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A Theatrical Journey into Oleh Lysheha's Poetry

by Virlana Tkacz

I just returned home from a summer of diving deep into the world of Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysheha. Throughout the month of June I listened to his poem "Raven" countless times in rehearsal, both in the original and in the English translation I had done with Wanda Phipps. Then I watched seven performances of this hypnotic theatre piece, first in Kyiv and then in Lviv. And that was just the beginning of my Lysheha summer.

Oleh Lysheha is acknowledged by many to be the best contemporary poet in Ukraine, a "poet's poet." He was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for his book published by Harvard University Press in 1999. However, he is not very well known in Ukraine. When he was a college student he published a poem in Skrynia [The Chest], an underground journal and was shortly thereafter expelled from Lviv University. He was then taken into the Soviet Army and sent to Siberia – the Buryat Republic to be exact. This is where his fascination with Asian culture began.

Back from the army, the only job Lysheha could find was helping film students in Kyiv create their sets. But, he continued to write, and a slim book of his poems, titled "The Great Bridge," was finally published in 1988. The few who had the privilege of catching a glimpse of his special world then, would never forget it. He called his early poem 'songs" and numbered them instead of assigning titles.

The first time I read one of his poems, I was struck by how contemporary it was. I rushed around searching to find a copy of his book, expecting to find the young urban beat of Ukraine. Instead, I sank into a world where Paleolithic horses spoke from cave walls and old illiterate Hutsul women were revealed to be the true judges and guardians of Ivan Franko's spirit. This was really like nothing else I had ever read. Mesmerized, I wrote about it (Ukrainian Weekly June 21, 1998.)

Pieces of Lysheha's poem "Swan" were in two theatre productions I created with my theatre company, Yara Arts Group, and the Buryat artists from Siberia. Then in 2003, I staged the entire poem at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York and at Harvard University.

Most recently -- last spring, Yara created "Raven" based on Lysheha's poem of the same title. I directed the piece, which featured American actor Andrew Colteaux, a member of Yara since 1993, who had originated leading roles in Yara's Blind Sight, Forest Song and Swan. We developed the theatre piece in Ukraine, but premiered it with an American cast at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in the East Village.

The production featured Yara actors, both old and new. Sean Eden worked on Yara's first play in 1990 and traveled with us to Ukraine in 1991. Kat Yew appeared in our last two winter projects, while "Raven" was Maren Bush's first Yara production. Aurelia Shrenker and Eva Salina Primack sang both traditional Appalachian and Eastern European songs. Olga Shuhan read some of the text in Ukrainian -- all making for a truly diverse Yara production.

Thanks to the projections by Volodymyr Klyuzko and Mikhail Shraga, our simple set -- with one moveable screen, exploded with color and movement as the characters ran though the forest in search of an invisible path -- both the audience and press were left breathless: "'Raven' incites this ensemble to glorious flight. The path flown by 'Raven' is, by turns, intoxicating in both its simplicity and complexity. I encourage you to follow where it leads," wrote Amy Lee Pearsall for

"This is a show you can and want to watch many times. Each time you discover something new, as I can testify," wrote Lydia Korsun in Svoboda, while Ihor Slabicky called it "a magical event that captures you and does not let you go." Olena Jennings agreed in her review of the show for the Ukrainian Weekly (April 24, 2011), and praised Mr. Colteaux for his compelling performance. Now the production has been nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award.

In June, I was able to return to Kyiv with lead actor Mr. Colteaux to now work with Ukrainian artists. They included actors Larysa Rusnak from the Franko National Theatre, Victoria Shupikova from Pasika Theatre Center, and Mykola Shkaraban, who has worked on three previous Yara shows.

The creative team involved Ukrainian composer Alla Zagaykevych, who worked live for each performance with her electronic score, as well as with New York bandurist Julian Kytasty. Together, they also created the music for the first section of our show, where we asked the audience to read the text of the Lysheha poem. The final soundscape was entrancing.

Kyiv light designer Evhen Kopyov worked on the projections with photographer Volodymyr Klyuzko, flushing out the ideas generated by American video artist Mikhail Shraga.

We performed at the Pasika Theatre Center at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy June 10-14. Kyiv's KinoTeatr journal wrote: "the most amazing thing about "Raven" is the magical and masterful way the poetic text has been transformed into stage reality… the show is an interesting and unforgettable adventure that is both intellectual and emotional."

After our shows in Kyiv, the company traveled to Lviv for performances at the Les Kurbas Theatre June 22-23. Our projections demanded a lot of backstage space, but the Les Kurbas Theatre is a small jewel of a theatre and the largest space available is round. So, Evhen and Volodymyr had to work extra hard, but, ultimately, came up with some very creative solutions.

The shows were sold out days ahead and the Lviv audiences loved the production. The critic for Lviv's Ratusha newspaper wrote "A philosophical work, full of images, "Raven" intertwines music, folklore, movement, and incredibly beautiful projected images that include live video… Lviv doesn't often see the type of theatrical experiment show by Virlana Tkacz and her Yara Arts Group. They are definitely worth seeing."

Opening night, Oleh Lysheha sat in the center. Seated next to him was Taras Pastukh, who has written a book on the Kyiv School of Poets and is writing a monograph on Lysheha. After the show, Pastukh spoke to the audience. He said he felt that the transcendent qualities of the production reflected the transcendental nature of Lysheha's work.

The poet Victor Neborak, who had just returned from a major poetry conference, told the audience about how highly Lysheha was now regarded by the major poets of Poland and other East European countries. Somehow, Neborak mentioned Shakespeare, so when Lysheha got up to speak, he began with "To be or not to be…" The audience laughed, Lysheha continued the speech, and stunned the entire theatre, not only with his English, but with his memory.

The next morning, I met Lysheha for coffee at one of Lviv's wonderful little cafés. We chatted about the production and the translations I had done with Wanda. He asked about future plans and I told him that in a few days I was going to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to start working on a piece about dreams. Oleh shuffled through his papers, the proofs for his new book, and pulled out a few pages. It was a poem called "Dream." He told me he had written it long ago, but had never published it. Now, it would be the final poem in a book that was to come out in September. I thanked him, made a copy of the pages, and put them in my pile of papers.

At the end of June I traveled to Kyrgyzstan. Although we were still looking for an apartment, the following morning, Andrew Colteaux and I started Yara master class in acting at the Theatre for Young Audience. Many of the participants were old friends and colleagues.

Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, one the greatest actresses I've worked with, created and performed the role the Kyrgyz mother in "Scythian Stones," our recent show with Nina Matvienko. She also played the woman warrior in "Janyl" and co-created with me "Er Toshtuk," the humorous show Yara brought to New York in 2009, that was based on the Kyrgyz epic about a young man who falls into the Underworld. Four of the actors in that show were also now in our master class. Towards the end of each three hour session, we would conduct improvisations on dreams.

For several years, I have been interested in creating a theatre piece based on dreams. Our dreams can bring to light the mystery which swirls silently in our souls. At night, our brains, freed of their burdens, soar like music. Space turns fluid, as we swim through the universe and through time: into our past and even the future. Dreams become our bridge into our childhood, where we can find answers to our life-long questions, or stumble upon new enigmas. We can re-live our former joys and loves, or once again experience their sharp pain and confusion.

We were developing some interesting material in our master classes, but the going was slow. I decided we needed a longer text as the framework. As I leafed through my pile of papers one night, I found the Lysheha poem. I realized this was exactly what I needed. I began translating it into English and showed it to Andrew, who agreed. Next morning, I showed it to Kenzhegul, or rather I retold the poem to her, as she doesn't really read English or Ukrainian. She, too, agreed it was just what we needed, but asked who was going to do the Kyrgyz translation?

As soon as the question arose, we knew we would have to do it ourselves. We started that night, line by line, out loud -- just as I have always worked collaboratively on the English translation with Wanda Phipps. I have also worked like in this way with Buryat and Kyrgyz poets on English translations of their epics in the past. Four days later, we had our first good draft. I showed it to our literary manager and several poets, all agreed: it was very unusual, but very interesting and very good.

From the twelve participants of our master classes, we chose eight to continue working on "Dream Bridge." After a brief research trip to the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul where we recorded traditional folk singers, we returned to Bishkek and started to create Dream Bridge, a theatrical journey into the land of dreams. Together, through a collaborative rehearsal process, we translated the poetry into theatre, into the actors' voices, actions and movements, then eventually into lights, space and projections.

Although the core text of "Dream Bridge" was a Ukrainian poem, no one in the cast spoke Ukrainian. Andrew Colteaux played the dreamer, speaking in English. The rest of the cast played an ensemble of fish that sang and transformed into the other characters in the piece: the dreamer as a young man, his mother, father, grandmother, his beloved and his friend – all speaking Kyrgyz.

The songs in the show were created by Kenzhegul Satybaldieva with music by Nurbek Serkebaev performed on traditional Kyrgyz instruments.

"Dream Bridge" also included fragments from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," with two scenes performed in Kyrgyz and one monologue in the original English. The Shakespeare play is mentioned in the last section of the Lysheha poem, and one day in rehearsal, Andrew Colteaux started: "To be or not to be..," imitating Oleh Lysheha's rendition. Just like in Lviv, both I and the Kyrgyz actors were all on the floor laughing - at first. Then, we were amazed and moved. We decided to include some Shakesepare in the show.

The workshop production of "Dream Bridge "performed July 30-31, 2011 at the Gallery of Union of Artists of Kyrgyzstan. It was a highly visual and evocative show that was completely accessible to all no matter what language they spoke. I created the projections in the show. The lights were designed by Begaim Turumbekova and the costumes were built by Ainura Asanbekova.

Poet Roza Mukasheva wrote: "A show, with its shifting scenes like visions, can help us return to primordial images that seem impossible to experience today as we are overwhelmed by global problems and ever-changing technology. This director is uniquely unconstrained. In many of her productions she has allowed us to experience real, primal and astonishing images that resonate with the secret desires and the worries of our souls. True colors and natural rhythms exist in her world, supported by the subtle range of tones in the music."

We plan to continue work on "Dream Bridge" throughout the fall, developing the piece to include Yara actors from New York, as well as Ukrainian artists. We will be developing it as Yara's spring show for La MaMa's 50th Anniversary season.

Yara has been a resident company at La MaMa since our very beginning in 1990. It was Ellen Stewart, the mama of La MaMa who encouraged us to first go to Ukraine in 1991 to perform our show "A Light from the East" about Les Kurbas. In the following years Ellen came with us to Kyiv three times and once she came to Lviv to ring the bell at our openings.

She made La MaMa the home of Ukrainian Theatre in New York, sharing her house with all the Ukrainian artists who have traveled to be in our shows -- from the actors of experimental companies like the Les Kurbas Theatre in Lviv and Budmo in Kyiv to legendary folk performers like Nina Matvienko and the village musicians who are Koliadnyky of Kryvorivnia. Later Ellen Stewart urged us to continue traveling east to Siberia, Mongolia and Central Asia.

La MaMa's 50th Anniversary Season kicks off with World Block Party on Sunday October 16 2-6 PM. Events will include tours of the archives through the years plus performances by Blue Man Group, gypsy bunk band Bad Buka, and Native American Silver Cloud Drummers, concluding with the official renaming of the block to "Ellen Stewart Way." The Gala will be on October 17th. I hope you will join me and help Yara ring the Bell for La MaMa.

More photographs from our production of "Raven" in New York, Kyiv and Lviv, as well as from Dream Bridge in Bishkek can be found on Yara's website

see also:
Raven La MaMa April, 2011
Raven Kyiv June, 2011
Raven Lviv June, 2011
Dream Bridge Bishkek July, 2011
Virlana Tkacz on Oleh Lysheha 1998

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