Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monumental and Personal

Kyiv is a city of monuments located in a country of monuments. Some cities, like Zaporizha or Donetsk, still retain their large monuments to Lenin. But here in Kyiv, some of the Soviet monuments stand, a bit uneasily, with new monuments from the last twenty years. The monuments here are, well, monumental. The Motherland statue dominates the skyline, and just down the way, the new Holomodor memorial and the monument to the Great Patriotic War stand next to each other. Today, on a nice spring day, the park with these monuments was full of people.

The most curious to Westerners--the bridal parties. It's a tradition here in Kyiv that you and your wedding party, often now in a white stretch limo, go from monument to monument posing for pictures. Evidently this is a post World War II phenomenon, that began, thought one of my students, as a way of honoring those who had sacrificed their lives for the country. Even on the coldest days, you see a bundled up bride, in a big white dress, trailed by the wedding party and accompanied by her groom, off to make the rounds of sights in the city for pictures.

Although I find the monuments solemn and more than a little intimidating, Ukrainians seem not to. They watch their children ride a tricycle nearby, promenade with a date, and bring a small picnic. Rather than an overly solemn place, it's just a nice green, relaxing place in the city to come. I imagine on particular memorial days, it has a much different feel as Ukrainians do feel a deep connection to the past and to the sacrifices of those who came before.

It's a rare thing to see certain statues without any flowers or wreaths placed on it. Fairly regularly, I pass by a small Holomodor monument near St. Michaels, and also by a statue to veterans of the war in Afghanistan near Pechersk Lavra. They always have wreaths or flowers placed on them.

But this past week I got a chance to experience an entirely different kind of culture far different from the massive governmental monuments. Irina took Christi Anne Hofland, a fellow Fulbrighter, and me to a performance at the Dakh Contemporary Art Center. It's in an old Soviet-style apartment building, several stops out on the Metro, and is an unofficial, non-state theater founded in 1994 and succeeding, as their website says, "using the methods of probes and mistakes." We saw a difficult-to-describe Richard III. The performance used no words, only music, dance, movement and masks, and was one of the most compelling things I'd seen in a long time.

In a tiny simple theater space seating only about 40 people on wooden benches, the performers and musicians combined Ukrainian traditions--music, rshynky and more--with Shakespeare in a way I'll long remember. So much of Ukrainian traditional culture is presented either as a sort of kitsch, available for purchase by tourists, or as something embedded in amber, unchanging, in museum exhibitions. I very much liked how this energetic thoughtful group of performers, headed by director and founder Vladyslav Troitskyi took their own traditions and created something entirely new. And the Shakespearean themes of family intrigue, death, and the lust for power resonate must, I suspect, resonate deeply here.

Top and bottom images: from Dakh Contemporary Art Center
Motherland and Afghan statues in Kyiv, from Wikipedia

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