KIEV, Ukraine — A bow slides across cello strings, setting up an atonal motif. Drumsticks clatter staccato beats against the rim of a snare drum. An accordion’s bellows contract and swell. Dry ice fills the packed theatre.
The performers, a five-piece puppet cabaret group, chant at the gathered crowd: “Fear. Death. Cold. My dear.”
At the Dakh theatre in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, young creatives gather daily to telegraph anxieties, hopes and frustrations. In a country facing toxic post-Soviet problems – war in the east, corruption, poverty and an economic perma-crisis – Dakh provides artists with the space to question the world around them and their place in it.
And four years after the start of the war between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces, there is much to question.
In recent weeks, the venue has hosted a Russian spoken word performance, a Polish-directed production exploring language and identity, and the five-piece puppet cabaret group, TseSho.
Often playful, but also mournful and even foreboding, TseSho explore issues such as social media overload, alcoholism, love, social alienation and war. “Our performances are like a mirror of things that are happening,” says Marusia Ionova, the group’s cellist.
Each member, dressed in a colourful beanie and orange overalls, has a puppet in their likeness, conveying a child-like quality. Much of their music is cyclical, relying on repetition and drone.
“It is eclectic music,” says Dakh’s founder and creative director, Vladislav Troitskyi. “It is a very strange story because I don’t know notes. We sit and we begin to create. We discuss what we want to say and then we compose together.”
In a recent performance informed by the war in Ukraine’s east, the lights fade to pitch black. A red glow begins to emanate from the stage as discordant melodies and the group’s screams fill the theatre.
Europe’s largest country by area, Ukraine has teetered on the east-west faultline since it gained independence in 1991.
The conflict that began in 2014 is not its only problem. Ukraine ranks 130th in the global Corruption Perceptions Index; health indicators from longevity to HIV are woeful; the currency has plunged against the dollar, prices have surged, and the economy has stuttered following the loss of the industry-rich Donbass region.
“We have realised that we all lived in a different Ukraine,” says Kateryna Petrashova, TseSho’s saxophonist. Some of the group’s members grew up in the west and centre of the country, another in the sprawling Soviet-style city of Zaporizhia.
The government has banned books and popular Russian social media sites, attempted to force schools beyond primary level to teach exclusively in Ukrainian – angering Hungary, Poland and Romania – and pursued a policy of “decommunisation”, part of a push to chart an independent national course that also carries hints of revisionism.
“People are thinking about their identities,” says accordionist Marichka Shtyrbulova. “Who are we in both the global and national contexts? It is something we have to understand.”
Fascist elements are visible in Ukraine, particularly in the country’s west, but do not appear to have broad public support.
“Across Europe we see rightwing forces becoming more popular. Younger people have forgotten the story of world war two and that is a very dangerous story,” says Troitskyi. “But I believe the Ukrainian mind is practical – people are afraid of a radicalised society.”
The Dakh theatre was founded 25 years ago, after the communist collapse, and is best known as the place where the popular was founded. Framed photographs of various performances decorate the foyer, as do ghoulish papier-mache masks. Antiquated brass instruments – trombones, tubas and trumpets – hang from the ceiling. A tiny bar serves wine and whisky. “There is a lot of creative energy here, but it hasn’t crystallised,” says Troitskyi.
“It is really sad, but we have two forces in Ukraine,” says Shtyrbulova, speaking of one that tries to “change things for the better” and another that “drags you down”. Certainly, endemic corruption is dragging the country down. The murder of the lawyer Iryna Nozdrovska– found beside a river in Kiev in January with stab wounds to her neck after working to prosecute the nephew of an influential judge – has proven a potent symbol of the government’s failure to seriously address corruption.
“It is every day,” says Nadiia Golubtsova, TseSho’s double bass player. “If you go to the hospital, you know that you will have to pay to get attention.”
A video teaser for TseSho’s performances features Golubtsova with the top of her head sawn off. A robotic Ionova plunges in needles. “It’s kind of about cleaning your mind,” says Ionova. “We want our music to be like an injection for people’s minds.”