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On The Road, With The Arira Experimental Dance Company

By Paul Beesley

When Paul Hughes, founder of the Canadian, Helping Ukraine Grassroots Support, organisation, said he was preparing the HUGS, "Freedom Bus"  to transport a load of kids, my first thought was that our spring evacuation plan was coming into force.

The reality was less of a drama, but more dramatic.

At the start of the war, two women, Katya and Maria, set up Ambassadors For Children - intending to help refugee children by means of performing arts (similar to HUGS's own SMART Program.

18 concert/performance/dance festivals later, it was the turn if the western town of Kamienets-Podilskyi, to host a music/dance festival.

The Arira Studio,, had put on shows for injured troops and so, the Military Authorities had sponsored their inclusion in a weekend festival, starting on International Children's Day, 1st June.)

Our bus would take 28 young dancers and 5 chaperones. A pilot car would scout the road ahead and go for help in the (very real event of) the elderly bus failing.

Communication was key. "You will need a second man in the pilot car." I said. Paul H., agreed.  "I'll do it. Can you spare me?" "Yes" he said, without having to think.

So, that is how I came to do a 1,000 km, overnight trip to Western Ukraine.

We set off at 21:36. 36 minutes late. This sort of set the tone. We crammed two bald, spare tires into the luggage hold, the choreographer, Natalia, fighting to get her dance props in.

"Pyrotechnic;" she said ominously. So, with Pasi, our Finnish driver/mechanic at the wheel, and Rob, a British aid worker at the wheel of his Audi, we were off.

Poltava, passed in a blur, Kyiv, by sunrise, where we collected our 28th dancer a very young, former Kharkiv resident. Breakfast at MacDonald's (I had a nap instead,). On toward Zhitomyr, rain pouring down, the car trying to put its brain against my 40 years' experience by telling me to drive in 6th gear in a rain storm. Comfort breaks.

We stopped at the Voyage Hotel, an empty, construction of dark, heavy wood.

I decided to brazen it out. Without mentioning the bus-load of kids, I ordered two coffees. A chaperone came in after me. "You want a coffee?" I asked, raising the ante.

"No thank you." "Say yes." "Yes", she said.

After that it was plain sailing. I chatted with the two sisters behind the bar, the kids were relieved, we drank up and left. A detour around Zhitomyr was a doddle (even for Vinnitsia, a town of which I have no fond memories).

No, the trouble started when the Satnav, tried a short-cut, on a minor road, cutting off Khemelnitsky, short. Mile after bumpy mile, every second bringing the threat of puncture (or worse,) to our poor bus.

Finally, we got into the main road to Kaminets-Podilsky (hereafter referred to as "KP") and our accommodation - an empty, pre-revolutionary, girl's school.

There was no dinner for the kids and it was a quarter to 6. We coped.

Next morning, after a breakfast of yoghurt and instant porridge (Natasha had been up all night, braiding lanyards into the girl's hair, so I forgave her the poor logistics), I had my first wet-shave in 30 years and got a trim at the barbers.

A brilliant summers day, and we walked to the Old Castle through a town centre that Pasi said reminded him of Estonia.

The castle was filled with families, amusements and a big sound stage with it's seismic, sound system. There were several celebrities who had volunteered their time for the event. I knew they were celebrities because I didn't know any of them. Turned out, one was from The Kalash Orchestra - winner of the '22 Eurovision.

I missed the performance as the time was put forward and hour and I was in the Castle Torture Chamber (never let it before said that I do not take an interest in the local culture).

I talked with the organisers, Katya and Maria and also with Oksana Zaremba, the Castle Administrator. She is currently trying to get a digital scanner to save the vast number of historical documents which cover the period of the Russian Civil War, when KP, was the capital of a free Ukrainian state (if you can spare a few coppers, there is a link below.)

Later this month she is in Berlin, attending a conference on the protection of cultural assets - a serious thing in this war.

The kids were elated, while we adults from HUGS, (3 drivers, 2 chaperones,) did the town.

Early dinner in a little Georgian place, while outside, it thundered and rained. Afterwards, a brilliant rainbow in the evening sun.

There was a power cut, but this was routine power rationing, not enemy action.

With shops open at 9, tourist buses and no military traffic, you would not think there was a war on. This why the festival is here.

Back at school, the dormitory block lobby resembled a shop. The Army had come through with supplies. There was instant porridge, instant potato, canned water, tea, coffee, juice, whole boxes of fruit, chocolate, jam tarts, sausage and what appeared to be Mr Kipling's, Individual Bakewell Slices.

Despite repeated requests, we still had no idea what we were doing on Sunday.

Sunday. We went to church. The old St Peter and Paul - a church of the Polish-Lithuanian, period.

A light lunch was laid on at the Zig Zag, Hotel. I was in the Gent's, so I missed the speeches. Then we drivers got some sleep before the show at 17:00. Pasi, had already booked into a hotel to be sure if peace and quiet. No such luck. Someone had parked across our gateway and we couldn't find the owner. Eventually, we manoeuvred the bus onto the road.

17:00 and the Show is on.

On a street corner to be precise. 

We were not on stage in the main square but just inside the New Town. Sunday evening crowds gathered as the group did 4 numbers interspersed with recorder music from one of the chaperones.

The bus was also the changing room so I guarded the doors, consequently, getting a poor view of the dance.

The first number was to the tune if "The Carol of the Bells," the second, to "Hug Me," a popular Ukrainian hit by Okean Elzy. The third was a peasant version of "Swan Lake," (I  think,) while for the fourth, Ivan, a young student and dancer who spoke good English, spelled me on guard duty. Good for him, because it was a show-stopper. 

A fire dance, using Natasha's "pyrotechnics."

Smoke dischargers in national blue and yellow, fire juggling, wings of fire and spinning skirts of flame. All to a hard-driving rock track.

After, kids wanted to be photographed with the flame-winged dancers.

After all, a quick rush to school for a 21:00 departure, put back now to 22:00.

Ivan passed out. Something he ate.

We calculated the route out via a petrol station that would take our coupons and, at 22:11, we were off.

A long night's drive. Avoided the Vinnitsia ,E50 trap. Stops on the way, Pasi, running on fumes and energy drinks.

Morning in Kyiv, dropped off a chaperone and the little resident (Rob, brought them each a little something, but I was moving the car to let through a dust cart and so, never saw what it was.)

A fair summers day. A mix up over a stop. Rob, displeased. He bought everyone breakfast. I chipped in as I felt partly responsible for the error.

Yulia, one of our chaperones, got a surprise birthday party, with candles (didn't know you could burn a Macflurry.)

Took over driving. Pity I was so tired - you rarely get such easy driving in Britain these days. Straight roads, fields of young corn and bean sprouts, wooded horizons in the low, gently rolling country. Great cloud banks driven by a cool, following wind.

The bus had to stop - overheating.

Pasi, wanted to remove the radiator cover. 

"So it will be running with its shirt off?" I said.

We carried on through Poltava, (home of the purest form of Ukrainian, apparently.)

More trouble finding comfort stops, time running out. Unscheduled stop to let Yulia, out (why were we not told earlier?) E.T.A, vanishing in our rear view mirror like a rejected hitch-hiker.

Another "surprise," disembarkation at a Metro station on the edge of town (at least it was on our way.)

Paul H, wanting to know when we would arrive, called us, wanting to know where we were supposed to arrive.

Finally, at 19:17, on Monday evening, outside the Law University, on Pushkinskaya St., we stopped.

Parents greeted children, Paul H., shook our hands, baggage was unladen, I blocked the near lane to prevent accidents, Rob, gave the now revived Ivan, a video testimonial for all his translating work.

The trip was, according to its purpose, a success. Dodgy logistics, little information, inexplicable changes of time, place and activity, did not stop a group of (mostly) children, from getting away from the war for a couple of days and practising their hard won art.

I, tired, picked up my jeep, and went home to borscht, beer and bed.

Being a "roadie," is not all it is cracked up to be.

The Ambassadors, are doing another Festival soon. At Palanok Castle, in the Carpathians.

So far, no one has asked me if I want to go.


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