Kurbas in Kharkiv
museum exhibitition featuring costumes, set recreations, photographs and recordings about Les Kurbas, Ukrainian theatre director from the 1920s
curated by Virlana Tkacz, artistic director of Yara Arts Group, New York
The exhibition revealed why Kurbas can be called one of the most innovative theatre directors of his time and a forerunner in the use of new media in theatre. While working in Kharkiv 1926-1933, Kurbas dreamt of creating a new urban culture in Kharkiv then the capitol of Ukraine.
“Kurbas in Kharkiv,” was an exhibition about a genius, who changed the world around him and art which became the symbol for an era. Kharkiv in the 1920s was an alternative cosmos, with its own bright stars and black holes. Kurbas was an important planet in this cosmos, it is impossible to imagine a chart of these heavens without him. Yara Arts Group’s exhibition is more than interesting or informative – it is totally relevant today. It restores ourselves to us, our past, our history -- it restores our cosmos to us.”
“Museum workers from Kharkiv and the Kharkiv Region, museum studies students, private collectors and scholars had their own special seminar “Museum Exhibit: From Idea to Realization” during the exhibit “Kurbas in Kharkiv,” at the Yermilov Centre. Virlana Tkacz and Volodymyr Klyuzko spoke about the importance of museum exhibits, revealing how the concept for their show arose and how they searched for exhibition objects. They also revealed how the exposition was put together with numerous local volunteers and institutional partners.
“The exhibition “Kurbas in Kharkiv,” at the Yermilov Centre this winter was an important event in the artistic and cultural life of our city. For the first time in years the work of this important theatre director was clearly presented in an exhibition and a series of special events. All those who attended learned of the upheaval created by early 20th century art and realized that Les Kurbas’s ideas are relevant today. The exhibition featured reconstructions of sets from Berezil Theatre productions, as well as objects from museums in Kyiv, Kharkiv and private collections. The expansive program of special events revealed the artistic and scholarly potential of Kharkiv to respond to Kurbas’s work, his theatre and artistic context. The younger generation who took part in the special events revealed their interest in Kurbas and the Ukrainian avant-garde – and this is significant. Today we can clearly feel the resonance even among casual visitors.“
"KURBAS IN KHARKIV": Bringing Ukraine's Artistic Heritage Home
Legendary Ukrainian theater director and innovator Les Kurbas has been the subject of numerous academic studies, memoirs, and contemporary performances. Theaters in Ukraine bear his name, as do streets in major cities. A statue of him stands in the center of Kyiv. It is well known that Kurbas was the premier Ukrainian-language theater director from the 1920s until his arrest in the 1930s, and that he was executed in the Gulag in 1937. But what did Kurbas actually do? What were his theatre works like?
These are the questions addressed by the exhibition "Kurbas in Kharkiv," which was on view at the Yermilov Center in Kharkiv from January 18–February 25. Organized by Virlana Tkacz, artistic director of the Yara Arts Group, together with Tetiana Rudenko, head archivist at the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine, and Kyiv-based designer Waldemart Klyuzko, the exhibition showcases several Kurbas productions to give visitors a chance to imagine what they might have seen on stage.
One of the show's main tasks was making the director's cutting-edge art and thinking accessible to a large, general audience (ranging from local schoolchildren to physicists visiting Karazin University, where the exhibition venue is located) and demonstrating the connection between his work and Kharkiv's history.
Following a brief introduction to Kurbas's early shows and the founding of the Berezil Artistic Association in Kyiv, the exhibition displays three experimental theater productions from 1923-1924, when the troupe was still based in Kyiv — Gas, Jimmie Higgins, Macbeth. Visitors were treated to constellations of details, like sketches for costume designs, replicated costumes, photos of the performances, playbills, notes from rehearsals, a piece of the Jimmie Higgins script. The curators chose not to exhibit any original documents or artifacts at the Yermilov Center, thus intentionally avoiding the fetishization of the artifact that is sometimes a temptation with historical museum exhibits. Yet many of the reproduced notes, photos, playbills still convey the patina of their original time. Recordings by modern-day actors reading descriptions of what was happening on stage added another dimension to the sensory experience of the exhibition. We were invited to join the curators in their curiosity-driven research and reconstruction of Kurbas's work by making our own connections between the various pieces on display.
The heart of the Yermilov space is devoted to Kurbas's work in Kharkiv, after the Berezil became the National Theater of Ukraine and moved to the Soviet republic's new capital in 1926. Three shows reflecting the challenges and excitement of creating Ukrainian-language theater and shaping the new Ukrainian culture in a future-oriented capital city are displayed—The People's Malakhi (1928), Hello, This Is Radio 477 (the first jazz musical revue in Ukraine, 1929), and Myna Mazailo (1929). The first aimed to capture the transition from a rural, peasant culture to life in the modern city. The jazz revue, in step with the greater context of modernist, technologically advancing Europe, reflected the cosmopolitan character of city life; many of Kharkiv's cultural elites came from all over Ukraine and beyond, but were devoted to creating a distinctly Ukrainian modern culture. Myna Mazailo, about a family debating whether to Russify their last name or make it emphatically Ukrainian, addresses the difficult task of negotiating one's past lineage while moving forward into the future. These plays were all performed from original texts, written in Ukrainian by Mykola Kulish and his literary contemporaries. The exhibition features reconstructions of the spectacular sets for Hello, This Is Radio 477 and Myna Mazailo, built large enough to imagine them on stage.
Kurbas's Berezil was at the center of turbulent debates on what the culture of the new Ukrainian state should be. While it is important to acknowledge that Kurbas's artistic work in the early years of Soviet Ukraine was inextricably tied to a political project (as historian Mayhill Fowler convincingly argues in Beau Monde on Empire's Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine), the exhibition Kurbas in Kharkiv makes a point of circumventing the politicization of Kurbas's work. As Ms. Tkacz has pointed out, by 1929 the official and public response to these three performances show a tendency to interpret the meaning of artistic choices strictly in political terms. For example, the spectacular sets were hardly mentioned in reviews. The exhibition strives to show the work itself, which sometimes gets lost amidst the debates over the political significance of Kurbas and his art.
"Kurbas in Kharkiv" returns attention to the philosophical and existential aspects of Kurbas's shows and highlights the director's artistic experimentation. In the display of the Berezil's production of Georg Kaiser's Gas, a 1923 play about a future gas factory that explodes, we see how the abstract costumes designed by Vadym Meller visualize the relationships between workers and capitalists. Meanwhile the action on stage shows the dangerous dance between humans and powerful sources of energy they can't control. The story is told through the actors' movements across an abstract set (choreographed by Nadia Shuvarska), with original music by Anatoliy Butsky. Well-trained in using their bodies to produce abstract forms, the Berezil's actors entered the stage as workers, became the factory machines, accelerated their movements and, in chorus, exploded. Afterward, their bodies became the explosion's human victims. Following a series of illuminated photographs from scene to scene and listening to a recording of participating actors' memoirs, exhibition visitors could begin to envision the play, with its ever-relevant questions about the human desire to harness limitless resources.
Ultimately, a theater director, be it Kurbas or Ms. Tkacz, has the audience in mind. This exhibition is a rare instance where local Ukrainian history is presented to the local audience as a place to explore rather than facts to memorize. Bringing the shows to life also involved an intense schedule of events. Local scholars lectured on different aspects of Kurbas's work and its context; part of Yuliy Meitus's music for Hello, This Is Radio 477 (discovered by the curators when preparing the exhibition) was performed live by Kharkiv Conservatory students; one day theater groups (ranging from amateurs to professionals) turned the Yermilov Center into a performance space for their modern-day interpretations of Kurbas's plays. Ms. Tkacz spent most days at the Yermilov Center, greeting visitors and leading impromptu exhibition tours. She experimented with different approaches to presenting the work to various audiences, and by re-examining the artifacts on display together with them, discovered new aspects of Kurbas's work.
This exhibition is a generous invitation to today's Ukrainians to reconnect with their past -- one that is littered with attempts to break with what came before for the sake of a new future. Kurbas himself foresaw this danger, which provides the underlying tension in Myna Mazailo. The exhibition highlights an aspect of the original play often cut from modern-day productions: as the main character ponders changing his last name to fit the trends of the day, his ancestors return to remind him of his long lineage, of lives great and small identified with that last name. (He also receives a visit from a future descendent, who advises him to replace his name with the digits 31-51 according to the prevailing universal number system.) Meller's futuristic set places the connection between generations in a vast space-time continuum. "Kurbas in Kharkiv" highlights this particular aspect of the play as a sort of key to the exhibition, which returns a local artistic heritage, worthy of celebration, to Ukrainians in modern-day Kharkiv. If, as Ms. Tkacz told me, "culture is a space-time continuum," then it needs constant articulation. It has to appear with regularity in a particular place, time and form (with texture and details).
"Kurbas in Kharkiv" was produced with support form the Yara Arts Group, which is till fund-raising for this ongoing project. Preceded by "Kurbas in Kyiv" at the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine from February 25–October 25, 2017, "Kurbas in Kharkiv" was the second edition of an exhibition focusing on Kurbas's theatrical work in Ukraine organized by this group of curators. Preparations are underway for the exhibitions next edition at Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv this fall.
KURBAS IN KYIV -
exhibition February 25 - October 25, 2017
related events :
Yara Arts Group
306 East 11th St., #3B
New York, NY 10003 USA