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YARA AT 25 (2015)

January 24- March 8, 2015

Ukrainian Museum, 222 East 6th Street, New York City



This January an exhibit chronicling the history of the Yara Arts Group opened at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village. The Yara Arts Group is a resident company at the LaMaMa Experimental Theater Company. Yara’s mission is to work with little known cultures of the East and create collaborations between them and American artists. The genesis of Yara was the creation of a piece called Light From the East.  It came together due to many serendipitous circumstances.Light From the East was a docu-drama that was fused from excerpts from Les Kurbas’s diary and the aspirations of the actors.  Part of the production took place at a landmark of the East Village, the Kiev Restaurant. Les Kurbas was an avant-garde theatre director who was a born in Ukraine in 1887 and inspired many of Yara’s shows with his unique use of acting and rhythmic techniques, and ensemble play developed at his theatre company called Berezil, the old word for the month of March.

During the creation of Light From the East Yara became officially incorporated in 1990, a huge step in the establishment of the company.  The name was chosen for the group when its members were bouncing ideas for names off of each other.  Watoku Ueno, Yara’s set designer, suggested “Rice and Wheat.”  Everyone thought that sounded more like the name of a food coop, but Wanda Phipps, Yara’s dramaturge and translator, pointed out that it was a great idea that reminded her of a word that Virlana Tkacz, Yara’s artistic director, and she were translating. “Yara!” Tkacz exclaimed and that name stuck.  It meant something different and precious to everyone.  “Arrow into target,” Watoku said translating into Japanese. “Spring wheat,” Tkacz said translating into Ukrainian.

The title for the production, Light From the East, came into being after the Yara Arts Group did a theater workshop based on the works of Les Kurbas at Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute.  There they developed their signature style of incorporating poetry into their pieces.  Light from the East included a poem by Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna.  The poetry used in its shows is always translated by Tkacz and Phipps.  Actors read the poetry on stage in English so that Tkacz and Phipps can see how well it flows and whether any changes are needed.

One day, Tkacz was rushing to tell Iosyp Hryniak, formerly one of Kurbas’s last living actors who lived across the street from her in the East Village, about the Harvard workshop.  In her desire to tell him, she neglected to remember that he had died.   Sadness overcame her as she ran into Ellen Stewart the artistic director of La MaMa theater.  “What do you want to do next?” Stewart asked her.  “Ukrainian poetry,” Tkacz answered, surprising herself.  “What will it be called?” Stewart asked next.  “Light From the East,” Tkacz replied, knowing that if she didn’t come up with a title the piece wouldn’t exist.  It was through these coincidences that Light From the East went on to be performed and the Yara Arts Group started a tradition.  It was also performed as In the Light, a version of Light from the East, in Ukraine the week the Soviet Union collapsed.

Thus began another of Yara’s traditions of creating pieces through travel abroad.  Yara has traveled and performed in Ukraine, the Buryat Republic, Kyrgyzstan, and China.  Yara’s most recent travels were to Ukraine to present Dark Night Bright Stars, a show about the relationship between well-known Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and African-American actor Ira Aldridge.  Yara’s actors traveled to Ukraine and performed this piece during the tumultuous events created by the Russian incursion into Ukraine at that time. 

Yara’s pieces are all created in workshops.  Some of them were created during Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute, working with Ukrainian poetry.  Others were created abroad.  Still others were created at La MaMa.  Whatever the venue, the making of the piece is always a collaborative process.

Yara has created 29 original theatric pieces over its 25 year history. Yara’s artistic director Tkacz has been the one constant and driving force over Yara’s existence since it became incorporated in 1990. 

The exhibit at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village, chronicled the history of the Yara Arts Group through exhibits of artifacts from some of Yara’s productions over the past years.  The exhibit was designed by Waldemart Klyuzko and includes video from five shows (Swan, Er Toshtuk, Circle, Fire Water Night, and Capt John Smith Goes to Ukraine.)  The scope of Yara’s work is also documented in posters, newsletters, and slides.

            Pink dress and a wreath around head, costumes by Keiko Obremski and Alexandra Baczynshkyj.
            This was the costuming used for the forest nymph in Yara’s Fire, Water, Night (2013), a performance based on the work of Ukrainian poet Lesia Ukrainka.  It is the love story between a human, Luke and a forest nymph. The forest comes alive as trees are played by actors.  Tkacz made use of every inch of space in La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, encouraging the audience to move with the actors through the theater and lobby.       
            Black dress with flower at shoulder, costume by Keiko Obremiski.
            This dress was used in three shows including Winter Light (2014) as a costume for Death.  Winter Light includes the koliadnyky, winter song singers from the village of Kryvorivnia in Ukraine, scenes from the current crisis in Ukraine, and 18th century baroque nativity folk opera.  The voices of the koliadnyky are haunting as they sing songs after the low bellow of the trembita or mountain horn.       
            Fabric wrap-around dress, costume by Rachel Comey.
            In Circle (2000) a husband and wife, decide to steal fire from the spirits so that they can make a wish come true.  They wish their son gets married and immediately he shows up with a bride.  Ghosts come to their wedding because they want the fire back.  The ghost costumes unwind to envelop the bride and take her off to their world, but a shaman comes to the rescue in beautiful red and gold.  
            Circle encompasses Buryat myths, songs, and ritual dances that take place in the Buryat Republic.  The Buryats are the largest indigenous population of the former Soviet Union.  Along with the ritual songs, Eugene Hutz of the band Gogol Bordello provided gypsy punk music.  
            Hat with tassels and costume by Ainura Asanbekova.
            Er Toshtuk (2009) is based on a Kyrgyz epic about a journey into the underworld.  A young warrior Toshtuk, in love with a ghost girl, loses his soul and falls into the underworld.  To create this piece, Yara made multiple trips to Kyrgyzstan and acquired scraps of beautiful traditional tassels and embroidery used in these costumes.      
            Suitcase without sides filled with grass, design by Watoku Ueno.
The suitcase was brought in by the newborn Sun, “where the goat will dance that’s where wheat will grow” in Song Tree (2000), which is based on ancient winter songs and dances from the Carpathians and Poltava.  Spirits of Malanka and the Goat Dance descend on a woman who has buried herself in work and science.  For this piece Tkacz traveled to the villages of Kryachkivka and Utoropy in Ukraine.  She traveled along with two Ukrainian artists Maryana Sadovska and Yaryna Turianska, who had been traveling through villages in Ukraine collecting and recording folk songs.  They helped to create Song Tree based on Ukrainian folk songs and wedding rituals.  
The crowning event of the exhibition was a performance in which Yara artists looked back at their history and then into the future as the band Korinya led audience members to a reception area filled with appetizers, some of which were favorites previously made for Yara’s winter celebrations, by food artist Olesia Lew.  

Yara’s next piece, Hitting Bedrock, ran at La MaMa this February and March. Hitting Bedrock wove together the dreams of a group of young people in Donetsk, Ukraine and the realities of war in Ukraine. It was created in Donetsk in 2013 as part of an art installation that was to be developed as a full theater piece until the venue was seized in June 2014 by separatist forces backed by Russia.  It compares how the young people’s dreams were affected by the current conflict in Ukraine. It also incorporates the poetry of Ukraine’s most important contemporary poet, Serhiy Zhadan, who was himself attacked and beaten by Russian sympathizers in eastern Ukraine.

Yara will continue their tradition of collaboration to create performances at La MaMa and other venues around the city.  No matter where Yara travels and performs, they have called New York home for 25 years! 

Yara at 25: The Experimental Theater Group Marches On

Olena Jennings, Boog City, #98 March, 2015

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