UKRAINE TO GO : “Mobility is a story about freedom”
Yana Humenna is a choregrapher and dance therapist from Ukraine. Her project “Misto to Go”, a musical residency space or kids from the Donbass frontline village of Troiske was destroyed, when Russia invaded her country. Re-located in Germany, “Ukraine to go” offers a new home for her, as well as for Ukrainian choreographers and dancers.
For as she can remember Yana Humenna was dancing. Born in Ukraine, then still part of the USSR, she was a free mind behind the Iron Curtain. When she was small she was part of a children’s choir and dance ensemble, travelling the world representing the Soviet Union. She was one of those little gracile silhouettes performing without borders, observing the “other side”, the “free world” from the stages of the theaters of Paris or Milan (or from behind its curtains). In 1989: the Eastern bloc disintegrated. As a typical child of the Perestroïka generation, losing her country and identity over night, Yana quickly learnt to accept and to adapt. Caught up in the whirlwind of changes, she sticks to dancing and art. “Mobility”, she says, “is a story about freedom”. Europe becomes her playground, a “space of prosperity and family”. During her twenties, Yana is travelling, performing, co-creating international projects: her future is all about lightness and hopes. Until 2014: the wave of protests that set Kiyv ablaze gives way to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbass region.
‘Maidan’ marks the awakening of her political engagement. “The last 8 years of my life are connected with the war”, she says. Along with intellectuals and playwrights of her generation, Yana thinks of ways to resist. In December 2015, for Christmas, they found the first independent and political theatre of the country: “PostPlay Theatre“, a platform for true underground and radical theatrical statements. Irreverent, raw and daring, the PostPlay Theatre wanted to show the complex identity of a country that since its independence in 1991, was struggling to find its identity.
Its headquarter is hosted in a former ribbon factory building, in Podil’s district in Kiyv. With a team of directors, playwrights and actors from different places in the country, they first come together to put on a performance of documentary play “Grey Zone”, which tackled the subject of displaced people from Eastern Europe. When they staged “Opolchenets” (“Rebel”), a monologue by a Donbass resident fighting on the side of the separatists, it becomes a scandal – with some venues refusing to host it. But from the start, they are acclaimed by Ukrainian intelligensia and critics. The number of spectators grew and some of them helped to renovate the premises of the theatre from scratch. During the Covid pandemic, amidst a wave of sanitary measures prohibiting all public gatherings, the PostPlay had to close. “We could no longer pay the rent”, explains Yana. “Instead, we created a laboratory and a school of modern art, the PostPlay Lab.”
In the fall of 2020, in the context of growing tensions with Russia, the team decided to offer educational and participatory projects in the front-line cities of Eastern Ukraine. Inspired by their previous experiences, Yana and her colleagues from PostPlay, found the Center for Performative Education (Perfosvita): a community-based NGO to work in crisis regions and with people who are in crisis. Their objectives ? “To stimulate democratic development, a tolerant society and critical thinking. We always work where we really need to,” says Yana. “Our projects combine theater, social work, contemporary art, research and therapy. With the help of education and culture, we build a safe place in which warmth is born and lost is restored in dialogue. A space where everyone takes a share of heat with them.”
As they are looking for international grants, they hear about the IPortunus mobility program. They give it a chance, crafting a special project: “Feel” should become a International Educational and Artistic Residence for children, in the front-line village of Troitske, in the Luhansk region. “For we cannot leave children who are stuck in the front-line alone. Unfortunately, their parents and the Ukrainian state showed little concern for them”, says Yana who believes there is an “healing force in art, which could make their lives more beautiful, give them warmth and strength, broaden their horizons and bring confidence in their adolescence.”
“Feel” is among the dozens of projects selected by the jury of European Cultural Foundation. Yana hopes that this music residency “Feel” can be the pilot of a long-term program in the Ukrainian capital, where foreign residence artists can combine their artistic practices with educational activities for schoolchildren who suffered as a result of the war. The first residents of Troitske are quickly announced: all German musicians with Ukrainian roots, Mar’yana Sadovska from Cologne and Yuri Gurzhi from Berlin. They were supposed to arrive in February 2022.
But, Russia invades Ukraine. “I was used to go to the warzones, as a job. But since February 24th, war really broke my life”, Yana says. Since February the premises of the PostPlay Lab are requisitioned by the Ukrainian army. Most of the partner’s schools they in Donbass, are either bombed or in the line of fire. Troistke village is occupied by Russia. As many other compatriots, Yana had to flee. She and her kids left to Germany, whereas her husband was staying in Ukraine. “The war forced me to become a refugee. And I have to live with it.” War may have changed her plans, she adds, but not who she is. Someone who likes morning coffee, songs and sunsets and hates lies, garbage and lack of punctuality. Yana is still this small dancer who bends but does not break, carrying on, driven by the words of her grand-dad: “If not you, then who?”
The music residency “Feel” is adapted to the circumstances and turns into “Ukraine to go”, (Україна з собою), a contemporary dance residency for Ukrainian choreographers and dancers in Germany. “Ukraine to Go” is hosted in the Thespis Zentrum, an open multicultural place in Bautzen, Saxony. The idea is simple, yet heartbreaking. After the start of Russia’s invasion, almost 6 million citizens were forced to become refugees and look for homes across Europe. Most of these people were women and children. What did they take with them? What happens to them and their bodies? What is Ukraine now, whose body has been mutilated ?
“In order to find the strengh to live as a refugee, I needed to work with local communities of refugee women in Germany. One can only survive a traumatic experience when being supported with one’s community. It does not only concern Ukrainian women, but also women from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and many other countries. We choose the universal language of dance, which like music, can be understood without words. »
Yana is used to saying that she just wanted to “do something”. In her forced exile, this IPortunus project became her “lifeline”. Accompanied with Ukrainian choreographer and teacher Olga Bajrachna and curator Den Humennyn, they propose a number of master classes on choreography and workshops in dance therapy. The loss of their homeland and the sudden arrival in a foreign environment leaves traces, mentally, but also physically. Yana wants to help women and children refugees in Bautzen to deal with their traumas of war and flight. In their performances, the women explore the question: “What does war do to the body? They also wanted to make clear that they are more than numbers or objects from the news.”
Her main reward she says, lies in “the shining eyes of this one girl who told me “God I didn’t even know I could do that. » It doesn’t matter how ‘small’ you are and how much you ‘don’t fit it’, you can always be yourself. Your body belongs to you,” according to Yana.
As a reflection on her own experience of war, she created the political performance « Talking to An Angel” (Розмова з Янголом) with Olga Bajrachna realizing a contemporary dance performance « When I Smoke, I Feel I’m Alive” (Коли я курю, я відчуваю, що я жива). The final outcome of the IPortunus residency was a joint performance about what women took with them to Germany, presented in June 2022. The title of their performance? “We are not objects. We are not numbers. We are not meat.”
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That the words “feel” and “hear” have a common root in Ukrainian is poignant, especially in these polarized times. “If you hear someone else’s pain – you can feel it” the residents say in this story. Do you have similar examples in other languages, expressions or words, that create this space for empathy, and healing, in language?
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The Hear and Feel residency was aimed as a pilot of a long-term programme in Eastern Ukraine, in which foreign artists were going to be able to combine their own artistic practice and educational activities for schoolchildren affected by the war which was ongoing in that region. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the project has morphed into Ukraine to Go, a residency of contemporary dance of Ukrainian choreographers based at Thespis Zentrum in Bautzen, Germany, hosted by director and curator Georg Genoux.