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Kurbas: New Worlds (2018)

Oct 17 - Dec 2, 2018 at the Art Arsenal in Kyiv | photos | photos of related events

Les Kurbas was an innovative director who staged experimental theatre pieces in Kyiv and Kharkiv during the 1920s and transformed the idea of what theatre is. He created new worlds on stage that invited his audiences to see the various layers of the present, review the past and imagine a new future.


Kurbas: New Worlds was presented by the Art Arsenal, the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema (Kyiv) and Yara Arts Group (New York)

Curators: Virlana Tkacz, Tetiana Rudenko and Waldemart Klyuzko


One of best theatre events of 2018 --  DT.UA  Dec 27, 2018

One of best art events of 2018 --  Oksana Semenik, Korydor, Dec 28, 2018

One of best museum exhibits --  Cedra Jan 2019



The exhibit at the Art Arsenal is a grand project and a smart tribute to Les Kurbas, his creativity, investigation and experiments. This exhibit is an acknowledgment and testimony to the amazing achievements of Ukrainian theatre in the 1920s.

   The exhibit has three authors: an American director Virlana Tkacz, who created Yara Arts Group in New York in 1990, artist Waldemart Klyuzko and the head archivist of the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema Tetiana Rudenko. There is nothing superfluous, it is absolutely theatrical and finely tuned (architect Alexander Burlaka) – when you enter the inner logic of its narrative captures you. From that moment on, you are emotionally involved.

   The exhibition is in two parts, the first dedicated to Les Kurbas’s work and the Berezil Artistic Association in Kyiv (1922-1926). The second part presents productions by Kharkiv’s Berezil National Theatre where Kurbas worked from 1926-1933.

   The exhibition has a dramatic development, like a production, but also a traditional chronology without contrivances and flashback. When you enter you see the very beginning “The Introduction to Kurbas,” but also what Kurbas eventually achieves. Visible down the hall is the central installation of the exhibition – the recreation of the set of the first Ukrainian musical “Hello, This Is Radio 477!” (477 was the frequency of the Kharkiv radio station.) After walking through the Kyiv period, the viewers will also see the orchestral score by Yuliy Meitus and libretto, preserved to this day, as well as an original 1929 poster, several costumes and photos that are part of the curators’ installation.

   Kurbas’s theatrical achievements at the Berezil Artistic Association (1922-1926) impress, they are tangible. He reconceptualizes the fundamental logic of theatrical space and the use of the body on stage. Working with the avant-garde artist Vadym Meller, Kurbas creates stage constructions which are reminiscent of sculptures. He does many things that were incredible for his time –rejecting the illustrative and narrative. Kurbas proved that sets and costumes do not have to be literal and that the stage can become a space where a unique, separate reality exists.

    The Kyiv part of the exhibit focuses on three Kurbas productions: “Gas” (1923), “Jimmie Higgins” (1923) and “Macbeth” (1924); and on Kurbas’s two theatres: the Berezil Artistic Association and the Young Theatre. There are costume sketches admired by critics and the public in New York, original and reconstructed costumes, set models, posters, director’s copies of plays with Kurbas’s notes, musical notes and photographs from the productions. You can read Berezil audience surveys on multimedia screens: “What did you not like about the acting? – When he finishes working on stage, the actor should go backstage. What did you not like? -- Too many revolutionary plays. Did you understand the play today and did you like it? -- I didn’t get it, the second act is murky.”

   Kharkiv -- The installation to the comedy “Myna Mazailo” recreates Vadym Meller’s futuristic construction for the 1929 production at the Berezil Theatre in Kharkiv. It presents the director’s concept of the single space occupied by everyone. Designer-avant-gardist Vadym Meller worked on almost all of Kurbas’s productions.

   In 1925, Meller together with Sonia Delaunay and Alexandra Exter took part in the International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, where he won a gold medal for his set for Berezil’s “Secretary of the Labor Union.” The materials from this exhibit were published in the American journal “The Little Review,” where eight of the photos were from the Berezil.

   The task of the exhibition is not to simply “recall everything,” but to pay tribute, present, bring into focus and explain Kurbas as an avant-gardist and one of the great artists of the 20th century, who stood at the source of multimedia in theatre. October 23, 2018


An exhibit dedicated to such an important figure as Les Kurbas is always a challenge for the creators and the hosting institution. What can you say about Kurbas that hasn’t been said? On the one hand, he is a given for people specializing in the field, his life and work have been thoroughly studied. For the last 20 years there has been an exhibit on the life and work of this important avant-gardist at the Theatre Museum (which he founded almost 100 years ago). On the other hand, the general public knows very little about Kurbas, aside from the fact that he had something to do with theatre and was repressed by Stalin.

   The exhibit “Kurbas: New Worlds” at the Art Arsenal consciously takes up this challenge and addresses it. The focus of the exhibit is specific enough and has enough depth to interest specialists. And, thanks to the vivid and original visual presentation, this exhibition can be of interest to anyone concerned with culture, especially Ukrainian culture, as well as those who simply want to take a selfie in front of an unusual background…

   Thanks to its exciting visual presentation the exhibit achieves the difficult task it has set for itself:  to make visible the ephemeral world of theatre, which relies on interaction with the audience. Original posters, newspapers, costume sketches and costumes, both original and replicated, help. However, the main structural elements of the exhibition are the monumental recreations of the Berezil sets, which are so effective in the Art Arsenal’s grand space.

   As a curator and the leading artist of the exhibition, Waldemart Klyuzko said, that some of the sets were scaled down to better fit into the space and to accommodate its dimensions. The exhibition was also designed by Alexander Burlaka, who determined the architectural design of the Kyiv part of the exhibition, while the Kharkiv part of the exhibition was created by Waldemart Klyuzko for the exhibition “Kurbas in Kharkiv” at the Yermilov Centre last winter. The signage of the exhibition deserves special mention, and is executed in an “avant-garde” style with titles, slogans and playful fonts (designer Valeria Guevskaya.) The curators have provided us with a reasonable amount of text, and do not try to describe everything. The fonts are large enough to make for easy reading (which is not the rule in most of Ukraine’s museums).

   The exhibition at the Arsenal works on a purely visual level and does not rely on its texts: you can run through it in 20 minutes without reading a single explanation and still understand how truly innovative Kurbas’s theatre was in the 1920s. Today, a hundred years later, his set designs do not look dated. But it is much more interesting to view the exhibition at a leisurely pace, examining the archival photos, reading the reviews of the critics and the audiences, exploring the material presented in various media and immersing yourself in the worlds Kurbas created.

   To gain an even deeper understanding of the material, you must also visit some of the special related events. According to Virlana Tkacz, one of the curators and the director of Yara Arts Group, of special interest for the non-academic audience will be the blitz-festival KURBAS 10X10, where 10 theatres will present 10 minute performances in reaction to Kurbas’s work and the performance by NOVA OPERA of music on the theme of the lost score for Kurbas’s production of GAS (November 11).

Ksenia Bilash LB.UA  October 31, 2018.


Most extraordinary here are the installations that present the director’s concepts about the theatre…. The US Embassy in Kyiv provided a copy of “The Little Review” from 1926 about Berezil’s participation in an International Theatre Exhibition in New York.

Natalia Patrikyeva, Radio Svoboda, Oct 18, 2018


One of the curators of the Kurbas exhibition is the American theatre director Virlana Tkacz, who recorded Kyiv actors reading fragments of plays which Kurbas staged in Kyiv and Kharkiv…. In the exhibition at the Art Arsenal the curators were able to recreate the sets for Kurbas’s productions based on rare photographs and memoirs of people who saw them… The new exhibit at the Art Arsenal focuses on the views and concepts of the director:  presenting installations with audio-visuals showing how the Ukrainian avant-garde arose. At the Arsenal we have a great space that corresponds to the scale in which this director worked. Lena Kovalchuk, The Babel October 18, 2018


Exhibitions with resonance this year: We should especially note the presentation of the exhibition and the ideal wall texts in “Kurbas: New Worlds.” Korydor


“Kurbas: New Worlds” is the all-encompassing name of the new exhibit at the Art Arsenal. It is a journey into the world of Les Kurbas, a director, innovator and avant-gardist who redirected the vector of Ukrainian theatre’s development in the 1920s. The exhibit focuses on six productions created by Kurbas at the Berezil in Kyiv and Kharkiv: “Gas,” “Jimmie Higgins,” “Macbeth,” The People’s Malakhii,” “Hello This Is Radio 477,” and Myna Mazailo.” Sketches, set models, costumes, posters, musical notes, and the director’s manuscripts – total immersion into Kurbas’s fantastic world. VogueUA Sept 15, 2018


“Kurbas: New Worlds” is a large scale exhibition. From its entrance the viewer is immersed into the theatrical world of this famous experimental director. The authors are three curators: an American director of Ukrainian heritage, Virlana Tkacz, who founder Yara Arts Group in New York in 1990; artist Waldemart Klyuzko and the head archivist of the Museum of Theatre Music and Cinema, Tatiana Rudenko. The curators intentionally avoided the usual objects that would show Kurbas’s the daily activities or tell the story of his life. Instead they present the innovations of the Ukrainian director and show the level Ukrainian theatre achieved in the 1920s and 1930s. Natalia Vasiura, L’Officiel, October 16, 2018


American theatre director Virlana Tkacz, who heads the New York theatre company Yara Arts Group, together with co-curators Tetiana Rudenko, the head archivist of the Theatre Museum and artist Waldemart Klyuzko, wanted to get away from the stereotypes and to present Kurbas’s innovations in theatre. The curators tell their story very concretely, using six of the most exciting Berezil productions… “Kurbas: New Worlds” is not your standard biographical exhibition. It presents the worlds Kurbas created and it is spectacular…. The center of the exhibit are the installations.

Daria Svobodianyk, VogueUA October 19, 2019


“Kurbas: New Worlds” is a beautiful exhibition, full of meaning, very theatrical, it feels like a series of sets for single Kurbas production with several acts. The structure is chronological and the colors are perfectly matched.  Cedra, October 18, 2018.


“[Kurbas] was a director who deeply thought about such questions as “What is theatre?” and considered its various aspect; for instance how to present through movement what had never been shown in theatre, or how to portray a character’s thoughts on stage, not only his actions” Focus, October 19, 2019


5 Reasons to go see the “Kurbas: New Worlds” exhibition at the Art Arsenal

1 Les Kurbas really reformed Ukrainian theatre.

2 Kurbas’s production were some of the first to use multimedia in theatre. The experimental director integrated the actor’s behavior on stage with action on film. This is how Kurbas presented the characters thoughts in his production of “Jimmie Higgins” (1923). In “Macbeth” (1924) he had the actors enter into the image on stage in front of the audience.

3 Berezil Theatre was famous for its extraordinary set designs which Kurbas created with avant-gardist Vadym Meller. In 1925 Meller received a gold medal for a model of a set design at the International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.

4 The radical design at the exhibition in Paris, so inspired Jane Heap, the editor of the influential “Little Review” that she brought the exhibit to New York. She dedicated an entire issue of her journal to this exhibit, with 75 photographs of the most important theatre design from 15 countries. 8 of the photographs were from Berezil productions of “Gas,” “Jimmie Higgins” and “The Machine-Wreckers.”

5 The Berezil Theatre produced the first Ukrainian jazz musical.  It was called “Hello, This Is Radio 477!” At the center of this satirical jazz-revue is Kharkiv (the local radio station was 477) and America. …At the exhibit you can see the orchestral score for the jazz revue at the exhibit, which now allows us to hear the music Yuliy Meitus wrote for this show. October 9, 2018


“Kurbas: New Worlds” is a project of grand proportions. … The organizers focus on Kurbas’s professional activity. The experimental director changed our idea of theatre almost 100 years ago, transforming for a moment the approach to the creation of a production… In addition to rare museum objects, the exhibit includes selections of photographs and installations. You can also hear his productions… A bonus is that the exhibit is accompanied by an extensive special events program, with includes curator’s tours. ! Go to the Arsenal! October 18, 2018


At the Art Arsenal you can see original set models and costumes – and feel the rebellious spirit of the time. Les Kurbas impressed Kyiv, Kharkiv, and also New York and Paris. Multimedia projections, light shows, cosmic set design –created by these artists at the beginning of the 20th century. The Soviet government executed the Ukrainian Renaissance, and today researchers are trying to renew our lost heritage. October 26, 2018


“Les Kurbas had interning theatrical concepts. He was a very interesting direbctor. This exhibition is my attempt to show people who are not in theatre, or directors, what Les Kurbas actually did,” says curator Virlana Tkacz. … In “Gas” he used movement, so that one person could play more than a single character on stage. The actors entered on stage as workers and through their movement transformed into the machines they operated. Then they transformed into the gas they were creating, which become unstable. Then all together they exploded like the factory in which this gas is made. Finally, they laid like the victims of the explosion. This is an extraordinary series of transformation in theatre, especially for 1923.” Interview on radio November 13, 2018

below: video of Mykola Shkaraban singing "Kharkiv, Kharkiv" shown at the exhibition as 

part of the "Hello, This Is Radio  477!" part

Video shot by Tania Mykhailyshyn D'Avignion

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