“Eurovision 2023 is not a ‘normal Eurovision’,” the Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region and the Director of Culture at Liverpool City Council tells me. Had this been a ‘normal Eurovision,’ I’d be doing these interviews in Ukraine with Ukrainian officials.
Instead, I’m speaking with Steve Rotheram overlooking the breath-taking floor-to-ceiling window view of Liverpool’s Albert Dock from the mayor’s thirteenth-floor office.
Steve Rotheram and the docks of Liverpool. PHOTO: Kyiv Post.
This is also not a ‘normal Eurovision’ because it boasts an unprecedented program to support three official events: the semi-finals on May 9 and 11 and the Grand Final on May 13. Much of Eurovision’s supplementary program is dedicated to Ukraine: its music, theatre and art scenes, and cuisine.
Liverpool, a city in the North of England most known for being the birthplace of The Beatles, won the bid to host the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 on behalf of Ukraine, whose Kalush Orchestra won the competition in May 2022. Seven UK cities were shortlisted from the list of 16 that submitted bids to host. Then it was down to two - Liverpool and Glasgow. After a tight race with Scotland’s largest city, Liverpool won the run-off and was chosen in October 2022.
“I think it's a good decision - and the right decision,” Rotheram tells me. “There's an outpouring [of support for Ukraine] in Liverpool, and there's a greater connection in Liverpool than anywhere else.”
Rotheram, a British Labour politician, has been serving as the Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region since 2017. In 2018, he went to Kyiv to watch his team, Liverpool FC, battle Real Madrid for the UEFA Champions League trophy. His team lost the match, but Rotheram found something else during that stay.
“I was astounded by how beautiful [Kyiv] was, with really huge wide boulevards and lovely old buildings. And the people were really friendly as well,” he says. “It’s not what I was expecting.”
The big story at the time was Kyivans opening their apartments to Liverpool FC fans hit by inflated accommodation charges from local hotels and apartment owners. Rotheram believes that Liverpudlians now have a duty to repay in welcoming Ukrainians into their own city.
The other connection is, of course, Liverpool’s sister city relationship with Odesa established post-World War II, with both cities having developed around their maritime status. Claire McColgan, the Director of Culture at Liverpool City Council, tells me that this twinning helped with winning the hosting bid.
“We had great support from the city of Odesa for our bid,” she says. “And we worked closely with the city when we worked on the bid.”
One of the driving forces behind both the twinning and Eurovision processes is Veronika Yasynska, a Ukrainian war refugee who moved from her native Kyiv to Liverpool in April 2022. Since coming to Liverpool, she has co-led Ukrainian tours of the city’s Central Library, as well as initiated the library’s twinning with the Odesa National Scientific Library to complement the twinning between the cities.
The Liverpool-Odesa twinning memorandum will be unveiled by King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla on April 26.
Now, Yasynska is the event project assistant for Eurovision 2023 at Culture Liverpool, organising the Discover Ukraine section of the EuroVillage at Liverpool’s Pier Head.
She joins McColgan in telling me that they tried to make their Ukraine program modern, free, and inclusive of different audiences.
Seven hundred applications that were funded by the UK government were submitted to the Eurovision program's commission. Together with the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, the council whittled them down to 24. The program was developed by performers in cooperation with the Ukrainian Institute and British Council in a “really, really short time with artists that didn't necessarily know each other at the beginning,” McColgan says.
EuroVillage will see Ukrainian acts and former Eurovision winners Jamala and Kalush Orchestra give solo concerts, while Antytila, Go A, Alyona Alyona, and Jerry Heil will perform as part of the “This is Ukraine” concert on May 8.
Accompanying the Eurovision events is the EuroFestival, which will highlight Ukraine’s cultural contributions. Ukrainian artist Katya Buchatska filmed her real-time train journey entitled “Izyum to Liverpool” in partnership with Ukrainian Railways – the documentary will be screened at Liverpool Cathedral between April 28 and May 19. Ukrainian theatre makers Yurii Radionov and Shorena Shoniia created a programme that includes their new show Maria, marking the 90th anniversary of Holodomor. Related events will include a Ukrainian poetry evening, panel discussions, creative workshops, and a photography exhibition on the queer history of Ukraine.
“We wanted to do a whole cultural program around Eurovision,” McColgan says. “So that, even if you didn't get tickets or weren't interested in Eurovision, you could come and see contemporary Ukrainian culture in Liverpool.”
The program also includes 12 giant illuminated soloveiko sculptures (“soloveiko” means “nightingale” in Ukrainian) from different Ukrainian regions that have travelled to Liverpool to show the country's beauty, mythology, and cities. And, in theme with the season’s Easter holidays, seven pysankas (traditional Ukrainian decorated eggs) adorn Liverpool’s South John Street as part of EuroLearn. EuroLearn is Eurovision’s educational program targeting school children, which in Liverpool, will encompass lessons about Ukraine.
The Discover Ukraine section of the Eurovillage will sell Ukrainian souvenirs, English-language books, and street food from Ukraine’s most well-known chef Ievgen Klopotenko, according to Yasynska. The latter will include cuisine from across Ukraine: from Western Ukrainian banosh to Crimean Tatar chebureky.
In terms of desserts and drinks, Ukrainian-born chef Olia Hercules has developed a special recipe of syrnyky that can be tasted at Maray, Madre, and Lunyalita and a Ukrainian Kompot Spritz (includes alcohol) that can be tried at The One O’Clock Gun, Revolucion de Cuba, Tate Liverpool Cafe, The Beatles Story’s Fab4 Cafe, Madre, and Lunyalita.
According to McColgan, Eurovision has never seen a supplementary program of this level.
“Because we are hosting it on behalf of Ukraine, that was really, really important to us and the government,” she says.
On top of Eurovision’s official supplementary program, the city’s symbol Superlambanana has been repainted into Ukrainian yellow and blue colours and, Rotheram tells me, the city’s trains and buses will also be adorned with Ukrainian colors.
McColgan says that many Liverpool businesses have decided to also get involved in the extravaganza independently. Some examples of this are Fazenda Rodizio Bar & Grill introducing a Ukrainian cocktail with profits going to Ukraine, The Nest on Liverpool’s famous Albert Dock selling VIRA candles made by Ukrainian war refugees Anna Shturmak and Anastasiia Berest, and Beer Together – a collaboration between eight independent breweries from Liverpool and Ukraine with eight beers made available at select venues throughout Liverpool.
McColgan admits to having little to no sleep since preparations for Eurovision 2023 began. And when she does sleep, she has been dreaming of Eurovision. Spending some time in Liverpool, you begin to admire the efforts that the city's gone to in order to represent Ukraine.
“If you're not in a group in Liverpool talking about Eurovision at the moment, I don’t know where you are,” McColgan explains. “There’ll be something bonkers around every corner.”
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