scythian stones
Yara Arts Group

First Floor Theatre

April 16 - May 2, 2010
Thursday - Saturday at 8:00pm
Sunday at 2:30pm
*Opens Fri 4/16

Tickets $18
purchase tickets online

Yara Arts Group
Directed by Virlana Tkacz
Featuring Ukrainian singer Nina Matvyienko and musicians from Kyrgyzstan

"See this play to hear some truly marvelous traditional Eastern European music."

Music Excerpt from the show!
* Music clips are from WFMU's Transpacific Sound Paradise with Rob Weisberg, broadcast Saturday April 17, 2010. Engineer Dave Mambach.

- Kyrgyz song "Armand" sung by Kenzhegul Satybaldieva accompanied on komuz by Nurbek Serkebaev.
- Ukrainian song "Rano, Rano" (Oh, so early) sung by Nina and Tonia Matvienko
- Ensemble laments sung by; Nina Matvienko, Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, Tonia Matvienko, Ainura Kachkinbek kyzy.

"Scythian Stones" constructs parallel journeys for two young women, from village life and nomadic tradition into the city. Their separate journeys become epic descents into the Great Below—the modern global desert where songs, skills and languages vanish, leaving behind only mute markers like the Scythian Stones found today throughout the grasslands of Ukraine and Central Asia. The production, staged by Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno, will feature Ukrainian and Kyrgyz traditional music, as well as modern music, design and movement. Interweaving performances in Ukrainian, Kyrgyz and English, "Scythian Stones" remains completely accessible to American audiences.

Yara Arts Group has made multiple trips to both Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan to create interdisciplinary dramatic pieces based on regional epics.  This piece will be developed in Kiev from March 5 to 27, after which the company will return to NYC and rehearse here with Yara artists. 

"Scythian Stones" incorporates traditional songs from Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan into the structure of an ancient Sumerian epic about the Descent of Inanna (perhaps the oldest piece of literature on Earth, dating from 2000 BCE, about a goddess who goes to the Great Below). Virlana Tkacz says, “Epics are usually male stories about growing up, but not this one.  We wanted to do an epic story about a woman, and examine how quickly so many cultures are disappearing today. The piece imagines an alternative ending, linking the past with a future in which poetry would carry the familial into the cosmos.”

“Scythian Stones” is Yara's first production to combine artists from Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.  The piece will feature singers Nina Matvienko (who has been regarded as the "Voice of Ukraine" and has appeared in Yara's "Waterfall/Reflections" in 1995), her daughter Tonia Matvienko, Kenzhegul Satybaldieva (who played the title role in Yara's "Janyl" in 2007) and Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy (who created the part of Bektoro, the Spirit Girl in Yara’s “Er Toshtuk” last year). Nurbek Serkebaev (from Kyrgyzstan) will perform on ancient instruments, including the “kyl-kiyak”(a small, bowed, unfretted fiddle with two strings and a plaintive tone), the “chopo cho'or” (a pottery ocarina), the “temir o komuz” (a metal jaw's harp) and the “jygach ooz komuz” (a wooden jaw's harp with one string, unique to Kyrgyz music, which sounds like throat singing).  The Greek Chorus in the Great Below will be portrayed by The Debutante Hour, a New York girl group with musical roots in American country, blues and the occasional Carpathian Mountain stomp. Yara artists working on the piece include: Cecilia Arana, as well as Eleanor Lipat and Meredith Wright. The production is designed by Watoku Ueno, who received the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation Award for his work on Yara’s production of “Er Toshtuk” last year. Movement is by Katja Kolcio, who teaches at Wesleyan and previously worked with Yara Arts Group on its production of "Howling."

Tkacz says, "Tradition is not static, it's constantly evolving, and we are asking, ‘How do you engage people today to create a link to the future?’" All of her theatrical creations to-date have been new works that contain fragments of ancient art forms, but none of them have tackled this question so directly.

Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno are founding members of Yara Arts Group and have created twenty 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 in to a world that is virtually unknown to us."  In 2009, when Tkacz created “Er Toshtuk” with Kyrgyz artists, Backstage wrote, “The epic is full of humor and terrific physicality... the performance ought to be a requirement for every actor in New York, particularly those interested in physical work.”

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 ten 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, and 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." Yara has also created six theater pieces with Buryat artists from Siberia, three with artists from Kyrgyzstan and two based on Japanese material.

Yara plans to schedule concerts for the traditional musicians appearing in "Scythian Stones.”  For times and locations of these events, please check Yara Arts Group celebrated its 20th anniversary, January 22 to 24, 2010, at the Ukrainian Institute of America in NYC.  Virlana Tkacz was awarded the Order of Princess Olha from the government of Ukraine in recognition for her contributions to Ukrainian culture worldwide.

"Scythian Stones" was made possible in part by the Self-Reliance Federal Credit Union, Self-Reliance Federal Credit Union, Self-Reliance Federal Credit Union, a resident company of La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York. Review
by Mitchelle Conway,

Gorgeous Ukrainian and Kyrgyz traditional songs performed by women with exquisite voices, accompanied elegantly by ancient instruments, as well as stunning changes of tone with the contemporary duo "The Debutante Hour," combine to create a beautiful soundscape through the simple story of two daughters leaving their mothers and losing their cultural identities in the process. Scythian Stones is unlike anything I've heard before.

The voices of Nina Matvienko and Tonia Matvienko (these performers are actually mother and daughter from Ukraine) and Kenzhegul Satybaldieva and Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy (from Kyrgyzstan) are what make this production so worth seeing. The way they are able to build tension vocally clearly comes from a place of deep connection to the songs being performed. An introduction to the play says that many of the pieces are actually wedding songs, although not used in that context in this piece. Whatever their actual meaning, they are very much felt in the moment and therefore easily applied to the mother and daughter relationships.

The two girls leave their mothers and go off to the city. The city turns out to be—or pulls them into—the underworld, where they are stripped of their traditions and turn to stone. Leading them on the underworld descent with "This Is The Underworld, Baby" are Susan Hwang and Maria Sonevytsky. The sharp shift in musical tone from the traditional pieces that soar to the upbeat songs that rock really clarifies that play's overall message by not making the traditional good and the cosmopolitan bad; rather both are really good, only one is familiar and the other seems to have gotten lost somewhere. We must admit that something is given up by having a motley culture, even if it is beautiful in its own way.

Directors Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno really allow time to let the traditional way of life be simple, warm, and slow-moving, and then let it be broken by the bouncing rhythm and elaborate action of the city/underworld. The movement dynamics they've created fit. But, since the music is the real strength of this piece, it is unwaveringly the focal point. Ueno's zig-zagging set and effective design also help the journey develop; sheets fall and projections come on, totally covering that traditional world we were in previously.

Narration/translation provided by Cecilia Arana seems to function as a medium for the audience to relate, emphasizing the distance between the audience and the cultural world of the play. The translation often provides some important exposition, but despite her excellent singing, her modern attitude interrupts an otherwise transporting experience.

See this play to hear some truly marvelous traditional Eastern European music.

These Stones Sing of Life
- Michael Bettencourt,

Scythian Stones, created and produced by Yara Arts Group (a resident company of La MaMa), folds songs and memoirs from Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan into the ancient Sumerian epic of Inanna's descent into the underworld to tell about the journey of two women leaving home to travel into the wider world. Directors Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno also add in traditional music by Nurbek Serkebaev and Julian Kytasty, modern music from The Debutante Hour (Susan Hwang and Maria Sonevytsky as the darkly quirky guardians of the underworld), movement by Katja Kolcio, and text in three languages to create a strange, enchanting, redolent hour of theater.

While there is a narrative thread here (and "thread" is an important symbol in Stones, revealed in spindles, unspooling balls of yarn, poetry about the DNA helix), it doesn't necessarily drive the production, in part because the story is told through lyrics and poetry in two languages a monolingual English-speaker will have no luck deciphering. (No sur- or subtitles are offered, though Cecilia Arana, as Moon, does offer the occasional translation, just enough to keep the English speakers on track.)

Instead the dramatic impact of the work comes through the sub-cognitive power of the voices of the mothers and daughters (Nina Matvienko, Kenzhegul Satybaldieva, Ainura Kachkynbek kyzy, and Tonia Matvienko) singing melodies our pop-inflected ears have never heard -- haunting, minor-key, odd-rhythmed -- underscored by Kyrgyz instruments and the crystalline beauty of the Ukrainian bandura and staged on a serpentine raised platform with simple clean movements. Add in the antics of The Debutante Hour (not only presenting their strong voices but also doing that while playing drums, guitar, and accordion), and the hour-long performance builds what good theater should always build: an alternate world that allows us to re-learn and reflect upon the great questions at the core of our being human.

The title refers to stone figures scattered throughout southern Russia, Ukraine, southern Siberia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Over three thousand years old, these statues are thought to be burial monuments, but given the distance between the cultures that produced them and ours, they function more like ghosts, hints of something once tied to us but now bearing clues only if we stop long enough to notice and read them. They make an apt title for this delicate, evocative work by Virlana Tkacz and Yara Arts Group, which hints at the great stories that still inhabit us if only we let ourselves slip into the strangeness of our past in order to more clearly see whatever future lies before us.

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