Category Archives: Belarus

AP EVIDENCE POINTS TO 600 DEAD IN MARIUPOL THEATER AIRSTRIKE ·

(Lori Hinnant’s, Msyslav Chernov’s, and Vasilisa Stephenko’s article appeared on the AP, 5/5; Photo: GMToday.com.)

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — She stood in just her bathrobe in the freezing basement of the Mariupol theater, coated in white plaster dust shaken loose by the explosion. Her husband tugged at her to leave and begged her to cover her eyes.

But she couldn’t help it — Oksana Syomina looked. And to this day, she wishes she hadn’t. Bodies were strewn everywhere, including those of children. By the main exit, a little girl lay still on the floor.

Syomina had to step on the dead to escape the building that had served as the Ukrainian city’s main bomb shelter for more than a week. The wounded screamed, as did those trying to find loved ones. Syomina, her husband and about 30 others ran blindly toward the sea and up the shore for almost five miles (eight kilometers) without stopping, the theater in ruins behind them.

“All the people are still under the rubble, because the rubble is still there — no one dug them up,” Syomina said, weeping at the memory. “This is one big mass grave.”

Amid all the horrors that have unfolded in the war on Ukraine, the Russian bombing of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16 stands out as the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date. An Associated Press investigation has found evidence that the attack was in fact far deadlier than estimated, killing closer to 600 people inside and outside the building. That’s almost double the death toll cited so far, and many survivors put the number even higher.

The AP investigation recreated what happened inside the theater on that day from the accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers, and people intimately familiar with its new life as a bomb shelter. The AP also drew on two sets of floor plans of the theater, photos and video taken inside before, during and after that day and feedback from experts who reviewed the methodology.

(Read more)

BELARUS FREE THEATRE: NICOLAI KHALEZIN/ SVETLANA SUGAKO/ FRANK HENTSCHKER/ DANIELLA KALIADA–CASSANDRAS DURING WAR ·

(The following article was compiled and written after listening to an interview with artistic collaborators from Belarus Free Theatre, 3/22; by Bob Shuman, Stage Voices. )

An old saying: “When the guns are singing, the muses are silent.” The original may actually have been: “When the guns are singing the laws are silent.”  We are those muses who hope not to stay silent when the guns are singing; who do not stay silent when the guns are silent, also.  We don’t have the right to another way.  We have to be the back-up, to help those who are fighting, because there is no one else who will do this; because there are those, from the arts and elsewhere, who are actually fighting on the streets.–Nicolai Khalezin, Belarus Free Theatre

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, silently, as they screamed, from behind a deflating transparent plastic globe, Belarus Free Theatre, in Being Harold Pinter (2011), warned the west of the price of dictatorship in Eastern Europe. Their works for the stage, often short and urgent, left audiences feeling that little could change for them—in their country, so remote geographically, linguistically, and politically—but we did not think it could become worse, and so our response was largely acquiescent. Now, eleven years later, the company, along with approximately 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine (and uncounted numbers from neighboring countries, have been in flight (France24; updated to 4 million on 3/30/22),  uprooted, running, homeless, and given paperwork, while rushed escape plans are made for the U.S., the United Kingdom, the EU or other points where there is, hopefully, no war—something the actress and director Liv Ullmann has stated needs to be addressed immediately and legally:  “I get very shocked. . . .  To be honest, I know that the same thing will happen in Norway. But at least I can fight it more easily because I belong to that country. I don’t belong to the US. But I can say what I mean.”

New work from Belarus Free Theatre remains prescient, as if from Cassandras at the Trojan War.  Dogs of Europe, based on dystopian fiction –which feels like a current documentary novel, although it was written in 2018/2019 and is “one of the best pieces of literature written in Belarus in the last thirty years,” according to Nicolai Khalezin, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre, along with Natalia Kaliada. Alhierd Bacharevic, its author, presents life in a future Russia, where their own land has “disappeared,” along with literature and the European Union, replaced by authoritarianism and indifference. Frank Hentschker, interviewing two company members, Svetlana Sugako and Khalezin, for Segal Talks (Daniella Kaliada provides English translation), on Wednesday, 3/23/22, led the discussion, concerning what is on their minds, what is on everyone’s minds: the war in Ukraine, during its twenty-eighth day, a day that:  sees the continued devastation of Mariupol, the destruction of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile launcher, strikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure,  and Putin’s announcement that payment for Russian natural gas must be made in rubles, among other critical issues.

Livestreaming on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network, Khalezin, who is also an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner, journalist, and who was put in prison for his activism, begins bluntly, “Thinking people tried to scream and shout of dangers awaiting, but ultimately, we failed in our mission; we all share collective blame for allowing Putin to exist—but artists must use the historical moment.”  Sugako, an activist, musician, and actor who is leading on a new campaign for LGBTQI rights for the company, was also jailed, before she left the country, for protesting Lukashenko’s seizure of a sixth term as president, in 2020.  On Zoom, she looks boyish and thoughtful (both of those interviewed wore their hair in bouffant styles), and, since 2011, she had been running the entire operation for the Minsk theatre, before taking refuge in Poland and England (she is, currently, in the process of taking props from Warsaw to London  for a new show called How Man Had a Speaking Sparrow; the Artistic Directors of the Belarus Free Theatre, at the time, were forced into exile in London. She once built a wooden raft and sailed down one of the rivers in Belarus, it is explained, to talk to people in small villages, to bring theatre to them. Comparisons to a Huckleberry Finn are not warranted, however, as even performing and speaking in Belarusian, her native language (or wearing a t-shirt  or placing a decal on a car window with the flag of the country), carries an arrest sentence; looking for work in the state theatre, was prohibited and unsafe, as well, because of associations with the underground stage.

Khalezin explains, from Washington, D.C., that actually Belarus Free Theatre did not start politically.  Instead, at its inception, the company was incorporating and reconfiguring, theatrically, a philosophy based on the principles of Total Football (Soccer), as conceptualized and implemented, during the ‘70s, by Rinus Michels, of the Netherlands National Football team.  The ensemble is still trained in total immersion: quick transitions (from offense to defense), forced spread throughout the field, as well as sincerity and actuality (the Belarus Free Theatre School, Fortinbras, which came into existence twelve years ago, incorporates the method, along with  physical theater, actor perception, and other techniques).  At the time, those in the company were also questioned about what mattered to them—“what gave us strength and what bothered us.”  In turn, audiences would begin thinking about what bothered them.  Today, Khalezin, moustached, with a chin strip goatee and earring, is still asking about the problem of us—which now includes a war in Europe, the largest since World War II.

Hearing from artists, who are stuck and do not know how to react, Sugako  discusses the issues and solutions with Natalia Kaliada (who is currently in Washington, D.C., speaking to representatives in Congress,  the Senate, White House, Pentagon, and foreign ministry, about the Ukraine invasion).  Part of a response, the theatremakers believe, is to “continue to do” and be active: “express, show, and shout!” (“You have to do it, you are artists.”)—even in a time “when we can do nothing and even as art can not change the situation.”  Václav Havel, Czech president, dissident, and playwright, who spent almost eight years in prison, said,“fight, no matter where you are. Just continue to fight.”  Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Mick Jagger, and Steven Spielberg, may not talk much, but they are “engaged socially and politically,” and have discussed major issues concerning Eastern Europe with Khalezin.  Part of our solutions may be to question; “looking at the world as questions.”  Face problems.  “Ask,” even as “it is not the goal of the arts to look for answers.”  Learning is crucial, of course, “but learning in dialogue.” This technique is “more important than a master class.” Khalezin also believes we must continue on our paths: “When you realize your resilience, you start enjoying it more, but  be patient,  because you may want to take the road of least resistance, which might not sustain you, as an individual.” 

Khalezin does not actually believe that most people want to talk about My Fair Lady and Book of Mormon—the same “jolly” shows that had filled houses before the emergence of COVID, more than two years ago.  He believes the theatrical community wants to talk about “the poignant topics,” what’s going on in real life. He even finds the positive reception of the Belarus Free Theatre production of Dogs of Europe, in the U.K., suspect (the play recently closed, on 2/22, at London’s Barbican), in lockstep, critically, with other 4-star reviews (only the Financial Times gave the work 5-stars (below). This may suggest a lack of critical thinking in the art world, with rote determination on the part of reviewers.  Perhaps they are simply playing it safe during such a dangerous time.  Khalezin, nevertheless, notes that the lack of strong positions did not stop the production from being sold-out during its run, meaning that ticket buyers wanted to see and talk about the work, no matter what mainstream sources wrote. 

He knows also that those involved with, and working in theatre, want to respond to arts leadership, because those in institutions, are, in fact, marginalizing artists, and are not letting them speak freely–or taking them seriously.  Khalezin maintains: “I really do think it is up to institutions to provide and provoke artists to allow them to express their real thoughts and feelings. Then, through  discussion, both can finally discover a world where the things seen onstage are relevant.”

Khalezin is speaking about “every single one of us,” no matter our circumstances:  Belarus, war, Europe–they are “stories about me”—and Khalezin maintains that art must talk about me (“I am not Hamlet; I am not Hamilton;  I am a Belarusian, I’m an émigré, my country is involved in a war, I’m a European  . . .  my friends are currently dying”).  He thinks of those who have lost their jobs, singers whose livelihoods have been destroyed in Belarus and the Donbas region of Ukraine.  He wants to write an opera for them called, The Wild Hunt of the King’s Stag.  The story concerns  a group of wealthy people who dress up and pretend to be ghosts. They go on a wild hunt, marauding.  The project is employment for those fired in Belarus and those from now bombed-out theatres in Ukraine; for the singers of Kharkiv Opera Theatre; the singers from the Belarusian Opera Theatre who, fired for political motives, were also forced to leave.  Also the proposal is for actors of the Belarusian theatre who can’t be found, are gone, and are now literally homeless.  He wants to involve a big European theatre, and allow creators, who have lost everything, to work close together with other artists, after so much suffering.  The world needs to understand how close we are to each other and how we all suffer.  

On the twenty-eighth day of the Ukraine invasion, Sky News is reporting that the largest Kyiv fire since the beginning of the war is blazing, according to a female firefighter on video, coming from the scene; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is calling for Putin to stop saber-rattling over concerns of a Russian nuclear attack.  Sugako talks of bringing people together, those who are displaced and rootless, who have only a backpack and no choices.  She calls those in Belarus Free Theatre part of her own family, whom she has grown up with, amid creation, smiling, crying, hugs and laughter (as well as well as political campaigns, actions, and activism).  If and when she returns to her homeland, she talks about continuing her work on the river, bringing theatre to those who can not come to a city, reaching them on her raft.

 

The full interview:

 

About the Artists:

Svetlana Sugako studied graphic design then music & choreography at Belarusian National University. She has been involved with BFT Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk since its inception in 2005, and has been running the entire operation in Belarus since the Artistic Directors were forced into exile in 2011. Formally the production manager, Svetlana is an activist, musician, actor and is leading on a new campaign of BFT on LGBTQI rights. Sugar is featured in the book Two Women in Their Time, by photographer Misha Friedman and The New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen portraying Svetlana Sugako and Nadya Brodskaya as the power couple spearheading the day-to-day activities of the celebrated Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk.​ In August 2020 longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko won the vote to seize his sixth term, despite widespread evidence of vote-rigging. The result sparked the largest protests that Belarus had seen in decades​—as well as an unprecedented level of police brutality. Sugako and Brodskaya both went to the protests, and were quickly arrested. The pair were placed with 34 others in a cell designed for only four. They were also not given water or food for three days. ​Before the protests, the Belarus Free Theatre had been one of the few dissenting voices in the country. Sugako believes that through its 16 years of activity, the theatre played an essential role in keeping Belarus’ critical spirit alive, in turn contributing to recent wave of protests.

Nicolai Khalezin is the co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner and journalist. 

Prior to co-founding BFT in 2005, Nicolai was Editor-in-Chief of the leading social-political weekly newspapers in Belarus – Name, News and Our Freedom – all of which were shut down by the regime.  Khalezin was the owner of the only contemporary art gallery in Minsk, which was also closed down by the authorities. His works were exhibited at the Istanbul Biennale, Milan Expo, in Rome, Berlin and at the Moscow Centre of Contemporary Art. 

Nicolai served time in prison in Belarus for his involvement in political campaigns and was recognised as a Prisoner of Consciousness by Amnesty International. This experience inspired one of BFT’s most celebrated shows, Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance. Written, directed and performed by Nicolai Khalezin, with live music by DJ Laurel, Generation Jeans has been performed more than 100 times around the world to date, including at the home of President Vaclav Havel upon his invitation in 2008 and at the UK’s House of Commons together with BFT Trustee Jude Law in 2012. 

Further playwriting credits for BFT include Burning Doors, Master Had A Talking Sparrow, Discover Love, Trash Cuisine, Time of Women, all of which he also directed, and the adaptation of King Learwhich was staged at the Globe to Globe Festival, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Nicolai is the co-founder of BFT’s theatre laboratory, Fortinbras, the only independent arts school in Belarus.

The Segal Talk will be hosted and moderated by Frank Hentschker, Executive Director of The Segal Center.

ABOUT THE SEGAL TALKS

The Segal Theatre Center’s online conversation series SEGAL TALKS was created in March of 2020 after the abrupt closing of the Graduate Center for any kind of public activities due to Corona and the cancellation of the entire spring season. The SEGAL TALKS during The Time of Corona offered conversations on theatre, performance and art during the pandemic featuring with more than 200 theater artists from over 50 countries. New York, US, and international theatre artists, curators, writers, and academics talked daily during the week for one hour with Segal Center’s director, Frank Hentschker, about life and art in the Time of Corona and speak about challenges, sorrows, and hopes for the new Weltzustand— the State of the World. In the summer of 2021 Segal Talks continued to focus on Theatre, Performance and The Political, the Segal Center’s 2023 New York International Festival of the Arts Project and the 2022 Center’s Public Park Project. During the pandemic The Segal Center was for a long period globally the only theatre institution creating new, original, daily content for the global field of theater and performance five days a week. Currently the Center is preparing the 4th edition of the Segal Center’s global Film Festival on Theatre and Performance.


SEGAL TALKS
 are free, open access, without ads will be live-streamed in English from Wednesday to Friday on HowlRound Theatre Commons and on the Segal Center Facebook. This program is presented in collaboration with HowlRound Theatre Commons, based at Emerson College. All SEGAL TALKS are archived on HowlRound, and on the Segal Center YouTube Channel.


CONTACT

Send us your questions during the live streaming at SegalTalks@gmail.com.

Contact mest@gc.cuny.edu for more information on SEGAL TALKS.

Contact Frank Hentschker at fhentschker@gc.cuny.edu for press information.

Follow us @segalcenter on FacebookInstagram or Twitter 


ABOUT THE MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER

Originally founded in 1979 as the Center for Advanced Studies in Theatre Arts (CASTA), The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center was renamed in March of 1999 to recognize Martin E. Segal, one of New York City’s outstanding leaders of the arts. The Segal Center curates over thirty events throughout the Spring and Fall academic seasons, all free and open to the public. Dedicated to bridging the gap between the professional and academic theatre communities, the Segal Center presents readings, performance, lectures, and artists and academics in conversation. In addition, the Segal Center presents three annual festivals (PRELUDE, PEN World Voices: International Pay Festival, and The Segal Center Film Festival on Theatre and Performance) and publishes and maintains three open access online journals (Arab Stages, European Stages, and The Journal of American Drama and Theatre). The Segal Center also publishes many volumes of plays in translation and is the leading publisher of plays from the Arab world. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (MESTC) is a vital component of the Theatre Program’s academic culture and creating in close collaboration a research nexus, focusing on dramaturgy, new media, and global theatre. The Segal Center provides an intimate platform where both artists and theatre professionals can actively participate with audiences to advance awareness and appreciation. www.TheSegalCenter.org


THE SEGAL TEAM

Executive Director: Frank Hentschker

Associate Producers: Andie Lerner & Tanvi Shah


THE GRADUATE CENTER, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK
, of which the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center is an integral part, is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs, as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to twenty-eight interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns. Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, The Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events. www.gc.cuny.edu.


HowlRound Theatre Commons
 at www.HowlRound.com is a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide that amplifies progressive, disruptive ideas about the art form and facilitates connection between diverse practitioners. HowlRound envisions a theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. HowlRound was founded on an organizing principle in the “commons”—a social structure that invites open participation around shared values. HowlRound is a knowledge commons that encourages freely sharing intellectual and artistic resources and expertise. It is our strong belief that the power of live theatre connects us across difference, puts us in proximity of one another, and strengthens our tether to our commonalities. HowlRound is based at Emerson College, Boston. http://www.howlround.com

 

Review of Dogs of  Europe in the Financial Times:

MARCH 17 2022 0 Print this page Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Dogs of Europe’ © Linda Nylind

Dogs of Europe

BARBICAN, LONDON

“You will not be relaxed,” warned co-director Natalia Kaliada during the pre-performance talk for the Belarus Free Theatre’s show Dogs of Europe. Placed on each seat in the auditorium was a placard bearing the face of a persecuted Belarusian activist; mine was baby-faced Dmitri Gopta, born 1999, jailed for throwing stones at police vehicles. Every member of the BFT troupe is a refugee, having been arrested, harassed or detained under the country’s dictatorship. This three-hour adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s novel, about a Russian “New Reich” facing down the rest of Europe, sounded like a gruelling prospect.

What a surprise, then, to be constantly beguiled, amused and intrigued over the show’s entire running time by a joyous mix of acrobatics, dance, folk song, clowning, slapstick and absurdism. From underground performances in Minsk, it has been spectacularly opened up for the Barbican stage. (The show’s brief three-night run has now ended.) Images of vast fields and forests projected on a screen behind the actors fly us to the remote village of White Dews in the year 2049, with its riotously eccentric inhabitants.

Drink is quaffed, defiant songs sung and guns waved, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes not. A covert parachutist floats down while trees shuffle about, Birnam Wood-style. Four interlocking trolleys of varying heights on castors become steps, bookshelves and beds.

Periodically a naked man trudges across the rear of the stage, effortfully pushing a large globe made out of books. There’s always something fascinating or weird to gaze at. 

Nylind Kaliada and her co-director Nicolai Khalezin privilege imagery over plot; even with the help of the surtitles projected over the actors’ heads, it’s hard to make out the story. Dogs of Europe is firmly in the east European tradition of satirical obliquity in the face of censorship.

The mockery of the preening military man might be overt, but why does one character always carry around a toy goose? A mysterious “agent” trawls the last bookstores in Europe in search of a poet who always carried a feather. Why a fire dance? Who’s the guy with the accordion? What’s the significance of the naked man running round in circles? With exceptional sound design (Ella Wahlström, the thrilling vocal and musical skills of Marichka and Mark Markzyc) and visual flair (Richard Williamson), it barely matters. ★★★★★ belarusfreetheatre.com

(Read more)  

Photo credits: From top: Howl/Round; copyright: Linda Nylind; U.K. Guardian; U.K. Telegraph

A TINY ENGLISH-LANGUAGE KYIV THEATRE TURNED ‘ART SHELTER’ GOES TO WAR ·

(David Gormezano’s article appeared on France24, 3/21; Photo: Alex Borovensky, Tetiana Shelepko and their friends sit in front of the ProEnglish Theatre in Kyiv, on March 20.)

The ProEnglish Theatre used to be known as a small independent Kyiv ensemble that put on English-language plays and offered drama classes. But in the four weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the theatre has become an “art shelter”, where actors come together to bear witness to war atrocities and scale an all-out artistic resistance. FRANCE 24 went to meet the troupe determined to help Ukraine win the war against Russia.

On February 24, Alex Borovensky, the director of the ProEnglish Theatre, received a phone call telling him that war had broken out and that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. “I hung up, and then I heard explosions, and then sirens. It was unreal, I didn’t want to believe what was happening. My partner and I packed our bags and decided to take shelter in the theatre, which is located in a basement. At the end of the day, we all watched Mission Impossible 4 together, because at the end of the film, Tom Cruise destroys the Kremlin.”

In just a few short days, the actor and former English teacher had become a resistance fighter. The windows of the theatre overlooking the street have been secured, and the performance hall has been turned into a dormitory where people living in the building can take shelter at night whenever the city’s air raid alarms ring out. Borovensky is also helping to spread information about what is happening in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine by speaking to English-language media. When humanitarian aid trucks roll into the city, he helps unload and distribute the goods in the neighbourhood surrounding the theatre. Survival and solidarity is the order of the day.

“Every day, people ask me to come and take refuge with them, but I want to stay here. I want to see what is happening with my own eyes. Art is my resistance, and that’s what I want to share, that’s why I’m staying in Kyiv.”

On this Sunday, March 20, the 25th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the unreal has become the new normal in Kyiv. There is currently a strange calm reigning over the city, occasionally disrupted by the dull rumble of Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence systems. In the past few days, Russian missiles have hit apartment buildings and killed several people, all the while army-to-army clashes continue some 30 kilometres north of the capital. The clear blue sky and the warming rays of the sun seem to indicate that spring is approaching. Borovensky and his friends have therefore decided to take the day off to relax.

“There is no massive bombing so we’re venturing out a little more in the city, we’re starting to drive around Kyiv again. But there have been direct strikes on the city. One of them hit a building next to where one of the theatre’s actresses live and the windows of her apartment exploded. So we’re waiting to see what happens.”

(Read more)

‘DOGS OF EUROPE’ REVIEW – ART AND ACTIVISM COMBINE IN BREATHTAKING SPECTACLE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the guardian, 3/13; Photo: A necessary affront … Aliaksei Naranovich and Raman Shytsko in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian.)

Barbican, London
Fairytale imagery is mixed with absurdist humour in this prescient political thriller in which Russia has become a dictatorial superstate

Given the political history of the Belarus Free Theatre and its overt references to the war in Ukraine in this production, Dogs of Europe cannot be seen as theatre alone. It is art, activism and theatrical disruption, at once.

Having been performed clandestinely in garages and warehouses in Minsk, it feels released on this large-scale stage. Like a genie escaping from a bottle, there is a magnificent eruption of sound and spectacle. Big, haunting, discordant songs and music by Mark and Marichka Marczyk of Balaklava Blues expand to fill the auditorium. Maria Sazonova’s choreography is arresting in its acrobatic drama, with movements like orchestrated military exercises or assaults, and containing a fierce, fulminating physicality. A back screen for projections (with video design by Richard Williamson) begins as a roving camera from a computer game, which gives the show an unstable, lurching quality and seems designed to discombobulate its audience.

Every member of the ensemble has spent time in jail and their orchestrated movements play out street protests, battles, rape and murder. Inert bodies are dragged off stage, time and again. Deliberately cartoonish violence shows characters shot at point-blank range and bouncing back up.

(Read more)

AN EXILED THEATER WITH A WARNING FOR EUROPE ·

(Alex Marshall’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/10; Photo:  A rehearsal for “Dogs of Europe,” which opens at the Barbican theater in London on Thursday.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times.)

The Belarus Free Theater’s members fled repression at home. The company’s latest show imagines a nightmare future of authoritarian Russian rule.

ONDON — When the players of the Belarus Free Theater began working on “Dogs of Europe” three years ago, they thought it was a play about a dystopia.

Set in 2049, it imagines the continent cut in half by a wall. On one side sits a Russian superstate, where a dictator has eliminated almost all opposition, and where people cannot speak their native languages or even perform folk dances. On the other side sits a Europe that failed to realize the Russian threat, or stop it from absorbing Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and beyond.

Yet at a rehearsal in London last month, the day before Russia invaded Ukraine, the play’s nightmare world didn’t feel so far-fetched.

Maryna Yakubovich, an actor in the production, which opens Thursday at the Barbican theater in London, said that rehearsing the play had sometimes felt like a premonition. “It’s, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s started to happen,” she said.

Natalia Kaliada, one of the Belarus Free Theater’s founders, said that when she and her husband, Nicolai Khalezin, decided to stage the play, they thought it would be a “warning shot” about the dangers of undemocratic leaders left unchecked. But planned performances in London and New York in 2020 were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now that warning shot appears to be too late.

As the war in Ukraine enters its third week, the Belarus Free Theater’s performance may seem accidentally timely. But it is only the company’s latest attempt in its 17-year existence to warn about rising authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.

The company knows those dangers all too well. Since forming in 2005, it has faced repression in Belarus, which is ruled by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who is known as “Europe’s last dictator” in part for his government’s clampdown on opposition and its stifling of free expression. The troupe has long been effectively banned from performing in Belarus, but it continued to do so in secret venues in Minsk, the capital, even after Kaliada and Khalezin were forced into exile more than a decade ago. The couple settled in London — where they developed close ties to theaters including the Young Vic and the Almeida — but continued rehearsing with actors in Belarus via Skype.

Those clandestine shows, in venues including a converted car garage that once belonged to the American Embassy, also won the troupe high-profile supporters in the United States. In 2015, The New York Times’s chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, visited the company in Minsk, and praised its “spirit of defiant, exultant fraternity” adding that this was something “you rarely find among the young these days in money-driven, shockproof Manhattan.”

(Read more)

BELARUS FREE THEATRE: ‘WE MUST GET OUT OF OUR COMFORT ZONES IF WE WANT TO CONTINUE AS A DEMOCRACY ·

  1. (Natasha Tripney’s  article appeared in The Stage, 3/ 4; Photo: Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. Credit: Marilyn Kingwill.)                                                                                                                                                                Belarus Free Theatre is bringing its show about autocracy, Dogs of Europe, to London’s Barbican Theatre. The company’s artistic directors, who are exiles in London, speak to Natasha Tripney as they help their Ukrainian colleagues to leave their war-torn country The world can change in the space of a week. When I initially spoke to Belarus Free Theatre’s Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin at the end of February, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had yet to take place, though the crisis dominated our conversation.                                                                                                                       They are in London rehearsing Dogs of Europe, a show they had been due to bring to the UK in 2020, and this was the first time the whole company had been in a room together to rehearse. The moment had been a long time coming, but it was overshadowed by world events.  Two days after we speak, after Kaliada and Khalezin expressed their frustration with the West’s slowness to impose sanctions, Russia mounted a full-scale invasion.

     

    Speaking on the phone a week later, Kaliada recalls the moment they shared this news with the company as one of “great silence and tension”. Many company members have family connections or friends in Ukraine – the show’s composers Mark and Marichka Marczyk, of Balaklava Blues, are Ukrainian. Kaliada and Khalezin, who have been exiled in London for more than a decade, have spent the recent days trying to help people find ways out of the country, barely sleeping, before rehearsing, while requesting that members stay off their phones as much as possible – to spare themselves the constant flow of distressing updates.

    ‘Why are you waiting for Russia to start the largest war since 1945?’

    Dogs of Europe is one of BFT’s most ambitious shows to date. Based on a popular dystopian novel by Alhierd Baharevic, about the dangers of allowing authoritarianism to take hold, it features an elaborate combination of choreography, live music and video – all elements that had to be coordinated remotely. Even before Covid-19 made remote working a reality for theatremakers, their exiled status means the company is accustomed to working in this way. It is a complex and metaphorical show, says Kaliada, not an easy show. “But one that will make you think, make you feel and make you question.”

    When I saw the show in Minsk, back in March 2020, it was performed, as is always the case with the company’s work, underground. The location was kept secret – audiences communicated via social media. There was a palpable excitement about the piece, about seeing this book on stage, hearing the Belarusian language spoken in this context. There was a sense that things were not easing, not exactly, but that the regime was grudgingly prepared to tolerate their work. Then, as countries around the world went into lockdown, Kaliada and Khalezin halted the production, even though Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko had yet to impose any public health-related restrictions – he was still at that time denying the virus was anything to worry about – and found new ways to connect with audiences, performing work in rural areas on a specially built wooden raft.

    In August of 2020, Lukashenko declared a huge majority at the presidential election, a widely contested result that triggered waves of protests around the country. These were brutally put down. A number of BFT company members were arrested, including company manager Svetlana Sugako, who spent five days in jail in hellish conditions. 

    Ahead of the election, Belarus Free Theatre urged politicians in the West to sanction Lukashenko, knowing the election would be falsified, but with no success. “And now we see the same situation with Ukraine,” says Kaliada. This failure to move from words to actions is deeply frustrating.

    “Why are you waiting for Russia to start the largest-scale war since 1945?” Putin made his intentions clear, but “politics doesn’t work like that. It’s working on a reaction, not a correction. That’s a major failure in terms of democracy”.

    Months of protests followed. The climate in Belarus became increasingly oppressive. Bacharevic’s book was classified as “extremist material”, essentially banning it, and last year, after making work underground for close to 17 years, the company made the difficult decision to take all their members out of the country. The situation had become too dangerous for them to stay. They were threatened with jail if they were arrested and the threat was real. Based on data compiled by human-rights organisations, there are more artists in jail than journalists or human-rights activists. This wasn’t an easy operation. There were risks – not to mention the emotional toll of uprooting families and leaving their homes – but they managed it.

    ‘It is easier to complain about the sickness of a system than to do something about it’

    Now they are trying to help other people evacuate Ukraine, while using social-media channels to show the reality for citizens in Ukraine and Russia. This was a conflict that people should have seen coming, says Kaliada. Having lived under Lukashenko’s regime, they knew all too well what dictatorship looks like, how it operates. They’ve chronicled the impact of Russian suppression and oppression in their work for years – in 2016’s Burning Doors, about Russia’s clampdown on artistic freedom; collaborating with the Marczyks on their show about the Maidan protests, Counting Sheep, and in their recent documentary Alone, about Ukrainian rock star Andriy Khlyvnyuk’s attempts to raise awareness of the plight of Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov by staging a concert on the border of annexed Crimea.

    (Read more)

 

UKRAINIANS ABROAD TALK OF SHOCK AND DISBELIEF AS HOMELAND IS INVADED ·

(Megan Specia’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/24; Photo: back home, and expressed feelings of hopelessness. Ukrainians and supporters of Ukraine outside Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office in London on Thursday protesting Russia’s invasion.Credit…Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.)

Across Europe, Ukrainian expatriates looked on in horror at the scenes of destruction

LONDON — Ukrainians living across Europe watched in horror and disbelief from afar on Thursday as Russia’s invasion of their home country began with shelling and rocket attacks in several cities.

Many shared feelings of helplessness as they received frantic calls from loved ones back home describing attacks nearby, instructing them what to do if they were killed in the conflict, or sending requests to empty bank accounts.

At protests in London on Thursday, some wept. Some fingered prayer beads. And many said they were determined to raise their voices and demand greater action by the world to end Russian aggression.

Yulia Tomashckuk, 29, wore sunglasses to shield her tears as she clutched a small Ukrainian flag. A village that neighbors her hometown in western Ukraine had been attacked, she said, news that her mother relayed to her by phone before dawn Thursday.

“I just felt I was useless sitting at home watching the news — here at least I can show there are people who support Ukraine, who are against war and who want Putin to be shown his place,” she said. “He needs to be stopped now.”

The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, was the focus of much of the outrage.

Chants of “Putin, hands off Ukraine” and “U.K. support Ukraine” echoed from the crowd of hundreds that gathered outside Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office at 10 Downing Street on Thursday.

Even before Russian strikes on Ukraine began, Britain and the European Union earlier this week announced targeted sanctions against Moscow. On Thursday, Mr. Johnson announced new actions from Britain and its allies that included asset freezes on major banks and individuals, a ban on the Russian airline Aeroflot, and a ban on many technology exports to Russia.

Those who gathered near his office waved Ukrainian flags and demanded more stringent sanctions and broader actions from the West in response to Russian military action.

“I’m shocked, probably like everyone, because my family is still in Ukraine,” said Mariya Tymchyshyn, 30, who took time off work to join the protests. “We were panicked as well: We don’t know what to do. No one can be ready for this.”

Ms. Tymchyshyn’s family lives in the western part of Ukraine, away from the most fierce attacks, but she was worried for her grandparents, who as survivors of World War II have already lived through intense fighting in Ukraine.

“It’s probably the hardest part for us,” she said. “I was trying to calm down my grandmother, but she remembers being a child at that time and a bomb killed her mother. I want peace for all of us.”

Inna Tereshchuk, 26, who has lived in Britain for eight years, said her family members “are all scared for their lives.”

She is trying to remain strong for them.

“We don’t know how long they will be alive, what Putin has on his mind,” she said. “The whole world knows about it, and no one is doing anything.”

She was joined at the protest by her friend Alina Clarke, 25, whose family lives near Kyiv. Ms. Clarke spoke with her father, who vowed to stand his ground, telling her that he was not going anywhere and planned “to stay until the end.”

“I hope that in every city and town all over the world Ukrainians are going to come out and show that we are not afraid of Putin, and we want him to take his hands off our country,” Ms. Clarke said. “Ukraine has every right to exist.”

A small group also gathered at the Russian Embassy in northwest London, where a number of protests have been held in recent days, but by Thursday morning they had taken on a more somber tone. Among the handful who stood outside the embassy were a number of Russians denouncing their government’s actions.

Tatiana Rudayak, 46, a Russian-British woman who held a blue sign with the words “Stop the War” painted on in bright yellow paint, was keen to have her voice heard.

“I am here because my country has started a war, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t protest that,” she said. “I was fluctuating between despair and fury and this is the only thing I can do.”

Denis Zihiltsov, 34, who said he had not slept the night before, came to the embassy holding a sign in Russian that read, “I’m Russian and I demand you stop killing our brothers. Glory to Ukraine.”

“Its heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s killing people for nothing.”

The Belarus Free Theatre, one of Europe’s most acclaimed theater troupes, was rehearsing a play in an east London studio on Thursday, but all of its members were continually checking their phones for updates on the conflict.

Several of its members are Ukrainian and everyone knew someone trapped in the country.

Marichka Marczyk, at the rehearsals in London, said in a telephone interview that she’d just had a text exchange with her brother in Kyiv about what to do if he was killed in the conflict. “My will is simple,” he replied. “Burn my body/scatter the ashes,” adding: “All my riches to my kid.” Those riches include his honey bees.

Similar scenes played out in cities across Europe, where Ukrainian expatriates were grappling with the troubling news from their homeland. In Berlin’s Pariser Platz, hundreds of somber protesters wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags.

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ARTISTS AND ARTS WATCH: PUSSY RIOT’S ALYOKHINA GIVEN ONE YEAR OF ‘RESTRICTED FREEDOM’ AS ANOTHER RUSSIAN OPPOSITION FIGURE IS CONVICTED IN ‘SANITARY CASE’ ·

(Johnny Tickle’s article appeared on RT, 9/11; Photo: (t0p) Russian political activist and member of the punk band and activist group Pussy Riot Maria Alyokhina. © Vasily MAXIMOV / AFP.; (bottom) Pitchfork.com.)

One of the leading stars of the Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, has been sentenced to one year of restricted freedom in the so-called ‘sanitary case’ that has also seen measures placed on five others.

The court found Alyokhina guilty of inciting people to gather for unauthorized protests in violation of restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19. Some opposition figures have slammed the charge as a convenient way of silencing an anti-Kremlin voice.

Accusations of breaking sanitary rules have been leveled against 10 associates of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny, who took part in protests earlier this year to demand that he be released from prison. Navalny is currently serving time behind bars for breaching the terms of a suspended sentence handed to him for his involvement in a fraud scheme concerning French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher. His supporters claim the judgment was politically motivated.

Alyokhina is the latest to have her freedom restricted by court order, following in the footsteps of Navalny’s close ally Lubov Sobol and his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, among others. Liusya Shtein, another Pussy Riot member, has also been given a similar sentence.

The restrictions include a curfew and a ban against traveling outside Moscow Region. Two of those who received court orders, Sobol and Yarmysh, fled abroad before their sentences could be imposed.

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BELGIUM: ARTDOCFEST FILM FESTIVAL: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR VOICING THE TRUTH ·

(Nicolai Khalezin’s article appeared in The Brussels Times, 6/2; Photo: Nicolai Khalezin performing in Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance.)

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Wear your mask over your nose and mouth and not over your eyes.” That was the motto of Artdocfest, Russia’s largest documentary film festival in Russia, which took place in April. Russian authorities, however, have firmly shown they want the mask over the public’s eyes. 

 Over the course of the film festival, showings were disrupted by the police, the consumer protection agency, homophobic Chechen nationalists and Kremlin loyalists. In St. Petersburg, authorities shut down viewings by sealing entryways into two screening halls. After the police came and didn’t allow any films to be presented, the festival moved on to Zoom and those who bought tickets were able to see films online.

These actions disrupted or stopped stories from being told: about the suffering of locals who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the government orchestrated torture of gay men in Chechnya, and the repressive measures taken against protestors in Belarus (where 354 political prisoners remain in custody) made possible by Russian support. It is erasure in its purest form.

That erasure is something I know personally. In 2010, I founded the Belarus Free Theatre in response to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on freedom of speech. To ensure security, people who wanted to see our shows had to call a phone number to learn its physical location. Even that precaution was not enough; authorities still arrested or harassed every single member of our company. After the authorities brought five baseless criminal charges against my wife and I, we were forced to leave the country and become refugees.

This experience of living with organized harassment is why spaces like Artdocfest are so important to me. That is why we entered two films into the festival, Alone and Okrestin Sisters. They provide an opportunity for voicing the truth when the authorities are silencing it.

For a long time, Russia remained a place where Belarussian creatives were able to showcase their talents. However, the Russian regime is increasingly copying the Belarusian regime and is tightening its control over the world of art and culture. This includes the recently adopted amendments to the education law that requires Russian state permission for educational activities to prevent “foreign interference.” Authentic real- life documentaries, aimed at adults, fall under this category.

Everywhere, authoritarian regimes are locking step in an autocratic push-back against democracy. These regimes want to tell grand stories about states and leaders, which only work if the public cannot see the effects of the government’s policies

Russia, like Belarus, has been increasingly defined by what isn’t televised. Belarus continues to plough ahead in this arena banning the European news channel Euronews and making it easier to block other media.

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NATO, EU POWERS TALK TOUGH OVER BELARUS BUT CAN’T PROTECT EXILED DISSIDENTS ·

(David Brennan’s article appeared in Newsweek, 5/28; Photo: Newsweek.)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shocked the world when a fake bomb threat forced a passenger plane to divert to Minsk where security forces arrested prominent dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner.

The operation was shocking in its brazenness, prompting condemnation from the international community and threats of additional sanctions against Lukashenko and his authoritarian regime, clinging to power in spite of mass protests that erupted after last year’s disputed presidential election.

Lukashenko has retained power through brutality and fear. Security forces, keen to suppress the simmering revolution, arrested and tortured thousands. Backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko has resisted calls for fresh elections and dialogue and is now intensifying an assault on the country’s surviving free media.

But for all the harsh words, the European UnionNATO, and the U.S. have so far hesitated to apply the most stringent sanctions demanded by Belarusian dissidents and human rights groups. Lukashenko’s vicious reprisals saved his regime last year, and appear to have at least bought him some time in power.

Pro-democracy campaigners and dissidents told Newsweek that Lukashenko’s latest authoritarian stunt could act as a model for other dictators worldwide unless democracies take meaningful action.

“You are not safe anywhere,” said Natalia Kaliada, a Belarusian dissident and pro-democracy campaigner who has been living in exile in the U.K. for a decade.

Kaliada and her husband, Nikolai Khalezin, fled Belarus on New Year’s Eve in 2010, soon after Kaliada was accidentally released from prison by security services thanks to a clerical error.

The couple—who now run the Belarus Free Theater in London—still regularly receive death threats, including those published in the main Belarusian government newspaper, Sovietska Belarus.

Death threats have increased since the recent protests, Kaliada told Newsweek. Asked whether she felt more in danger after Protasevich’s arrest, she replied: “I never felt safe.”

Kaliada recalled how in the past, Belarusian protesters and dissidents would be arrested, abused, and killed “behind closed doors.” But Lukashenko has seemingly unleashed his security apparatus in the wake of the recent unrest.

“They are open to killing in front of the whole world,” Kaliada said. “They are open to hijacking an airplane in front of the whole world. They’ve been badly scared.”

(Read more)