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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Donetsk syndrome

Well-known Ukrainian set designer Andrii Romanchenko presents his exhibit “Theater on the Road” in Kyiv
20 August, 2014 - 17:15

Today the events in the east of Ukraine arrest the attention of everyone, but for the residents who used to love and work in Donetsk and Luhansk the news is especially painful. The Day met with Andrii Romanchenko, a well-known Ukrainian set designer, former production artist of the Donetsk Ukrainian Theater of Music and Drama, who received an invitation to become the chief artist at the Kyiv National Academic Theater of Operetta. These days Romanchenko has presented his solo exhibit “Theater on the Road” in Kyiv-based Museum of Theater, Music, and Cinema, and our conversation started with the most disturbing topic.

Andrii, you have worked for six years in Donetsk Theater of Music and Drama. You were in the capital of the Donbas, when the separatist bacchanalia began, which has grown into war in the east of Ukraine.

“I’m very worried about Donetsk; it is painful for me to see what is going on: there is shooting in the city, people are dying, and today’s situation is close to catastrophe. It is outrageous that Russian flags are hanging in the streets of Donetsk. I like the Donetsk Theater of Music and Drama, many things connect me with it: over six years I have staged 12 plays there. By staging plays in Ukrainian in Donetsk I did everything I could for us to live in a united Ukraine. All the employees of the theater were working for the unity idea. They say art is apolitical, but my stand, and the stand of the entire theater, is expressed, for example, in the play Aunt Motia Has Arrived: you should have thought before, when she was only going to come with a visit. In the play Blind based on the works by Kropyvnytsky and Shevchenko we made a special accent, changing the final: he’s not blind near a guilder-rose, but is fighting as much as he can; with his lyre, kobza, and bandura he is bringing the song to people, calling them to fight. The play premiered on March 9 of this year on the birthday of Taras Shevchenko. On March 5 the Oblast State Administration of Donetsk was seized by Russian separatists, they started to hang their flags in the city. Here is the paradox: in our theater a board with a Blind playbill was installed, and on the houses in the opposite flags of DNR, USSR, and Russia were hanging. Director Ihor Matviiv and I wanted to take these flags away, but we saw what happened to the man who tore down a flag: he was followed by an angry crowd. People liked the progressive Ukrainian theater in the very heart of Russian-language Donetsk; the hall was always crowded, and, by the way, there was a full-house at the closing of the season. But now the theater cannot work because of the war, many actors have left, and nobody knows when they will return.”

A theater show always captivates the audience because it offers a possibility to ponder over the present day: it does not matter, whether the problems of the Danish Kingdom are shown on the stage or the tragedy of the Stalin’s time. And the exposition of Andrii Romanchenko’s new exhibit is inspiring. It displays theater costumes, sketches, and models of decorations, traveling suitcases, railway tickets, where the titles of the plays are written instead of the stations. And near the entrance on the floor there is an open suitcase full of details of theater models, and there is the author’s explanation of the whole idea with traveling and stories of encounter which did not take place, like with Borys Kosariev, and the one that took place, with Danylo Lider.

“There was a story connected with Kosariev,” the artist said, “when I was studying at the Kharkiv Art School, I received the first task, to make two costumes for folk dance. I created a Ukrainian costume with dynamic lines, and the pedagogue was outraged, ‘Who needs this formalism? This looks like Kosariev’s work!’ It was later that I understood what kind of master Kosariev was, very close to me by his spirit and color relations, search of decorativeness and form, and many years later I organized his exhibit here, in the theater museum. And this suitcase belonged to Lider, as well as the models. One day Lider told me, ‘Andrii, take the suitcase, put my models in it, because in the place I am heading to I won’t need a suitcase, and if you have questions either concerning life or profession, don’t feel shy to open that suitcase. There are many things I probably did not have time to tell you. And you – think.’” Andrii was the last pupil of Danylo Lider, and Lider’s sketch to    King Lyre and Kosariev’s sketch to the play After Two Hares create a virtual arc of the works of two great Ukrainian set designers, behind which the self-portrait by Andrii Romanchenko on one of the sketches of illustration of his diploma paper, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Danish Prince” (2004), arrests one’s sight. The artist’s awards include the diploma “For the best set design” of the All-Ukrainian festival “Ternopil Theater Evenings” (Aleksandr Vampilov’s Duck Hunting) and the diploma “For best set design” at the 15th International Festival “Melpomene of Tauria-2013” (Mykola Kulish’s Aunt Motia Has Arrived/Myna Mazailo).

The magic theater of traveling is in the hall. Ten years of life of the set designer – 10 plays out of 35 created in the theaters of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Ivano-Frankivsk, Odesa, Chernivtsi, Ternopil. And 10 suitcases are not only the symbols of regular traveling from one city to another, but also real items. On the wall, among the sketches to the play Blind by Marko Kropyvnytsky based on Taras Shevchenko’s work, there is a linen bag with a kobza of the 19th century. According to the artist, this play “got out of the bag,” and Marusia Churai by Lina Kostenko and Land by Olha Kobylianska grew from one “box.” And there is a strange box with towels, and illustration to the single system of color decision, it is black-and-white with specks of color.

Andrii Romanchenko:  “I am a pupil of Lider in the classical meaning. I entered the Academy to study at his class. And the meeting with this person became the greatest event in my   life. Set design is an intricate subject: this kind of art has a peculiar angle from which you look at the materials. You can teach to work according to remarks: the wardrobe is on the left,    and the chair is on the right. What flying bars are, where border light hang, how the space of the stage looks like – you understand this after spending two days in a theater.”

The huge figure of Traveler with her face hidden under the hood, with her beautiful laced mantilla growing and seeking to be endless, seems to be the master of the exhibit, and probably this is the way the small world flows to the universe, and every word and action create history.

“During the play Fiancee of Morning Star by Alejandro Casona,” said Romanchenko, “the lace is transformed: it grows, goes down, and breathes like fresh milk. The environment, in which the heroes of the play live, is a situation which develops from the beginning to the end and makes actors work, and the audience – think. This has a name: set design.”

In the center of the hall, near a four-side mirror column there are the materials for the play Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler. On the stage 10 love stories change one another in the light of a magic lamp, which turns and makes miracles; different configurations of space and plots intertwine, and everything goes back to the beginning. It’s the round dance indeed. And here, in the space of the exhibit, a number of reflections of the world behind the looking-glass produce their own effect of a miracle, all the more so the theater costumes are reflected in the mirrors behind the showcases. One of them shows the character of the court from the musical by Maksym Dunaievsky Three Musketeers: Louis XIII, who was riding a bike during the play, and Cardinal Richelieu – a bright-red glittering monster with fingers that look like claws. There is a music box: on the stage it was a box from which three towers and bridges grew, moved, and turned. And on the lid of the box there were pictures that opened, marking the place of action. Another glass case shows colorful costumes for Serhii Banevych’s opera Twelve Months. Working on the production, Andrii came up with a construction which opens like a book, and the pictures become voluminous. On one of the sketches of the costumes to the opera one can see the Essence of the Forest.

The play Aunt Motia Has Arrived (Mykola Kulish’s Myna Mazailo) has its own suitcase, costumes, and shoes from the 1930s. There is a model of many-colored railway car which lives on the stage as a colossal transformer – constantly moving.

“Here I recalled Kosariev, Yermilov, and Boichuk – in all of the printed cloths, color tension and game of seizes. The railway car is in the center of the action, it opens and closes, it’s been torn, and Aunt Motia appears. Then it turns into a Stolypin wagon, which carries everyone, including Aunt Motia, to “not so remote places.”

“I am a pupil of Lider in the classical meaning. I entered the Academy to study at his class,” Romanchenko underlines, “And the meeting with this person became the greatest event in my life. Set design is an intricate subject: this kind of art has a peculiar angle from which you look at the materials. You can teach to work according to remarks: the wardrobe is on the left, and the chair is on the right. What flying bars are, where border light hang, how the space of the stage looks like – you understand this after spending two days in a theater. But this is not set design – this is decor. And set design is when you are captivated with the situation of the space on the stage. Lider taught us to see the essence of the subject, to develop the images. Nobody teaches you how to build a universe in a small, black or white, cube, and only a master can pass this knowledge, if you are ready, if the stars are situated in a proper way, and a miracle happens. Only in such a way. Danylo Lider continues to make a great influence on me.”

The exhibit “Theater on the Road” will operate till September 8.