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A vocal-theater work inspired by “sworn virgins,” a disappearing social phenomenon of women living as men in remote Balkan highland regions.


BABA is a new vocal music-driven multidisciplinary work created by music and stage director and composer Karmina Šilec for Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble. Inspired by real and imagined stories of Balkan burrnesha (women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy), BABA brings to light a disappearing social phenomenon of women transforming themselves into men as a means of upholding their family honor and surviving in an isolated, dangerous, impoverished, and intensely patriarchal part of the world.

The Balkans are a crossroads of Slavic, European, and Near Eastern Cultures. In Slavic languages, “Baba” means “grandmother” or “old woman.” In Turkish and Arabic, “Baba” is the word for “father” and can refer to an older male family member or a holy man. BABA is inspired by the disappearing group of gender-nonconforming Balkan burrnesha, also known as “sworn virgins.” For centuries, burrnesha lived in remote highland regions. Born as women, life circumstances, including loss of male relatives in blood feuds, or avoidance of arranged marriage, led these women to take a life-long oath of chastity and live as men to gain the honor, privileges, mobility, and freedoms of community patriarchs. The motives for this gender transformation were family and social responsibility, not sexual preference or feelings of being male by nature. BABA will investigate constraints and choices relating to gender, sexuality, and power now coming to light in contemporary liberal societies through a new lens.

An important branch of Kitka’s work has been to stretch performance practice beyond traditional concerts and venture into the creation of larger-scale interdisciplinary works that explore themes of womanhood and gender in Eastern European history, mythology, and folklore. BABA is an extension of Kitka’s urge to tell stories of unconventional women, while stretching the creativity of our powerful and versatile vocal ensemble.

Šilec’s creative “Choregie” process brings the sensibility of music composition to fully-staged performances. Extended vocal techniques, text, movement, technology, and design merge to create a “meta-composition” that opens perceptions for multiple interpretations of meaning. Vocal ensembles singing ancient, contemporary, and ethnic music form the spine of all Šilec’s works, which often investigate sociological, historical, and taboo psychological topics.

Šilec has proposed NYC choreographer Sidra Bell as BABA‘s movement director. The book and score of BABA will be drawn from burrnesha oral histories, woven together with new electro-acoustic music inspired by traditional Albanian iso-polyphony, named by UNESCO “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”  6 instrumentalists and 4 actors will join Kitka’s 9 vocalists to form BABA‘s ensemble.

Šilec, Kitka, and Bell  will launch the project in June 2020. During the funding period, collaborators will come together for 3 weeklong creative development residencies, during which Šilec will also offer public workshops in her “Choregie” methods. BABA‘s development workshops will engage local vocal music, performance art, transgender, and Balkan cultural communities in active dialogue. A spring 2021 rehearsal intensive will precede a 20 performance premiere run at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage with audio/video recording production to follow.


Project Media

KITKA “Iron Shoes” (2018) – Music by Janet Kutulas
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Features: Kitka, Inc.

This trailer showcases highlights from Kitka’s most recent vocal-theater project, IRON SHOES. Inspired by 3 Slavic fairytales, IRON SHOES is a contemporary folk opera featuring original music by Janet Kutulas, book by Michelle Carter, and stage direction and choreography by Erika Chong Shuch. 40 sold-out performances of IRON SHOES were co-produced by Kitka and Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA in the spring of 2018. The music on the trailer is a movement from Janet Kutulas original IRON SHOES song cycle, performed by Kitka.

KARMINA ŠILEC – “Choregie” Project Excerpts
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Features: Karmina Silec

This video showcases a variety of “Choregie” vocal-theater works conceived, created, and directed by Karmina Šilec. BABA will be Šilec’s next major “Choregie” project. All music in this work sample is performed live by Carmina Slovenica ensembles, directed by Karmina Šilec.

THRENOS: Choreography by Sidra Bell / Music by Tellu Turkka and Karmina Silec
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This video showcases movement by Sidra Bell, and music by Tellu Turkka and Karmina Šilec. Šilec and Bell are currently working towards the March 2020 Slovenian world premiere of THRENOS (for the throat), a collaboration between: Jacob Cooper (USA), composer/concept; Karmina Karmina Šilec (SI), director/concept, Dora Malech (USA) Texts; Sidra Bell (USA) Movement; Young Joo Lee (KR, USA) Visuals; Dorian Petek (SI), Sets.

Performed by: Vocal Theatre Choregie (SI), directed by Karmina Šilec / Sidra Bell Dance (USA)

Start and End Dates



Berkeley, California

Project Created By

Oakland, California
Kitka is an American women’s vocal arts ensemble inspired by traditional songs and vocal techniques from Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Dedicated to developing appreciation for music rooted in Balkan, Slavic, and Caucasian women’s vocal traditions, Kitka also strives to expand the boundaries of folk song as a living and evolving expressive art form. Kitka’s activities…

In Collaboration With

creative director, composer


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