Spring Wassail Balkan Dance Party this Saturday

Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band

Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill in Staatsburg will host the 18th annual Spring Wassail Balkan Dance Party on Saturday, May 10. It starts at 2 p.m. and continues well into the night, says Elizabeth Ryan, who has farmed the site since 1984 and produces cider from its bounty. The event will feature Balkan food, music and dance along with cider-tastings, including the launch of a new hard cider aged in bourbon barrels, and a traditional Celtic candlelight ceremony in which the assembled will sing to the apple trees to ensure a bountiful harvest.

The Celtic ceremony was inspired by Ryan’s travels in England. “The word ‘wassail’ was originally was-hael, which means ‘to your health,’” she says. “In its oldest tradition, in pre-Christian England, they went to the biggest tree in the orchard and drank hard cider. The other part of the tradition is a huge bonfire, which we also do. The idea was: You’re lighting the darkness and ushering in a new year.” Ryan explains that the ceremony was traditionally held in the dead of winter, but carrying on the tradition now in spring, they’re ushering in a new cider year, accompanied by the singing of the oldest version of an authentic wassail song.

So where does the Balkan part of all this come in? “In 1977, I went to Bulgaria to study its legendary Balkan singing,” Ryan says. “We were one of the first American groups to go. I fell in love with the people and the culture, and traveled there a lot. Since then, I’ve been involved in producing events and working with traditional musicians from the Balkans.”

Ryan was also farming apples during those years, and once the Celtic Wassail began to become an annual event, the Balkan performers she knew wanted to be involved. “So we started ‘Balkanizing’ the party,” Ryan says.

“The Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band plays hard-driving Balkan brass. They represent Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Romani traditions,” she says. “Then we have Seido Salifoski, a Macedonian Roma who has played dumbek in Balkan and Middle Eastern styles for 30 years, who brings his group, Romski Boji. And you never know whomhe’s going to show up with.”

New additions to the performers expected are still being added. “We also have a very famous Bulgarian bagpiper, Nedyalko Ketev, who lives in New York City, and Korinya, a New Paltz-based band of young Ukrainian performers who have just released a self-produced CD.”

Other performers include the Bosilek Bulgarian Folk Dance Ensemble and the Vanaver Caravan Kids with Bill and Livia Vanaver, and dance teacher Steve Kotansky will lead an afternoon dance workshop for attendees to learn Bulgarian dance steps.

“The whole thing feels very much like a wedding or a house party,” says Ryan. “I’m interested in bringing music off the stage and putting it into context. In the Balkans, music is extremely up-close and personal. The boundaries between the performers and the people are very thin. I wanted to have people not just hear this music in bars in New York; I wanted to do what they do over there all the time, which is be outside, dancing. It’s about a 12-hour dance party that usually goes until midnight.”

The spread of food that includes wood-fired pizza and a lamb roast is included with the price of admission. Tickets cost $60 for adults with advance purchase ($70 at the gate), $15 for ages six to 17 and free for kids under age six. Admission after 8 p.m. costs $25 and does not include dinner. Camping costs $10 extra. But Ryan emphasizes that it’s not even a “break-even” event for the orchard, whose policy is to have a sliding scale available: Nobody will be turned away.

Ryan has also managed Stone Ridge Orchard in Stone Ridge for years. Just last week, she says, she finally closed a deal to purchase the site, once the center of considerable community controversy when it was slated for demolition in order to develop the land. When the housing market collapsed, the land was put up for sale, and after a long period of negotiations and raising $1.3 million with the help of Friends of Stone Ridge Orchard and four land trusts, Ryan says, they’ve purchased the land with plans to open the Rail Trail through it – along with other ventures to be announced.

Spring Wassail Balkan Dance Party, Saturday, May 10, 2 p.m., $60/$70/$15, Breezy Hill Orchard, 828 Centre Road, Staatsburg; (845) 266-3979, www.hudsonvalleyfarmhousecider.com.

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