A Midwinter’s Night

By Volodymyr Kish

It has been a most eventful and memorable winter so far on many fronts, one made even more so by a delightful performance I attended this past weekend titled Midwinter Night – Sacred and Profane Rituals. Trying to describe the essence of this theatre experience is a little bit like trying to describe Ukrainian culture; it was a heady mix of tragedy and comedy, unbridled energy and contemplative symbolism, subtle overtones and in your face emotion, the blaring of trembitas and delicate tones of a masterfully played bandura. In the end, I stopped trying to analyze it from an artistic perspective and just let myself enjoy it for what it was.

In true Ukrainian fashion, the show embodied a golden trinity of talents. It was a collaboration between the Yara Arts Group of New York, the Lemon Bucket Orchestra from Toronto and the Koliadnyky singers from the little town of Kryvorivnia in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine.

The Yara Arts Group, directed by Virlana Tkacz, is an interesting theatrical group based in the Big Apple that have been doing creative experimental theatre for some two decades. Their work primarily focuses on Eastern European cultural themes, and their style has been described as “multilingual dialogue and songs supported by evocative visuals and documentation.” Aside from North America, they have performed their works in Ukraine and Asia, including Siberia, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan.

The Lemon Bucket Orchestra of course, hails from Toronto, and since their inception just three years ago have become wildly popular on the local music scene. They like to describe themselves as a “Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band.” This fifteen member group has toured extensively all over Europe and been featured in a number of documentaries and television appearances.

The Kolyadnyky are an exceptionally musically gifted male quintet from the tiny village of Kryvorivnia, which is just down the road from Verkhovyna in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine. They sing, they play a wide variety of Hutsul musical instruments, and they are dedicated towards preserving the rich heritage of Hutsul musical traditions. It is quite remarkable that this little village of some twelve hundred inhabitants has produced such exceptional musical talent.

Ostensibly, the performance centres around the Christmas traditions and folklore of the Hutsul area of Ukraine, though this artistic journey starts in pre-Christian pagan time with a recounting of the origins of the cosmos. This prelude is followed by an unconventional rendition of an 18th Century Nativity story, where, interestingly enough, there is very little said about the birth of Christ, and most of the action revolves around the character of Herod. In a not so subtle allusion to current political events, the character of Herod as well as his leather clad thug of a centurion, speak in Russian. Their oppressive and genocidal actions in slaying all infants obviously has some more modern echoes.

The last part of the performance, titled Celebration is just pure and lively Hutsul fun. It is kicked off by an old folk tale about a dancing goat. As tradition goes, where the goat dances, the wheat will grow in abundance. This to me evoked another more modern connotation. The word “kozly” (goats) is a derogatory term that has been often used by President Yanukovych as well as many Russian politicians to refer to Ukrainians who oppose them. Needless to say, where Ukrainians dance, the wheat grows in profusion. But perhaps I am reading a little too much into what was on stage.

Regardless, for the last half hour of the show, we were treated to some very lively and delightful Hutsul songs and dances, culminating with the audience joining the cast on stage to partake in the revelry while the Lemon Bucket Orchestra infiltrated the audience with their infectious music.

All in all, it was a delightful evening’s entertainment and confirmation that Ukrainian culture continues to inspire and evolve, mixing old traditions and new visions, spanning generations and history, yet continuing to bring the relevance of folklore and traditions to a modern age and contemporary issues.