‘Cigars and delicate silks, cocaine and metal files, loose-leaf tobacco from the state of Virginia and black wine purchased on the isle of Chios. Every object had its price; they washed down each figure with Bessarabian wine, which smelt of sunshine and bedbugs.’
This is how Odessian-born writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) describes the riches of the port- city in his Odessa Stories, only just translated into English. To mark the occasion, Dash Arts themed one of their famous cafes in his honour, focusing on the life of the city’s Jews, who made up about half of its prewar population. In its usual fashion, the café showcased creative impressions on the topic from a variety of media, including songs, readings, film extracts, and a conversation with Uilleam Blacker, researcher of cultural memory in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish cities.
A vivid aspect of the night was that it was guided, essentially, by three languages: English, of course, but also Russian and Yiddish, or an enticing mix of the two in Michale Boganim’s film Odessa…Odessa. While there was only time for a brief extract of this, it was one of the most moving parts of the evening: Boganim traced a group of old women returning to Odessa from Israel. Well into their eighties, the women delve into the nostalgia of their home city, singing and dancing to old songs, reminiscing and retelling stories reaching back to the revolutionary year of 1918.
Their own was a terrible one: not only was Odessa’s Jewish population (its poorer part at least) confined to a large Ghetto, which Babel focuses on in his stories – but many lives were also cut short when Romanians captured the town during the Second World War, rounding up the Jewish population and setting them on fire in a square. This fate wasn’t mentioned in the presentations, only by an audience member in the discussion. But it makes the old women’s joy for life all the more admirable, and captures the bitter-sweet nostalgia, with its melancholy background, that Babel describes. Boganim’s Odessa…Odessa truly deserves an evening of its own.
Another highlight of the evening was Polina Shepherd, a Russian and Yiddish singer of distant Odessan origin. Shepherd’s solo performance was sweet, entertaining, captivating. She brought an energy to the stage that echoed the sadness of Babel’s stories, transmitting them through intimate songs from a magnetic mix of cultures in a city of myth- ach, Odessa! If one had to imagine the city personified, Shepherd would certainly fit the bill. Her choir, unfortunately, was a different story. Perhaps expectations were set too high, but while their colour coordinated shirts were visually bold, their voices were less so, lacking the power and liveliness of Sheperd’s solo performance, never quite capturing the audience, despite the energetic rhythms of Yiddish and Russian folksongs.
Generally, something seemed to be missing at the event this time – and rather than whatever was on stage, it seemed audience apathy that dampened the mood, swallowing more energetic moments. Perhaps it was the distance of the time being evoked – an Odessa difficult to celebrate among people who, by and large, had never been there.
In an interesting twist, the discussion with Uilleam Blacker didn’t so much focus on Odessa, as on issues of translating from Russian and Yiddish, and Babel’s own terrible fate as a disgraced writer in the Stalinist period – brutally murdered, and with his work relatively neglected for decades. It seemed easier to engage with a person, a piece of text, than a city – such a complex and combustible urban mixture it was difficult to find one’s way through it – even in the imagination. Babel’s Odessa is nostalgia for a time long gone – and Dash Arts showed us just how difficult, nigh impossible, it is to regain a paradise lost.
Odessa: a city of Rogues and Schnorrers was part of Dash Arts’ ongoing cultural programme of new music, theatre art and dance at Rich Mix, London.