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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Qyrq Qyz—Ancient Girl Power, Rejuvenated

Qyrq Qyz. Photo courtesy the artists.
By David Hsieh

Central Asia is landlocked and perennially contested. Containing an area of roughly 1.5 million square miles, it is hemmed in by Russia, China, the South Asia subcontinent, and the Middle East, with some of the most arid places on earth. Deserts and nomadic life have been co-dependent through human history. No wonder this region has produced some of the fiercest warriors on horseback that humankind has known. 

Even though for at least 1000 years Central Asia has been at the crossroads of the east and west, people outside the region seem to know more about what passed through it (Roman coins, Persian glasses, Byzantine icons, Islamism, Buddhism, silk, tea, etc.) than what was produced within it (except, perhaps, those unstoppable warriors). Fortunately scholars, artists, museums, and institutions have begun to correct the ignorance in recent years, most noticeably through the Silk Road Project founded by Yo-Yo Ma. Another piece of knowledge will be proffered when BAM presents a major multimedia music work called Qyrq Qyz (Forty Girls) in March, 2018.

Qyrq Qyz is an ancient oral epic widespread in Central Asia. It tells of 40 teenage girls, led by their leader Gulaim, who rise up from a land ravished by (male) invaders and secure freedom, justice, and prosperity for their people. Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova has long been fascinated by this legend, and the ubiquitous presence of the number 40 in her culture. “This number appears prominently in most spiritual rituals of Central Asia, whether for purification, mourning, healing, fertility, or life transitions,” she said in an email interview. “Everyone you know in Central Asia knows the story of Forty Girls. Every region and most villages have their own Qyrq Qyz—a well or a stone, where people are healed, blessed, and purified; places where women restore their fertility and pray for the continuity of their family lineage.”

Saodat Izmailova. Photo courtesy the artist.
Ismailova wanted to present the story in a form relevant to our time. She also wanted to elebrate its “girl power” theme. At a showing of the short film Gulaim she made based on the legend, she met Theodore Levin, an ethnomusicologist at the Aga Khan Music Initiative, who shared her enthusiasm in introducing the story to a wider audience. Their idea was to create a multimedia concert experience that combined images and live music, casting young female musicians from different Central Asian countries as the core of the presentation.

The Aga Khan Music Initiative is an interregional music and arts education program with worldwide performance, outreach, mentoring, and artistic production activities. With the support of AKMI and its director Fairouz Nishanova, Ismailova was able to dive deep into the project, assembling a creative team, including one of the most prominent contemporary Uzbek composers, Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. She spent more than a year conducting a “talent search” in Central Asia.

Ismailova said, “we invited over 100 young women to a casting session in search of our Gulaim for the film. We found her in Aysanem Yusupova, a first-year acting student from Karakalpakstan. The film was shot in Karakalpakstan, on the sites of Qyrq Qyz ruins, and in one of the oldest mosques of Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan.

And to create a live experience, she is confronted with the challenge of working with traditional music while escaping conventional forms of concert presentation. “We set out to push the limits of the concert stage to create a hybrid of film and performance that also includes moments of text recitation—an homage to the old epic bards of Central Asia. To achieve this, I invited lighting artist and choreographer Séverine Rième to develop the stage movement of the performers. For the stage design and costumes I invited Kamilla Kurmanbekova, a Kazakh scenographer and artist whom I met when we both represented Central Asia in the 2013 Venice Biennale. We decided to strip the stage to its minimal material expression, using only one element: 40 handmade kurpachas—Central Asian traditional textile-encased floor mats that can be found in every household and are a central artifact of everyday life.”

“The performance alternates between narration of the film and the live musicians who recite, sing, murmur, and act onstage. The structure of the whole performance is inspired by Zoroastrian cosmology and its four essential elements: earth, air, water, and fire. This four-fold structure runs through the film, musical composition, lighting, costumes and stage design. The narrative story is recited in different voices and Central Asian languages, subtitled in English. The traditional repertoire of the show is carefully selected to fit the emotional structure of the narration and consists of melodies and songs mostly performed by women in Central Asia. Songs about longing, landscape, friendship, horses, and homeland represent a new interpretation of Qyrq Qyz today.”

Gulaim. Photo courtesy the artists.
Central Asian peoples are no more monolithic than its geography, which contains deserts, mountains, steppes, and permafrost. But they all share this legend, albeit with distinct local flavors. The musicians performing on stage reflect this variety. Gumshagul Bekturganova and Gumisay Berdikhanova are from Karakalpakstan, a culturally autonomous region of Uzbekistan that borders the Aral Sea. Aziza Davronova is from Uzbekistan. Saltanat Yersultan, Arailym Omirbekova, and Tokzhan Karatai are from Kazakhstan. Makhabat Kobogonova is from Kyrgyzstan.

They are under the direction of Raushan Orazbaeva, a distinguished Kazakh performer of the two-stringed fiddle qobyz. Uzbek percussionist Alibek Kabdurakhmanov adds a contemporary, atmospheric dimension to the score. Ismailova believes the ensemble will do a good job of “representing the diverse vocal timbres and musical instruments of the region. The musicians have developed their skills within their traditions and in some cases learned to play instruments, such as the jetigen, a type of hammer dulcimer, that are rarely used today.”

It seems fitting that a group of people known for their battle skills would produce the legend of Qyrq Qyz. But this phenomenon is not limited to Central Asia, from China’s Hua Mulan to Greece’s Amazon to France’s Joan of Arc, people around the world worship their female warriors, real or fictional. Ismailova thinks the overwhelming patriarchal history throughout mankind creates ripe ground for such stories. “What could be a greater imaginary challenge and fascination than a young, beautiful, smart, and strong Amazon on a horse? A rapprochement of elemental contrasts—virginity and death, tenderness and violence, beauty and war—will always captivate people’s imaginations.” The legend of Qyrq Qyz is traditionally told by male bards. But “we live in a time when women are finding new forms of emancipation,” and in creating her female-dominated presentation of Qyrq Qyz, Ismailova hopes it will be “one of the projects that illuminates and contributes to expanding the boundaries of female expression.”

Qyrq Qyz (Forty Girls) will be performed at the BAM Harvey Theater on March 23 & 24.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.
© 2017, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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