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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #379

The extraordinary performance last night at the Lviv Opera House was a piece called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by the Ukrainian composer Ivan Nebesny. This was a ballet performance of the 1960’s Ukrainian film of the same name, one of the most famous Ukrainian movies permitted by the Soviet authorities during Khrushchev’s cultural thaw particularly given that the Soviet Premier was Ukrainian. The plot of the film is in the style of Romeo and Juliet, a young couple separated by family rivalries amongst the Hutsul people of the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. However the ballet rendition undertaken of it was really rather unusual.

As the curtains opened to a series of a unharmonious discordant screechings from the orchestra, including a gigantic glockenspiel and equally huge xylophone, each thumped with big fuzzy drumsticks, I was distinctly doubtful. Large red lights descended from the ceiling as people started screeching about something. A flautist in a dinner jacket was hidden amongst a group of Christmas trees in the Royal Box, which I thought was rather a strange way of decorating the best seats in the house. The entire orchestra was gravely dressed in black, and all the members of there orchestra had turned out. Indeed the Opera House was full; exceptionally, there was not a single spare seat in the House.

The music was moody and screeching and modernist and there was all this strange stuff going on on the stage. Some people dressed like wizards or warlocks or something sombrely emerged, chanting while wearing giant white puffy dresses. The couple in question engaged in some highly sexualised dancing in which was wearing an outfit so revealing that she appeared virtually naked. Some men appeared on stage with large poles, and repeatedly banged them on the stage floor. Part of the stage had been sewn with grass. The lights descending and ascending switched from red to blue to white. At one point the music become so acute that I wondered whether my eardrums were about to burst. Men with giant bird masks appeared on the stage and people died and fell over. There was dancing and cheer and then the people in puffy uniforms appeared behind the Christmas trees amongst the audience and started chanting. It was all extremely peculiar.

I was thinking about walking out during the interval but there was something peculiarly gripping about the entire experience. I am not one at all to appreciate this sort of modern artistic performance; but I was strangely engaged from my front row position and I think everyone else was too. I couldn’t quite work out the plot - obviously these lovers’ relationship had offended the people wearing white who were screaming, who represented some sorts of family authorities in some prehistorical era; the presence of the men in bird masks probably represented some principle that the elementary laws of nature were being interfered with. The Christmas trees, I suppose, were fur trees representing the Carpathian Mountains. The different lights might represent the seasons. The conclusion wasn’t really clear to me either. But I did sit through the whole thing. I was in a sense stunned by the spectacle, riveted to my seat by all this unusual artistic behaviour.

At the conclusion of all this unusual activity the performers received a spontaneous standing ovation, that I joined the audience in although I wasn’t quite sure why. The whole thing was extremely impressive in some inarticulable, inchoate way. Although I had frankly found the entire episode an assault upon my senses, and not always a pleasant one, it had been engaging, enthusiastic and highly skilled. It would probably have helped far more had I understood just what the underlying film was about and how this ballet was supposed to mirror it.

I slipped out quietly during the applause, as it my habit; I never like to wait out the clapping - I somehow feel as though I am an imposter in the applause of others. I would rather show my enthusiasm for this extraordinary performance in other ways, such as writing these words. As I walked back to my favourite bar, picking up a couple of sandwiches on the way, I reflected on the unusual and unique artistic history of Ukraine about which we are only now slowly learning. Ukraine is undergoing a cultural renaissance amidst the horrors of war, as she is able to display and explore her own distinctive culture for the first time. Even in post-independence Ukraine, the country had insufficient confidence to render herself able to project her own cultural images to the rest of the world. With the advent of war, that has changed and now Ukraine exudes self-confidence.

I arrived at my favourite bar, and spent an hour or two finalising the plans for my colleagues’ travel to the front line this coming week. There are a few details to iron out, and I have prepared a tentative schedule. I’m still trying to minimise the contents of my rucksack, and I’m still wondering what’s in that first aid kit I always carry with me. I hope I never find out but of course I probably ought to open the damned thing before I proceed on this new journey as we’re going to some particularly dicey places and the law of averages suggests that sooner or later I will need to use it. We hope not; but you never know and meticulous preparation is my hallmark. The conversation of my colleagues in the international volunteer community didn’t much interest me last night; I have too many things on my mind.

Someone intrusive came to talk to me, and virtually demanded conversation. He wouldn’t leave me alone and eventually I had to stand up and move to another part of the bar. Not everyone wants to talk all the time. I might have my own thoughts or concerns running through my mind, and not every conversation I want is about the latest volunteering opportunity. Sometimes you just need time in your own mind, watching the ebb and flow of humanity pass by without necessarily interacting with them. That was my mood last night. I drifted home early, and slept uneasily, thinking of my trip ahead and I woke with a dull head, contemplating so many different things and listening to some rubbish on the news at an unnatural hour. I have a date tonight, and I hope I can find a way of becoming more sociable and cheery during the course of today. All I can do is thinking of the jarring noises and visions of last night’s ballet, and I have booked up my calendar with every last cultural event in Lviv for when I get back from the front.


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