By Paul Hertelendy 
        artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
                                                                 Week of Jan. 6-13, 2008
                                                                  Vol. 10, No. 47
            Kitka is a rousing, dramatic all-women vocal ensemble presenting a deft Eastern European folk-theater piece called “The Rusalka Cycle,” playing before some virtually full houses in their Jan. 3-6 performances. The heterogeneous fans seemed eminently satisfied, even though this was an intimate mini-program, barely an hour in length.
Dance fans will see some thematic resemblance between this and “Les noces.” Both deal with village life of women. But where the latter was Russian, this one is Ukrainian, dedicated partly to reviving those folk traditions in danger of dying out in the face of modern distractions, video and commercial film (to say nothing of facing the aftermath of the USSR officialdom’s highly antagonistic attitude toward the Ukrainian minorities for the better part of a century).

            This one intersects the worlds of fantasy, witches and specters, providing well-modulated singing as if from another planet, giving its audience anything from goosebumps to chills down the spine.
The sometimes evil, inevitably scary Rusalki are the spirits of women who have gone on to their reward, often in tragic circumstances. You don’t want to cross them; in fact, an extra spoon is laid out for one at the dinner table, just so any visiting Rusalka take the first bite and emerge satiated and distracted.

“The Rusalka Cycle” presents the eventful life of village women, from their homebody duties to wedding, motherhood and death. The nine women singers play out this drama in meticulous choreography under Stage Director Ellen Sebastian Chang, all while singing (mostly) traditional Slavic folk songs strung together in arrangements for a dramatic consistency.

The result, as seen Jan. 4 at the Jewish Community Center, was arresting, capped by the bold a cappella voices in various permutations giving what sounded like convincing linguistic renditions (the Kitka band had actually traveled to the Ukraine to study Rusalki rituals). The repertory is not easy for western singers, often invoking major-second chords (like the first notes in “Chopsticks”) not commonly used  in the west.  

The theater piece, with musical direction and intermittent composition by Mariana Sadovska of Cologne, Germany, showed bright, disciplined voices in folk material drawn from Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Albanian and Croatian cultures. The piercing exultations in the resonant atrium provided a pulse-quickening prologue, a brilliant fillip augmenting the stage action that followed.

            In the absence of a printed scenario or extensive English narration, the audience could catch the broad strokes---braiding of hair-ribbons, preparing brides, anointing the dead, singing lullabies---but not the minutiae of this thoroughly researched set of scenes, culminating in a cemetery with dozens of spoons scattered everywhere in a group exorcism.

Surrounding the central action were professional production attributes in lighting (Jack Carpenter), costumes (Valera Coble) and the bass-line ostinatos provided by a pair of cellos, with percussion.  

Overall, Kitka did a valuable service in researching and staging a dying folk tradition, with the added fillip of having assisted revival of the Rusalki rituals in several Ukrainian villages.

“The Rusalka Cycle” was first mounted by the troupe in 2005 and substantially altered and strengthened for this revival, which is also due to go on tour to the University of New Mexico….Kitka is jointly directed by the troika of Shira Cion, Juliana Graffagna and Janet Kutulas…In the fall the Oakland-based  company will begin its 30th season.

            Kitka, women’s vocal ensemble. “The Rusalka Cycle” at the Jewish Community Center, S.F., Jan. 3-6. For info: (510) 444-0323, or go online

        ©Paul Hertelendy 2007
          Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.
    These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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