The Mystique of Kurbas

20 March 2012, 15:12

I was born in Newark, which near New York. My grandparents spoke only Ukrainian at home, so I did too since I was a child. At school, many teenagers also knew our language, but when I went to college, Ukraine somehow disappeared for me. Upon graduation I worked in many theatres where the actors were American but of different backgrounds: Asians, Africans and Europeans. I later joined a theatre studio and, at the same time, the world-renowned La MaMa theatre festival. I staged various plays – Indian, Polish and French – with my Yara Arts Group. Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa, once asked me: "What do you want to do now?" And I said all of a sudden: "Ukrainian poetry." This is how Taras Shevchenko came about and how I unexpectedly immersed myself in Les Kurbas. I first heard about him from my grandfather, but it was not reinforced in any way later. I did not know either his plays or any Ukrainian drama works. And then his life, directing and theatre suddenly became the most important thing for me. It is hard to say why it happened in my life. It looks like mystique. My deep passion for Ukrainian theatre comes precisely from Kurbas.

Yara is often called a Ukrainian group, even though more than 300 actors that have gone through our centre are largely of non-Ukrainian origin: Anglo-Saxons, African Americans, Asians and Latin Americans. When I became passionate about Kurbas, I felt a sharp need to convey what I liked and lived by to my colleagues, fellow workers and friends. And this meant Ukrainian poetry, Ukrainian traditional songs and Ukrainian theatre. There were virtually no translations into English at the time, but we still tackled it. It is true that Yara also has other topics. For example, we have worked with Buriat and Kyrgyz sources. However, I am trying to build a new theatre on a Ukrainian foundation and I am continuing along this path. It sometimes seems to me that everything that is born in our group is mysteriously linked to Ukrainian world perception. Perhaps this is why old émigrés who sometimes visit our performances are very open to a new vision of national culture.

Yara’s new play is based on Oleh Lysheha’s poems. He is one of my favourite Ukrainian poets. Last June, when we brought the play Voron (The Raven) based on his poems (incidentally, I am sometimes called a linguistic director), he showed up for the performance. We had a long conversation afterwards, and I confided in him that I was looking for material for my next work. And this is when he told me about his new poem which was about night dreams. I translated it that same night, and it became the foundation for a new performance. I am very much interested in that world of dreams which suddenly crosses over to our reality. It often happens that what we remember about our past is linked to our dreams.

I believe that the theatre is a model of a new life. Think about Kurbas who wrote, with an open heart and faith in his rightness, about the possibility of creating a new world on stage. Yara is working precisely to this end, because this is how the theatre can invent a model of mutual understanding for the peoples of the world. I believe that our plays are a bridge between times and peoples and an effort to find yourself in the world and the world in yourself.

When I was going on my first trip to Ukraine, there was too little or no information about the country. But I already knew Ukrainian history through Kurbas. I staged a play about him, Light from the East, in Yara in 1990. I drew texts from various sources, such as Kurbas’ letters and works and the memoirs of actors who worked with him. My friend Vanda Phillips translated them into English. In summer 1991, the actors of my troupe and I came to Ukraine as we had agreed with Serhiy Proskurnia, who was our producer at the time. The work was crazy: casting in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv and joint rehearsals. We planned the premiere to take place in the Ivan Franko Theatre on 20 August, but the coup broke out in Moscow on 19 August. Countless journalists, many TV cameras were at our press conference which we held at the same time as the putchists were holding theirs in Moscow. U svitli (In the Light) was the title of the performance in Ukraine. The two texts, Ukrainian and English, complemented rather than mirrored each other. The tragic death of Kurbas and his departure to eternity were associated with the raising of the Iron Curtain. Slides were shown with photos from Kurbas’ times. Actors would freeze for a second next to them, imitating the poses of the people long gone and then began to move. This was a kind of reconstruction of what he could take in with his eyes and mind.

I will soon be in Ukraine again. The Kurbas Centre produced many new ideas in the world theatre context to mark the 125th anniversary of his birth. I was invited to take part in an academic conference in Kyiv. I believe it will also continue in Kharkiv. I will be speaking about how Kurbas is perceived in New York and will show slides and books recently published in the USA. My actors from Yara will come along, and I will also invite the Lviv artists I already know. Together we will hold a master class of a new work that will premiere in New York in April.


Virlana Tkacz is an American theatre director, writer and cultural figure. She is the founding director of the Yara Arts Group, a resident company in the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and one of the founders of the International Kurbas Society.


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