In the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, a winter solstice ritual has survived, one that has existed since before the rise of Christianity. A special meal is made consisting of 12 dishes, all meatless and dairyless, and is proffered to any human, animal, or spirit (living and dead) who wishes to join in the festivities, in the hopes that the next year will be healthy and the harvest successful. The master of the house repeats his invitation three times: "If you don't want to come and taste all our delicious dishes, if you won't come when we invite you, then don't come when we don't call you!" This ritual, along with the songs and incantations that accompany it (called koliadas), was studied by director Virlana Tkacz for the past two winters in Ukraine. The result is the Yara Arts Group's Koliada: Twelve Dishes at La MaMa. The piece integrates these traditional songs and practices with contemporary texts and theatrical techniques, generating an engaging and resonant evening of performance.
The imagery and themes of Koliada can be quite beautiful and moving. Anyone with a sense of family ritual and heritage will be taken in by the opening, during which an older woman, a matriarchal figure, prepares her meal, mutters to herself what has yet to be done, explains how she creates a dish, and sings quietly to herself the koliadas traditional to the occasion.
The design of the show, by Tkacz and Watuko Ueno, is simple and brilliant. They have taken the first-floor theater at La MaMa, a very deep space, and used it lengthwise, allowing for busy, expansive action. There is also little audience seating, making the event extremely intimate and involving. The paper-thin back wall of the set contains faint images of vegetables and grains, and also creates mysterious shadows made by company members moving behind it. A series of three long wooden tables make up the furnishings, evocative of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (coincidentally enough, the setting of a Passover seder, the meal of the Jewish holiday that involves cooking a large amount for family and friends, as well as inviting any outsiders, along with the prophet Elijah, to partake if they wish).
The cast members then weave their way through 12 vignettes, meditations on the food, ritual, and renewal through poetry, movement, and song. The company members portray all the different figures that inhabit the ritualistic space: townspeople, spirits of animals and storms, and the recently deceased.
The staging doesn't do justice to the poetry by Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, however. Poetry is an extremely tricky art to translate to the stage, in terms of both direction and performance. The company simply doesn't give this beautiful text the reverence it deserves, which often makes it seem anachronistic and incongruous with the action. The different dimensions of the group's exploration don't mesh well in general, but this makes the poetry in particular stick out and suffer.
But the koliadas, especially when sung in the original Ukrainian, are charming and haunting. A special treat is Ukrainian musicians Ivan Zelenchuk and Dmytro Tafiychuk, who accompany the cast at times with their voices, fiddle, and an amazing mountain horn called the trembita. The two musicians, who are working to preserve and document the koliadas in their town of Kryvorivnia, are a tremendous complement to the piece.
Toward the conclusion of Koliada, the wooden tables are pushed right up to the audience, and the company welcomes you to their home. You are even invited to try some kutia, a sweet dish containing wheat, poppy seeds, and honey. This great feeling of familial belonging makes for a warm finale.
Ultimately, the traditions and ideas behind Koliada: Twelve Dishes are far more intriguing than the performance itself, but the themes and imagery that the performance conjures up make it a unique and touching theatrical experience.