Balaklava Blues is a musical meditation of hope against the backdrop of Ukraine's chaos
The show is an earnest reflection on post traumatic stress and the attempts we make to move forward
Mark and Marichka Marczyk first met during the 2014 protests in Ukraine. Each day thousands of people gathered on the Maidan — Kyiv's central square — and rallied against the government strengthening ties to Russia while abandoning plans for a closer relationship with the European Union.
"What struck us most was the humanity of everything," says Mark. "Even in struggle people were so welcoming and warm. They were creating a real community, not just through politics but through sharing stories."
Mark, best known as the ringleader for Toronto's klezmer-party-punks The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, and Marichka, a trained ethnomusicologist, would perform traditional folk songs on the Maidan. "We wanted to help however we could," adds Marichka. Using their artistic talents, they added a soundtrack of resilience and hope to the demonstrations in their homeland.
The protests eventually turned violent, and soon after Russia annexed Crimea. Those events became the beginning of a civil war with Ukraine that is still going on today.
The degradation of the Kyiv protests were the backdrop for Counting Sheep, an interactive theatre experience created and performed by the Marczyks and Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The show cast audience members as protesters, encouraging participation with the cast through food, video installation and live music. Counting Sheep was developed in Toronto and toured internationally. The show received critical and commercial success, winning numerous accolades and awards, including the Scotsman Fringe First and Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The success of Counting Sheep was a mixed blessing for the couple. They were grateful that their art was impacting others, but it was birthed out of a moment of crisis both personally and for their country. As the tour of the show concluded, things in Eastern Ukraine continued to escalate. A commercial aircraft was shot down in Ukrainian airspace. Friends of Mark and Marichka were killed during conflicts with pro-Russian separatists. Media outlets lost interest in the ongoing conflict.
The Marczyks have been reckoning with the experiences of present-day Ukraine, and the events both the couple and their peers went through. Not knowing what else to do with the multitude of emotions on the subject, they did the only thing they knew how: they made art.
Balaklava Blues — the new stage show written and performed by the duo — seamlessly integrates Eastern European folk music, hip hop, documentary film and Russian cartoons. The show, which premiered at Luminato Fest this June and will travel to the U.K. later this year, is an earnest and engaging reflection on post traumatic stress and the attempts we make to move forward.
"We look at the content we have, how we feel about it, and that informs the form of the art," says Mark. "For Counting Sheep we made an immersive experience because we wanted people to understand the protest experientially through participation. For this show, things are different. There is such a complex relationship between the past and trying to move forward to the future, between wanting to move West to Europe and that strong Ukraine identity...we didn't want to just look at the conflict of those ideas. We wanted to celebrate what we had in common. That looks like music — traditional Eastern European folk, but also elements of EDM and hip hop. It looks like the cartoons we grew up on. It looks like documentary footage from our peers."
Throughout the Luminato performance, audiences were transfixed by the music of Mark and Marichka Marczyk. Although the language in the songs and the accompanying multimedia may have been new to the spectators, the warmth and vibrancy of the performance invited audiences into the mindset and mentality of the musicians. And while Balaklava Blues has elements of a concert and an art installation, maybe the best way to understand it is a shared experience. For the creators, that's an important thing to be offering to a world that seems increasingly chaotic.
We didn't want to just look at the conflict of those ideas. We wanted to celebrate what we had in common.- Mark Marczyk
"The main idea for me is giving people a chance to connect with one another," says Mark.
Adds Marichka: "We are looking for opportunities for peace."