Berlin’s Zvizdal: [Chernobyl – So Far So Close] Makes US Debut at Wexner Center
On December 25-26 in 1986, in the northern Ukranian town Pripyat, a safety test led to a level seven nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant. For more than three decades hence, “Chernobyl” has been synonymous with the hubris of man and the devastating potential of technology.
The Belgian troupe, Berlin, spent five years visiting a couple, Pétro and Nadia Opanassovitch Lubenoc, still living within the evacuated zone. The Wexner Center brings the piece created by that deep investigation, Zvizdal: [Chernobyl – so far so close], to Columbus January 11-12, on its first U.S. tour.
I spoke with Yves Degryse, who created the piece with Bart Baele and Cathy Blisson, via Skype the morning of New Year’s Eve.
“We did not intend to make a piece about Chernobyl; we were drawn to the specific story of the two people,” Degryse said. “There was a writer in France, Cathy Blisson [co-creator], we knew as a critic. When she stopped writing reviews, she came to us with this story.”
To create the piece, Degryse said, “We had 80 hours of material and hundreds of hours of waiting. It was kind of a nature project, where you sit there and wait. The first time we went, Pétro asked us, ‘Are you coming for the good or the bad?’ We answered, ‘For the good,’ he said, ‘It’s okay,’ and we started.”
Degryse talked about the practical elements of getting those 80 hours.
“We decided to go twice a year. In total, we went [to the settlement] 11 or 12 times. [Each visit was a] maximum of one week, which sounds quite short but it was also the rhythm of the work. That has to do with the time it takes to build up bad elements [from the radiation]. You have different pockets — the level of contamination is very different between the areas. We always had a dosimeter, a little device in our pocket to measure the radiation, and the first three times we went, we went to this nuclear center in Belgium with a scanner to verify. We were all clear. A professor [we consulted with] said, ‘Just take care that you don’t eat mushrooms, berries, you have to bring in your own stuff. The soil soaks up the bad elements.’ So that was okay,” Degryse chuckled, “As far as I know.”
“What was more important was we noticed it was not so good to stay longer than one week with Pétro and Nadia. They have their own rhythm, they have been living in total isolation for 25 years. You come in and, although we were in kind of a waiting position, in their garden, waiting until they feel like talking, it’s important to follow their rhythm. You feel like, after a few days, they’re lovely people but you really need to be careful on a visit. It’s their way of life you have to follow.”
That way of life hasn’t involved other people for a very long time.
“They wanted to talk a lot, of course, because they loved the company, that people were there. It was always their big desire that people would come back to Chernobyl and to Zvizdal,” Degryse said. “They asked us many times, ‘Why won’t people come back? Why doesn’t the President allow people to come back and start a life? Please, pick a house, bring your family.’”
In the immediate aftermath, Degryse said, “All people from Zvizdal were offered an apartment just outside the zone. Pétro and Nadia refused. Their explanation depends on the moment you talk with them. Sometimes Pétro talks in a very straight, practical way and sometimes in a more philosophical way. The practical reason he gave was, ‘I want to protect the house.’ There were a lot of burglars, entering houses to steal just after the disaster. In his more philosophical mood he said, ‘You cannot move an old tree. That’s dangerous.’ He was convinced that when people went out of the zone, they died. Stay in, they’d survive because the body adapts. He pointed at animals, they survived.”
Degryse commented on the contrast between the landscape and what many of us raised on a diet of nuclear apocalypse media would expect. “It’s a beautiful place, not what you’d expect. When we entered we thought ‘What will this look like? How is the atmosphere?’ And, kind of, it’s paradise. It’s fantastic. It’s green, very silent, there’s beautiful wildlife and there’s this invisible danger.”
In a subtle way, Zvizdal delves into reasons for making art and reasons for living. Degryse said, “At a certain point the question raises itself, is it still important being there? Why are we still here? For them. What is your reason to survive at a certain point? It’s something we all notice in general life, in ‘normal’ life, as well. Older people say ‘I’ve had this beautiful life and I want to continue,’ or ‘I’m just waiting now.’ What is so beautiful with Pétro and Nadia is you recognize so many connections with our normal lives. But they have so many things in one nutshell. Things you notice around in the world with other people, they have it all in that relation of two people.”
“There’s nothing to hide for them. Two people, living there with a cow, a horse, and a cat. They’re married, they know each other since they were 16 years old, and each day they try to survive. They try to set up a system to survive. The contrast is they’ve known a totally other life, with a community of a few hundred people living there [in Zvizdal]. They had electricity, television, neighbors, and now they’re in this very naked position. You see a very pure core, like peeling back an onion. They have a very pure way of talking about it, very concrete. They don’t have the intention to talk in a really philosophical way, but they are very philosophical.”
I asked about the couple’s involvement in the project, if they’d seen even a draft of the finished work. Degryse responded, “What I find intriguing is I don’t think they’re really interested in the project. They’re interested in having company, in us being there. They were interested if we were married, if we had children, and so on. But the whole idea of the project? [Their attitude was] ‘Okay, just do what you want to do. You said it’s for the good, so it’s good.’ Once we showed Nadia a little excerpt of what we filmed. She was surprised to see herself. She knows the concept of film, they had film and television before [the incident], but still she was a bit surprised. She saw and heard herself and said, ‘It’s me,’ and then she asked me, ‘Will she be there too?’ pointing at the screen.”
Talking about the technical elements of the presentation, Degryse commented, “It’s a bifrontal setting — a screen with two sides surrounded by risers. Underneath the big screen, there are three scale models of their house in three seasons. Above the scale models is a camera that moves between them. We’re filming, mixing, and editing images of the models live. The models can turn for different angles. Two reasons: the idea of going in and going out was very important to the project. You leave them behind and then you enter again without being able to announce you’re coming back; there was no other contact, no postal service. You can only buy a flight ticket to Kiev, rent a car, and drive into the zone hoping they’re still there. Over the years, it became more and more important because you develop a relationship with them. Even if you don’t want to, there’s no other way to connect. Mostly we work in a more distant way but here they became kind of our grandparents.”
“In filming we kept a little distance,” Degryse said, “Trying to observe without activating [the situation]. But it was much, much more intense than we thought. During the five years, a few things happened — it’s in the performance, I can’t tell a lot about it — to change our relation. It’s quite hard to say goodbye just before winter, for example. You say goodbye and you’ll come back in Spring, knowing they’re totally isolated in winter. You know surviving at that time is hard and you don’t know what will happen. It’s beautiful, of course, but it’s much more intense.”
About those models, created for the piece by Ina Peeters, with the help of Puck Vonk, Rosa Fens, and Thomas Dreezen, Degryse said, “The other reason these scale models are important is the idea of following time and seasons, literally. The whole project develops by seasons, not by time. Something really beautiful Pétro said, ‘Time doesn’t exist anymore for me.’ He doesn’t know how late it is or what day. Time doesn’t exist; moments exist, seasons exist. So the sun comes up and the sun goes down.”
With a hint of wonder in his voice, Degryse said, “There are very, very universal themes between Pétro and Nadia. It’s this story between them, this relation of 60 years of being together, surviving as a team. Do we want to be here or not? And if yes, how long? Here it’s a very specific [situation] but everyone recognizes the themes, everyone recognizes the layers, but we are not used to seeing them in one relationship. I’m very curious to see Zvizdal in the US.”
Zvizdal [Chernobyl – so far so close] appears at the Wexner Center at 8 p.m. January 11 and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. January 12. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/berlin.