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Vasyl Vovkun’s dream to bring high culture to everyone
Vasyl Vovkun achieved fame in Ukraine as a theatre director but it is not only plays he directs. He has directed about 300 plays, shows and official ceremonies of different kinds, President Yushchenko’s inauguration included. Vasyl Vovkun tells Ulyana HLIBCHUK about his work, ideas and views.
The interview was held on the day when he was offered to become an advisor to the President of Ukraine. It does not often happen in this country that people do not accept such lucrative proposals, and the first question emerged all by itself, “Why did you turn down this proposal?”
I took part in the events of the Orange Revolution as a conscientious citizen without expecting any thank-yous or rewards from the victors. I felt I just had to do it. But it’s one thing to be a participant of such events and quite another thing to become a high-ranking functionary in the new government that came to power. To be in power is a great test for anybody, in this country in particular. I know that there are people who easily accept promotions to high posts without having either proper qualifications or clear-cut conceptions of what they are going to do. Some people who accept promotions go against their own nature and have to drastically change their orientations which they have been building up for years… When I was offered the job of an advisor to the president, I admit I spent several days and sleepless nights thinking it over. When you are close to fifty, you want to have a position in life which will make you feel secure, and which you’ll be able to hold for a long time. But if you are a creative person, then no such positions exist. Today you may enjoy the favourable attention of the media and tomorrow you do something that flops spectacularly and you are dismissed and forgotten as though you’d never existed. It’s cruel but you can hardly help it in an occupation like mine. It makes you keep in good creative shape all the time. I’ve had several temptations to become a high-ranking bureaucrat and having not succumbed to them makes me feel great. At the same time I cannot say that I’ve found a solid foundation, based on which I can develop my projects to fruition. However it is better than to go against your principles and sell yourself for advantages of a high post.
In spite of your optimistic attitudes, it seems to me I’ve heard in your words a certain measure of disappointment — have some illusions generated by the Orange Revolution been dispelled?
Even at my first interviews given during and immediately after the Orange Revolution, I insisted that it was fraught with danger to prolong the revolutionary phase — in the sense of glorying in the fame of victory. Revolutionary gains should be secured by achievements in the economy, social sphere and culture. In a certain sense, the post-Orange situation could be compared to the situation in Ukraine that emerged in 1919. Those were the times of the Ukrainian People’s Republic which laid the foundation for breakthroughs in many spheres. The republic collapsed under the Bolshevik pressure but the seeds it had planted in culture produced a number of excellent writers, poets, painters and theatre and film directors — Les Kurbas and Oleksandr Dovzhenko among them. So many of them died later in the soviet concentration camps or were executed by firing squads but they had made great contributions to Ukrainian culture.
But Ukraine lost her independence…
Yes, it did, tragically — but it was regained many years later. When the people who were active in the 1960-s (they had stood for the Ukrainian national ideas and ideals and had been harassed and imprisoned by the soviets for that) and other people of my generation that witnessed Ukraine regain sovereignty told me that we had not done enough, I was not offended — I replied that if we had not taken part in all those rallies, if we had not subjected the politicians to such a great pressure, Ukrainian parliament would have never voted for Ukraine’s independence. The Orange Revolution was an upsurge of popular dissatisfaction with the corrupt power, and popular indignation and discontent swept the Kuchma regime away. But it’s not enough to remove the corrupt people from power — you also have to get rid of corrupt and slavish habits that have been introduced and encouraged by the corrupt regime. I still hope that we’ll be able to go through this process of cleansing — it will be of a great, pivotal importance for our life.
We do not need to hear any more good words – we want action. We have to have a road map, we have to know in which direction we should be moving, what we should do tomorrow and then the day after tomorrow… To avoid a wide-spread disappointment, we should have a strategic plan of development, we should protect the cultural and spiritual space of our country.
So you have decided to remain a creative person rather exchange your creativity for a high post.
That’s correct. I’d rather promote culture. I have a dream — to bring high culture to everyone. There are a lot of ideas we could borrow from other countries in the sphere of promoting culture. Recently I visited Japan and, among other things, was very impressed by the way the Japanese mentality and culture interacted with their economic progress. The Japanese are so precise in everything and know how to use minimal means for maximum effect. The Japanese always do what their promise to do — it’s in their blood. You see manifestation of national culture everywhere — in everyday life and in business… The business tycoons in Ukraine do not seem to care for Ukrainian culture, and if you do not know the culture of the country you live in, how can you love this country?
I know that you had been developing a project aimed at commemorating the victims of Holodomor (the Great Famine of 1932– 1933 artificially induced in Ukraine by the soviet authorities) for quite some time. It’s a very painful subject which does not get much coverage in the media and the person who is involved in such projects cannot expect much publicity given to his efforts.
It’s the least of my concerns. The millions of the dead are calling to our conscience. And it gives me energy and strength. On major Christian holydays we pay homage to our ancestors — on Christmas, for example, we invite their souls to join for Christmas dinner… A project to commemorate the dead — it sounds so bureaucratically dry… I wanted to create something different, something that would be part sacred ritual and part symbolical pageant. I wanted all of Ukraine to feel united in the emotions it would engender. I wanted every household to put lit candles on the windowsills in their homes. I did not want it to be a pompous, official ceremony — I wanted the nation to live through a cathartic experience…
The Famine of 1932–1933 is a controversial issue in Ukraine.
Yes, I know. There are people who refuse to accept it as a tragedy of genocidal proportions. But the millions that died then deserve the truth to be known. The Ukrainian nation has to accept this truth even if there may be some people who will continue to ignore it. The late Jim Mase, an American who had come to Ukraine to teach at a university, devoted a great deal of his time and energy to making the truth widely known. If an American was so moved by the Ukrainian tragedy, why can’t we, Ukrainians, all of us, assess it properly? It’s more than just an ethical issue — it’s a great social and cultural issue. I hear people say, when the famine was mentioned, that they could not go back in their thoughts to that tragedy because they themselves lived at subsistence level. But in order to prevent such things happening again, we have to have a clear knowledge of what happened in the past. The more advanced a society gets to be in the social, material and political spheres, the easier such truths will sink in.
If I interpret your words right — do you mean to say that the world will not recognize the famine of 1932–1933 as genocide unless we, in Ukraine, recognize it as such?
Absolutely. It’s the only way.
What’s your view of the current political situation?
It seems to me that there’s too much personal bias and personal interest in it at the moment. It may lead to disastrous consequences. When in a theatre a new play is being rehearsed, everybody who is involved should put aside their differences and ambitions and work in harmony – but if instead everyone in the company starts bickering with everyone else then what kind of play will be produced? You should always seek compromises and when people have enough culture they will always come to terms. But if the level culture is low then the quarrelling parties will find themselves back to square one. That’s what we have in Ukraine at the moment. Some people refuse to change their views no matter what – they seem to be unable to learn to be flexible.
Let’s change the subject, if you don’t mind, and go back to you. You are a theatre director by occupation, are you not?
In fact I am not. I was educated to be an actor. I do not have a certificate that would confirm my qualifications as director but somehow I get by without it.
Among your recent productions was the scenario for the inaugural ceremony of the president, and then you started working at an opera by Verdi. Anything else?
Yes. Last May I staged a cyclical opera by the English composer Benjamin Britten, one of the best composers of the twentieth century, at the Music Academy. Unfortunately, he is not well known in Ukraine, and the premiere was largely ignored both by the media and the public.
I have to admit that I’ve heard neither about Britten nor about the staging of his opera in Kyiv.
Opera is more conservative than the drama theatre and we tend to think of opera in terms of Italian achievements. But like the theatre, the opera develops too and there are many trends in today’s opera. There is, for example, what may be called “the opera of the absurd,” as there is the theatre of the absurd. In Britten’s operas everything is based on psychological nuances — I find it most impressive. Among my recently realized productions are the scenario for the celebrations of the Independence Day and for the presentation of Ukraine at EXPO-2005. At the presentation, a folk ensemble Pokut performed authentic Ukrainian folk music and songs wearing traditional Ukrainian dresses. The Chamber orchestra Kyivski solisty performed classical music, and Ukrainian rock music was represented by Vopli Vidoplyasova rock group. My scenario of the presentation had had hard time getting the approval of the Ministry of Culture but eventually I got it through.
The economic and political situation in Ukraine does not seem to be too conducive for creative work — did you ever think of emigrating?
Yes, there were temptations of this sort in my life. In 1989, my wife and I were invited to come to Britain to live — we were promised a house to live in and money to start a new life. For several days we were in two minds but at the end we refused to go. Today it even seems strange to me that I could ever consider emigrating as an eventuality but back then we lived through hard times. We, with our child, lived in a tiny room in a dormitory. I know that many people went to great lengths to emigrate — but we stayed and were never sorry we did.
Among the shows you directed was the one which was called Zoloti vorota tysyacholittya (Golden Gate of the Millennium). Can you say a few words about it?
It was back in 2000. I must have been inspired by a show that I had seen in Cuba — within a short span of two hours of fiery dancing and singing you come to understand the very heart of Cuba. And I thought to myself — why not try to stage something similar in Ukraine? And my idea was put into action. On the bank of the Dnipro River we had a park laid out to stage the show in. We built a model of the Golden Gate, the central gate of Kyiv back in the early medieval times. About 700 hundred people were involved in the show, stuntmen among them. We had real old Cossack cannon, we had a couple of thousand period costumes made. We wanted everything to look authentic. The show was a good introduction to the history of Ukraine and of Kyiv, not only entertainment. It was particularly popular with tourists, both Ukrainian and foreign. We kept the show going for two years… Among other culture-oriented shows that I directed was the one called Nezalezhne movchannya (Independent Silence). Part of it was dedicated to the village in the Land of Lvivshchyna where I was born. I wanted to show that traditional Ukrainian culture is alive and that traditions should be maintained.
I understand that in addition to directing your shows, you also have to find financial backing to stage them.
Yes, I do. And it means that my life is very busy and hectic. I have very little free time left for myself. Once in a while I want to turn off my cell phone and disconnect my telephone at home and live a day or two in peace and devote myself entirely to working out creative ideas. But somehow I find time, even at night, to develop my ideas, of which I have quite a few. There are domestic chores to deal with too. That’s always a problem in our family. My wife is an actress and she does not have much time for home either. So when there’s no time to cook, we go to a restaurant. It solves at least some of our problems.
You direct operas and stage official ceremonies and other large-scale shows — and your versatility seems to be a natural thing for you!
It is! I cannot be tied to doing similar things again and again. I hate monotony and routine. I want to be on the move, speaking creatively, all the time. I find it exciting to be doing something new, even if there’s a risk of failure. There must be always a creative challenge, some provocation, if you want.
Photos are from Vasyl VOVKUN’s archive
A scene from Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo
At a concert devoted to the 60th birthday
The performers after the premiere
Candles lit at the memorial meeting devoted
At the International Folk Festival
At the opening of the exhibition of collector’s