Going Strong for 50 Years: Westwind International Folk Ensemble

By Avilee Goodwin

November 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

For 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. With a unique emphasis on cultural context, choreography has been drawn from ethnic celebrations, historic events, and the lives of real people, and every attempt is made to preserve original folk traditions.

The company began in the summer of 1959 when UCLA instructor Michael Janusz organized a chorus, “The Los Angeles International Folk Chorus.” In 1961 dancers joined the ensemble, with Robin and Vince Evanchuk, organizing the dance material, and an orchestra soon followed. 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. In 1966 the Ensemble split into Northern and Southern counterparts with director Neal Sandler’s move to the Bay Area (the southern group later folded).

For many years Westwind’s focus was on the cultures of Eastern Europe and historical American dance traditions, as the company researched and presented dances from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Ukraine, the Pannonian Plains, and the Vlach people of Romania, as well as traditional American dances including Appalachian clogging, Kentucky running sets, sailor’s hornpipe, swing, and dances of the classical jazz era. Over the past two decades the company has also branched out to present suites based in the traditions of Hawai’i, Ireland, Palestine, Mexico, Turkey, and the Uyghur people of western China. More recently, Westwind has begun to embrace a fusion of traditional and contemporary dance, as with Wan-Chao Chang’s Balkan/Southwest Asian-inspired Common Prayer and Avilee Goodwin’s premiere of Roots and Branches, an exploration of the roots of Appalachian dance in collaboration with her students at East Oakland School of the Arts.

Westwind’s 50th anniversary, performance, reunion and party, will take place November 7, at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, in Berkeley. Audience participation will be welcome during Westwind’s famous Kentucky running sets. Please see the calendar for details on this event, or visit westwind-folk.org.

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.

Avilee Goodwin has performed with Westwind since 1989. She currently spends most of her time at East Oakland School of the Arts, where she helps budding young inner-city dancers find their creative voices through choreography.