The Hopkins Center hosts ‘Qyrq Qyz’ world premiere

by Habib Sabet | 3/1/18 2:00am

Tonight, the Hopkins Center for the Arts will host the world premiere of “Qyrq Qyz” (“Forty Girls”), a multimedia reanimation of a Central Asian epic that recounts the epic of a young woman, Gulayim, who defends her homeland against foreign invaders alongside 40 other female warriors. The work is a creative collaboration between two artists from Uzbekistan, filmmaker Saodat Ismailova and composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, who combine oral poetry, live music and film to construct a multisensory revitalization of the epic narrative.

“Qyrq Qyz” has its roots in a mosaic of ancient Central Asian stories and comes out of a rich history of oral poetry and live performance. Ismailova’s reanimation of the tale simultaneously stays true to its bardic tradition and provides a modern lens through which the audience can experience the epic. The production pairs footage filmed across modern Uzbekistan with Yanov-Yanovski’s score — a combination of ambient sounds from the same region and songs performed live by a group of musicians trained in the various traditional styles of Central Asia. In conjunction with the epic narrative, the production imparts a message of female empowerment and — excluding a single offstage male percussionist — is performed by solely female bards.

“The oral epic tradition was practiced by men and recited by male musicians, but here, we’re telling the epic with female performers,” Ismailova said. “The intention of the project is to use new tools to bring back an oral tradition that has disappeared and to use tools that are easily accessible for the audience, such as sound and image.”

Ismailova said that aside from sound and image, the work also utilizes aspects of movement, sculpture, lighting and text. Because “Qyrq Qyz” features work from both traditional musicians and a contemporary composer, these disciplines and the different tools of modern art come together, she said.

In addition to the combination of several art forms and media, Ismailova said that the project would also combine various musical styles and instruments of different Central Asian cultures.

“We’re using a very wide repertoire of music,” Ismailova said. “If you would imagine that we’re trying to make a carpet called ‘Qyrq Qyz,’ and we have different types of threads and colors and textures; we’re trying to put it all together to weave one body that speaks to one concept, one idea.”

One of the performers, Tokzhan Karatai, is a musician from Kazakhstan who plays the qobyz, a two-stringed instrument traditionally used in shamanic rituals.

“This project is the first time I’ve collaborated with so many other cultures,” she said. “Even though we’re all from Central Asia, it’s still very new for me. Usually when I’m playing, I’m concentrating only on my own [culture’s] music, but in this project I have to feel the other musicians and the music from countries like Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan and Kyrgyzstan and so we’re all acting like one organism.”

For Karatai, “Qyrq Qyz” is her first experience performing in a multimedia project with choreography and film.

“Usually, you just concentrate on your music and how you’re playing,” she said. “In this project, you also need to concentrate on your body — how you walk, how you sit. It all needs to be in harmony with the visual components.”

“Qyrq Qyz” is produced by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a subdivision of the larger non-governmental organization the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which supports the revitalization of Eastern culture and music. The AKMI supported the development of “Qyrq Qyz” through funding and providing the infrastructure that helped develop the musicians. Music professor Theodore Levin is the senior project consultant at the AKMI and played an integral role in the development of the project and coordinating its premiere at the Hop.

“The show resonates strongly with current events and all of the attention that’s been focusing — very rightly — on the empowerment of women, particularly young women,” he said. “The production provides insight into the idea that, at the same time as we advocate for women’s rights in this country, we need to be aware of women around the world.”

Levin specializes in the culture of the countries in Central Asia, and in addition to working for cultural organizations like AKMI, has written several books on Central Asian music. Currently teaching courses on the region’s music, Levin said he thinks the show is an important opportunity for the community at large.

“‘Qyrq Qyz’ showcases an immensely talented group of young artists from Central Asia, a region with a rich tradition of music, film, and performing arts that remains all too little known in the West,” he said. “‘Qyrq Qyz’ is a production of sublime beauty and artistic imagination. It’s an urgent story for our times about women’s empowerment and fierceness. Through the story of the 40 girls, mythological pathways connect us to universal archetypes and aspirations for fairness and justice that offer hope and inspiration both for women and men.”

The production’s premiere takes place at the Moore Theater tonight at 7 p.m.