I first heard about Yara Arts Group over a decade ago, when I read about its founding director, Virlana Tkacz, traveling to villages deep in the Carpathian mountains to record ancient pre-Christian winter solstice rituals and songs. In an essay about her experiences, Virlana writes:
“That day I heard a beautiful epic story about a dashing young man who rides a raven black horse around Kryvorivnia turning down gold and silver, but accepting the hand of a fine young lady. I also heard one about how the sun, moon and fine rain come to visit the mistress of the house. I was enchanted, but puzzled. What did any of this have to do with the story of Bethlehem? Eventually, I learnt that the koliadas are part of a winter ritual that now coincides with Christmas, but is much older in its origin, traditions and symbolism.”
The weaving together of past and present, the magic of songs and stories passed down from generation to generation, the ways that myth and folklore resonate with current events…these are ideas I am passionate about and themes I explore in my writing, so I was fascinated with Virlana’s research:
“I was struck by how many of the rituals we witnessed were attempts to bring together the present with the past and to create a greater community that would include all the living (both human and animal), the spirits of the ancestors and forces of nature. All would have to come together to create the next harvest and a bountiful future.”
I have been wanting to see one of Yara’s Koliada winter performances ever since. I was so excited when my trip to NYC last weekend coincided with Yara’s “Winter Light” piece, which wove together Koliadnyky (winter song singers from Kryvorivnia, Ukraine), an 18th century Baroque Nativity folk opera, and scenes from the current crisis in Ukraine.
Created and directed by Virlana and performed by an excellent ensemble, the hauntingly beautiful vignettes blended the magic of the ancient winter rituals with the drama of recents events in Ukraine.
This montage (taken from different performances) will give you a taste of the music and songs from the Carpathians:
In 2015, Yara Arts is staging “Dark Night Bright Stars” at La MaMa based on the meeting of beloved Ukrainian poet/artist Taras Shevchenko and African American actor Ira Aldridge. In 1858, Shevchenko had been released after a 10-year imprisonment (his poetry was critical of the Russian Tsar) when he met Aldridge, who had left the United States to perform Shakespeare in Europe and Russia. The two men became close friends, and Shevchenko drew Aldridge’s portrait:
The piece is described as “multilingual and is about communication beyond language.” I love to see the ways that Virlana and Yara Arts breathe life into Ukrainian stories and traditions, and I hope to make it back to see the “Dark Night Bright Stars.”