iliev, a Bulgarian native and professional dancer/ choreographer/ instructor has extensive training in a variety of dance forms including Balkan, Hungarian, Russian, as well as American idioms such as Tap. In his first two seasons Iliev has set three new choreographies on the Company, and has contracted for an additional four. For his first Home Season, Iliev brought musicians of international renown to the stage with Westwind, as well as guest performers, and his choreography, Gypsy Fire, broke new ground. More of his new work was featured in the 1999 Westwind Home Season at Fort Mason Center for the Arts.

Over the past fifty years, Westwind has survived due to the vision, passion and hard work of hundreds of dedicated people. It has seen difficult times, yet the spirit lives on to be reborn in new ways, touching new hearts and new minds.