Qyrq Qyz (Forty Girls) is an epic poem in the tradition of famous works like the Iliad and The Odyssey.

The show begins in darkness. The dim spotlight barely reveals a black-clad musician seated in a lone chair. She slides a bow over the four strings of the ghirjek, which she holds upright like a fiddle to produce the melody of the epic’s prelude. Qyrq Qyz (Forty Girls) is an epic poem in the tradition of famous works like the Iliad and The Odyssey. Oral performance of such epics still occurs in regions such as Serbo-Croatia and Central Asia and was recently brought to the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the support of the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

Oral performance blends storytelling with poetry, music, and acting to bring an epic to life. Director Saodat Ismailova’s adaptation of Qyrq Qyz blurs the lines between tradition and modernity by adding video, modern instrumentation, spoken narration, recorded ambient sound, and dramatic lighting to an already multifaceted art.

Speaking through interpreter Husniya Davlatyor, singer Aziza Davronova described rehearsals as a process of melding her own classical training with director Saodat Ismailova’s narrative vision, and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s beautiful compositions. Percussionist and conductor Alibek Kabdurakhmanov, ordinarily a contemporary musician, expressed an affinity with the project because of his own multifaceted interests and talents.

"It was humbling to experience,” said Shahjahan Merchant, President of the Council for the Northeast, visibly moved by the performance, adding: “The exceptional production and talent brought to life the epic Central Asian story of Qyrq Qyz. It was a beautiful story of powerful women rising to the challenge of the time."

Each of the production’s many elements—traditional and modern—blend improbably into the whole, resulting in a full sensory experience that makes the venue seem much larger than it is—almost as vast as the wind-swept crags of Karakalpakstan, where the story of sixteen-year-old Gulayim and her forty maiden companions takes place. This effect is created as much by what cannot be seen as by what can.

The scenes of Gulayim, played by Aysanem Yusupova, alongside stark rock formations provide a breathtaking backdrop, but it is the subtle sound of the wind that transports you there. Similarly, the consistently dim stage lighting encourages you to forget the theater setting, helping you feel as though the on-screen landscape has seeped out of the screen to surround you.

On the whole, Qyrq Qyz feels like an ode to the untamed spirit of the Central Asian region. The tale itself follows Gulayim and her companions as they rise up to save their people from invaders, but Ismailova has further chosen to structure the story into four thematic parts: earth, air, water, and fire. The choice firmly roots the story in this place of rough terrain and relentless wind punctuated by occasional rivers, lakes, and the inland sea (fire comes to the fore during the story’s climactic battle).

While other descriptions have chosen to highlight the show’s focus on strong women — undeniably a major theme — perhaps this focus exists in tandem with a statement about the essence of Central Asia’s people and cultures as a whole. The performance brings to light a tenacious spirit that has not been, and cannot be, bowed despite the vagaries of history. “We are here,” Qyrq Qyz says. “You may have forgotten, but we have been here all along… and we are not going anywhere.”