Pity the nation that has lost its voice. Ukraine gained political independence in 1991 upon the collapse of the U.S.S.R. but inherited a shattered culture due to centuries of autocratic rule and political repression. Fortunately, cultural heritage can be reclaimed, at least in part, through memory and one of the people helping Ukraine rediscover its voice is Virlana Tkacz, artistic director of the Yara Arts Group at La Mama ETC in New York.
Tkacz–a U.S.-born scholar and translator as well as a director has devoted her career to restoring the theatrical legacy of one of the Ukraine’s prominent theatre figures, Les Kurbas. Kurbas was a theatre director who in 1922 created the Berezil, one of the most innovative and revolutionary theatres in Europe at that time, only to be crushed by the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s.
After touring Ukraine in 1990 with her production of A Light from the Far East, a collage of text and images from Kurbas’s diaries, Tkacz joined forces with Ukranian director Anatoly Starodub and La Mama director Ellen Stewart to create an international theatre festival celebrating Kurbas’s theatre work. And so in short order, in the eastern Ukranian city of Kharkiv, the Berezil International Theatre Festival was born.
Tkacz traveled with her Yara Arts Group to the inaugural festival last spring to take part in what amounted to the restoration after some five decades of suppression of modernism and experimentation to a rich, historically potent theatre tradition. Tkacz’s trek eastward mirrored her mentor’s voyage decades earlier. Kurbas was born in 1887 in western Ukraine, part of the relatively liberal Austro-Hungarian Empire, where artists had some access to European ideas and trends. Kurbas was fascinated with the new theatre he saw as a student at the University of Vienna and on his travels through Western Europe. He returned in 1916 to Kiev determined to “Europeanize” the Ukranian theatre.
Until the Revolution, Kiev and most of eastern Ukraine had been ruled by czarist government, which crippled theatre there by strict censorship and severe restrictions, allowing only ethnographic dramas and operettas. In 1876, Czar Alexander II banned all performances in Ukranian which led to such absurdities as Ukranian folksongs sung in French. Plays which dealt with historical events or social problems were prohibited, as were Ukranian translations of foreign plays.
WHEN THE CZAR was overthrown in 1917, all legal restrictions on Ukranian theatre were lifted. Kurbas staged European classics and presented new plays in Ukranian. But his work in Kiev was soon cut short by the chaos of civil war. Theatrical life in the city was destroyed, and Kurbas fled to the provinces. By 1922, however, the civil war had ended and a great modernist renaissance of Ukranian cultural life was beginning. Kurbas returned to Kiev with a new dream to create a revolutionary theatre. In the month of March (“Berezil” in Ukranian) he announced the formation of the Berezil Artistic Association. Because conditions were still unsettled in Kiev, the capital and the theatre along with it was moved to Kharkiv, where Kurbas and his company flourished, inspired by the era’s revolutionary fervor.
But the years of ethnographic stranglehold had taken their toll. By always playing in the same restricted repertoire, eastern Ukranian actors had developed a peculiar style of acting based on the preservation of established theatrical techniques. Kurbas felt this perfection of mastered forms brought Ukranian actors closer to the theatres of China or Japan rather than those of Europe. So he set out to develop his own system of stage movement. Actors had to learn to construct an image. Kurbas urged his actors to discover and use what he called “transformed gestures” a concrete stage image that would transmit all the psychological contradictions of character. The work was based on disruptions, contrasts and juxtapositions. Atonal, expressionistic music scores, cubist costumes and sets, and innovative montages of film and stage action were integrated into his drama. Each production created a sensation, and he soon became one of the foremost directors in the Soviet Union. Competitors like Vsevelod Meyerhold in Moscow clamored to stage his work.
Tragically, his success was not to last. Kurbas was arrested in 1934 and exiled to the camps in the far north of Russia. Although for a time legend had it that he was drowned in the White Sea, researchers discovered two years ago that he was actually executed in Petrozavosk in 1937 on the grounds of “formalism and modernism in art.” His remains were never found.
With Kurbas’s death and the suppression of the Berezil Theatre, modernism in Ukranian theatre was destroyed. “Stalin assigned each people a role in the arts,” explains Starodub, director of the Les Kurbas Centre in Kharkiv. “Ukranians were to sing and dance in their pretty costumes.” The proponents of socialist Realism embraced the old ethnographic traditions in the Ukraine, and it was back to happy peasants cavorting on stage.
“It’s not possible to reanimate the Berezil theatre,” Starodub admits. “But we can continue in its spirit. We can gather the positive. Kurbas has a future once more in the Ukraine. He can help us find our place.”
Tkacz feels that Kurbas’s ideas can also help to reinvigorate theatre in the United States: “The American theatre professional now often faces the decision of working in a theatre still based on 19th-century concepts of linear time and space, or a theatre that proclaims the inscrutability of its beautiful private images and its complete tyranny over actors,” she contends. “Kurbas dreamed of a theatre driven by a theory of performance, a theatre of experiment that would explore the nature of gestures and images. Today Kurbas and Berezil seem more like a vision for the future than one from the past.”
WITH JUST SUCH A VISION in mind, Tkacz created Blind Sight, based on the true story of the life of a blind Ukranian poet named Vasyl Yeroshenko, who traveled to Tokyo in 1914 and, writing in Japanese, became a noted author there. Blind Sight, La Mama’s entry in the first Berezil Festival last spring, examined communication across barriers of language and nationality as a sightless artist “sees” cultures throughout Asia. When Yeroshenko returned to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, he also became one of Stalin’s victims, and like Kurbas was arrested and spent many years in labor camps. When he finally returned to his home village to die in 1952, the Soviet authorities burned his manuscripts. With an international cast that included local Ukranian actors, the production excited sold-out audiences in Kharkiv and Kiev, before returning to La Mama for its American premiere on April 15.
Prior to the trip home, Ellen Stewart stooped before a monument commemorating Les Kurbas in a cemetery on the grim industrial outskirts of Kharkiv, rearranging flowers scattered by a strong wind. Stewart, who had been recently hospitalized, made the long and difficult trip to the Berezil festival because she believes in Kurbas’s vision. In addition, her ties to the Ukranian community in New York stretch back decades from the time in the early ’60s when a Ukranian on East 9th Street was the only landlord who dared rent a theatre space to a black woman. Stewart sees the restoration of Kurbas’s pioneering work as a refusal to give in to despair. “These people are the path of hope,” she says simply.