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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.

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.


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.


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.

In our travels to Buryat villages, locals would typically help us collect material by finding the best traditional singer in each village, usually an elderly woman. We'd bring food and drink. Sitting at the table, Sayan Zhambalov and his wife, Erzhena, would sing their own songs and songs we heard in neighboring villages. Afterward, we would ask our hosts if they knew anything better. That's how we first heard the wedding songs sung in a unique quarter-tone manner and the hair-raising ghost stories that inspired Yara's Circle in 2000--and how a wolf hunter introduced us to animal calls that gave rise to Howling in 2002.

During one of our trips, we met shaman Bayir Rinchinov, who encouraged us to record and photograph one of his ceremonies. Despite all my protests that I was not a writer, our work resulted in a book published two years ago. Last September I traveled with the Zhambalovs to the Aga Buryat Autonomous Region, situated along the left bank of a river and 500 miles east of the Buryat Republic, where Siberia, Mongolia and China come together. We had come to deliver copies of the book to the shaman. Over 50 people squeezed into a tiny library in the regional center, where, as I handed our book to Shaman Rinchinov, I felt that we had completed a circle.

Where Siberia, Mongolia and China come together: a nomadic shepherd in the steppes of Eastern Mongolia.

Virlana Tkacz is artistic director of New York City's Yara Arts Group and the author (with Sayan Zhambalov and Wanda Phipps) of Shanar: Dedication Ritual of a Buryat Shaman in Siberia (Parabola, 2002). Yara's Swan, based on the Ukranian poetry of Oleh Lysheha, will travel to a festival in Kiev this spring. Its next La MaMa debut, Koliada: Winter Songs, will be based on a winter ritual Tkacz has recorded in the Carpathians over the past two years.
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Author:Tkacz, Virlana
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:May 1, 2004
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