Shining Light into Darkness

photo of two people

Sophie and Mike volunteered to make the Star and the Moon which led the procession

In 1982 artists from the UK’s leading celebratory arts company, Welfare State International, went to Japan, in a visit supported by the British Council. Inspired by the lanterns of willow and tissue made by Japanese artists, they brought back the idea, began experimenting with ways of applying a simple technique to ambitious poetic visions, and shared their knowledge widely. Hundreds of thousands of people around the UK have made lanterns and carried them in processions since; and Walk the Plank’s contribution to the XVII Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Manchester (2002) – borne directly out of WSI’s legacy in so many ways – gave lanterns a new global TV profile.

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.           Dr Martin Luther King

 Aware that 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the British Council’s work in 110 countries around the world, and wanting to mark the end of my time in Ukraine, a lantern procession seemed the right thing to do.

My faith in the appetite of Young Learners to participate in making and carrying their own lanterns was proven when one hundred of them signed up to take part in workshops led by artist Helen Davies (Walk the Plank).

With the support of their English teachers and staff at every level, we unleashed a riot of glue, tissue paper and masking tape in the main Customer Service area of the British Council’s Kyiv office. This visibility was key to the success of the project – and the willingness of the British Council’s team to accommodate the artist’s needs, and the hubbub of 20 youths getting stuck in every evening, was admirable.

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Staff brought their own children to make lanterns on a Sunday afternoon, Helen took her lantern-making kit to satellite teaching locations in Kyiv’s suburbs, and by the end of the workshop programme, more than 100 lanterns were hanging from every ceiling of the office (as storage space is limited).

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Musicians from Ukrainian street band Toporkestra joined the procession, which was led up the hill of Andriivsky Uzviz by the dancing star and moon, to the park where our young people broke into an exuberant conga before the giant birthday cake was cut, and valiantly distributed to [almost] everyone who took part.

I hope that the images of those teenagers – their faces alight with smiles – offer an alternative and more optimistic picture of Ukraine than we are currently seeing on the news, as the fragile grasp of the new government slips under the pressure of (pro-)Russian provocation. A friend, when asked by a colleague from the British Council in Russia, described her feelings thus: “…. since you asked about how I am feeling about the situation in general – well, to be honest, we all feel very traumatised. The general feeling is being concerned and threatened by a possible invasion from another country that has amassed a considerable army on our borders. Also to have a chunk of our country suddenly taken away when we were at our weakest. This is all very hard to live with, but we are trying. Dum spiro spero.”

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv...

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv…

Under pressure, and with resilience, the British Council Ukraine’s staff – who I now feel I can also call my friends – continue to do an amazing job of trying to build trust, and create the conditions for better co-operation between countries… by working with artists, those involved in education, and those who want to learn English.

We all try to do what we can. I hope that writing about my time in Ukraine over the past six months has offered some insights that have been valuable. There’s much that I haven’t yet covered, so I may continue to add stuff, but this post is written from the UK as I have handed back the keys to my ant-friendly flat in Kyiv, used up all my blue metro tokens, and waved goodbye to Ukraine for the timebeing. I will be back soon.

And the bands play on…

Dakha Brakha at Sentrum in Kyiv

Dakha Brakha at Sentrum in Kyiv

Last week I got to see one of Ukraine’s most exciting cultural exports – DakhaBrakha, who play at music festivals all over the world. “Ethno-chaos” is how they describe their music; and their performance took us from intimate close harmony singing to riotously exuberant rhythms that left the sell out crowd at new music venue Sentrum stamping for more. With its roots in Ukrainian traditional song, mixed up with all sorts of African, Middle Eastern and techno influences, and an electric atmosphere – because they don’t play so often here now – it was a brilliant gig. The previous week I’d been to see O Children, a British band who hadn’t been put off coming to Ukraine by the unrest (unlike Kosheen, who cancelled recently) and whose commitment to playing in Kyiv was rewarded with a great response from the young crowd at another new music venue Yunist on Artema St.

I went back to Lviv at the weekend – to be a tourist, and hook up with John. Stuffed to its medieval brim with churches and restaurants and chocolate/coffee houses, it’s a delight to wander around. By chance, we had met Dr Igor H. an extremely knowledgeable tour guide, and he led us down tiny passageways, past bas-reliefs of men who didn’t pay enough attention to their partners, by bronze statues of painters and poets and Polish inventors, and into various baroque cathedrals and Jesuit churches…all the while telling the stories of Lviv’s history, when it was part of various empires – Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Swedish, Soviet, Nazi.

The Armenian Church was probably the most understated of all the places of worship, and had the most beautiful painting, with ghostly shapes picked out alongside the monks, but I lost almost all my photos so can’t share it – you’ll just have to make the trip to see it yourselves. The food was great – if occasionally overshadowed by the extravagance of the themed restaurants that Lviv prides itself on: like the extraordinary decor in Meat and Justice, where one sits next to various medieval torture contraptions, and the bill is delivered by an executioner with an axe!

Lviv Pharmacy

Lviv Pharmacy

Lviv is acknowledged to be the festival city of Ukraine – with something like 88 different festivals annually, which is taking its toll on the locals – but nonetheless, people were incredibly friendly and welcoming wherever we went. Stopping and opening a map elicits offers of help from passers by, and ending up in a traditional Ukrainian restaurant with no menu in English didn’t stop the waiter who spoke very little English from helping us choose a great lunch.

Dancing to a different tune

pic of oranges on sale

Oranges and pomegranates on sale at all the markets

Flower sellers at every metro station

Flower sellers at every metro station

At this time of year, when everywhere looks grey and unkempt, the fruit and flower sellers of Kyiv are a particular delight – brightening up the underground markets, or, wrapped up against the cold at their outdoor stalls, supplying Vitamin C in the form of oranges for Kyiv’s population of 3 million people.

I enjoyed 2 dance productions back to back this week – the first the Kyiv Modern Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, created by one of Ukraine’s foremost choreographers, Radu Potlikaru (see interview here for more info about his work). Clearly aimed at a younger audience, I enjoyed the playful choreography, the loose dance style and the humour in the piece, and the packed theatre loved it. Radu Potlikaru himself was part of the creative team working on the Sochi Olympics Opening spectacular, so it was a surprise to see him back in the theatre, able to enjoy the standing ovation at the end of the performance.

The next evening, I went to the National Opera House of Ukraine for  the first time. Again, a packed theatre, this time for a “ballet fantasie” version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, created by David Aydysh, for which tickets cost from 50UAH to 250UAH (£4 to £20). I had no idea what to expect…and ended up completely transported to another world: a beautiful traditional theatre building, imaginative choreography and strong design, impressive staging skills that included flying both performers and scenery silkysmoothly, and over 40 classically trained ballet dancers – all those pointy toes! I came out feeling giddy and lightheaded and wanted to dance my way home. I went and ate beetroot salad with herring instead, just to keep it earthy.

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

The third delight of the week was my visit to the Museum of Dreams exhibition inspired by the life and work of Sergei Paradzhanov, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated film directors. Born in Georgia to Armenian parents, imprisoned under Soviet rule, and exiled to Georgia at the end of his life, he was a maverick artist who danced to a different tune… his work includes films like The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – one of Ukraine’s most important 20th century films; and collages, mostly made during his imprisonment.

Film maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented on  “His way of thinking, his paradoxical poetic vision…the ability to love beauty and the ability to be absolutely free within his own vision”   and to me, his work feels sumptuous, fantastical, and bravely defiant of the harsh greyness that seems to have been the default Soviet setting.

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

The Museum itself is found down some steps in a block of flats and opens two evenings a week, and 1pm – 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Run by two dedicated curators, Alina and Viktoria, and their team of helpers, I was struck by what love has gone into this exhibition. Beautifully displayed objects and photographs, video, audio, collage and trinkets…and a wishing well in the middle of the room.

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Privately run, it receives hardly any financial support, so I hope that the people of Kyiv visit in large numbers (well, not too many at once – the space is tiny!) and make a donation if they like what they discover there.

If you live in Kyiv, do go and see this exhibition before it finishes on March 16. It’s in the Pechersk district, just a 5 minute walk from the Druzhby Novodiv metro.

In another conversation with some British Council Young Learners we looked at museums in the UK, and they outlined their choices about which museums they would like to visit after looking at the websites of institutions like the National Football Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council's Young Learners

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council’s Young Learners

They recomYoung Learners - Kristinamended museums I should visit here, and two of the young people had brought in some examples of Ukrainian culture – in the shape of vyshyvanky (embroidered shirts)… Kristina is shown here wearing her vinok (a headdress of flowers worn by girls) and holding the ubiquitous Kalina berries.

Culture 3.0 – rebooting the arts in Ukraine

Culture 3.0 lecture, for the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in partnership with the British Council

Culture 3.0 lecture, for the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in partnership with the British Council

I was invited to give a lecture as part of the CCA Foundation‘s Culture 3.0 series, which is aimed at cultural commentators, arts managers and journalists. This module focused on the Creative Economy, and was curated by social innovator Iryna Solovey, co-founder of the platform for social innovation, the Big Idea.

Around 50 people turned up to hear my presentation on how culture can help build community – drawing on my own experience with Walk the Plank and work which engages people as participants as well as spectators. I looked at Manchester as a city that has chosen to invest in culture as a way out of industrial decline; and at the Manchester Day Parade, which has offered a platform to engage diverse communities in a visible celebration of their city.(If anyone would like a copy of the notes from the lecture, please message me)

Of course, the challenge is to work out what elements of my experience, and that of a city like Manchester, can be usefully shared here  – so that Ukraine can fast track its cultural capacity building and learn from our mistakes. How much of what we/I do is transferable? And what expertise gained within the western European cultural landscape is it useful to translate to an eastern European context?

I had a chance to think more about how one can support people to be active in  building sustainable creative communities in the workshop which I led the next day.  The 15 academics, writers, artists and practitioners who took part (shown at lunch in the picture below) were especially keen to hear about practical steps, and tips on best practice in terms of working with disengaged communities. And they have challenged me to think more deeply about how the British Council might work in partnership with them.  Skill sharing and support for emerging creative thinking in the local context is crucial, as well as moments of inspiration from the new and the best UK artists and companies.

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The appetite for learning and professional development here is remarkable – I don’t see that same hunger in the UK, where I think many institutions (and people) have become complacent – and I will take home with me a renewed desire to keep myself in a state of willingness to learn.

It’s worth mentioning there’s not a lot of personal learning going on linguistically, despite my initial good intentions to master the basics of Ukrainian! However, I have found out that there’s only one word (in Ukrainian and Russian) to cover the things at the end of your hands and feets – so instead of fingers and toes, there’s just пальці (paltsi). And at minus 23 they get very cold very quickly when taken out of a glove, whatever they’re called.

Woyzeck, by George Buchner, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov

Woyzeck, by George Buchner, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov

I was invited to see Woyzeck at the Kyiv Drama and Comedy Theatre last week, and went along with Roman Markolia, director of the Sevastopol War & Peace Festival who is in Kyiv to direct a show at another theatre; and Olya Matviiv, a colleague from British Council with an interest in theatre.

Woyzeck: live music played by the actors featured throughout

Woyzeck: live music played by the actors featured throughout

Designed by Petro Bogomazov, who had taken part in the British Council-supported theatre workshop at DramaUA, the show was a fantastic example of great ensemble work from skilled actors, and conjured a darkly grotesque world using live music, highly stylised performance & choreography. Although I didn’t understand much of the text, my attention was held throughout.

And an unexpected encounter in a local restaurant last night led me to having dinner with a Good Witch and a Wicked Witch…two stars of the Kyiv Players’ recent show: The Wizard of Oz which I saw before Christmas.

Kyiv Players Wizard of Oz, directed by Elizabeth Kourkov

Kyiv Players Wizard of Oz, directed by Elizabeth Kourkov

I didn’t have a chance to write up that visit, so bumping into George and Achi gives me a chance to post a photo of them in action, not as English teachers at the British Council, but in costume, on stage, for this very entertaining show,  an annual event in the Kyiv theatrical calendar, and directed by one of the British Council’s teaching staff here in Ukraine.

Error 404 – Democracy not found

pic of sign

Sign (held up  for at least 2 hours) as part of Sunday’s street demonstrations

I was going to write about the Drama UA festival in Lviv and the role of the theatre critic, but events in Ukraine have rather overtaken me. So I’ll begin with the demonstrations: a theatre of democracy? Ten days ago, protests started in many cities when Ukraine’s President made it clear that the Association Agreement with the EU wasn’t going to be signed. 100,000 people marched in the streets of the capital on Sunday 24 Nov, and protests have been maintained in the main squares – EuroMaidan and Maidan Nezelezhnosti (Independence Square) – ever since, with appeals for non-violent direct action from opposition parties and assorted political groups. Do watch this video:

video from euromaidan protest, thanks to Biggggidea.com

The violent break up of the peaceful sit-in protest on Saturday (30th Nov) with people forcibly removed by police, and a number of casualties, led to the government making it illegal to gather in the squares. And that was the touch paper for people to come out last Sunday (Dec 1st)  in their hundreds of thousands.

Crowds gather in the park

Jan Bradley & Liz Pugh stand with the people of Ukraine, in their hundreds of thousands

Jan & Liz stand in support of the people of Ukraine, who came out on the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

My friend Jan was visiting for the weekend and we had walked to Maidan on Friday to see for ourselves what was happening. When we set out for the day on Sunday, we knew there was going to be a demonstration, and when the first 2 underground trains that came by were so packed there was absolutely no way we could get on, we realised that it was going to be big. I’ve never seen such crowds – and I’ve seen Man Utd’s Old Trafford ground which holds 78,000 emptying as I live nearby. In the course of 2 hours, I’d say at least 6 football matches of people flowed past us – with singing, chanting and flags.  And people of all ages were there…children, young people, adults and senior citizens. Below is a scene from within the City Hall, occupied by the protestors  – for more photos from this journalist check  photographs of Ukraine’s protests

Behind this willingness to stand up and be counted is a desperate desire to be part of a democratic country that is not controlled behind the scenes by Russia/Putin, or riven by corruption. Europe represents both different values, and (relative) economic prosperity – and the free market and mass consumerism as we have it in Western Europe holds huge appeal here: Ukraine – be careful what you wish for.

And the crowds flowed past, on and on and on

And the crowds flowed past, on and on and on

Ukraine needs investment and its chances of attracting foreign investment are higher if it’s seen to be on a path to combating corruption. It needs to strengthen its regional development, as the gap between the capital city and the rest of the country is huge; it needs to grow its technical, agricultural and creative capacity; and hold onto its talent – at the moment too many of the bright, educated young people that I speak to at the British Council want to leave rather than stay to play an active part of their country’s future.

There’s little independent media here, so the role of social media, the Kyiv Post (written in English) and other internet reporting, along with foreign press like the Guardian with correspondents on the ground here, has been crucial. I’m sure you’ve all been following the reports on BBC, and for anyone on Twitter #euromaidan or #Kyiv or #Ukraine have been the hashtags du jour. Do read this on the use of social media if you’re interested.

Vyshyvanky - traditional embroidered shirts - on sale in Lviv's market

Vyshyvanky – traditional embroidered shirts – on sale in Lviv’s market

Drama UA Festival.    I met some energetic and exciting theatre makers, artists and dramaturgs at the Drama UA Festival in Lviv, which offers a workshop programme and debate alongside new performances.

Drama UA posters

Drama UA Festival invites theatremakers to Lviv

The East European Performing Arts Platform were meeting there, which ensured representatives from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania could join colleagues from Ukraine in discussing how to ensure theatre remains urgent, vital, relevant, and valued.

It was especially interesting for me to hear the voice of central and eastern European cultural commentators; and to listen to debate around the crisis in theatre criticism, which has been part of the formal academic training in theatre here, and which is still taught in 3 universities… the decline of the written word in print, the rejection of the ‘expert’ voice in favour of immediate personal comment on social media, and saturation levels of entertainment where articles around celebrity lifestyle have replaced the academically informed theorist’s commentary, described interestingly as “acting as a controller” to maintain “the purity of theatre”. This made me realise that in the UK little remains of the tradition of theatre criticism a la Kenneth Tynan, and less and less space is given to reviews in papers. Now there is far more written about cultural policy than about the art itself. Perhaps the traditional theatre critic has been replaced in the UK by those who write about the value of theatre …not its cost, nor even its meaning, but its value to us, the audience or the consumer? So I asked a UK writer, Richard Hector Jones, to comment:

“The modern critic needs to grasp socio-political context: they write about not what the art means, but what it means to us. The critic needs to use the art to discuss the now.  Given that anyone can technically be a critic, insight becomes the commodity, not opinion…or someone pontificating on whether something is stamped ‘good’ or ”bad’.  Richard HJ, Creative Concern, Manchester, UK.

Theatre Director Jan Willem van den Bosch in "The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant"

Theatre Director Jan Willem van den Bosch led a Master Class, part of the British Council’s Behind the Scenes

UK theatre director Jan Willem van den Bosch’s Master Class was supported by the British Council, as part of its Behind the Scenes intitiative; and after a discussion between us over dinner in one of Lviv’s amazing restaurants – we had to knock on a door at the top of some rickety stairs and convince an old man to let us into candlelit rooms where piano & violin were playing; and the exorbitant prices on the bill were not the price you paid, you had to haggle– Jan invited me to talk to his group the next day.

So I ended up speaking about the role of the Producer, and the need for creativity to extend beyond the rehearsal space and into all aspects of making work, which prompted an interesting discussion with the drama students & professional theatre directors/choreographers/artists in his group.

Master Class at DramaUA Festival

Ukraine’s independent theatre professionals discuss contemporary performance

Being in another country reminds me of the importance of being clear in the vocabulary we use when talking about the Arts.

Eastern European Performing Arts Platform  members meet Lviv City Council Culture team

EEPAP members meet Lviv City Council’s Culture team at City Hall

When we work in another language – and most people at the Eastern European Platform meeting had to use English as their common language, though there were no native speakers – we have to check the assumptions behind the jargon.

And I think this checking of exactly what we mean is good practice for all of us – an understanding of the role of a Producer, for example, can vary hugely from person to person. I noticed that many people referred to the dramaturg as having responsibilities beyond that of a bridge between writer and director and audience in terms of work with text. In eastern Europe, so I’m told, the dramaturg might also come up with the idea/concept behind the performance, raise the money and find the partners, and then work with the team throughout…something which I would see as the work of a Producer.  It’s worth checking our mutual understanding of the vocabulary when we begin to use arts jargon, as well as when we collaborate across borders, across languages, and across other potential cultural divides.

At the Family Boim Chapel, built in 1609

At the Family Boim Chapel, built in 1609, for a Hungarian merchant in Lviv

Harsh realities – on stage and screen

Take, Love, Run by Oksana Chavchenko.   A British theatre director recently worked with Kyiv’s Molodiy Theatre to stage a new play which gives a glimpse of life on the front line in the new Ukraine, where personal and national debts are mounting, and many people take desperate measures as they struggle to make ends meet.

pic of scene from play

‘Take Love Run’ directed by Caroline Steinbeis at the Molodiy Theatre, Kyiv

British Council Ukraine teamed up with London’s Royal Court to encourage new writing from emerging writers like Oksana Savchenko – with a staged reading, and a performance in London in English back in May.  After which Andriy Bilous, artistic director at the Molodiy, said “No Ukrainian director I know would stage this. It’s so dark that they wouldn’t be able to distance themselves enough to do it justice. How can a story about a young family in crisis make you laugh, and cringe, and still somehow inspire hope? It just does. We have to do it.”

The play opened in Kyiv in October, and as shows stay in a theatre’s repertoire for years here, I was able to see the play last week. I read the English translation and set off, not really expecting to enjoy it. But director Caroline Steinbeis had done a great job, making the most of very little by way of lighting & design, and the cast of 8 Ukrainian actors gave excellent performances. The show was sold out the night I went: packed with an audience, mostly in their 20’s/30’s, who were very appreciative, and rightly so. In one of the final scenes, the heroine – despite the awfulness of her situation – begins dancing, joyfully, with the removal man who is taking her furniture away…we share in an unlikely feeling that all is not lost.

[And if you want to get the same sense of joy that only dancing with abandon, no matter what, can provoke, try watching this

Dance Moves for Life, huh? …thanks Pablo!]

Molodist Film Festival prize winner with Natasha Vasylyuk of British Council

Molodist Film Festival prize winner Gabriel Gauchet with Natasha Vasylyuk , Deputy Director – British Council Ukraine

After the success of Gabriel Gauchet at the Molodist Film Festival,  the British Council’s New British Film Festival is about to open in six cities around Ukraine.  Gauchet, a graduate of the National Film School in London, won the top prize for his short film The Mass of Men. Originally French, he now lives & works in the UK, and British Council support enabled him to attend the prize giving to pick up his award in person.

The New British Film Festival is presented with ArtHouse Traffic who run the Odessa Film Festival, and the highlight for me will be Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant.  The film received 5 star reviews when it opened in London 3 weeks ago, and tells the story of two vulnerable children living in Bradford, who end up working for a scrap metal dealer.

British Council Ukraine are working in partnership with UNICEF to present special screenings of the film to mark International Children`s Day in Kyiv, Odessa and Donetsk; which enables UNICEF to raise the issue of the challenges faced by vulnerable children, and fuel crucial discussions amongst decision makers, journalists, business leaders, artists and the general public in an attempt to find solutions for the benefit of children in Ukraine, where nearly 100,000 children live or work on the streets; and 95,000 live in care institutions.

picture of golden globe

At the monastery, with one of the Ukrainian national symbols, kalyna, growing in the background

The promise of eternal life in the hereafter provides, for some, an escape from the harsh realities of life in the here and now.

This week I visited both St Volodymyr’s Cathedral – one of Kyiv’s newer (and best loved by locals) churches, built in the nineteenth century and covered in beautiful murals; and I took a wander around the outside of the Mykhailivskiy Zolotoverkhey Monastery.

picture of crosses

Crosses and domes for sale

Which led to the discovery of where you can buy those golden domes that sit on top of almost every church in this city.

Look, for just 11,500 UAH (about £850) one of those domes can be yours!

I also discovered a whole new park at the top of my street, so here’s a new view of my local church.

Chapel with Andriyivska Tserkva

Chapel with  the church, Andriyivska Tserkva, in the background

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

My weekend ended at a great gig from a talented singer/songwriter, Sophie Villy, of Georgian & Ukrainian heritage, at the Small Opera, a great venue. 

There  were around 300 people to see her; and, unlike in the UK, there were quite a few children there with their parents, which made for a really different atmosphere than you’d get at the same sort of gig in Manchester.

The Small Opera was built in 1902 and used to be the cultural centre for the tramworkers from the tram depot next door. It’s now in a state of disrepair that makes it atmospheric, and increasingly dangerous; and sadly, its future is uncertain as this article makes clear: Small Opera in decay. I was invited to the gig by Lera Chichibaya, presenter of The Selector in Ukraine, the British Council’s radio programme broadcast worldwide on local host radio stations, who will herself be playing at Wednesday’s Opening Party for the British Film Festival.  See you there, if you’re in Kyiv…