A SIBERIAN SPIRIT WEDDING
There was a beautiful girl named Dukhey who came down with shaman sickness shortly after her wedding. Rather than let her train as a shaman, her father-in-law tried to stave her to death. But Dukhey escaped and came upon another wedding, where the groom was smitten by her singing. They ran off together but then killed themselves. As a spirit, Dukhey continues to attract the spirits of women unhappy in love. -- Buryat legend
The Yara Arts Group is a resident troupe at the La MaMa theatrical complex in downtown Manhattan. Under the direction of Virlana Tkacz, the ensemble has traveled to Siberia each summer for the past four years to collaborate with local artists and they have collected a wealth of myths and music form which to create the rich aural and visual texture of their dramas. Their most recent production, Circle, revolved around three themes - a wedding, Buryat legend and desire that were unified with music dance to magical effect
Buryats are the largest group of indigenous people in Siberia. Their culture is related to Mongolian and Kalmyk cultures, with a significant Russian influence. Buryat music shares much with Tuvan music, as they both utilize overtone singing and some of the same instruments, notably the horse-headed fiddle. The Buryats practice a mixture of Buddhist and shamanic religion.
The show was graced by several extraordinary Buryat musicians - Erzhena Zhambalov, Sayan Zhambalov, Badmahanda Aiusheyeva and Battuvshin. Gogol Bordello, a Ukrainian group comprising guitar and vocal, bayan and violin, provided a healthy dash of anarchy and expanded their usual "Gypsy thrash" repertoire with several traditional melodies.
The play began in the lobby. The theatre doors burst open, and the wedding was upon us. The audience was called on to help out with some wedding games, notably the hiding of the bride from the groom. This was all done great excitement, and Angela Rubino played the master of ceremonies to the hilt, with real comic charisma. The demonic playing of Gogol Bordello then ushered the wedding party and the audience into the theatre, where the stage was dark except for the singing of the spirits that inhabit the land.
There was Dukhey, singing with lovely purity. As she danced, a flame came down from the sky. It was her fire, which if stolen would grant the owner all he or she desired. The fire was indeed stolen, by a husband and wife who asked for riches and for their son to be married. The sound of overtone singing issued from the vial of fire, portending trouble.
Yet the wedding that followed was truly joyful, buoyed by whimsical direction and by a combination of traditional songs and modern recordings. As the wedding progressed and the gift giving took place, all became quite tipsy. This led to some hilarious moments, in particular, the traditional dressing of the mother of the bride in a large pair of panties adorned with a fur muff. But when the father of the groom decided to bestow the stolen fire on his son, we knew from the ominous overtone motif that ill fortune was coming.
Dukhey appeared and spirited the groom away, leaving the bride to call upon her and her retinue to make her one of them. In a hypnotic scene, she was bound up in veils. Perhaps because unhappy women exist everywhere, not only in Buryatia, this scene was accompanied by lovely Japanese, Korean and Swedish songs that flowed seamlessly into the play. The bride was rescued by a shaman drummer as repayment for the kindness she showed him at the wedding.
Although all seemed well at the end, we know that on one - not the parents or the children - was really the same after these enchantments. The play ended on this unresolved note. People have wished for that they have desired, and having received it, found the price to be very high.
The next time someone tells you that the Yara Arts Group at La MaMa is putting on a show, go see it! It isn't often that one can enjoy such a satisfying evening of theatre perfectly fused with music. This is what good art is all about -- exhilarating, uplifting and entertaining. And for the world music lover, it is a feast of gorgeous singing, authentic costuming and masterful instrumental playing.
In Yara Arts Group's Circle (La MaMa), inspired by Buryat Mongolian legends and music, world collide, unleashing explosive energy. Modern (Western) and traditional (Eastern) elements interlock in the nuptials of two bright-eyed youngsters; heady, bawdy celebration interweaves with eerie visitations from the beyond. A stunningly beautiful work, Circle, rushes at your senses, makes your heart pound, and shakes your feeling loose. I always cry at wedding, but I also laughed a good deal at this one.
East and West, past and present, Buddhism and Shamanism, music and dance all intermingle in Circle, the current show at La MaMa's Annex Theater. The result is a unique piece of theatre that seems to emanate from a distant land.
And indeed it does. The Yara Arts Group, a resident company of La MaMa, has worked for four years with theater artists of eastern Siberia (the Buryat National Theater, located in Ulan Ude) to create this haunting work. Traditional Mongolian musical instruments-percussion, flute, and the morin khoor (horse-head fiddle)-vie with the raw Gypsy/punk music of the Gogol Bordello (a contemporary band based in downtown New York). Added to this is the otherworldly Mongolian throat singing of Battuvshin.
In short, a mish-mash. But it works. The excitement begins in the lobby, even before curtain time. A bride rushes in, pursued by the groom, but is hidden by friends (an old Buryat wedding custom), with the help of audience members. Thus prepared for its journey, the audience moves on, into the theatre proper.
The basic story involves a modern wedding in post-Soviet Siberia-but ancient Siberian myths also make their impact. Onstage the wedding begins, lyrical and lively, with wedding guests dancing up a storm. It could be a wedding in Israel, Greece, anywhere in the Middle East. But soon the story succumbs to darker elements, as the ancient spirits take over and weave their magic. A spell is cast over the groom-and over us all, thanks to this gifted company.
Director Virlana Tkacz has welded her multi-ethnic cast into a unified whole, but with each performer making his own contribution. In addition, the exquisite (and presumably authentic) costumes of Rachel Comey, the background video images of Andrea Odezynska, the choreography of Igor Grigurko all serve to enhance the mood.
All told, a rich, exotic experience that holds us in its thrall.
Creative Recycling: Yara Arts Group and Circle
Virlana Tkacz knows collage. Founding director of Yara Arts Group, a New York–based theatre ensemble, Virlana assembles drama, poetry, music, dance, myth, and movement into multimedia, multilingual explorations that resist summation and disavow conventional plot. Her performances, usually around an hour long (she can’t stand long plays, she says), are compressed, ethereal ruminations on language and culture, on dreams and folklore. Ukrainian, Japanese, and, most recently, Buryat myths and histories have all found their way into Yara plays. Virlana incorporates different cultural elements into her pieces that interrupt and echo each other, seamlessly blending in such a way that it’s hard to pinpoint where one ends and the next begins.
These transformative qualities are present in Yara’s newest piece, Circle, which ran at La MaMa ETC’s Annex Theatre from March 24 to April 9. The show, which is based on folk songs and legends from the Ust-Orda region of eastern Siberia, tells the story of a modern-day Buryat wedding gone bad. Its genesis came out of the songs and stories that Virlana and her Buryat collaborators, Erzhena and Sayan Zhambalov, collected during a four-week trip to Ust-Orda last summer. Virlana has worked with the married couple, young stars of the Buryat National Theatre, on her last three Buryat-infused productions. "Sayan and I would listen to these tapes together, first transcribing the songs, then typing them out in Buryat, then translating them into English. It was a lot of work." The songs they liked most—called "yoxors," or round dances—are traditional rituals songs performed today during holidays and family occasions, and so they thought, why not stage a wedding? Moreover, they had collected a number of ghost stories, which, if enacted within the context of a wedding, would certainly complicate things. "Where’s the fun in a happy wedding anyway?" asks Virlana.
The ghost story that most enchanted the group was that of Duhkey, a beautiful young patron saint of Buryat women unhappy in love. In the play, Dukhey, played by Erzhena, casts a magic spell over the groom, played by Tom Lee, as the festive ceremony quickly falls apart. The giddy joy of the wedding is heightened by the chaotic energy of Gogol Bordello, a downtown New York band that plays gypsy punk music. "You expect the play to get funnier, louder, and more raucous," says Virlana, "but suddenly the spirits arrive and turn everything upside down. It’s a little scary. It’s no longer light." With her bewitching siren’s song, Dukhey is a female power capable of destruction as well as of creativity. Her charms are too seductive, making it hard for the groom and the bride (played by Eunice Wong) to resist. They are no longer two happy-go-lucky kids getting hitched. They are the worst kind of lovesick—anguished and obsessed. "And that is what is so fascinating about weaving spirits into the texture of a play. The mood is funny and it moves along, but then all of the sudden it turns dark," says Virlana.
Dukhey’s legion of ghostly followers (called Ulean spirits) who float across the stage look eerily ethereal, thanks to the modern and immobile white frocks designed by Rachel Comey. Their graceful movements, choreographed with fine restraint by Igor Grigurko, seem to mirror an elusive icy landscape, as much an interior as an exterior one. "In a book of Buryat legends I have," says Virlana, "by the turn of the century Dukhey had collected 350 girls who were unhappy in love. But no matter how attractive the Ulean girls look—with their flowing white dresses and their graceful movements—you do not want to be part of that world."
Because Virlana appreciates randomness, Yara’s collaborative process is receptive to strange associations and coincidences. "The show evolved out of many rehearsals," she says. "We couldn’t have done this on the first Buryat show [the 1997 Virtual Souls], but because it’s our fourth show together, Sayan and Erzhena trust our intentions as far as exploring Buryat culture. They don’t have to insist on who they are. Add a cast of 25 and treat everyone like a thinking person, and soon people brought in songs and stories in Japanese, Korean, and Swedish, offering their own interpretations." The result of such a far-reaching process might be muddled were it not for the hauntingly resounding and unifying Buryat songs performed by the cast, which includes Badmahanda Aiusheyava, who is considered the best young singer of traditional Buryat songs, and Battuvshin, an astonishing throat singer. Andrea Odezynska, another frequent Yara collaborator, created the hypnotic video projections that locate the play in a dramatic natural landscape. Extreme close-ups of water and ice evoke a frozen terrain while close-ups of fire are interposed with images from the groups’ travels. Footage of Buryats in traditional costumes look like they are burning—in danger of being destroyed forever but also strikingly vibrant and alive.
The image of the consuming fire speaks to Virlana’s desire to not only remember the songs and the folklore but to allow the stories to inspire new works of art. "Ukraine and Buryatia have these cultural masterpieces and no one in the West has ever heard of them. So the difficulty is figuring out which parts of the traditional texts will speak to an audience outside of the culture. How do you make a play with Ukrainian stories and songs that non-Ukrainians will like? How do you make it art as opposed to artifact?" And in addition to having access to magnificent texts and songs, being Ukrainian has influenced Virlana’s approach to the Buryats. "While collecting songs and stories in Siberia, I brought my skills as a Ukrainian and Russian speaker, as well as the sensitivity of being a Ukrainian in a Russian empire, having your culture edited and erased. It’s like the first time your mother said, ‘Oh, Encyclopedia Britannica is wrong.’ The idea that there are many other points of view. I feel like I have a real ‘other’ point of view to a lot of things."
When asked when she began working on Circle, her eighth play, Virlana answers, "I never stopped working on the first one." For Virlana, the details may shift and change, but each new play continues this core experiment: to create original theater from elements of traditional Eastern cultures. Or, as Virlana says, "take a bunch of old songs and make a play out of them." From the words and images that intrigue her—frozen, fire, spirit, Buryat, Ukrainian, unhappy wedding, round dance—she pieces together resonant dramas of myth, memory, story, and song.
about the author:
In Slavic and East European Performance, Vol. 20, No. 2.
Yara Arts Group
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