"Er Toshtuk is a small gem bringing a new flavor to a New York palate."
- Gwen Orel, Backstage
"Er Toshtuk" (Sir Toshtuk), a magical and darkly humorous theatre piece, is based on one of the oldest Kyrgyz epics about a journey into the underworld and out into the cosmos. Toshtuk, a young warrior, falls into the Underworld and must battle giants, monsters and a killer cauldron as he grows up, finding love and loyal friends. The tale is a part of the cultural heritage of the people of Kyrgyzstan, a land of nomadic horsemen, whose memory is rich with the mythical adventures of ancestral warriors.
The production, created by Virlana Tkacz and Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, with Kyrgyz artists and Yara Arts Group, features traditional music, modern design and movement. It will be performed in a combination of Kyrgyz and English but will be completely accessible to American audiences.
"Er Toshtuk" is one of the "short epics" of the Kyrgyz people, who have one of the richest oral traditions in the world. It is probably their second oldest story, originating as a shaman tale. It begins on the edge between worlds. A warrior named Toshtuk looses his soul and falls into the Underworld pursuing it. With the help of his magical horse and some very unusual friends, he struggles with dark forces. Eventually reunited with his spirit, he saves the chicks in a nest on the Tree of Life and is flown out into the cosmos by their thankful Mother Bird.
The performance will be very visual, combining movement, song, dance and shadow puppetry. Designer Watoku Ueno has created shadow puppets for the production based on traditional designs. Movement will include a traditional shamanic dance called jinde-be (a dance of being possessed by a spirit). Music will be performed by Nurbek Serkebaev (Kyrgyzstan) on ancient instruments including the kyl-kiyak (a small, bowed, unfretted fiddle with two strings and a plaintive tone), chopo cho'or (a pottery ocarina), temir o komuz (a metal jaw's harp) and jygach ooz komuz (a wooden jaw's harp with one string, unique to Kyrgyz music, that sounds like throat singing). Costume design includes Kyrgyz embroideries incorporated into modern costumes.
New York-based Yara artists will include Susan Hyon and Daniel Darrow. The Kyrgyz cast includes Kenzhegul Satybaldieva (who created the title role in Yara Arts Group's "Janyl" at La MaMa in 2007) and five artists from Kyrgyzstan: Umarbek Kadyrov, Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy, Azamat Serkebaev, Eldiiar Dzharashev, and Nurlan Erzhanov.
Yara Arts Group has made multiple trips to Kyrgyzstan to create dramatic pieces based on Kyrgyz epics. Work started on this project when director Virlana Tkacz was a Fulbright Scholar there last spring, when she did the initial translation and developed the piece. Its first workshops were held last summer at an art gallery in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, after which it toured through remote villages in Kyrgyzstan and played to packed houses. Yara's work on Kyrgyz epics is chronicled in a recent book, "Kyrgyz Epic Theatre in New York," with photos by Margaret Morton (published by University of Central Asia).
The script uses the oldest known version of the epic, which was passed down orally for hundreds of years and first recorded in the 19th century by Vasiliy Radlov. The script also includes excerpts from the well-known version by Sayakbay Karalaev, as well as additional songs and laments. Virlana Tkacz worked with Kyrgyz poet Roza Mukasheva to create the performance text from the traditional sources and translated it into English with Wanda Phipps. The production was developed Virlana Tkacz in collaboration with Kenzhegul Satybaldieva.
Director Virlana Tkacz heads the Yara Arts Group and has created eighteen original theater pieces with the company, all of which had their American premieres at La MaMa. Reviewing "Circle" (2000), a collaboration with theater artists of the Buryat National Theater (near lake Baikal), The Village Voice (Eva Yaa Asantewaa) called the production "a stunningly beautiful work (that) rushes at your senses, makes your heart pound, and shakes your feelings loose." Reviewing Tkacz's production of "The Warrior's Sister" (2004), based on a Siberian epic, Laura Shea wrote in American Theatre Web, "Multilingual, though easily accessible to English-speaking audiences, the performance reminds us of what theater should be and rarely is--the opportunity to step to a world that is virtually unknown to us." Two years ago, Tkacz created the first Kyrgyz-American theatre project, "Janyl," a World Music-Theater piece based on an epic about a woman warrior in the Celestial Mountains during the 17th century. It was performed at La MaMa, in Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan) and in villages where the events of the story originally took place.
Founded in 1990, Yara Arts Group, a resident company of La MaMa, creates original pieces that explore timely issues rooted in the East through the diverse cultural perspectives of the group's members. Yara artists bring together poetry, song, historical materials and scientific texts, primarily from the East, to form what one critic described as "extended meditation on an idea." The company has created seven pieces based on materials from Ukraine and Eastern Europe, including: "A Light from the East,: "Blind Sight," "Yara's Forest Song," "Swan" and "Waterfall/Reflections." The last of these was developed with folk singer Nina Matvienko. The New York Times (D.J.R. Bruckner) called it "a theatrical enchantment given cohesion by choreographed movement and by music on a prodigal scale." Since 1996 Yara has also created seven theater pieces with Buryat artists from Siberia.
Yara plans to schedule concerts for the traditional musicians appearing in "Er Toshtuk." There will also be a photo exhibit and book presentation for "Kyrgyz Epic Theatre in New York: Photographs by Margaret Morton," which was published by University of Central Asia. For times and locations of these events, please check www.brama.com/yara.
"Er Toshtuk" was made possible in part by theby the Open Society Institute, The Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation, public funds from the New York City Department of Culture, the New York State Council on the Arts and the numerous friends of Yara Arts Group, a resident company of La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York.
by Gwen Orel, read this online
Bet you don't know too much about the culture of Kyrgyzstan (Keer-ghee-stan). Er Toshtuk (air tosh-took), presented by Yara Arts Group, provides a nice taste. The style and story of this highly visual theatre piece really does seem to sit right on the border of Europe and Asia. Virlana Tkacz, who directs this piece with Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, runs the company, which specializes in original pieces that explore contemporary issues by using the materials of Eastern Europe. Er Toshtuk is based on a Kyrgyz epic, first written down in the 19th century but supposedly thousands of years old, in which Toshtuk, a young warrior, goes into the underworld and has adventures before he can marry.
The cast includes two New York–based artists and five from Kyrgyzstan. The fusion is seamless. While most of the dialogue is in Kyrgyz, some is in English. It's integrated so well it neither slows the action nor impedes it, and you will not feel lost. Design helps set the mood: A Kyrgyz musician (Nurbek Serkebaev) sits beneath a sculptured, curlicued white tree accompanying the action through evocative use of traditional instruments. Costumes by Naomi Takada incorporate Kyrgyz embroideries.
The epic is full of humor and terrific physicality. Azamat Serkebaev, a Kyrgyz actor who plays Chalkyuruk, the Magic Horse, captures horsiness with each whinny, leg kick, and look. His performance ought to be a requirement for every actor in New York, particularly those interested in physical work. When the horse gets homesick and misses his herd, you want to cry too (and give him a lump of sugar). As the bride Kenzheke (and in a few other roles), American Susan Hyon has simple charm. In the title role, Kyrgyz actor Umarbek Kadyrov beautifully conveys callow arrogance growing to courage and gallantry.
Er Toshtuk is a small gem bringing a new flavor to a New York palate.