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November 1, 2005

Summoning Spirits

San Francisco Chronicle (CA):

In the shadow of Chernobyl, the naked female spirits known as Rusalki rest uneasily in the earth, emerging from the brackish waters and dark woods to lure hapless wanderers with their enthralling songs. It may sound like the plot of a Ukrainian horror film, but the ancient Slavic myths are grist for Kitka's ambitious new production, "The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between the Worlds". Working with stage director Ellen Sebastian Chang and the acclaimed Ukrainian-born vocalist and composer Mariana Sadovska, the eight-woman Bay Area a cappella ensemble has created an evening-length work that draws upon age-old songs used to summon, appease and commune with the Rusalki. The spirits of women who have died untimely or unjust deaths, the Rusalki are thought to mediate between the human world and the natural realms of animals, weather and seasonal cycles.

Though the folk opera was years in the making, its numerous references to drowned women and nature in upheaval give the project an undeniably topical frisson. "In so much of Rusalki imagery, these women are naked and wet, coming up through the earth," Chang says during a post-rehearsal round-table interview at Lake Merritt Church with Sadovska, Kitka Artistic Director Shira Cion and co-director Juliana Graffagna. "When Mariana arrived here, the bodies were literally floating in the water in New Orleans. And here's this music talking about the waves, and this daughter calling to her dead mother, 'Can you come to me, can you come to me?' And the mother is saying, 'I cannot cross. There's earth in my lungs.' We've had a couple of rehearsals where everyone just stops in wonder."

Even before Katrina hit, Kitka saw the project through an environmental lens, conscious of the fact that many of the songs hail from villages stricken by the world's worst nuclear accident. "The region where Rusalki are still alive in the Ukraine is still affected by Chernobyl," says Sadovska. "Kitka and Ellen's intuition that the project had to be connected somehow to the environment was right. The oldest pre-Christian rituals are from this place that neither fascism nor communism managed to destroy, but was devastated by ecological disaster." Rather than devise a linear narrative, Chang felt that "The Rusalka Cycle" could be carried by the emotional force of the music. With lighting by Jack Carpenter, spare sets and evocative costumes, the production is designed to travel light, so that Kitka can take it on the road. The women's voices will be accompanied by minimal instrumentation of cello and percussion.

The ensemble, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month with a gala concert featuring some 30 former Kitka members, established its international reputation by bringing a contemporary perspective to the sumptuous harmonies, striking dissonances and angular rhythms of songs from Slavic, Balkan, Baltic and other Eastern European lands. "Part of the impulse of this project was to make a piece about Kitka, who we are as American artists doing music from the other side of the world, that isn't necessarily our native folk music, but speaks to us really strongly," says Cion. Seeds for the "Rusalka" project were planted when Cion heard a 1997 Cal Performances program "A Russian Village Festival" that included one song about the Rusalki. The powerful imagery and music stuck with her, and after years of grant writing and several false starts, an international search for a composer led to Sadovska.

Now living in Cologne, Germany, Sadovska spent a dozen years doing field research in Ukraine, gathering songs and rituals in rural villages. Once she signed on with Kitka, Sadovska insisted that Chang and the group travel with her to Ukraine to experience the music and rituals firsthand. There's been a revival of interest in Ukraine's dwindling folk culture since the nation gained independence with the Soviet Union's breakup. When the Kitka entourage arrived in the village of Havronshchyna for Provedu Rusalok, a ritual in which the old women of the village lead the Rusalki back to their underworld homes, they joined a throng of observers, including a TV crew from Kiev and several ornery ethnomusicologists.

"There were a couple of times where I thought about Zora Neale Hurston saying that when the anthropologists arrive, the spirit departs," Chang says. "I kept having the feeling that now that we're here, the Rusalki have gone back under the earth. But as the evening went on and the eight grandmothers started singing, it was magic."

Thousands of women across the region used to participate in the Provedu Rusalok ritual, but the passing of the old generation and the evacuations forced by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster meant that the Rusalka songs were on the verge of fading into memory. Kitka's arrival seemed to bolster the grandmothers, as Sadovska had taught the ensemble several of the Rusalka songs. "That was part of the miracle which makes Kitka different from all the tourists," Sadovska says. "Even though Kitka came from far away, from America, they knew the songs. As the grandmothers were ending a verse, they were so thankful and happy their voices were supported with these young voices."

Posted by acapnews at November 1, 2005 1:09 AM