The guest performance of the Olonkho Theatre from Yakutia in St. Petersburg as part of the Theatre Olympics was preceded by a funny story that became a meme in Russia. Yakut shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev had been walking to Moscow to “exorcise” the president out of the Kremlin. He had covered more than two thousand kilometers by foot. He began his journey in March, and in September he was arrested and sent for an official psychiatric exam. His journey appeared on social media, attracting millions of views. A criminal case has been opened against the shaman on charges of extremism. Later, Gabyshev informed his supporters that he was treated fairly and even “made friends” with those who detained him. This is a strange story that provoked heated discussion in Russian society. The performance of the Olonkho Theatre also includes shamanistic rituals, but it is deprived of a political context. Therefore, it found its way to the audience without any barriers.
In 2018, the Olonkho show Dzhyrybyna the Warrior Woman was nominated for the Golden Mask, the Russian National Theatre Award,” in several categories: Best Performance of a Drama, Large-Scale Production; Best Director; Best Scenic Artist; Best Costume Designer. The performance opened to the theatre public new pages of ethnic theatre and proved that tradition can be quite modern and in tune with the times.
The play is based on one of the popular Yakut epics, or Olonkho (the theatre takes its name from the form), that is called the Northern Iliad or Yakut Odyssey. The plot could be well-suited for a fantasy blockbuster movie, however, this story about a woman warrior who was destined to fight the power of evil in an unequal battle. A cheerful girl is forced to take a sword to save her brother, his bride, and her own fiancé, but the struggle for loved ones turns into a struggle for all humanity.
The virgin warrior is a powerful archetype that has existed as long as civilization itself. The image of a warrior maiden actively participating in the battle did not arise today, under the influence of feminist movements. Even in antiquity, people began to tire of the trope of the weak girl, waiting for a man to save her. A woman warrior is an independent and strong personality who achieves her goals and serves for the good of the world—the antipode of the subdued, flighty princess.
Heroic epics of women warriors are known across the world: Homer’s Iliad from ancient Greece, Russian epics, the Finnish Kalevala, Amazons, Valkyries, female gladiators, female samurai, and even the heroines of action movies. In Russia, it is said about women that, “a run-away horse she will master, walk straight to a hut that’s aflame. ”
Olonkho means “that which was.” While some epic tales may have plots based on historical events or historical figures, the Yakut Olonkho ais mythological in nature. All the heroes and events of Olonkho are fictional and fantastic. The main advantage of the legend is the richness and special beauty of the language, its music.
Olonkho reveals the inner essence of the Yakut people, their kindness, mystery; a proud independent spirit that—across centuries full of complex historical events—has allowed the people to retain their language and spiritual culture. Olonkho is a large epic work comprising an average of seven to ten0 thousand poetic lines. According to one legend, the longest songs of Olonkho would take storytellers seven days and seven nights to relate, without a break!
The ancient storytellers of Olonkho were akin to shamans. At times, they had neither a tambourine nor musical instruments— only a voice that they owned so skillfully that their listeners seemed to see the ancient heroes standing in front of them. Devoting all their time to training and improving their skills, storytellers usually wandered through different lands.
Olonkho, the ancient storytelling form, has been acclaimed by UNESCO as a masterpiece, part of the intangible heritage of humanity.
The Olonkho Theatre is unique in that it has a research laboratory to study the culture of Olonkho. They pay great attention to quality and reliability. Choreography and scenography are not just stylization, but a reference to the history and culture of Yakutia.
The director of Dzhyrybyna the Warrior Woman, Matrena Kornilova, contributed greatly to the study and popularization of Olonkho culture. The author of many successful productions, and an actress, researcher, and director of the Olonkho Theatre, Kornilova died in February 2019. The show at the Theatre Olympics has become a kind of dedication and tribute to her.
“We live in the Middle World between the Upper and the Lower ones. In Olonkho, as in the epos of other nations, the main narrative is about the light and dark beginnings of life and the responsibility bestowed on a human, not only for one’s actions but also for the state of the world. When evil enters the world from below, we become unkind and we have to resist it. Only then we can shape the fortune of our Middle World blessed by the gods,” said Matrena Kornilova.
Indeed, Olonkho can be divided into three groups. The first ones tell us about the creation of the Earth or the Middle World by the inhabitants of the Upper World—good deities. Those in the second group speak about how exiles from the Upper World gave rise to the Yakut people. Those of the third group show hows the heroes of the Middle World (the world of people) were at enmity with evil demons from the Lower World. These demons struggled to exterminate people, or at least ruin their lives.
As for the form of performance, there are two creative components in the Yakut epic: recitation and song. The first, on behalf of the narrator, is recited in a chant, its pace either slowing down or speeding up. The second, on behalf of the characters, is sung.
Dzhyrybyna the Warrior Woman is a dynamic, fresh story. The eighteen colorful episodes in the performance include amazing scenography, eye-catching costumes, and choreographic sketches where they jump, fly, and fight. The choreography is so original and evocative that people seemingly transform into birds or horses. By the way, the play uses real horsehair. This is not only a decoration but also an amulet of the performance. For the Yakuts, a horse is a deity protecting the world of people, the Middle World. It is said that the actors themselves participated in the creation of costumes and scenery, using the technique of ancient weaving.
The performance is truly based on the experience of ancestral knowledge and traditions, and it uses mystery symbols and refers to the shamanistic rite. At the same time, the performance does not seem dilapidated, divorced from modernity. It is bright and breathtaking thanks to their acting temperament, special Yakut singing, and original choreography. The performance team is well trained and acts as one harmonious unity. It seems that all gestures and movements are perfectly checked. However, this accuracy does not reduce the high emotional content. The strength of emotions, fury, and desperation pour from the stage into the hall. Cultural memory meets modernity here.
Dzhyrybyna the Warrior Woman is a story about predestination and choice, about weakness transformed into strength, about the powers of good and evil in a person. The battlefield is the soul of man.
The dance movements of the final scene are not a pure dance, but sacred movements that have been from ancient times through the Olonkho culture. Many gestures are sacred and mean protection or prayer. However, even a viewer that knows nothing about Olonkho can perceive the performance without translation or clarification. The performance speaks of eternal notions like good and evil, war and peace, and its language is multinational, transparent, and clear. Rich gestures emphasized notions, and foregrounded scenes grab the audience’s attention. The beauty and mystery of what is happening can impress people of any age and background.
From the first moments, the whole action is permeated with national color— the viewer is immersed in the world of folk motifs and dances, ethnic symbolism and language, both shamanistic rites and folk instruments. This national color abounds, but the palette of the performance is well chosen and has an organic texture. The frantic energy of the actors and the light play capture the attention of the public. An enormous tambourine, in the middle of the stage, is a symbol of the sun. Not just a decorative element, it is the hero of the play. Also carrying symbolic weight are ropes (representing the river and the branches of a divine tree), with which the actors bizarrely interact. These ropes are the threads of fate, and the threads of the narrative, and the threads of life.
Olonkho bears a remote resemblance to the Beijing Opera, but tOlonkho does not have a strict canon; there is room for improvisation. Here you can search for theatrical language and rethink the ancient traditions, search for the opportunity to enter them into a modern context. Here, the plot of gods and heroes, singing, dancing, stage design, plasticity, rhythm, and acting are all fascinating. The Olonkho Theatre has certainly managed to gain originality and find its theatrical voice. All this suggests the need for the development and support of ethnic theatres in Russia. They are undeservedly forgotten or pushed into the background.
Of course, today in its way draws up the context of the play. Feminism comes to the fore here thanks to the bright heroine–the girl-hero. When a man cannot take on some of the protection functions that nature has imposed on him, then the woman, rolling up her sleeves, must defend herself so that her loved ones, her house, and her land remain intact. It is curious that in the Yakut tradition all rivers bear female names. The river is violent and indomitable, but at the same time water is a feminine element that has memory and gives life.
Dzhyrybyna the Warrior Woman is a performance about overcoming fear and the eternal victorious power of love, kindness, and mercy. Here, dreams and fairy tales gain the power of reality, and reality is drawn up by bizarre patterns of unique Yakut craftswomen. The Olonkho Theatre convincingly proves that the Yakut epic is alive and not divorced from modern life. Olonkho has become both a way of understanding and a reflection of the world, the beauty of which is in its diversity and the truth of sincere, not playful, and not theatrical emotions. Authenticity, like the element of water, is the purifying power of the play.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.