Les Kurbas and his theatre "Berezil". What is the Phenomenon?

Les Kurbas and his theatre "Berezil". What is the Phenomenon?

On 31 March 1922, the director and playwright Les Kurbas founded the Berezil Theatre in Kyiv. Today, his work is continued by the Kharkiv State Taras Shevchenko Drama Theatre. 

Les Kurbas created an experimental theatre of Ukrainian modernism: he tried to synthesise the national traditions of Ukrainian theatre with the newest forms of European theatre. 

For Kurbas, the theatre was not just a place where people played random roles and spoke other people's words. Instead, the backstage became a place of personal expression — an art through which the artist could talk to the world most convincingly. 

We are talking about the work of Ukrainian director Les Kurbas and his philosophical theatre Berezil.

Les Kurbas — who is he? 

Kurbas brought Ukrainian theatre to the world level and reformed Ukrainian theatre. He worked as an actor, director, teacher, publicist, and translator. He created several artistic groups, including the Young Theatre and the Berezil Art Association, and formed his own directorial system based on the method of "transformation".

"Kurbas is a European man who was formed in a European context and studied in Europe. He made a revolution and broke the perception of the actor's work, the approach to actor's transition, changed visual and plastic things," says Marharyta Korniushchenko, head of the literary and dramatic department of the Kharkiv Shevchenko State Drama Theatre. 

Kurbas's contribution to the creation of modern theatre is comparable to the role of the luminaries of the twentieth-century world stage. The Ukrainian director's theatre philosophy was based on the most current scientific ideas spreading in Europe at the time. 

However, in Soviet conditions, he became a victim of Soviet repression. 

"Kurbas was a tireless experimenter, a man who was always searching and unsatisfied with what he found. Yet, even in his youth, he was passionate about creating a new theatre that would respond to the current problems and challenges of the time. He dreamed of a theatre of the new era," says Iryna Zubchenko, head of the theatre history department at the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine.

Kurbas spoke out against the monopoly of the everyday realist theatre and favoured the European theatre of new styles. 

"Even though Kurbas was an all-round gifted person, he constantly emphasised that beauty is achieved not only by talent and God's spark but also by work because art is a skill," says Iryna Zubchenko.

The beginning of the theatre revolution on the Ukrainian stage

In 1917, Les Kurbas created the Young Theatre, revolutionising the Ukrainian theatre scene in two seasons. According to Zubchenko, Kurbas voiced and implemented the idea of creating a European-level theatre with a national core. 

In April 1919, the Young Theatre was merged with the First Shevchenko Theatre of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Thus, the First Shevchenko Theatre of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic was born, with Kurbas himself as its chief director.

"The year 1922 became a landmark in the life of Kurbas and the whole of Ukraine: the idea of creating a new theatre was transformed into the idea of creating a new theatre culture," Zubchenko notes.

Kurbas's approach to creating performances

In 1920, on the Shevchenko State Ukrainian Theatre stage, Kurbas staged an innovative, experimental production of Haydamaky based on Shevchenko's poem. In the play, he embodied the principles of synthetic theatre. 

"The performance combined all kinds of arts: music, plastic, make-up, theatrical design, lighting, costumes, recitation, acting, and the director's concept," says Iryna Zubchenko. 

Since then, Kurbas has been promoting the idea that all the performance components worked for the plan's overall concept. According to Zubchenko, theatre critics call this production a powerful creative experiment that brought Ukrainian theatre to new frontiers, radically renewed the national stage and changed the course of Ukrainian theatre towards metaphorical, avant-garde theatre in the spirit of the world theatre trends of the time.

Berezil Art Association

The years 1922-25 saw the formation of the theatrical structure of the Berezil Artistic Association (BAA). By the end of 1923, the association already had four theatre groups with different tasks and genres, called theatre workshops. 

"The BAA organised the publication of the Barricades of Theatre magazine and the Museum Commission, which collects documents on the history of Ukrainian theatre and creates a museum - known today as the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine," explains Zubchenko. 

 The successes of the first BAA productions culminated in the performance "Haz", an example of Ukrainian theatrical expressionism and constructivism. The Berezil theatre reached a new creative height with the “Jimmy Higgins” production. In this production, Kurbas introduced the broadcast of video on a  stage screen. The video symbolised the flow of the protagonist's subconscious. Then Kurbas began to use light projection as a scenographic tool.

Moving to Kharkiv and working with Mykola Kulish

In 1926, the theatre began working in Kharkiv under the name Berezil. In Kharkiv, Kurbas started working with the playwright Mykola Kulish. 

"In the plays "Narodnyi Malakhii", " Myna Mazailo", and "Maklena Hrasa", the artists destroyed the ideological and political dogmas that were diligently and persistently imposed by the Soviet authorities," says the head of the theatre's history department.

Les Kurbas and his passion for philosophy

Kurbas was also fond of philosophy. 

"Kurbas was a man of encyclopaedic, deep knowledge. The author of the book about Kurbas, Roman Horak, noted that while studying at the University of Vienna at the Faculty of Philosophy, Kurbas read Brandes and Nietzsche. According to the researcher, they instilled in him an unshakable belief that one person can do a lot. And Kurbas chose the theatre as his field of activity, where he could do a lot," notes Iryna Zubchenko.

What is the phenomenon of the Berezil Theatre? 

Back in the days of the Young Theatre, Les Kurbas cultivated studio work in his team, insisting that an artist should constantly improve himself. As a result, the theatre becomes not just a place of work but also a place of learning. 

Les Kurbas said: "An actor must be not only talented but also highly cultured." The Berezola Lecture Programme, in addition to theatre disciplines, included lectures on ancient philosophy, the history of world theatre, painting, and dance.  

"Kurbas was right when he stated: "In the Berezol, they sought to achieve a worldview no less than mastery. They could not imagine 'one without the other in creative work'," says Iryna Zubchenko.

The BAA wall newspaper said, "Let no day pass without you doing something for the future. Remember, every book you read, every mimeographed performance you make, will give you knowledge, every thought you think of, every observation you make, will be useful for the future."

"Les Kurbas, as an innovative director, changed the canons and laws of theatre. He revolutionised theatre. It was a theatre of challenge, which intertwined 

impressionism, symbolism, and the avant-garde. It was a theatre ahead of its time," said Tetiana Turka, an actress at the Shevchenko Berezil Theatre.

"Berezil” in the world theatre culture

In the Soviet Union, the Berezil theatre could not tour abroad.

"Only today, thanks to scholars, theatre critics, and theatre artists, the world can fully discover the figure of Les Kurbas and his innovative achievements. However, certain facts make it possible to assert that Berezil would have become a global phenomenon if it had not been in isolation," says Zubchenko.

Berezil shaped consciousness 

Les Kurbas perceived the theatre as a place where socially essential issues can be raised and resolved.

"He perceived the theatre as a parliament. Kurbas was convinced that theatre could influence people, shape their worldview, and awaken their national consciousness," explains Iryna Zubchenko. 

In 1920, the director wrote in his diary: "There were those who cried for us. There were those who thought that only our performances made them conscious Ukrainians." 

Kurbas dreamed of overcoming the provincial isolation of the Ukrainian theatre, the feeling of its inferiority, so he always insisted that Ukrainian theatre should be oriented towards the world theatre and not be content with secondary Russian models. 

"In his diary, Kurbas compared the theatre to a temple, that is, to a place where the sphere of the human soul is important: "Indeed, the theatre is a temple, and it should be clean and quiet, even though there will be all kinds of prayers in it," says Iryna Zubchenko.

Repression and the death of Les Kurbas

On October 5, 1933, the Soviet authorities removed Kurbas from the leadership of the Berezil for nationalism, formalism, and separation from Soviet reality and Russian theatre.  

On December 26,  1933, he was arrested and imprisoned on charges of "participation in a counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation". On April 9, 1934, Kurbas was sentenced to five years in prison. He served his sentence at the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal and later in the Solovky camp.

In the summer of 1937, the Soviet authorities sentenced 1,825 people in the Solovky Special Purpose Prison to death in one list. Les Kurbas's name was on the list. On November 3, the artist was shot dead in the Sandarmokh tract.

Kharkiv State Shevchenko Drama Theatre "Berezil"

After the shooting, the theatre developed in a certain vacuum, detached from the established traditions. They began to return only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We, Ukrainians, have our own method of work for directors and actors, which Kurbas created together with the Berezol Theatre — called 'Transformation'. In his opinion, the theatre had to transform the material of reality into a figurative otherness that should evoke the greatest number of associative processes. For me, Kurbas's method is a living stream of thought energy, self-improvement through working on stage," says Tetiana Turka. 

The actress has been working in the theatre for 33 years. However, she first discovered the artist only in her final year of study. 

"In my final year of study, my teacher and theatre director Oleksandr Bilyatskyi took on the production of Mykola Kulish's play Mina Mazailo, which had been banned for more than half a century. Almost the entire graduating class of the theatre took part in the student performance. We are still staging this play, where 5-6 generations of performers have changed, but we always have full houses," says the actress.

The head of the theatre's literary and dramatic department says a square is situated opposite the theatre with two monuments to Pushkin and Gogol. There is no mention of Kurbas. 

"We have actors over fifty years old. They told me that when they came to the theatre as a younger generation, some people didn't know what Berezil was. So we are fighting to return this knowledge to society, to cultural circulation. And to stop people from asking why the monument to Pushkin bothers us. It bothers me because it stands on the site of the Kurbas monument," says Margarita Korniushchenko.