This is a delightful dance-theater experience that takes you straight into the poignant and poetic world of magical Ukrainian folklore, where the moon dances with the stars in the blue vault of heaven, spring blazes with plentiful flowers and willows bend like drunkards in the wind.
At base are the ancient traditions of oral storytelling and the piercing tone and expressive embellishment of traditional Ukrainian “open-throat” singing, both mastered by narrator Nadia Tarnawsky. Her solid, motherly presence anchors the hour-long performance, which weaves through eight scenes of poetry, dancing, singing and puppetry loosely tracing the divergent life paths of two sisters, one rich and one poor.
Alternately speaking and singing, with deftly interspersed Ukrainian-to-English translations, Tarnawsky’s voice joins additional recorded voices and traditional ethnic instruments including cimbalom, violin, sopilka, zozulka and bandura, according to program notes. Dancers Erin Conway, Catherine Meredith, Anna Roberts and Mark Tomasic (who had a terrific solo portraying Fire) bring emotion, vitality and clarity to Natalie M. Kapeluck’s choreography, portraying a variety of characters and situations extremely well within the limited space they have to work at the Contemporary Arts Center’s black box theater. They also become puppeteers and prop masters, as needed.
Ancestral Voices has so much aural and visual richness that following the sisters’ lives eventually didn’t seem nearly as important as marveling at the wondrous tales being told along the way. As “the stars speak to the moon,” two dancers loft illuminated globes that represent the moon and a star dancing a charming duet.
A new bride, thrust into the home of her unfriendly mother-in-law, is transformed into a poplar tree during her husband’s absence, which the mother-in-law then commands him to cut. The tree begs, “Don’t chop me, beloved. I am your wife.” It is too late, but a child is found within the branches of the tree.
A barrel-maker’s daughter (portrayed cleverly by a life-size puppet with two “live” arms) refuses a man’s advances and runs away. When he catches her, she tells him she would rather “rot in the grave than live in slavery with you.” He dispatches her, but her grave beckons to the Wind (given voice by an undulating dancer and a flute), saying “Do not let me fade away.”
A woman sings “Mother, I Love a Man of the Black Sea” who leads “me barefoot through the frost.” When her lover disappears at sea (from a wooden boat floating on top of a fabric sea), the bereft woman vows to become a mermaid, “find him and embrace him.”
The final scene evokes a celebration feast but, like all things folkloric, brushed with melancholy. When, surrounded by masked dancer in the guise of Earth, Wind, Water and Fire, Tarnawsky’s singer finally prophesies that her soul “shall speak in the leaves of the willow tree” and intones “remember me when I am gone.” It's a lovely and heartbreaking moment, as authentic as you're likely to get in these days of easy virtual entertainment. Grade: A-
— Kathy Valin