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Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles

Olha Semyoshkina

Chief Choreographer of Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre (Kyiv)
How has your life changed since February 24?

I am not doing theatre now. For my country is at war. Our home is being invaded by people who are attempting to kill us. And each of us - my friends, actors that I’ve been working with - is contributing to fight back. We are volunteering 24/7. I have a car, so I evacuate people from hot zones and deliver humanitarian aid. We are doing what we can to help. And I don’t know any other way of life now. On the first days of the war, I came to the military and said: “Guys, I’m with you.” Very often we get emergency calls like “Olha, please, it’s urgent. The curfew time starts in two hours. And we need to deliver something to people in Irpin.” So, I set off and go. This is the only life we have now. 

You go to hot zones, to the front line. You face real danger. How do you, a civilian woman, manage it?

Once I had a very specific experience that made me tremble all day long afterwards.  I happened to meet face-to-face with the Russian tank. Well, I had been asked to do something that a civilian woman was not actually supposed to do. But that was a personal request, and I thought “I am a strong woman. So, I will do it.” Our military advised me to take an alternative route, ‘cause they were expecting an artillery attack. So, I set my GPS and followed it. And then, on a desert road, I saw a Russian tank moving directly towards me. It took me just a few seconds to turn my car back and rush away through the forest. Ultimately, I got to my destination, delivered all the things I had to deliver. And when I returned home, I just got into my bed, snuggled down like a baby, and spent the whole day motionless. When my family told me, “What were you doing? You are a civilian. You shouldn’t have been there”, I said, “Well, who would have done it then? Now, in the time of war, if there is no one else who can do a thing, then you do it yourself.” And I know I’m not the only one. There are very many people who make such choices every day now.

What helps you do what you’re doing now - putting at risk your life, safety? Why? 

I feel a strong intrinsic necessity to accomplish my mission. There was a moment when I strongly realised one thing - “My country is me: I am that little three-year-old child under occupation, I am that elderly man or woman trying to survive under bomb attacks. Each of them is me. They feel the same emotions as me, they feel the same pain as me, they are scared just like me. 

Every day I meet people who have escaped from hell. Every day I see little boys and girls, I see their mothers who have survived but do not know what to do next. And that is when my motherly instinct kicks in, and I feel the urge to help them overcome that pain. I guess everyone in Ukraine is feeling this intrinsic need to lessen the pain of others. 

I remember I was delivering food to one family who had been starving for three days, they had only been living on water and tea. They lived remotely, and that woman was so petrified that she couldn’t step out of her home. When I arrived to bring them some food, a little girl, her daughter, rushed to me, cuddled up to my legs and held me so tight that I had such a feeling as if she was my daughter, as if I had given birth to her. Such situations make you believe that what you are doing makes sense, that there is need for your actions. And that is why we feel no sense of time or tiredness. These people and I, we cry together, we pray together. And it’s a regular thing now. 

And I can see many children contributing to the cause now. They help their mothers cook food and pack things to deliver to those in need. They have matured so fast. They have forgotten that they are kids. They are having no childhood any more. They are adults now. 

Do you notice that people have changed?

Absolutely. Something has happened to people in our country. Now, every stranger looks you in the eyes, we say “I love you” and hug each other.  This intimacy, compassion and care has become a norm for us. Under such extremely tough circumstances, people are revealing so much humaneness towards each other. I’m so happy to see so much love around. You know, this war is certainly altering our DNA. 

It seems the world will never be the same after this war. What is your vision of the new world? 

I think these transformations will happen not only in Ukraine, but in other countries as well. We will build up a more open and sincere way of life. These days, we have discovered a way of living here and now, knowing the value of every moment of life. I suppose the whole world is undergoing these transformations with us. The whole world is coming to the realisation that the value of life is life in itself. Right now, I can see chestnut trees blossoming in front of my window. I watch them every day: flowers that will transform into chestnuts in a while. We didn’t use to see it before. We would simply pass by. And now I notice people stop to see and feel. 

And which transformations do you expect in the theatre?

I suppose the theatre will also become more open, more sincere. In recent years, we all have been trying to explore parallel dimensions in the theatre, we were trying to reach the sky. But today we realise that the sky is right here. Both heaven and hell are right here, on our land. Both dignity and disgrace are right here, on our battlefield. 

Can you tell us about the projects and plans you had before the war

The last show I directed as a choreographer was an opera staged in Kharkiv entitled “Vyshyvany. King of Ukraine”. There are several scenes in the opera that resemble our reality now. In one scene, the deceased soldiers assemble to sing in a choir. And thinking about it is giving me goosebumps. Because I have a strong feeling that those who have died in this war haven’t gone, they are staying with and among us.

What are your plans for the near future?

To end the war. I have been invited to work abroad. But I had to refuse. ‘Cause I am needed here. And I just cannot create anything now. ‘Cause there is reality that is holding me down. Theatre is a form of observing life. And now, when I am in the very process of life, I have no inner resources to observe and reflect. I only have resources to act.

Peace or victory?

Now we have reached that point when there is no possibility for peace without victory. The level of violence has gone beyond the bounds. I cannot understand why Russian people have come to my home (Ukraine is my home) to take away the most precious thing people have - our lives. I cannot understand why they do not feel our pain, why they are killing us, why they are raping our women and kids. I cannot understand why and how it may be possible, why and how it has become our reality. But we have to hold tight. We only have one desire and intention now - to free our home, our country from the evil. And everyone in my country is determined to stand till the end. There is no other way. 

And I’m so happy that people have started breathing freely now, realising that they are united. And I know that we have already won. This nationwide unity, sincerity, selfless willingness to help - these traits that every Ukrainian has discovered and is revealing now - this is our victory.

ВОЛЯ / The Free Will: Ukrainian Theatre People in War is a Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles project, conducted by Yulia Ostrohliad.

© Gloria Scorier