Living out of a suitcase while traveling by bus across the country to perform every night during August doesn’t sound like everybody’s idea of a summer vacation.
For Emily Knihnicky and the other members of the Tamburitzans, however, traveling by bus is a relief after three weeks of intensive boot-camp style rehearsals.
“I’s nice to be actually performing the show instead of rehearsing it day after day at camp,” Knihnicky said. “It’s more exciting.”
The Tamburitzans, who will perform Tuesday at the State Theatre in Zumbrota, have been around since 1937 and are based at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Traditionally, they have drawn from the rich folk music and dance of eastern Europe for their material, which is presented with colorful costumes and an incredible amount of energy.
Knihnicky, like many of the Tamburitzans, has a background in ethnic dance and performance. She has danced for years with a Ukrainian dance group in her native Philadelphia and speaks fluent Ukrainian. Her mother and sister were also Tamburitzans.
“I’m interested in my own culture, and now through Tamburitzans in other cultures,” she said.
Like the other members of the ensemble, Knihnicky survived a rigorous, three-step audition process that in its final stage tests the kind of resourcefulness and adaptability the students will need to be a Tamburitzan.
“In the call backs, we simulate a day at our training camp,” said Rob Vukic, executive director of the Tamburitzans.
“You get a lot of different styles of dance thrown at you,” Knihnicky said. “I had to try to pick up Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian dance. It was very nerve-wracking.”
Spots in the Tamburitzans come with scholarships to Duquesne, which adds to the intensity of auditions.
Once in the group, the students are gathered in July to rehearse the new season’s show.
“We get together at our administration building in downtown Pittsburgh, take a group photo, then get on the bus,” Vukic said. The 25-day training camp is held at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. “We unpack and get to work. Breakfast is at 8 a.m. and we go until 10 p.m.”
Each year’s program is different, and this year’s has a new wrinkle as well.
“We’ve got a pretty big change in the show,” Vukic said. “We’re saying that anywhere international, not just eastern Europe, is fair game for us. So this year, we’ve got a Latin tango in the show.”
There are other updates as well. “We’re trying to be a little more theatrical,” Vukic said. “We’re adding some theatrical flair.”
For the student performers, though, nothing has changed in terms of dedication.
“The hardest thing for the group as a whole is time management, because we’re all full-time students,” said Knihnicky, who is majoring in psychology and plans to add a nursing degree.
That academic focus changes once they climb off the bus and get into their costumes. Then the Tamburitzans are full-time entertainers.
“When you see these students on stage performing with such passion, it’s infectious,” Vukic said.