Last weekend Bob and I enjoyed a fascinating production of “The New Miorita” by a local contemporary ballet company here in Chişinau. The billboard caught my attention because I had heard of this ancient ballad several times––my first exposure being through a school play, and I had been intrigued by its seemingly trange outcome. I mentioned it to a Moldovan friend who sent me an English translation, and told me that every school child in Moldova knows this ballad, as it is often assigned for memorization as well as reenacted in school plays. It tells of a ewe, the mioriţa, who tries to save her beloved shepherd from being murdered by two other shepherds.
The Mioriţa ballad began as oral tradition, centuries before the region of Moldavia was split up at the Prut River, back when the land that is now Moldova was still part of a unified Moldavia. It tells a story of three shepherds, one from the Moldavian region, one from the Transylvanian region, and one from the Wallachian region, who all pastured their sheep in a central valley. The Moldavian shepherd was a bit wealthier, and out of jealousy, the other two conspired to murder him. The mioriţa overheard their scheming and told the shepherd, begging him to protect himself. He, however, sat down and waited to be killed. He told the ewe how he wished to be buried, and instructed her to tell his mother and friends not that he had died, but that he had gone off to be married to a noble immortal princess, describing his wedding with beautiful and cosmic imagery.
The ballad was first transcribed by Alecu Russo who gave it to the poet Vasile Alecsandri, who published it in 1850. According to “A Piece of European Treasure,” an online textbook of the European Interdisciplinary Curricula, the ballad of Mioriţa has 1500 variations and is found in all regions of Romania and Moldova, but it is not known to other nations. In the version translated below, it is considered one of the most eloquent Romanian folk ballads ever written, one of four fundamental myths of Romanian literature.
Near a low foothill at Heaven’s doorsill,
Where the trail’s descending to the plain and ending,
Here three shepherds keep their three flocks of sheep,
One, Moldavian, one, Transylvanian, and one, Vrancean.
Now, the Vrancean and the Transylvanian,
In their thoughts conniving, have laid plans, contriving
At the close of day, to ambush and slay
The Moldavian; He, the wealthier one,
had more flocks to keep, handsome, long-horned sheep,
Horses, trained and sound, and the fiercest hounds.
One small ewe-lamb though, dappled gray as tow,
While three full days passed bleated loud and fast; Would not touch the grass.
“Ewe-lamb, dapple-gray, muzzled black and gray,
While three full days passed you bleat loud and fast; Don’t you like this grass?
Are you too sick to eat, little lamb so sweet?”
“Oh my master dear, drive the flock out near to that field
Dark to view, where the grass grows new, where there’s shade for you.
“Master, master dear, call a large hound near,
A fierce one and fearless, strong and loyal, peerless.
The Transylvanian and the Vrancean,
When the daylight’s through, mean to murder you.”
“Lamb, my little ewe, if this omen’s true,
If I’m doomed to death, on this tract of heath,
Tell the Vrancean and Transylvanian
to let my bones lie somewhere here close by,
By the sheepfold here, so my flocks are near,
Back of my hut’s grounds so I’ll hear my hounds.
Tell them what I say: There, beside me lay
One small pipe of beech, with its soft, sweet speech,
One small pipe of bone, with its loving tone,
One of elderwood, fiery-tongued and good.
Then the winds that blow would play on them so
All my listening sheep would draw near and weep
Tears, no blood so deep.
How I met my death, tell them not a breath;
Say I could not tarry, I have gone to marry
A princess; My bride, is the whole world’s pride.
At my wedding, tell how a bright star fell;
Sun and moon came down, to hold my bridal crown,
Firs and maple trees, were my guests, my priests
Were the mountains high; Fiddlers, birds that fly, all birds of the sky;
Torchlights, stars on high.
But if you see there, should you meet somewhere,
My old mother, little, with her white wool girdle,
Eyes with their tears flowing, over the plains going,
Asking one and all, saying to them all,
‘Who has ever known, who has seen my own
Shepherd fine to see, slim as a willow tree,
With his dear face, bright, as the milk-foam, white;
His small mustache like the young wheat’s ear, with his hair so dear,
As like plumes of the crow, little eyes that glow, like the ripe black sloe?’
Ewe-lamb, small and pretty, for her sake have pity,
Let it just be said, I have gone to wed
A princess most noble, there on Heaven’s doorsill.
To that mother, old, let it not be told
That a star fell bright, for my bridal night;
Firs and maple trees were my guests, Priests
Were the mountains high; Fiddlers, birds that fly, all birds of the sky;
Torchlights, stars on high.
From “A Piece of European Treasure” of the European Interdisciplinary Curricula
When I first heard the story of the Mioriţa, I found the shepherd’s response to the ewe’s warning very strange, and the popularity of the story completely mystifying. The shepherd accepted immediately that his murder was inevitable. He did not prepare to defend himself but rather prepared to die. It seemed to me that the poem was glorifying a passive and fatalistic attitude toward life, and thus it seemed a strange story to have survived as folklore to be celebrated in public schools and taught to school children.
I began inquiring further and learned that the Mioriţa has been widely examined by literary commentators of Romanian and Moldovan culture. While commentators have agreed that this legend represents some important traditional Romanian/Moldovan attitudes toward life, they have argued vigorously since the original renditions of the ballad, over opposing views about the shepherd’s resignation in the face of death. Vasile Alecsandri spoke of the shepherd’s resignation as characteristic of the Romanian peasant. Many commentators, I am told, have adopted this particular interpretation, pointing out that the peasants of the Moldavian region, having experienced over the centuries one invasion after another, with themselves at the center of battles for domination from all sides, learned to keep their heads down, and accept, with resignation, their fate. But other commentators have seen the story in a different light.
According to Nicolae Babuts, Professor Emeritus of Languages, Literature and Linguistics at Syracuse University, in his article “‘Mioriţa’: A Romanian Ballad in a Homeric Perspective,” (published in Symposium 54, Spring 2000) a commentator named Eliade disagreed with those who have taken the shepherd’s acceptance of death as proof of his fatalism. “There is no fatalism here,” he wrote. “For a fatalist does not believe that he can alter the meaning of what has been predestined for him. …The most profound message of the ballad lies in the shepherd’s will to change the meaning of his destiny. …The shepherd transmutes the misfortune that sentences him to death, into a majestic and spectacular sacramental mystery, that in the end enables him to triumph over his own fate. …Meaning does not reside in events themselves, but in the interpretation of events.” He also described the shepherd’s death/marriage as cosmic sacramental mystery.
This argument initially seemed to me a less than convincing euphemistic dressing-up of what was, after all, fatalism. Waxing romantic about one’s death, rather than trying to defend oneself, seemed a very passive response to a threat on one’s life. It did not occur to me immediately that the story of Christ waiting to be taken in the Garden of Gethsemane, also conveys what some would call a similarly passive approach to eminent death. Others see in that story a cosmic sacramental mystery. I have since learned that the Miorita tale is sometimes taken as a metaphor for Christianity, and has been used as a way of exemplifying Christ’s courage in “turning the other cheek.”
But Babuts’s article also describes at length the commentator Eliade’s comparison of the shepherd’s beliefs to those of one of Homer’s heroes, Hektor. In the scene of the Iliad by the Skaian gates, Andromache foresees Hektor’s death and pleads with him to be cautious, but he answers, “No man is going to hurl me to Hades unless it is fated, and as for fate, I think that no man yet has escaped it, once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward.” Eliade concludes that both triumph and fatalism are present in the Ballad of Mioriţa, but as in the Iliad, their significance reverberates differently at two contrasting but interdependent levels, the level of actions and the level of spectators. The shepherd is murdered, and he as an actor dies, but as a spectator or interpreter, he lives on in his language and in the metaphors that reenact and celebrate his life. In fact, the actor dies in order to make it possible for the spectator to speak. “It is thus not a passive acceptance of the inevitable,” Eliade argues, “but a new initiative in a spiritual domain, where the physical no longer overwhelms the metaphoric power of desire and dream.”
Other commentators have found undertones of Dacian beliefs in the shepherd’s acceptance of his death. The Dacians, (ancient inhabitants of the region located between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea,) confronted death without fear, as they considered themselves immortals. Dacian messengers were willing to die, it is said, to take their message to their god, Zalmoxis. Commentators who share this view have described the shepherd as courageous because “death didn’t seem to scare him.”
In still another interpretation, the transformation of the shepherd’s death into a wedding, is seen as related to one of Romania’s funeral customs. According to this custom, unmarried people are buried dressed in wedding clothes because every person must pass all three major events of life: the baptism, the wedding, and the death.
The Mioriţa ballad has even been used as evidence in a cultural-political conflict which continues to this day in Moldova. In a 2016 article in Nationalities Papers, (Vol 44, Issue no.3, January 2016), Roxanna Huma argues that the ballad of the Mioriţa serves as a key element in a potential articulation of a “Moldovan national identity,” as contrasted to a “Romanian identity,” (two perspectives which have co-exisited within Moldovan society since it became a Republic, and which continue to oppose each other today.) She points to the writings of Ion Druţă, a Moldovan novelist who writes in both Romanian and Russian. According to Huma, Druţă has placed the Mioriţa ballad at the center of his own construction of a Moldovan national identity, but in his construction, Huma sees the possibility for an all-encompassing Moldovan identity which breaches the chasm between the “Romanian” versus “Moldovan” perspectives. The logic of her argument, alas, continues to lie beyond my grasp as a foreigner here.
But there was nothing too subtle, for this foreigner to grasp, about the motifs that guided our local ballet company in their recent production of “The New Miorița.” The metaphors of the Cosmic Christ and the Cosmic Wedding dominated their interpretation of the tale. In fact, in the second act, which portrayed the wedding of the now immortal shepherd with the immortal princess, there was even a scene in which the two principal dancers together struck and held a familiar pose, that of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Another scene was reminiscent of a resurrected Christ descending in glory from the heavens down to Earth.
The choreography was intricately designed, with each of the nine dancers’ movements choreographed individually throughout many of the scenes. Sometimes they were individual sheep, sometimes they were sheep moving as a flock, sometimes they were a pile of leaves ruffled by a wind, sometimes worshipers. All of the dancers performed the fluid movements beautifully and expressively–– and with amazing athleticism. The slender dancer who played the Miorita showed such breathtaking agility in extending her back that she seemed to have a hinge in her lumbar region.
The music, unfortunately, was not performed by live musicians, which would have improved the experience greatly, because the speakers, or the recording itself, contained some static. However, the compositions by Anatoli Ştefăneţ, were beautiful, and included the flute-like music of panpipes, traditionally played by shepherds, as well as ominous and eerie compositions appropriate for the otherworldly settings and scenes of looming danger.
According to a story run by a Moldovan local news outlet, Timpul.md, it was four years ago that the choreographer, Daria Simbiriova-Batrincea, first proposed a contemporary ballet performance of a modern interpretation of Miorița. She eventually gathered a team of nine dancers who had been trained in classical ballet, some of whom had been her students at the Academy of Music and Fine Arts, and others who were students at the College of Choreography. “But,” she explained, “contemporary ballet is not very well known in the Republic of Moldova, and the dancers had to learn a new way of dancing. In classical ballet the movements are precise and accurate, but in the contemporary ballet the body of the dancer must be soft and more expressive.” Thus the rehearsals required many hours of preparation. The dancers worked six days a week for nine months.
Despite all the hard work, the production almost folded because of lack of sponsorship funds. Six months into the rehearsals, the dance company learned that their sponsors had run out of money for the project. “But the show was already mounted and the artists were expecting to be paid. …So I had to collect donations from my family and close friends for artist wages, costumes, decorations, lights – and everything was very expensive.”
The choreographer shared that “…in Moldova it is very stressful to come up with innovations in art, because many Moldovans do not accept or understand them. …When a Moldovan man reads on a poster about contemporary ballet, he does not understand what will happen on the stage.” But, thankfully, when the box office opened, more than half of the tickets sold in less than half a week.
Bob and I, and the friends who went with us, were very impressed with the production, but we were dismayed to learn that there was to be only one showing of The New Miorita in Chisinau. After all those months of hard work, with the result of such a beautiful rendition of this beloved story, it seemed a real shame that one showing was all the exposure this production would get.
“…We would like to continue with contemporary ballet in Moldova,” Ms. Simbiriova-Batrincea said, “but this will depend on the reception of the spectators. If the Moldovan public will understand the contemporary ballet, we will continue to work here, but if not, we will work for European viewers.” She has already begun discussions to present the show “New Miorita” in Romania and the Czech Republic. I for one, hope she finds a growing audience for contemporary ballet productions right here in Chişinau.