Out of Buryatia: New York City-Based Artists Open the Floodgates to a New Appreciation of Eastern Siberia's Culture and Shamanism

By Tkacz, Virlana | American Theatre, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Out of Buryatia: New York City-Based Artists Open the Floodgates to a New Appreciation of Eastern Siberia's Culture and Shamanism


Tkacz, Virlana, American Theatre


IN 1996, I GOT OFF A PLANE IN SIBERIA AND WAS MET BY three actors from the Buryat National Theatre. I had never seen them before. We had been brought together by chance, and despite our struggle to communicate, we soon realized that we shared the same goals. We both wanted to create a new theatre inspired and infused by traditional music, song and legend. Since then, I have traveled every summer to different remote villages with my Buryat friends, collecting old stories and songs. Every winter the Buryat artists have traveled to New York City, and together we have created several world music-theatre pieces at La MaMa.

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The company I direct, Yara Arts Group, brings together fragments of drama, poetry, song and chant to create original theatre pieces. Because of the diversity of our artists, Yara has had access to masterpieces from cultures little known in the West. Yara's first project in 1990 involved material from Ukraine. Our recent show, The Warrior's Sister--based on Buryat epic songs, or uligers--grew from Yara's artistic exchanges with Buryat artists. I worked on an English translation of these texts with Sayan Zhambalov, a Buryat performer and poet, and Wanda Phipps, an African-American poet. The uligershyns, or Buryat epic singers, sang of mythical heroes to the accompaniment of a horse-head fiddle, known as morin khur. During long winter evenings, small circles of friends and neighbors heard these tales, which were first recorded at the end of the 19th century.

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The Buryats are an indigenous Asian people who live in eastern Siberia in the area around Lake Baikal. Buryatia became part of the Russian Empire in the 17th century when Siberia was colonized. The Buryat language is related to Mongolian, while Buryat religious beliefs are based on Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism. After 70 years of religious suppression and persecution by the Soviet government, Buryat shamans are now free to pursue their traditional spiritual practices, and the Buryats' rich oral tradition is still a part of everyday life.

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