Midwinter Night: Sacred and Profane Rituals

nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
December 28, 2012

Yara Arts Group has been working with traditional artists from Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia since 1990.   For Midwinter Night they team up with Koliadnyky--a traditional music group from the Carpathian mountains--and Toronto's Balkan-punk Lemon Bucket Orkestra to create a Christmastime Ukranian pageant.

Well, the musical instruments and customs of these residents of remote mountain areas probably pre-date Christianity, but have been adapted to make it a colorful holiday. You will see songs about the creation of the stars, a dance battle between old babushkas and the goat who is believed to make the crops grow, and fabulous solos on the bandura (an astonishing folk instrument with up to 68 strings), duda (goat-skin bagpipes), tsymbaly (hammered dulcimer), and trembita (mountain horn made from a lightning-stuck pine tree).

The Hutsul people live in the highlands of Southern Ukraine and the Maramures and Bukovina regions of Northern Romania.  They wear colorful embroidered clothing (here credited to Keiko Obremski and Mykola Zelenchuk) and play the fiddle with a unique tuning.  Virlana Tkacz and the other dedicated people from Yara Arts Group have assembled age-old artistry from the region (suppressed during Soviet times) which was written down by Ivan Zelenchuk, father of one of the performers in this show.  There is so much amazing material presented here, starting with old winter songs (published 1693) which must be sung to insure the coming of the harvest.  Next comes the enactment of a Ukranian nativity puppet play from 1774. The conclusion has goat songs--where the goat goes, the grain grows--backed up by the high-energy Lemon Bucket Orkestra under the direction of Mark Marczyk.

I found myself pulled onstage to dance in the finale, which is good because I'd been wishing for an excuse to dance for most of the show.   While the ensemble sings, they kindly provide English explanations of what is going on.  Projections by Mikhail Shraga and Volodymyr Klyuzko add yet another spiritual dimension to the spectacle.  I look forward to the next offering from Yara Arts Group, which promises to innovatively blend old and new.

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