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created by Yara Arts Group and the artists from the Buryat National Theatre of Siberia, featuring traditional Buryat Mongolian music and throat singing. -- An American journalist in Siberia today finds herself in the footsteps of a 16th century Buryat Mongolian princess. Their worlds entwine as a Shaman, at the height of his trance, leaves his body and takes flight.

In video clip: The Shamaness (Erzhena Zhambalov) says she will stay behind to protect Balzhan Khatyn (Donna Ong) from the approaching Manchurian Army. She calls down the Thudergirls and closes the road.

created with the Yara Arts Group

and artists from the Buryat National Theatre


Tom Lee, Donna Ong, Meredith Wright, Erdeny Zhaltsanov, Erzhena Zhambalov and

Sayan Zhambalov,

featuring traditional throat singing by Battuvshin

Thunder Dancers: Melanie Anastasia Brown, Suzie Cho, Yoko Hirayama, Allison Hiroto, Maile Holck, Jun Kim, Kathleen Kwan, Frances C. Lee and Mariko Shibata – swings:  Jina Oh and Akiko Kikuchi, understudies Soomi Kim (Balzhan Khatyn)


directed by Virlana Tkacz

music composed  by Genji Ito and Erzhena Zhambalov

features traditional Buryat folk music and throat singing

production design: Watoku Ueno

costumes made by: Luba Kierkosz, Mrs. Aiusheeva and Sara Jean Tosetti

movement shaped by Dyane Harvey

translations: Virlana Tkacz, Wanda Phipps and Sayan Zhambalov

folk music consultant: Erzhena Zhambalov , vocal coach: Natalia Honcharenko

asst. director & stage manager: Marc Gwinn

asst. stage manager: Naomi Watanabe

production asst: Matvei Yankelevich, administrative assistant: Jason Eksuzian

sound operator: Stefano Zazzera, graphics: Carmen Pujols


New York La MaMa E.T.C, March 6 - 21, 1999

The piece performed at La MaMa in New York, the Buryat National Theatre in Ulan-Ude and on tour in the villages of the Buryat Aginsk Region, where the folk songs and legends that inspired the piece were originally collected.

FLIGHT: A Buryat Princess Finds Us by Virlana Tkacz


The Yara Arts Group, which I head, creates original theatre pieces based on materials from the East. After our first collaboration with the Buryat artists, Virtual Souls, we wanted to work together on another piece. We decided that the piece would explore the theme of transformation and would be based on traditional Buryat folklore and songs. Sayan Zhambalov, one of the Buryat actors, suggested that we go on a research expedition to the Aginsk-Buryat Region, the most traditional area, where ancient songs and legends still live in the memory of the local people.

The Aginsk-Buryat Autonomous Region is near where the borders of Siberia, China and Mongolia come together. It is as far away from New York as you can get, both in physical and spiritual terms. In July of 1997 five Yara artists set out to for this distant land to gather material for our new piece. It is a difficult place to get to -- we had to sit in airplanes and airports for three days before we finally landed in Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia just east of Lake Baikal. We were met by our Buryat colleagues: Sayan Zhambalov, his wife Erzhena Zhambalov and Erdeny Zhaltsanov. Together we got into a van and drove east for two more days, first on the Siberian highway, then on back roads. Finally we arrived in Aginskoye, the regional center. It was the late in the afternoon when we drove up a steep dirt road at the edge of town. Sayan's mother, his sister and his brother live in the last three houses. Sayan's sister Sesigma, the oldest in the family, had the largest house, so most of us stayed with her.

I was very sore from sitting for such a long time. When I saw some of our folks hike up to the birch forest right behind the house, I ran to catch up with them. Every tree in the forest was a birch. It was beautiful, but also ghostly. The birches felt like living beings. Here it was obvious why the Buryats said: "My mother is the swan and my family tree -- the birch." I laid down on the ground and stared at the sky through the birch leaves. The delicate smell of the birches was intoxicating.

When I walked back into Sesigma's kitchen it was packed with grandmas. They were all getting dressed in their Buryat folk costumes. Their robes were made of blue brocade and closed on the right side with four silver buttons. The sleeves were a bit puffed with red ribbons cutting across the upper part of the arm. The long sleeves ended with large upturned cuffs of the same material and where decorated with red piping. The robes were gathered in the waist and the full skirts hung down to cover most of the calf. On top of their robes the grandmas all wore long vests made of the same material. A ribbon trim decorated all the edges of the vests and outlined the waists. On their heads they wore the traditional cone shaped Buryat hats made of blue brocade which were topped off with red tassels. The upturned brims of the hats were fur-trimmed. Just under the hat each woman wore a wide velvet band around her head which was decorated with coral and amber, or colored glass. Long silver chains hung down from the band on either side of the head, over the ears. The chains turned into a big silver circle just above the breasts. A silver chain connected the two circles in front and hung down towards the waist. This was the traditional silver decoration that a married Buryat woman wore.

The grandmas also had traditional silver ornaments that hung from both hips. These were very ornate silver circles to which were attached traditional female tools, like a needle case or manicure set to help you clean your nails. I was surprised to see that several of the women had a large ornamental knives hanging from their hip ornament, and commented on it. I was told that although all Buryat women had hip ornaments, only Aginsk-Buryat women wore knives. When I asked if this was an old tradition, I was told, "Oh yes, ever since Balzhan-khatyn."

Before I could ask who was Balzhan-khatyn, the grandmas got into a fuss. They were our official welcoming committee, but they couldn't decide where they should perform the traditional welcome. Most wanted to it to be in "the lap of nature," as they said. We agreed this would look great on video we were planning to shoot. But it was a windy day and our composer Genji wanted to get a good audio recording of the event. He was pushing for them to sing indoors. The grandmas then decide to walk up into the birch forest right behind the house. They would do their official welcoming ceremony on the edge of the birch forest. Then they would return to the house and sing all the songs they knew for Genji to record. And this is what we did. We stayed up late into the evening listening to all their beautiful songs and I forgot about Balzhan-khatyn.

The next time Balzhan-khatyn came up was a few days later. We were going to see a traditional uligershyn, story-teller who lived further south. Just a little bit out of town the good road gave way to the bad and everyone in the back of the van started dozing.

"That's Tsokto Khangil," Sayan suddenly said. "We should stop here." We all got out and Sayan pointed to a hill. "This is the place where Balzhan-khatyn rested." He then explained that Balzhan-khatyn was a Khori-Buryat princess who married the son of a Manchurian Khan when she was very young. Then she ran away, taking her people with her. The old Khan sent an army after her and they pursued her through this area. And this is the place where she rested." I looked at a hill. The earth formed a natural throne. Yes, I could see why people said that a princess rested here.

When we got back in the van I suddenly felt like I had to work on something. I asked Sayan if we had heard any good swan songs. He said we'd heard an interesting song in Tsagan Chelutay. "Remember it was a variation on the "Yoxor" we sang in the last show." He knew the words to the first line or two, but couldn't quite remember the new melody. 

Are those swans flying high in the sky? I sing ho-hey 
Do they gaze from above on our land? I sing ho-hey

"Later the words were not the same. They were much more... political." "You mean about Lenin." "No, something way before that. But I don't know what. Wait, I wrote down the words in your black note book." I pulled out my Filofax. In back Sayan had scribbled several pages of lyrics. Erzhena, who was sitting next to me, tried to read the notes, but they were illegible . She handed the notebook to Sayan. "Only you can read that scrawl." He slowly deciphered his own handwriting and with Erzhena's prompting, I wrote the words down. Then I asked Sayan what the words meant. Sayan came up with a translation that was mix of Ukrainian and Russian in which we communicated. Then I wrote out a rough English version. I started to work on a better English version with Wanda Phipps, the African-American poet who works with me on all our translations.

Wanda and I have our own way of working. After I write out the first draft, we sit in silence for a long time sounding out the text in our own heads. Then I scribble a new version of a line, or Wanda suggests a word change. Finally, one of us started reading the translation out-loud, the other will jump in with a new phrase or line every once in awhile. We keep reading the text out-loud till we both love it. After awhile the song sounded good in English and I rephrased it in Ukrainian for Sayan. He listened to it saying "Mozhe buty," (Could be), or "Nu..." (Well....) line by line.

If Sayan was not pleased, I would ask for clarification and then return to work on the line Wanda. This process took a long time. The English version of the song had to approximate the syllables in Buryat and had to retain tone of the original language. We did not have a dictionary in the van, so we had to come up with synonyms for "order" and old words for "executioners" ex promptu. There were three verses, and we worked on them for a long stretch of time. All this time we were riding down the road Balzhan-khatyn had ridden 400 years earlier. We didn't yet know it, but we were working on the first song for our new show. We didn't yet know it, but both this song and our show would turn out to be about Balzhan-khatyn and her journey through this area.

"Thunder Dance: Are Those Swans" 

translated by Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz, Wanda Phipps and Tom Lee

Are those swans flying high in the sky? I sing ho-hey 
Do they gaze from above on our land? I sing ho-hey
Is that new way coming to our land? I sing ho-hey 
Will this way bring good times to us all? I sing ho-hey 

Are those hawks flying high in the sky? I sing ho-hey
Do they gaze from above on our waters? I sing ho-hey
Does the khan send his men to our land now? I sing ho-hey
Will our people take them as their own way? I sing ho-hey

Are those vultures flying high in the sky? I sing ho-hey
Do they gaze from above on our herds? I sing ho-hey
Are those hangmen I see coming to our land? I sing ho-hey
As they ride does death ride through our land? I sing ho-hey

Balzhan-khatyn herself was somehow impressing her story on us, just as once she had impressed her story on the very hills. The name of every land formation and settlement here carried part of her story. Later we would also find out that the song we were translating was a Neryelge -- a Thunder Dance song that could lead you into the heavens.

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