Moonshine at Nextfest: a journey for identity in stories and music

Larissa Pohoreski in Moonshine. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse inspirations and theatrical styles. talked to the playwrights. First, meet Larissa Pohoreski, creator and star of Moonshine. 

By Liz Nicholls,

“It’s a celebration of my roots,” says Larissa Pohoreski of Moonshine. “And searching for things I don’t know about them, for things I will never know.”

Like the title beverage, Moonshine, premiering Friday on the Nextfest mainstage, is an original — a fusion of true stories in two languages with folk music into an unclassifiable multidisciplinary performance theatre piece. And Pohoreski brings a remarkably expansive skill set — as an actor, a dancer, a singer, a multiple instrumentalist — to the perpetual quest for identity. “You struggle with your identity…. What if you can’t find it?”

Pohoreski’s roots grow deep into Ukrainian soil. In fact, “English is my second language,” she says of an upbringing here with second-generation Canadian parents steeped in the Ukrainian culture. “I didn’t speak English till kindergarten.”

It was Pohoreski’s mother who pointed out the curiosity that in Edmonton, a theatre town where 10 per cent, at least, of the population is of Ukrainian descent, there is no Ukrainian theatre company. Dance, yes (Vinok, Shumka, Viter Ukrainian Dancers and Folk Choir spring to mind). Theatre, no.

Actor/improviser/director Ben Gorodetsky, inspired by his own Russian Jewish heritage, encouraged Pohoreski to make something for the experimental Dirt Buffet series he curates at Mile Zero Dance. And there was Nextfest standing by: Pohoreski’s 15-minute piece for the festival grew into a workshop production (with trimmings) last year, and became Moonshine. “People came up to tell me afterwards how the piece had really touched them,” she says.

“It’s timing, right?” says Pohoreski, now in her mid-20s, whose first trip to Ukraine, at 16, was a Viter dance tour of the Old Country. “Sometimes life just happens…. My Baba passed a couple of years ago, severe dementia. And at the end she told stories none of us had heard before.”

Some of those secrets have found their way into Moonshine along with Pohoreski’s own experiences. And the storytelling is framed by shots of moonshine — trays of vodka and exuberant toasts, what she calls “the Ukrainian culture of alcohol.”

Most recently Edmonton audiences saw Pohoreski, violin in hand, as a composer in Infinity at Theatre Network. Before that, she was part of Lianna Makuch’s own Ukrainian roots exploration, Blood of Our Soil. Naturally adventurous, Pohoreski was “the inaugural fresh air artist” at Common Ground’s 2017 Found Festival. Before The River, “an immersive outdoor play using Ukrainian folk stories,” took half the audience on a journey forward through the narrative and half backward.

Larissa Pohoreski. Photo by Ryan Parker

Extreme versatility creates its own challenges, she thinks. A dancer first, who took up the violin — and also plays the piano and accordian, the guitar, the dulcimer, the bandura (a Ukrainian plucked stringed folk instrument) — Pohoreski describes herself as “one of those kids who are never quite able to decide what to focus on….”

She went to MacEwan University in theatre arts, then the U of A in theatre design. “When I came to create something, I wanted storytelling to happen in the most visual way possible.”

Growing up “I had a feeling of not really fitting in, an outsider living between worlds, Ukrainian and Canadian, without enough of one or the other,” she muses. That’s why the show happens in “a mix of languages; I slip in and out of the two worlds…. Everything I talk about in the show is true. It’s me putting the puzzle pieces together.”

Moonshine runs Friday, Sunday, June 6 and 9 at the Roxy on Gateway. Check for times and tickets.


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