Odessa…a reason to return to Ukraine

poster - superukraineWhen I left Ukraine in April, I found it hard to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues so I made it easier for myself by stating that I wasn’t actually saying goodbye [forever?] because I would be coming back.

And now I’m packing a suitcase and checking the weather forecast. [I know it’s only the British who feel the need to pack clothes for every season when we go on holiday, but that’s because the average holiday week in July in the UK can contain wind, torrential rain, sunburn, relentless drizzle and fog, often in the space of a single day].

I’ll be visiting the Odessa International Film Festival this weekend, after stopping over in Kyiv to see friends, and to see what the capital city looks like in summer, rather than winter.

Stephen Frears will be in Odessa as one of the featured film makers at the 2014 Film Festival; and Hitchcock’s Blackmail will also form part of the Opening weekend, screened to an audience of thousands sitting on the Potemkin Steps. This year’s Film Festival is taking place, despite huge obstacles and with few resources, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people like Producer, Julia Sinkevych, and her team – she writes ” It is challenging this year, and probably the most difficult project in my career and in careers of my colleagues due to the situation in Ukraine”.

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Ukraine is still in the news here in Britain but weekly, not daily. And the situation is still tense, especially in the eastern regions: a month ago, Izolyatsia – a vibrant platform for contemporary culture in Donetsk [see previous posts] was taken over by pro-Russian separatists; and my friend Olga wrote, after another murder in the centre of Donetsk ” It’s awful, and the most terrible thing is that we are kind of getting used to gun shootings and deaths of ordinary people.”

But she ended her email “Anyway, life is going on and kids are going on dancing, singing and doing a lot of interesting things. Besides, it is our common history which should be kept through generations.”

People’s resilience in the face of conflict is remarkable; and Olga’s positive statement, and the determination of the Odessa Film Festival team to go ahead with this year’s festival, is testament to that.

On a more mundane note, I’m looking forward to sitting on those Potemkin Steps (made famous thanks to Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin)  by the shores of the Black Sea, in Ukraine’s third largest city, which was officially founded by Catherine The Great in 1794. By 1824, Pushkin was writing of Odessa that “its air was full of all Europe”, in reference to its extremely diverse population.

I’m also looking forward to taking a battered yellow marshrutka around town, eating a bowl of borscht, getting a receipt in a little box, seeing Napolean cake on every menu, and seeing friends and colleagues at the British Council in Kyiv, and in Odessa…

Shining Light into Darkness

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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.

the Sauna Train of Ukraine, to Chernivtsi

With Anatolii and Katya - they might look cool but actually we were HOT

With Anatolii and Katya – they might look cool but actually we were melting HOT

So it’s 20 degrees outside, and 30 degrees inside, with no possibility of opening any windows. 4 bunks in our cabin, and the train rattles through the night on its 13 hour journey to Chernivtsi in western Ukraine.

Chai, served by each carriage’s conductor in glass mugs with decorative silver holders and matching teaspoons, provides welcome refreshment as we gently sweat.

I was invited to Katya’s home town to speak at the University where her father, Dr Vasyl Byalyuk, is Chair of the Dept of Translation.

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Chernivtsi University – A UNESCO World Heritage site, built in 1860.

Sixty students of English (philology and translation) and teaching staff turned up to listen to my presentation about the value of culture, sharing the experience of how the arts have been a driver for regeneration and entrepreneurial activity in the UK’s North West.I talked too about stories – how my story and your story become, collectively, what represents us…our culture: a national identity woven from the warp and weft of individual and civic stories.

The evening before, the British Council had hosted a soirée designed to hear from some of the key players in Ukraine’s cultural scene about what they perceive to be the challenges facing them, and what they need from the British Council at this point in the country’s development.

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Ukraine’s cultural leaders meet British Council’s team in Ukraine

“We need to make and show film, theatre, and art which promotes tolerance” said one. “We need you to support the education of our young film makers, choreographers, theatre makers by offering fast track ways in which curators and producers can learn skills which enable them to support our own artists from all disciplines” said another. “The British Council’s role in encouraging work which promotes diversity, and supporting artists to find ways to bring diverse communities together is crucial – given the increasing schism between eastern and western Ukraine” observed a third.

In a guidebook for Chernivtsi I read “From the City Hall balcony, magistrate employees once spoke to citizens in 3 languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian) informing them about events in the world and the city. The capital of Bukovyna (the region of Ukraine which touches Romania and Moldova) was always distinguished by tolerance and a variety of cultures“.

That rich history is everywhere: Armenian Street, the House of Romanians, Turkish Square, the synagogues around the corner from Orthodox churches, the German Haus, the classicism of the architecture of the Austro-Hungarian empire next to modernist 1930’s civic buildings. The history of Bukovyna is one (another one) of occupation, assimilation…and tolerance. Today the pedestrianised Main St is full of prams and children, balloon sellers and girls in high heels, and in the nearby markets old women sell their pickles while old men sit smoking.

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

In the museum of the History and Ethnography of the Chernivtsi Region, rooms of objects are laid out in a wonderfully haphazard way – the taxidermist’s handiwork juxtaposed with traditional costume, next to a room of WW1 memorabilia, alongside some fascinating photos and masks from the Malanka carnival tradition still maintained in Bukovyna’s villages.

One of the students asked me about whether we in the UK are envious of the purity of some of Ukraine’s folk traditions…in our mixed up, mash up cultural melting pot, have we lost respect for “purity”?

I don’t think ‘pure’ traditions really exist – the folkloric aspects of western Ukrainian culture come to us from the weaving together of different influences. And culture that stagnates becomes irrelevant and we no longer care enough to fight for its survival.

The challenge facing Ukraine’s new cultural ministry remains – how much of its tiny resources are needed to preserve the past and how much should be spent on supporting artists to create new work, new films, new shows that speak to, and of, today’s fractured society? Art which might help people understand the immense shift that has taken place in Ukraine in the last 4 months.

A round table discussion with teaching staff, and a shameless promotional opportunity!

A round table discussion with teaching staff

The British Council in Ukraine is listening carefully to those who have proved their credibility in the artistic life of Ukraine by making things happen against all odds. It needs to be bold in its own approach, and in its encouragement and support of Ukraine’s artists, curators, producers, teachers and translators to be ambitious, despite the constant challenge of finding resources; and above all, it needs to continue to promote tolerance as a fundamental value.

 

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.

Between East and West?

P1000575Last week, I attended the Institute of Strategic Studies national convention on the EU in Ukraine – experts & delegates from EU members gave evidence to Ministers & MP’s on the value of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union.

The debate was impassioned, and made me feel that I am in the privileged position of witnessing history being made: Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’ and now is a time of great uncertainty as we wait to see if Ukraine will sign in Vilnius.

Ukrainian colleagues and the business community feel strongly that Europe offers the best fit in terms of political aspirations for an emerging democratic state – freedom (of thought/speech/action) really matters when you can remember how it was to live in the time before “freedom”. And association with the EU would certainly accelerate much needed reforms as well as giving access to European markets.

We're keeping an eye on you

We’re keeping an eye on you

But Putin’s Russia is not giving up the former states of the USSR easily: deals on gas & loans to help Ukraine’s struggling economy are the carrot; and the stick? Threats of trade embargos if Ukraine doesn’t join the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Meanwhile the European Union is understandably wary of having another failing economy coming to its party… where Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland et al are propped up in a corner, Britain’s outside in the garden shouting at the neighbours, and the only guest still left on the dance floor is Germany.  Europe has made judicial reform a key condition for the signing in Vilnius, and requests to Ukraine to clean up its act go beyond the release from detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the current President’s biggest political rival.

Ukraine languishes at 112th in a league table which measures ‘Ease of doing Business’, with a gnarly tax and legislative framework, and endemic corruption. So although most people are trying to earn an honest living, they are often thwarted by their leadership and the system. Education might offer an escape – around a quarter of places at universities are available for free to bright but poor students, but there’s huge competition, and bribery can still be part of the process of securing the place.

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Buying butter & cheese from my favourite “dairymaid”

However, Ukraine has huge natural resources, one third of the “black earth” resource (the most fertile soil) of the globe is here, and its people – on my brief acquaintance – are educated, aspiring, and hard working.  Sitting on the fence between Russia and Europe might be an option, and President Yanukovych is clearly trying to work out which way to jump depending on which side will give him the best chance of staying in power.

But as I wrote this (21/11/2013) the ruling Party of the Regions voted against various key reforms/conditions so it’s now looking almost impossible for the Agreement to be signed.

Visa restrictions currently make it difficult for Ukrainians to travel to the UK or indeed anywhere in Europe, and the costs of spending time there make it prohibitive for many. Which may explain the popularity of cinema here – a chance to travel to new places for 35 UAH (less than £3)? Cinema has been at the fore over the past week as almost every film in the British Film Festival season has played to sell out audiences. I loved the National Theatre’s Frankenstein on film, made available again as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season;  I really enjoyed the BAFTA shorts, particularly Tumult; and our screening of The Selfish Giant, in partnership with UNICEF, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the bleak landscape for vulnerable children in the UK, and Ukraine, as elsewhere. 

It occurred to me as I munched my breakfast herring, and spread weird jam on my dark brown bread that I might have ‘gone native’:

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

I can now count to nine in Ukrainian, say thank you & good night in Russian,ask for 100gms of butter,

and read the Cyrillic alphabet which makes getting around a bit easier – although some of the city centre underground has signs in both alphabets, there’s no consistency and signs disappear as you try and emerge at the correct exit without getting lost in the vast underground market areas that surround the central metro stations.

I’ve been going to some of the Young Learners lessons in my free time – giving young people who are learning English the opportunity to ask questions (like “Which architect do you most admire and why?”- so quite searching!) of a native speaker.

Our discussions about arts & culture in the UK and here have led me to think more about why culture matters – the arts are a great way of telling stories about who we are as people, and culture is perhaps the sum total of a nation’s stories. As a nation’s collective memories, it draws on our recipes and songs as well as our theatre, our landscape and traditions as well as our literature, our feast days and the rituals that we still have around birth, marriage, and death… all a shared and valuable part of national identity.

The young people whose parents are willing and able to pay for them to learn English at the British Council today are likely to include some of the business people, politicians and leaders of tomorrow, and clearly the British Council can play a part in encouraging them to value artists, arts and culture – both their own and that of others. In discussions about how British musicians & choreographers are brilliantly mixing up traditions: like clog dancing and hip hop, one student told me that the same has happened with Hopak – a kozak dance that is being reconfigured by young people in exciting ways – so I shall hunt down some clips to share with you.

This week Ukraine lost against France, after beating them 2-0 last week, and went out of the World Cup. And this week Hull became UK Capital of Culture 2017 – hurrah for Hull, which badly needs a boost: youth unemployment is at 40% in the city, so let’s hope that  the next 4 years offer the same boost to Hull as happened in Derry with its Capital of Culture investment.  And fingers crossed for better news for Ukraine in Vilnius, but our hopes are not high.