Legendary Leopolitans No. 12: Les Kurbas Creator of the Modern Ukrainian Theatre

  • Legendary Leopolitans No. 12: Les Kurbas  Creator of the Modern Ukrainian Theatre
Issue 44, March 2012.

Les (Oleksandr) Kurbas was born into a family of actors in the town of Sambir in Western Ukraine on February 25 1887. After his graduation from Ternopil gymnasium (secondary school of advanced studies) he continued his studies at the University of Vienna, majoring in German and Slavic philology, and then later at the University of Lviv. In 1911 he started studying at drama school in Vienna.
In 1909, while still a student, he organized his first theatrical group. In 1912, he began working as an actor and in 1916, Kurbas moved to Kyiv where he, together with several other young actors, founded the Youth Theatre (Molody Teatr), a theatre that promoted young actors.

In 1919 the Bolshevik authorities forced Molodyi Teatr to merge with the State Drama Theatre, and Kurbas became the co-director, together with Oleksander Zaharov, of the new Shevchenko First Theatre of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. There, to great acclaim, he staged an interpretation of Taras Shevchenko's epic poem Haidamaky (The Haidamakas).This monumental production, with music by Reinhold Glière, became the standard by which all Ukrainian productions were measured in the 1920s. By 1920 the situation in Kyiv which was devastated by continuous warfare, had become unbearable for actors. As a result Kurbas went on to form the Kyidramte touring theatre troupe, which toured Bila Tserkva, Uman, and Kharkiv. Kyidramte’s repertoire included the first Ukrainian-language production of a play by William Shakespeare—Macbeth, which premièred in Bila Tserkva in August 1920 with Kurbas himself playing the title role. At this stage in his career, Kurbas gave up acting to concentrate solely on teaching and directing. Convinced that theatre could be used as a powerful political instrument, in 1922 he renounced the aestheticism of his earlier period and founded the Berezil (meaning «March» in Old Slavonic), artistic association as a left-leaning theatre dedicated to the cause of the proletarian revolution.

It was at Berezil in Kyiv (1922–26) and later Kharkiv (1926–33) that Kurbas's creative genius became most evident and transformed Berezil into a focal theatre in Ukraine. At the height of its success Berezil employed nearly four hundred actors and staff members and ran six actors' studios, a directors' lab, a design studio, a theatre museum, and ten specialized committees. There Kurbas perfected his rigorous system for the intellectual and technical training of actors. It focused on ‘mime-dramas’, which incorporated many features of early avant-garde abstract dance which needed to be fully mastered before actors were permitted to study the use of language. The main stylistic principle of Berezil's productions was the synthesis of speech, movement, gestures (which were supposed to be objective and remain separate from the actor's frame of mind and personal experiences), music, light, and decorative art into one rhythm or simple, dramatic language.
Utilizing various elements of expressionism, constructivism, and other avant-garde styles, Kurbas’s innovative productions such as Georg Kaiser’s Gas (1923), Upton Sinclair’s Jimmie Higgins (1923), (in which film was used for the first time on a Ukrainian stage), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1924) and Fernand Crommelynck's Tripes d'or (1926), challenged the traditional principles of realist psychological theatre and often anticipated the later experiments of such directors as Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. Of particular importance to the development of Ukrainian drama and theatre was Kurbas’s collaboration with the most important Ukrainian playwright of the 1920s, Mykola Kulish, three of whose plays became part of Berezil’s repertoire.
The soviet authorities tolerated Kurbas and his theatre for some time but in 1931 harassment began which eventually led to his arrest. In 1933 he was accused of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and of being a member of counter revolutionary Ukrainian military organization. In 1934 he was sentenced to a term in a concentration camp and he was executed in November 1937.
After many years of suppression of his legacy and cultural contribution, he is being slowly revived back into Ukraine’s spiritual consciousness. In 1988, Volodymyr Kuchynsky and a group of young actors founded the 'Les’ Kurbas Academic Theatre' in Lviv.
Since then the theatre has established a good reputation and become one of the most renowned theatre groups in Ukraine and abroad. The theatre has produced many plays which represented Ukraine in many international theatre festivals and actors from the theatre have received some of the highest awards.
The theatre has always been a proponent of unique theatrical methodologies and has also conducted several joint projects.
It has mastered and developed various theatre techniques and introduced actors to new psychological and physical training as well as plasticity and voice control methods.

In summary, Kurbas's contribution to the cultural and social heritage of Ukraine cannot be understated. His work has stood the test of time and a new generation of talented actors are vicariously ensuring that his legacy will endure for many years to come.

3 Les' Kurbas str., Lviv
Tel.: (032) 272-48-24