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Ecstatic Experience

New York
Ellen Stewart Theatre
01/11/2024 -  & January 13, 15, 18, 19, 20, 21, 2024
Roman Grygoriv & Illia Razumeiko: Chornobyldorf (U.S. Premiere)
Yuliia Alieksieieva, Zoltan Almashi, Evhen Bal, Ihor Boichuk, Roman Grygoriv, Kateryna Hordiienko, Ievgen Malofeiev, Mariia Potapenko, Mariia Shtyrbulova, Nazguhl Shukaiva-Hiventar, Illia Razumeiko, Yuliia Vitraniuk, Diana Ziabchenko
Roman Grygoriv & Illia Razumeiko (Directors), Kateryna Markish (Set and Costume Design), Volodymyr Burkovets (Technical Director), Dmytro Tentiuk (Video Design), Vladysslam Kotlenko (Sound Engineer), Svitlana Zmierieva (Lighting Design), Evhen Bal (Instrument Design)

This war is not just about the destruction of cities and people. This is an attempt to kill our culture. What we read in history textbooks back in school is now happening in reality. For the past 300 years, Russia’s real goal has been to destroy Ukraine’s identity. And now, as artists, we have to show the world that Ukraine is an independent state with its unique music, theatre, language, and a wonderful young generation of artists.
Illia Razumeiko, composer and director of the opera Chornobyldorf, co‑founder of the Opera Aperta laboratory

Chornobyldorf will be showing for nearly a dozen more performances. And nobody human should resist going.

First a prelude.

It is glorious for Ukraine that its culture and history are so right that they can present a monumental and massive series of rituals to open the Prototype Festival with Chornobyldorf last night. And while its premiere in 2020 was years before the Russian invasion, the tragedy Chernobyl offered a similar impetus for a globe ready for destruction.

Yet still, seeing this spectacle of video, music, ballet, electronics and unbelievable epics of light and darkness, one must enlarge Ukraine’s letter-perfect pean from its own nightmare and broaden it out to the slaughters of the entire globe.

Just before writing this, I read the headline, “America Bombs Yemen.” And while the “culture” of Yemen or Gaza is not that of Ukraine, one must still cry and shout Jeremiads about the misery. And whether a production like Chornobyldorf can apply to other countries, other peoples.

“After the first death,” said Dylan Thomas, “there is no other.” Yet we now know there are innumerable others.

Onto the program.

The promotion inanely warns that Chornobyldorf is 145 minutes long without intermission. Let me say that every minute of this disturbing production shows something different. A difference in ballet, in singing, in the strange musical instruments (Harry Partch would have been jealous), in seven chapters of magic, of moonscapes, mesmeric beauty, mysticism without a hint of religion.

There is no separation of orchestra, song, video and action across the vast Ellen Stewart stage. Rather, every section of the theater creates new images, new astonishments, new arrangement of lights, darkness, mesmeric movements.

What is the form of Chornobyldorf? Actually describing the form deletes from its power, but is essential. Briefly, the world has suffered a series of catastrophes (this is before the opening), and the world is now devoid of structure capitalism, philosophy, opera and art. Its survivors wander through a forest of old nuclear power pants, churches, empty moonscapes, water and distorted faces.

Thus Chornobyldorf‘s description as an “archeological opera.”

The archeology is essentially in the music. The instruments–outside of a mammoth three-cupped trombone with the sounds of Hell, and other brass–seem inhuman. A vast thesaurus of Ukranian banduras, dulcimers, a bowed lute in the audience, cymbals, tubes, imagination become reality, sounds and shapes from India, China and of course Central Europe. Things I had never dreamed existed.

The voices, sometimes in minor-seconds or quarter-tones, seemed at this hearing to be unearthly. Or incantations. Or–and I was certain of this–the wordless Greek Chorus invocation in an Aeschylus tragedy.

Later I learned that they came from ancient music originating in the Ukranian area around Chernobyl. Still, they transcended time and place.

Then we have seven “chapters”, from “Orpheus” to “Rhea” to “The Little Accordion Girl” to the final “Saturnalia.” Yet such chapters give little indication of the velocity and surprise. Space here precludes my describing them all.

“Orpheus,” though, presented a phantasmagorical funeral for the naked Orpheus, turning into sexual dances transmogrifying into choruses and even flights of physical skill.

“The Little Accordion Girl” (© Production)

My personal favorite–mainly as an executant of the dreaded accordion–was “The Little Accordion Girl.” Mainly because the accordions uttered not a single accordion keyboard note. Instead we had a video of four accordion pilgrims wandering in a remote arid landscape. Onto that vast stage come three people, each holding an accordion with the bellows drifting down. The music was the tapping of the bellows with a variety of tones.

Possibly this was a Ukrainian notion, more likely a group of sounds never heard before. Later were more accordion scene. Ending with an open accordion draped over the original performer’s head. It was an aureole, a halo. In fact, it resembled the paintings of the Virgin Mary in the Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian Church.

(© Valeria Landman)

The final “chapter” is “Saturnalia.” I have a feeling that this was revised from the original 2020 production, since it includes not only a video of Brezhnev but prurient, vicious, surrealistic theme on Lenin.

Try to picture this mélange, a typical multifarious magic of Chornobyldorf starting with a single young girl carrying a tuba to the front of the stage. Followed by the rest of the cast–bare-chested men with ladies’ pants, women as goddesses, a hysterical conductor in the audience. All playing that endless canon from Mahler’s First. Then followed as a marching band. Then marching off while a gargantuan Lenin head is carried on stage, attached to a hook, hanging upside down followed by two actors making virtual love around the head, followed by mystical video settings and on and on it goes.

Moments of grandeur and ridicule, music from that Rube Goldberg musical ensemble, videos of exquisitely unearthly beauty, actions of physical poetry. This was only a single “chapter”, yet this delineated the entire production. Not the confined paintings surrealism of a Dalí or Magritte, but huge-dimensioned surrealism pointing to acerbic political cartooning, with a mixture of grandiose media.

If I hadn’t described the indescribable, forgive me. Chornobyldorf must be seen, heard, heard, felt to be experienced. And (to quote the first sentence), humans are invited, no commanded to immerse themselves in an experience which could be a Baudelairian opium dream of a two‑hour Greek tragedy.

Harry Rolnick



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