Vancouver dance-theatre artists Alison Denham and Billy Marchenski describe Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone as a deceivingly lush, overgrown land that’s haunted by the invisible “bogeyman” of radiation.
Their research trip into the radiation-poisoned area in 2011 was by turns absurd, frightening, and surreal. A guide Denham describes as “disturbingly casual” led a group of tourists into the zone, then set them loose to wander through empty buildings, dilapidated amusement parks, and serene forests.
Marchenski remembers the terror of trying to jump over a puddle by an abandoned swimming pool, and then almost slipping and falling into it. Denham recalls walking into a building with “squishy floors” and a crumbling roof. They both were struck deeply by the creepiness of seeing an entire city and its apartment blocks abandoned because of the disaster in April 1986—the worst nuclear accident in history.
“It looks lush and abundant, but these beautiful fruits you see on the trees are poison,” Marchenski explains, sitting in an East Side rehearsal hall, where he’s working on Slowpoke, a Radix Theatre performance work that grew out of the trip. “It doesn’t look like a war zone. It’s this beautiful farmland that people have been farming for hundreds of years.”
Adds Denham, his partner in life as well as in work: “Because radiation is invisible, the whole experience became very psychological and had a huge emotional impact.”
Denham and Marchenski had weighed the risks of entering the zone—they’d been told it was the radiation-exposure equivalent of a transatlantic flight or a single chest X-ray—but they were in no hurry to return. One daylong trip was definitely enough. “We were exhausted. And terrified,” Marchenski says.
Their photos, diaries, and other research over a month-long journey to Ukraine have culminated in the interdisciplinary Slowpoke. The duo begins with a slide show and travelogue, but then takes it into more philosophical, metaphorical terrain. One of the overriding themes is the idea of timelessness. The zone has been frozen in place, deemed uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years. The fire of Chernobyl burns indefinitely under the destroyed reactor, encased in a crumbling cement sarcophagus.
The piece covers some big issues, but it actually had its roots in a very personal quest for Marchenski. His family’s ancestors came from western Ukraine and eastern Poland. Also, in the mid- 2000s, he met his biological mother for the first time: she lives in Winnipeg, and is still steeped in Ukrainian culture. He dreamed of going to the country, “just to see if there was any resonance between myself and that place”.
Marchenski got his chance in 2010, on a tour in Poland with Kinesis Dance somatheatro’s Box4; afterward, he hopped a train to nearby Ukraine. While there, he visited Kiev and its Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum, where he was lucky enough to piggyback on a tour that included meeting a plant worker who had witnessed the initial explosion and the sacrifice of workers.
It made an impact on Marchenski, and later, back home, he began seeing the potential for a performance piece. As one of a group of artistic associates with Radix Theatre, he proposed the idea for Slowpoke—and just three months after he and Radix artistic director Andrew Laurenson wrote up a grant application for the work, the nuclear crisis at Fukushima happened.
“So I realized this is still very relevant,” says Marchenski, who saw the value of considering the lessons of Chernobyl as a window into the Japanese disaster. “The idea was to maybe look at this faraway place and say, ‘Twenty-five years later, this is what Fukushima might look like.’”
And so began Denham and Marchenski’s month-long journey to Ukraine, where they travelled around and talked to local people.
Director James Fagan Tait has helped them shape the impressions they brought home into a piece that combines movement, imagery, music, and theatre. “It starts off as a slide show, and over the course of time it evolves into something that has more impact,” Tait explains.
Marchenski says he was drawn to the idea of the slide projector, not just because it, too, is an obsolete piece of technology, but because the model he’s using dates from the 1970s, around the time Chernobyl’s reactor was built. Similarly, he and Denham are drawing on the movement of butoh, a twisting, slow, semigrotesque Japanese dance form that grew out of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. The traditional music, by hurdy-gurdy player and singer Beverly Dobrinsky, refers back to the old Ukraine.
The creative team loves the resonance of its venue as well: “There are the political implications, and the building is beautiful and kind of looks abandoned,” Marchenski says of Russian Hall.
The title of the piece refers to two things. Slowpoke is the name of the first small, low-energy reactor invented in Canada, in the 1960s. It’s also a nod to the unfathomably slow passage of time in the restricted zone of Chernobyl.
“We’re at Year 27 out of 20,000 years,” remarks Marchenski. “My brain can go to 100; anything past that I don’t even know what that means. The piece is about how do you even imagine this kind of time.”
Slowpoke works its way into one of the darkest tragedies in modern history, but perhaps the biggest surprise the piece will hold when it launches Radix’s 25th-anniversary season is how much black comedy Marchenski and Denham are able to mine from their semitraumatic experience. “It’s a lot of fun; there’s a lot of humour,” Tait says. “The two of them did have a certain innocence entering the zone.”
“There’s a lot of gallows humour from people on the tour and people that lived there,” Marchenski adds. “Part of the challenge was we’re writing this play with heavy political content but we didn’t want to make it a didactive piece about ‘Radiation is bad.’…There’s a playfulness and curiosity.”
And after all, sometimes we laugh when we’re most afraid.