Renaissance at the Lesya Ukrainka Theater
BY BLAIR RUBLE
At six o’clock on the evening of June 7, 2022, Kyiv’s theater patrons gathered in the famous Lesya Ukrainka Theater for the one-hour premier of a new play, Renaissance, directed by Alex Borovensky. Based on Ukrainian poems by Mykola Zerov, Mykhailo Semenko, Mykola Khvylovy, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Olena Teliga, and Pavlo Tychyna, the play explores history through the poetry of the moment. The characters begin to create their own stories through poetry, and in the process, the poetry comes to life while the speakers fade into the background.
This work seeks to talk to Ukrainians of today about Ukraine of today. It asks Ukrainians what they have experienced since the Russian invasion in February. Where were you? What did they do to you? What will you—and we—do moving forward? It declares there are no indifferent people, and by doing so, proclaims hope for the future.
Kyivans have slowly begun to repossess their city in the wake of Ukraine’s victory in the battle of Kyiv. Destruction has been considerable, displacement has been intense. The requisites of war remain ever present. Yet individual Kyivans demonstrate deep stores of resilience every day as they try to reclaim their city’s life. In addition to stores and restaurants reopening, the performing arts are coming back. Audiences—though limited by the exigencies of war—have returned to the Opera House to see ballet and opera. Theaters are reopening as well. New performances at the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater are especially significant indicators that the city’s culture can look forward to a vibrant future.
The Lesya Ukrainka Theater is among Kyiv’s oldest and most important performance groups. Tracing its roots back to the Solovtsov acting troupe, which began in 1891, the group evolved into the Russian Drama Theater. After World War II, the company was renamed in honor of the national poet Lesya Ukrainka (the pseudonym of Larysa Petrivna Kosach). It retained the name until this year’s Russian invasion, when the theater dropped “Russian Drama” from its denomination.
The theater company has performed in the historic Bourgogne Theater for nearly a century. Opened by French mogul Auguste Bergonier in 1875, the building hosted the city circus and then an early cinema before being given over to what became the Lesya Ukrainka company in 1929. Located at the very center of the city, this theater and company have long been honored; and have hosted some of imperial Russia’s, the Soviet Union’s, and Ukraine’s most illustrious theater artists. Its reopening represents more than the reopening of a particular theater; it signals the revival of a cultural tradition, with the promise of more achievements to come.
For all its patina of majesty and tradition, the theater has been home to innovation. Under the direction of Mykhailo Yuriiovych Reznikovych since 1994, the company has worked to sustain its rich historical repertoire, rooted in Russian theater, in an independent Ukraine. Its “Under the Roof” series, performed in the theater’s attic, has focused on contemporary and avant-garde productions. The symbolic dropping of “Russian Drama” from its name recognizes the present moment while acknowledging the company’s long-term trajectory toward a more fulsome embrace of its Ukrainian roots.
The theater’s recent productions have purposefully provided a quiet—and much welcomed—oasis in the storm of war. Its initial offerings this spring included a joyous restaging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as Juliette and Romeo, Alexander Gelman’s miniature romantic tale “Benches,” whose action transpires as a couple settles on a wooden bench in a city park, and a youthful comedy, Hey You, Hi There! These shows offer the escape from dealing with wartime conditions that is necessary for community healing to take place. The theater has experienced no difficulty finding an audience despite all that has happened in recent months.
The June 7 performance of Renaissance is equally of the moment, in a starkly distinct way. It elevates the experiences of the audience in living through the horrors of war to a more philosophical plane. In doing so, it starts an important civic conversation about what Ukraine, its culture, and its people will mean going forward. The arts uniquely provide the foundation for such an essential discussion. The rush to get back to culture—to the ballet, opera, and major theaters such as Lesya Ukrainka wherever and whenever possible—is one of the strongest signs yet that Ukraine has a vibrant future ahead.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
Blair A. Ruble
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more