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

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.

Chornobyl – lest we forget

photo of reactor number 4

the reactor encased in a concrete tomb, 28 years old and deteriorating

In April 1986 I was living in Finland and I remember the panic amongst the Finnish and Swedish authorities when massive levels of radiation started being picked up in the atmosphere… we were advised to stay indoors. The radioactivity wasn’t coming from within Scandinavia, but from the USSR. Visiting Chornobyl, just 80k north of Kyiv, 28 years later felt like a pilgrimage that I had to make, and I’m so glad I did.

the diving boards at the swimming pool in the Palace of Culture

the diving boards at the swimming pool in the Palace of Culture in Pripyat.

On the tour bus, we were shown a film that set the context – the model Soviet new town of Pripyat, built in 1970, and home to 47,000 citizens; the much older settlement of Chornobyl, surrounded by fertile land and forest known for its abundance of mushrooms; and Ukraine’s largest nuclear reactor. We drove through the outer exclusion zone, now home to 3000 workers, and were taken much closer to Reactor Number 4 than I’d imagined we’d go – here we witnessed the teams at work building the new sarcophogus which will roll into place, covering the disintegrating tomb that currently encases the still radioactive core.

pic of memorial

memorial to the 31 firefighters who died in the initial fire…many thousands more were to die later

The external decontamination operation has been massive and mainly successful – but the death toll was significantly higher than the 31 official deaths of the firefighters. Soldiers, who named themselves bio-robots, ended up doing the most hazardous work when the hastily fabricated clean-up machines failed due to irradiation; helicopter pilots, scientists, and other “liquidators” fighting to control the fate of the reactor, were the main victims at the time. Subsequently, 125,000 deaths have been directly attributed to the accident, and the incidence of thyroid cancer in children from the region numbers around 1 in 10.

Entertainment facilities in Pripyat included a ferris wheel and dodgem cars...

Entertainment facilities in Pripyat included a ferris wheel and dodgem cars…

In Pripyat, we walked around a ghost town that is being inexorably reclaimed by nature. From the lines of cots in the kindergarten to the empty diving boards of the swimming pool, from the supermarket with its signs for sugar, bread, and tea to the billboards in the Palace of Culture lying ready for the 1986 May Day celebrations, everything is pretty much as it was when the town was evacuated….too late to prevent contamination, finally the entire population was removed in 3 hours, on the understanding that they would return within 3 days. The scale of the Soviet authorities denial/cover up was described as criminal by our young guide, but there was also great heroism shown by the men involved in the clean up. Chornobyl remains the world’s worst nuclear disaster and many people are still living with its consequences.

the secondary school, eerily silent, and the playground a hot spot for radiation

the secondary school, eerily silent, its playground still a hot spot for radiation

In the UK, we are considering more investment in nuclear as a clean alternative – clean until something goes wrong, at which point the consequences of playing with nuclear fission are so extraordinarily massive as to convince me that this will be the way humans destroy themselves and the planet. Visiting Chornobyl now is a poignant and unsettling experience which I would recommend to anyone interested in the alternative energy debate.

through the school window, emptiness

through the school window, nature gradually reclaims its territory

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.