Awaking Sleeping Beauty: Performer Taras Polataiko on Modern Ukraine

 

Formally Canadian-based Ukrainian performer Taras Polataiko speaks to Ciaran and addresses the question; with the advent of the Maidan revolution in his home country, did Sleeping Beauty finally wake up?

In 2012, Taras Polataiko offered up both a poetic and visceral critique of the then political, cultural, and spiritual settings of Ukraine with his performance ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in 2012. As he noted at the time of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Ukraine had long been patient and undergone the humiliation of a failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution to translate to lasting reforms. That time period represented a cultural low, according to Polataiko, where Ukraine had become culturally lethargic and stagnated from the disappointment of the continuing corruption and lack of national consciousness. As he said at the time,

““nobody is really doing anything. It’s a place of apathy. It seems like nobody cares about politics, because everybody is so disappointed about the bad outcome, or the failure, of the Orange Revolution…. The Sleeping Beauty is waiting, and waiting is a kind of patience.”

Quickly, this impressive project garnered international coverage for its novelty, and eventually Lady Gaga was accused of plagiarizing it. But with the advent of Maidan the question became: Did Sleeping Beauty wake up? With Kyiv undergoing a cultural renaissance since protests overthrew the Yanukovych, it was time to check in with Polataiko to find out if Ukraine’s patience has been answered.

Polataiko, who was previously based in Canada, but now resides in Kyiv, kindly spoke about this question.

 

You have said that ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a story of patience. Ukraine has long suffered from the Soviet occupation and the stagnation of the post-Soviet years. However, the transformation that has occurred post-Maidan has been categorized not so much a revolution of the state but a revolution of the Ukrainian mentality. Has Ukraine finally awoken? Has Sleeping Beauty finally found love?

Back in 2012, when I did Sleeping Beauty, there was so much cynicism and depression here that if someone told me that two years later all this is going to happen, I would not believe it. Maidan got started by a small group of students who felt betrayed by the government, which all of a sudden said it’s not going to sign the association agreement with EU. Who knows if Maidan would have became what it was if it wasn’t for the brutal beating of those kids by the riot police. After that, millions of adults took to the streets. For them, the sense of betrayal was multiplied by the sense of anger based on the idea that, from now, on it was possible for the government to beat their kids. From there on there was no way back.

But even after that bloody violence, the mass protests kept being peaceful. Millions of people just stood on Maidan Square for months in freezing conditions hoping that the government would react. I couldn’t believe that patience. It was some sort of northern version of Ghandi resistance in freezing weather. It had to take another insult from the government to the young people to take the stones out of the pavement as a weapon of dignity. I mean, the now historic day in February when the corrupt parliament broke all the procedural norms and passed the law declaring any public gathering over 5 people illegal. Even after that, there were massive public debates weather violence is good as means of protest. But that was it. The center of Kyiv was on fire.

When the snipers shot over a hundred people on Maidan in the course of a couple of hours, and Yanukovich fled to Russia, it seemed to be over. But when everyone watched the funeral of those kids, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the East of the country, so a lot of guys and girls who saw the killings went East and formed volunteer battalions to hold the invasion. It’s been 3 years since, but the war is still on. Some kids returned and some didn’t.

It’s very strange to observe how war, being the most brutal of all things, can become habitual, but it does keep you on your toes, even when the amount of casualties temporarily decreases. The info war is still in full swing providing a constant reminder of a growing civil gap between two systems of values. Russian TV is freely available here, so you can get a vivid sense of it anytime.

Compared to the first months after invasion, it’s much calmer here now. Strangely, it almost feels normal. In a hybrid war there isn’t a “state of war”, curfews, etc. Hybrid war creates a strange grey area where things don’t mean what they mean in normal stable life. Everything that has to do with the war has a double or inverted meaning. For example, officially there is no war because the war was not declared, and it goes on and on.

In the beginning it’s all very scary and exciting. You follow every political statement by important players because you want to figure out what’s going to happen next by sorting through rapidly changing political rhetoric. Eventually you get into complexities of a chess/poker game with all the nuances and combinations of blatant lies, a “style” pioneered by Putin and echoed by Trump. But at some point you get dragged into it so much that you stop following it as intensely, and you want to vent by going to the mountains for a few days.

All these rapid changes allow you to notice the depth of colonial dependence you’ve not paid attention to previously. Actually I was always aware of it because I left Ukraine for exactly that reason: detesting all the rotten late Soviet discourse, which now has mutated into post-Soviet Russian official ideology. But most people live by habit and are only starting to recognize these things now. I mean, the revolutions are made by a small percentage of the population and it takes time for the rest of society to catch up with rapid change. So things change not as fast as you’d like. There’s societal inertia that slows things down.

 

 

Almost to an annoying degree, the international press coverage regarding ‘Sleeping Beauty’ centered on the novelty of the project instead of the political implications of it. Yet, there is a certain romance of the Maidan protests with the collective assertion of dignity and the fact that it was a success. It certainly seduced protesters in Belarus and Russia to dream of a life without autocratic governments. Yet, it will be the fourth year since Maidan has passed with corruption, the war in Donbass, and other economic concerns having no end in sight. Has the romance of Maidan been lost?

My main interest in doing Sleeping Beauty was in literal embodiment of the archetypal narrative and seeing how it plays out in a contemporary setting. It was pretty universal. But universality starts getting specific when you begin realizing it in a specific cultural context.

I wasn’t doing a lot of commentary until the Ministry of Culture threatened to shut down the show one day before the opening. I still have no idea what got into the burocratic’s heads. It could’ve been anything: from the fear of the new and unusual at such a respectful venue as National Museum, to a pathetic attempt to get some cash out of me. The bald, fat, sleazy type in a bad suit caught me in a museum hallway and insisted that I came into his office to tell me that “unfortunately the museum wasn’t able to get a permission for my show from the Ministry”. I asked about the specific reason my show is being censored. He got very uncomfortably agitated at the mention of the C word and started assuring me that it had nothing to do with censorship without providing me with any clear reason why the show was getting shut down. I had a scheduled interview with BBC TV in an hour and told him that I’m giving him forty minutes to sort it out and get back to me so I’ll be able to explain it to BBC. I haven’t heard from him since. This is how it started getting political.

I’d like to restage Sleeping Beauty in different cultural contexts, as it will evolve into a completely different story depending on the culture. When you make a fairytale real, you enter into a magical space where people get to relive in real time the essential fairytale they know by heart. It opens people up in very unpredictable ways and produces a full spectrum of strong emotions. It revealed the most gentle, beautiful and magical qualities of the human soul, as well as the ugliest ones.

Thinking retrospectively, it seems that it evokes such strong emotions because it has to do with an archetypal narrative of love and procreation. Considering that the story can be traced 5000 years back to the Psyche and Cupid legend, it can be seen as a founding narrative of love in this part of the world. Maybe this is the why both radical left and radical right attacked it for different reasons.

 

You previously were based in Alberta, Canada where you taught university in Lethbridge. You spoke about the disappointment that you felt with the failure of the Orange Revolution where the eventual outcome was the return to power of the klepto-dictatorial regime of Viktor Yanukovych. It induced a collective trauma creating a culture of apathy. Since Maidan, you have returned to Ukraine. Did Maidan remedy the trauma felt by the failure of Maidan? Can you please speak about the inspiration that you feel in Ukraine?

I’d say the main difference between the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity is that people are much less naïve about the mechanics of power second time. In 2004, it seemed that it was enough to confront the electoral fraud, force the government to do vote recounts, and get the good guy into the office. 10 years later, people understood that the whole system is corrupt.

The whole depth of corruption was revealed only after the parliament got re-elected in 2015. It became clear that oligarchs are still controlling much of the parliament, and it’s going to go on like that until the electoral system is reformed. It seems like the majority of the MPs aren’t interested in that because they’ll loose their seats and it’ll probably take an external pressure from IMF to push them to vote for it.

We’re talking about a society that has been a colony of Russia for 350 years, and out of those 350, 80 years was Soviet rule. That completely destroyed the traditional fabric of society including basic freedoms, private property, sense of initiative, and the very idea of the individual as an agent of that initiative. So what’s happening in Ukraine can be compared to the Reformation in Western Europe. The difference is that the European Reformation took decades, if not centuries, and here it has to happen in years to succeed.

So if you understand this culture with all its intricacies, it’s a very exciting place to be.

 


In contrast to Canada, Ukraine is confronted with existential concerns of its sovereignty, standard of living, and even its population with continuing migration. Despite the obvious dilemmas, have these existential worries contributed to the galvanization of creativity in all mediums of art in Ukraine – from music, to fine arts or cinema? Does this conflict almost play a fundamental role in shaping national consciousness?

Well, yes. I think Western art comes out of conflict in general. And the current Ukraine, as a land of reformation, is abundant with all kinds of conflicts. The war with Russia is the most visible of them all if you look at it from the outside. But there are plenty of less noticeable ones like corruption and the attempts to fight it, the generational conflict between people whose thinking is rooted in old Soviet school versus young people who want change, slow gay liberation movement, etc. Everything is up for discussion. So yes, it’s definitely not boring for an artist.

As to consciousness, for me as someone who was born here, had to get out early in my life and lived in various parts of the world, it’s a very interesting process to observe and be part of, because I’m learning something about myself. Essentially it’s a post–colonial project. So it’s like watching a painful birth of the nation with an option to participate as much as you want.