History of Sokol Polish Folk Ensemble

by: Dr. Christine Polimeni

A century ago the Sokol Polish Choir [Zespół Piesni i Tańca Sokół] made its first documented public appearance in Winnipeg in 1914. Since then, the Ensemble has delighted audiences throughout North America and Europe with its colorful and dynamic performances. Throughout its history the Sokol Ensemble has been made up of a group of dedicated individuals, who are committed to the expression of their rich Polish heritage.

The history of the Ensemble is closely linked with that of the Polish Sokol Gymnastic Association, which was founded in 1906. It is believed that a thirty-member choir formed shortly after this time under the direction of Kazimierz Sielski, and made its first public appearance at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre (today’s Burton Cummings Theatre) in January of 1914. Later that year, the choir performed Marsz Sokołów at the official opening of the permanent home of the Polish Sokol Gymnastic Association.

In 1925, Helena Garczyńska, a former ballerina and choreographer from Lwów, (a part of Poland at that time) formed the first Sokol dance group. This small troupe of only eight dancers began performing with the choir. Soon after, the dancers were invited by the Canadian Pacific Railway to perform at a series of popular folk festivals. The first performances were part of the New Canadian Folksong and Handicraft Festival held in June 1928 at the 600-seat Royal Alexandra Concert Hall in Winnipeg. This was followed by performances on March 20 to 23rd, 1929 at the Great West Canadian Folk Song Folk Dance and Handicrafts Festival held at the Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina.

In 1935, the Choir and Dancers were featured at the first Springtime in Poland Ball (Wiosna w Polsce) at the Royal Alexandra Hotel. The performances won critical acclaim by those in attendance and in the local press. Two years later, an American film crew attended the annual event and filmed several songs and dances including the Polonez.
In 1942, the Ensemble once again piqued the interest of filmmakers. The National Film Board of Canada produced two films under the direction of pioneering ethnographic filmmaker Laura Bolton. These films entitled Poland On the Prairies and Polish Dance featured performances by the Ensemble and focused on the importance of music and dance in the traditions of Canada’s Polish immigrants.

In March 1952, celebrated photographer Yousef Karsh traveled to Winnipeg to capture the spirit of multiculturalism in a series of photographs. The photographer worked late into the night at Sokol Hall to capture the Sokol Dancers on film. The photographs were later published in the January 1953 edition of McLean’s Magazine. Archival documents of the event mentioned “the radiant vitality of these young Polish Folk Dancers was, for Karsh, in harmony with this restless and happy city”. Later that year, filmmakers from Europe and the United States once again documented the performances of the Ensemble during celebrations in Kenora, Ontario.

Over the first fifty years, the Ensemble was billed under a variety of names including the White Eagle Choir, the Polish Folk Dancers of Winnipeg, and the Sokol Choir and Dancers. Throughout its history the Ensemble performed songs, dances and even theatrical skits, with many of its members filling stage roles as well as production management. This performance style changed under the guidance of the prestigious Julliard graduate and concertmaster Mr. Richard Seaborn, who separated the Ensemble into two separate entities of choir and dancers. This allowed the choir to explore richer harmonies and move into the SATB choral format. In 1964 the choir made its debut at the Manitoba Music Festival and won the Lord Tweedsmuir Trophy.

Under the artistic direction of Władysława (Gladys) Kulas, the Ensemble continued to flourish in this unique union of choir and dancers. Mrs. Kulas’ choreographic career began in the 1950’s and spanned an incomparable forty years. She is credited with introducing movements to the choir, creating countless beautiful choreographies, and founding the Polish Sokol School of Dance.

The Ensemble has several television credits including a series of appearances in the 1960’s program Canadians All, performances in CTV’s In Harmony, as well as a full-featured program entitled Ce Coin de Terre produced by the CBC. The Ensemble was frequently the main attraction at the Kraków pavilion in Winnipeg’s Folklorama festival of nations.
In 1976 under the musical direction of renowned choir director John Standing, the choir won three major awards at the International Festival of Polonia Choirs in Koszalin, Poland. In addition, the dancers performed the Polonez at the gala concert. This was a significant distinction for the Ensemble as the Koszalin Festival was a choral festival and had not featured dance groups in its galas.

In 1980, the Ensemble made its first appearance at the International Festival of Polish Folk Groups in Rzeszów, Poland. Under the artistic direction of the proficient Gladys Kulas (dancers) and the musical direction of admired musical director and musician, Dr. John Tanner (choir), the Ensemble attained high honors in many categories.
Over the last thirty years, the Ensemble has traveled extensively throughout Canada and the U.S. including the Canadian Centennial Festivities in Victoria in 1967,the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Expo ‘86 in Vancouver, and the 1987 International Folk Festival in Springfield Utah. In 2002 the Ensemble returned to Europe to perform in Poland and Italy. Furthermore its members have represented the Ensemble in countless performances and workshops around the world.

In 1980, the Ensemble welcomed its current musical director, Mr. Tadeusz Biernacki. Mr. Biernacki’s expertise as an award winning concert pianist, orchestra conductor and opera chorus director brought a wealth of new musical arrangements and greatly expanded the Ensemble’s repertoire. Under his direction, the Ensemble produced two record albums: a collection of Polish Folk Songs and an album of Christmas Carols entitled Ta Święta Noc. It is estimated that the choir has a repertoire of over 450 songs and has performed in eight different languages. Performances have included traditional Polish folk music, religious hymns, opera, jazz, operettas and musicals. The choir also has a well-established tradition of successful Christmas concerts (Koncert Kolęd) performed in cooperation with other cultural choirs. Thanks to Mr. Biernacki’s vision, the Ensemble has been privileged to collaborate with gifted soloists such as Mariola Płazak-Scibich, Krzysztof Biernacki, Maria Knapik Sztramko and Paulo Szot.

In 1996, award winning artistic director and choreographer Sandro Barbosa joined the Ensemble. Mr. Barbosa introduced highly polished and stunning choreographies to the dance repertoire. Many of his choreographies continue to be performed in the Ensemble today. A century has passed and the Ensemble continues to thrive under the guidance of its dedicated directors and enthusiastic members. Its passionate desire to preserve the heritage of Polish immigrants continues today through its many concerts and support of Polonia and community events. Few performing groups have enjoyed such a rich and unbroken history.

Join us in celebrating the beauty and vibrancy of the Sokol Polish Folk Ensemble.