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Lviv, the eons-old Carpathian hub, holds Ukraine’s cultural core. Around this nucleus, spheres of tradition and innovation spin, collide and reform. The idea of culture as a cosmic living organism is central to Kurbasy, whose folk-based multimedia ...

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Ben Michaels
812 339 1195 x 204

Intimate Cultural Magic: Kurbasy Summons the Spirits, Lovers, and Eerie Tales of Ukraine with Shifting Harmonies, Unique Instruments, and Folk-Inspired Images

In moonlit mountainside forests, in broad meadows and remote fields, it’s still there. The eerie otherworldliness that pervaded traditional village life remains, vibrating in the tight vocal harmonies, unique instruments, and magic formulas that bring harvests or household happiness.

Lviv-based alt.trad group Kurbasy’s folk-based multimedia performances explores these moments, drawing on the ritual songs and stories of Ukraine. Conceived and directed by the band’s three actress-singers, Kurbasy’s sonic-theatrical explorations of Ukraine’s rich trove of calendar song cycles, lullabies, and legends, conjure the natural world, beliefs, and rituals, tracing contemporary connections to an archaic past. 

Kurbasy was formed, and its sound is centered by a beautifully blended vocal trio -- Maria Oneshchak, Myroslava Kyshchun-Rachynska, and Nataliia Rybka-Parkhomenko. They are accompanied by instrumentalists Vsevolod Sadovyi (percussion, dulcimer), Artem Kamenkov (double bass), and Markiian Turkanyk (violin). in performances that intermix music, folk-influenced costumes, and phantasmagoric images to conjure the beliefs and emotions in the cycle of life. It’s Ukrainian magical realism in rich, gorgeous sight and sound.

From the start, Kurbasy has woven visuals into their live stage performance. The vocal trio works closely with the multi-instrumentalists, a costume designer, and a digital artist to weave symbolic talismans, gorgeous colors, and layered textures to create an entire world woven from these songs. Abstract images swirl, suggesting light through leaves, lace tatting, and embroidery patterns. “We gave the artist who does the multimedia clues, and hints and ideas, and he offered us his insights,” says Rybka-Parkhomenko. The projection surface is mirrored, and angled. “We wanted to do something new, something that creates a sense of illusion and layers and depth, not just projecting on a backdrop.”

U.S. Debut Tour

Kurbasy joins four other ensembles from Egypt and Ukraine that will make independent tours of the U.S. from July-December in 2018 as part of Center Stage, a cultural exchange program that invites performing artists from abroad to the United States to perform, meet, and share their experiences with communities around the country. The group’s fall 2018 tour, now in formation, will mark their U.S. debut.

Kurbasy sprang from a highly respected Lviv theater named for renowned avant-garde theater director Les Kurbas. Their performances trace a theatrical arc to reveal the stories held in each of the songs of their rich repertoire, a collection of which can be heard on ‘Raytse,’ a title that references both paradise and the mythical egg at the origins of the universe, released in 2009. “We were all working on a play together, based on the poetry of [groundbreaking early 20th-century Ukrainian poet] Bohdan-Ihor Antonych,” recalls singer Nataliya Rybka-Parkhomenko. “Someone suggested we improvise a bit. We’d play around with some of the songs we were singing in various productions. The more we did, the more we heard from fans that we needed to record something.”

These fans were onto something, and soon other performers, composers, and artists were offering encouragement. One early supporter was Mariana Sadovska, a vocalist-turned- composer who got her start as an actress in the same theater troupe. She taught Kurbasy a large number of traditional Carpathian wedding songs, songs that are now woven into the first part of their performances.

“We started to dig around and try to figure out what exactly was going on. Why this song order? Why this particular verse? A million unknown whys,” muses Rybka-Parkhomenko. “We started to hear all the joy, sorrow, the humor and the erotica. It was a microcosmos.”

And this led to more questions, more digging around. “We didn’t approach this project consciously,” say Kyshchun-Rachinska. “We found songs from the calendar cycle, Kolyada [Advent/Christmas] and Kupala [St. John’s Day/Midsummers] for example, but many of them express the relationship between men and women on both the intimate and universal, spiritual levels.”

As they developed their own interpretations of these songs, “We tried to distill the essence of how they saw the stages of life, when you have to say goodbye to your child as she becomes a bride and moves to a new home,” singer Myroslava Kyshchun-Rachynska notes. “It’s a tool to deal with your emotions. It’s very subtle.”

The leave-taking and grief, as well as the joy and revelry, suggested something beyond village traditions, hinting at questions, ideas, forces, and struggles of people everywhere. “When we started to think about this, we started to feel there’s something of a magic charm, something that’s not logical, to these songs,” reflects Rybka-Parkhomenko. “It’s something that comes from deep inside, a vibrating energy, a living organism. From that, we got the theme and concept for our performance.”

Musically, Kurbasy has a keen sense of inherent dramatic tensions and grounds them in taut rhythms; they articulate unexpected modes, and highlight harmonies and dissonances. “We are conscious of the linkages, of one song to another, from one emotion to the next, one vocal expression to the next. Within each individual song we are building the story of the concert, and Vsevolod, Artem, and Markiyan are looking for the same thing in the instrumentation,” Rybka-Parkhomenko explains.

“Spring is summoned, the summer season is celebrated, wedding ceremonies are sung, and life stories told. Kurbasy envelops us in magical-musical charm,” (LOCALCOMPASS.DE) a charm Kurbasy unlocks for audiences far from the slopes of the Carpathians.

About Center Stage

Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts. From June - December 2018, Center Stage will tour five ensembles from Egypt and Ukraine in the U.S. These are Dina Elwedidi (Giza, Egypt), Kurbasy (Lviv, Ukraine), Mohamed Abozekry & Karkadé (Cairo, Egypt), Teatr-Pralnia with CCA Dakh (Kyiv, Ukraine), and Youssra El Hawary (Cairo, Egypt).

Now in its fourth season, by the end of 2018, 29 performing arts ensembles from nine nations -- Algeria, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Tanzania, Ukraine, and Vietnam -- will have toured from coast to coast, hosted by colleges and universities, festivals, music clubs, and cultural centers. Each tour includes residencies in large cities and small towns, and a range of activities from performances, workshops, and discussions, to artist-to-artist exchanges, masterclasses, and community gatherings. Center Stage artists engage with audiences onstage and online sharing their work with audiences in the U.S. and friends and fans at home to build mutual understanding through shared cultures and values.

Center Stage is made possible in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.