Yara Arts Group's new production takes troupe to distant Buryatia

by Virlana Tkacz


Yara Arts Group's new project, "Virtual Souls," will premiere at La Mama Experimental Theater in New York on January 16-26, 1997. Yara creates original theater pieces by bringing together poetry, drama, song, historical materials and scientific texts to form what one critic described as "extended meditation on an idea."

"Virtual Souls" was originally inspired by a Ukrainian poem, Oleh Lysheha's "Swan." I loved the poem; I translated it with Wanda Phipps into English and started looking for additional material on swans. The most fascinating swan myths were Buryat. "The swan is our mother, and the birch - our family tree," say the old Buryats.

The Buryats live in Siberia in the area around Lake Baikal. Buryatia has been part of the Russian Empire since the 17th century, and today it's a republic within the Russian Federation. The Buryat Chronicles start with the legend about a hunter who sees wild swans take off their swan dresses and turn into beautiful girls. He steals one of the swan dresses, while the girls are swimming in Lake Baikal. Startled, most of the swans fly off, leaving one behind to plead with the hunter to give back her dress.

Yara included this legend in the troupe's newest piece, "Virtual Souls." We also worked with Vladlen Pantaev, a Buryat composer, last spring at La Mama. As a result, we were invited by the Buryat National Theater to work on the project in their theater in Ulan Ude last summer.

Looking in

I traveled to Ulan Ude in the beginning of August with one Yara actor, Tom Lee, who helped me conduct the workshops with the Buryat actors and prepare the way for the five Yara members who joined us in the middle of August.

Mr. Pantaev, his wife, Tania, the Buryat actors, and their friends met the two of us at the airport. After sprinkling some milk and vodka, a shamanist custom that would be repeated on many occasions, we drove off into the countryside.

We had arrived just in time for a great occasion: the blessing of the cornerstone for the first "datsan," or Buddhist temple, to be dedicated since the Revolution. In the steppe stood a "ger," a traditional round felt tent. It was filled with grandmothers. We squeezed in. The chanting continued for the next several hours. Light streamed in from the top of the tent. I felt the centuries merge and expand. A thousand years ago things were done exactly this same way.

The next morning we met the three Buryat actors who were going to work with us. Erzhena and Sayan Zhambalov, a married couple, were the young stars of the Buryat National Theater. A few years before they had walked out of this theater and only recently had been convinced to return. They had organized their own shows and also a rock band, Uragsha (Forward), which was at the forefront of a resurgence of pride among young Buryats.

The third person we worked with was Erdeny Zhaltsov, who was both an actor and a musician. He played the "morin kuur," the horse-head fiddle, a two-string traditional instrument that can sound like a cello.

After the introductions, Erzhena spoke to me directly in Russian. (At the theater they usually speak Buryat, which is related to Mongolian and Kalmyk.) I answered in Ukrainian. We understood each other and were very relieved. (It is so hard to work through a translator.) I told them about our show and made it very clear to them that we wanted to learn more about their culture and that their point of view would have to be included in our text.

Our hosts then made sure we experienced many aspects of the cultural heritage of Buryatia first hand. We visited the ethnographic museum where we saw beautiful stone assemblages that displayed a surprising modern sensibility, although they were put together thousands of years ago. We also saw traditional felt gers, and wooden ones, as well as bark tents inhabited by Evenki shamans. There also were the beautifully carved wooden houses of the Old Believers, the first exiles to Siberia, sent here by Peter the Great for refusing to cut off their beards. A tiny zoo had camels, and we were told that during the purges in the 1930s camels were executed in this area. Now they are treated with special respect.

We drove out to Ivolginsk Datsan, a Buddhist monastery at the foot of the Khamar-Daban Mountains. It held out as the center of Buddhism in the USSR after 37 datsans and 10,000 monks were destroyed in the 1930s. Fortunately, however, much of the art work from those datsans is still preserved in Ulan Ude in what is known as "The Fond."

The Fond was originally established as an anti-religion museum under Stalin, but in this guise it preserved the thousands of Buddhist sculptures, tankas, vestments, banners, musical instruments and sacred volumes that now line its shelves. But the Fond's future is now in jeopardy. It is housed in a former cathedral, and the Orthodox Church is demanding that the building be returned. No other location has been found to house the collection.

We also walked around Ulan Ude. The main square is lined with crumbling Soviet-style buildings. In the center, alone on a pedestal, is the largest head of Lenin in the world. At over four stories high, this surreal monument towers over the town. The other unusual site is a beautiful opera house. The locals told us it was constructed by Japanese prisoners of war in 1953 and did not seem to think it was strange that Japanese prisoners of war were still being held in Siberia eight years after the war.

Virtual text

The next morning Valentina Dambueva came to our rehearsals and sang her heart out. Known as the best folk singer of Buryatia, the diva cooled herself with her fan, flashing smiles that set her gold teeth glistening in the sun. We said "wind" and she sang three amazing songs; then we said "swans" and heard even better ones. The three Buryat actors translated the meaning of each song into Russian. We would then confer as to where in our piece such a song might fit.

"Virtual Souls" is mostly sung. It tells its story through a series of traditional Buryat songs and contemporary ones we've written or found. The original score is created by Genji Ito and combines both traditional Buryat instrumentation and contemporary music created with a sampler on a computer. When we agreed that a particular song was of interest, the Buryat actors would note the words and music, not an easy task given that this traditional style of singing does not lend itself to standard music notation. Then they would translate the words into Russian; I would jot down my notes in Ukrainian. Later Tom and I could work on an English translation that could be sung to the notes.

This method of work was both exhausting and very rewarding, since in the process we learned a lot about Buryat music and the possible direction in which we could develop our piece. It also provided our piece with a very special sense of cultural authority that was immediately recognized by the people who saw it in Ulan Ude.

Before we could start rehearsals, we also had to translate our script into Buryat. Our actors play New Yorkers plugged into the World Wide Web devouring information about everything and anything on the superhighway. They fall into a mythic past by opening up the Buryat Chronicles, where they learn to recognize the spirit in the presence of things. We wanted the Buryat actors to speak on stage in their own language and the Yara actors to perform in English.

Before this could happen smoothly, we had to translate into both languages everything that was said, so that the partners could play the scenes and coordinate proper responses. Since our theater pieces are developed in rehearsal, the script is always evolving and the translations had to be constantly updated. It is also very important for us to include into our piece the responses of the local artists and to have their performance material come from them.

Erdeny, who played the bard, suggested that we include the traditional introduction that opens every Buryat tale. He sang it, accompanying himself on the horse-head fiddle.


It was long, long ago
In the good old days
When the grass was always green
When the blue sky was just being
conceived by the universe
When the birds first learned to sing
Yes, it was then
When the great mythical bird
was just a chick
Yes it was then
Yes, it was then1


Then he started to do throat singing and Sayan joined in. This is a traditional style of singing in which the voice is located in the throat and one singer can produce two distinct sounds simultaneously. Could this fit into our text, he asked? Yes, of course. We loved it.

I asked Erdeny to write out the lyrics so that I could put them into the script. He did not believe that I would be able to type in Buryat or that my computer could print it. But after some coaxing, he sat down with a pen and a pad. Erzhena translated the words into Russian, and then I worked on the English translation from my Ukrainian notes.

That night I sat at my computer, first typing out the English translation, then facing the daunting task of pecking out the Buryat - letter by letter, combining one of my Ukrainian fonts with an English one. Buryat today is written in a combination of Cyrillic and Latin letters. The final product was not perfect. One letter faced the wrong way, and another was underlined instead of crossed. But it was definitely readable and now it could be edited or moved as our texts changed during our rehearsals. The next morning I handed out the new scripts, which included my "Buryat" to an absolutely quiet room. Then Erzhena started laughing, "You know, I couldn't imagine how we were going to do this - you speaking English, the three of us speaking Buryat and everything changing everyday because we are still creating the piece. But you hand me this and suddenly I'm thinking ... why don't we work on my part today?"

Whenmy printer later ran out of ink and the back-up cartridge I brought turned out to be dry, I couldn't believe my bad luck. I had to continue updating our script every day. We were still writing new sections in our play. I had to provide the actors the new versions with parallel translations before they could rehearse the scenes. The person who especially needed a current script was our slide projectionist, a brave 14-year-old who was not intimidated by technology. He had to figure out how to show the 150 slides in our piece in the proper spots and his knowledge of English was extremely limited.

The situation with the printer looked hopeless. The selection of Western goods in town was limited mainly to brands of chewing gum. I needed a Canon jet cartridge. I stopped in all the places that had anything to do with electronics. People were trying to sell me all kinds of things that couldn't possible fit any printer, much less mine.

Then I saw a salesperson who was actually using a computer. I asked him where I could get the cartridge I needed. He checked me out, glanced around and then whispered: "In the hunting store." I thought he was kidding. But he drew a map on his card and told me to show it in the hunting store. I did so and was led into what looked like a yard shed. An old man opened the door. As I followed him down the stairs my heart was beating so hard I could hardly breathe. What was I doing here alone asking about computer equipment? Our hosts were always warning us about the criminal elements in town. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, there was a huge storeroom of computer equipment. I asked for the cartridge by number, and the woman pulled it out. I had to sit down to catch my breath.

1 "The Tale Begins" translated by Virlana Tkacz and Erzhena Zhambalov.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 5, 1997, No. 1, Vol. LXV

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