And it has a unique heritage challenge of its own: the older buildings in the city are built of limestone mined from huge galleries (known as the catacombs) under the city. Someone told us that limestone dissolves after 250 years of exposure to the elements: Odessa is just about that age now and its older buildings are gradually collapsing – some even fall into the ground as the catacombs give way underneath. Most impressive of these is the Odessa Opera House which opens and closes every few years to enable repairs to be made to its structure.
Odessa is known as a place of jokes and storytelling. There is a saying that “Kyiv may be the capital of Ukraine, but Odessa is second to none.” The most famous feature of the city is the 142-metre-long Potemkin Stairs that leads down to the (very ugly) port. These were made famous by Sergei Eisenstein in his movie The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and we used them as one of the sites for the Fantomats.
We did the deepest amount of preparation of SEAS in Odessa than anywhere else and made a total of 11 research trips between November 2005 and May 2008 (the SEAS opening), including the Odessa Gathering in April 2007 that focused on the cross-over between art and science and where the artists presented their initial proposals from their SEAS Dates.
Early visits by the SEAS team were set up and guided by the British Council, but we later appointed a local coordinator, Marina Goncharenko, to work with ANM on the project for us locally: we first met Marina when she translated for us at a meeting of local artists at the British Council office.
There were three main political entities which we developed relationships with. The City Council and its departments of Culture and International Relations; the Oblast which is the regional government and the Port Authority, which operates separately from the other two (the harbour’s autonomy is a common feature of Black Sea ports).
Our relationship with the City deteriorated with the opening of the event as it was only with the intervention of the City Mayor that permissions and agreements we had negotiated were finally honoured. Our difficulties with the authorities stemmed from the simple fact that nothing like SEAS had been to Odessa before and there was a breakdown in communications and expectations.
The City and the Oblast provided support in kind for the fees of some local artists, local transport, some technical costs and background logistics.
At an early stage we realised that the Port was not much interested in the project and with regret abandoned the idea of placing work in the harbour itself and the Opening Ceremony we had planned for the Sea Passenger Terminal.
The cultural scene of Odessa is small but divided into two parts: first is the conventional arts institutions, partially financed by the State, City or Oblast – museums, touring performances in the theatres, the opera house and concert halls (the Philharmonic Hall) and commercial, popularist musical theatres such as the Russian Language Theatre. And second, Odessa has an alternative music and cultural events scene, run mainly by entrepreneurial, independent producers who are in touch with a youth audience and know how to market directly to them. Read more on local programme
Our closest relationship with an institution was with The Ukrainian Drama Theatre and its director Valentina Popkopenko who co-produced Dmytro Bogomazov’s Sweet Dreams. Two further private bodies should be mentioned: Theatre Maski, a commercial clown and physical theatre group that is immensely popular throughout Ukraine and relies entirely on ticket sales, and the Marine Gallery which is partially supported by the Port Authority.
Initially we were supported in our research by the British Council with whom we also commissioned Gerald Lidstone of Goldmith’s College to review the cultural sector of Odessa and make a needs analysis (LINK TO Gerald’s document).
The theatre pioneer Eugenio Barba also visited the city with us in October 2006 and again in April 2007 as part of the Odessa Gathering (LINK TO DATES BARBA).
The Swedish Institute supported our research work in Ukraine, especially the fees of our local coordinator Marina and later the travel and involvement of Swedish artists in the Odessa Gathering and at the World launch.
EU money was used to commission and tour Bogomazov’s production and through the Ukrainian Drama Theatre and the Kyiv City Council (where Vilna Scena, Bogomazov’s organisation is based) he was able to find match-funding. Sweet Dreams was premiered in Odessa at the Ukrainian Drama Theatre during the SEAS events.