“My soul is really bleeding, because of home, because of everything,” Ksenia Novikova, a dancer from Kyiv, now living and working in The Hague, said in a recent phone interview. “But now we are kind of established here — we have some work, some tours, and our kids have a more or less normal life.”
It was almost a year ago that Russia invaded Ukraine; since then, more than 7,000 civilians have been killed, and millions displaced or, like Novikova and her family, forced into exile. On the first morning of the invasion, Novikova was shaken out of bed by a deafening sound: A military plane had crashed near her home, on the outskirts of Kyiv.
“My previous life ended at that moment,” she told me last summer in The Hague, a tidily beautiful city near the coast where I had gone to report on the lives of dancers in the United Ukrainian Ballet, an ad hoc assemblage of refugee dancers from all over that country.
The company began to take shape last March through the efforts of the Dutch dancer Igone de Jongh, and has toured the Netherlands, and traveled to London, Australia and Singapore. This week, starting Wednesday, it will make its United States debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington in Alexei Ratmansky’s staging of the 19th-century classic “Giselle.”
Elizaveta Gogidze, one of three dancers cast in the title role, said she was excited to get acquainted with American culture. “I would like to show, of course, a Ukrainian ballet to American audiences,” she said. “And remind them with the help of Ukrainian ballet art about the terrible war which has been going on for almost a year.”
On the eve of their American journey, I checked in with Ratmansky and some of the dancers I had met last summer to talk about how their lives had taken shape in the months since I had seen them.
Ratmansky, who is of mixed Russian and Ukrainian background and grew up in Kyiv, has been working with the company on and off in The Hague since June, both as a choreographer and as an adviser to de Jongh, with whom he had worked when she was a star at the Dutch National Ballet.
The State of the War
- In the East: Russian forces are wrestling for control of villages near the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, which has become a flashpoint in a battle that Moscow views as crucial for its push to seize the Donbas region.
- In Kharkiv: Residents have slowly trickled back into Ukraine’s second-largest city after Ukrainian forces expelled the Russian military. But signs of the war — and the chance that it might return — are everywhere.
- Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks won’t be the silver bullet that allows Kyiv to win the war.
- Corruption Scandal: Amid allegations of government corruption, several top Ukrainian officials were fired. The ouster has renewed questions about how Ukraine’s leaders are addressing concerns over aid.
It has been a powerful experience for Ratmansky, who lives in New York and who, it was recently announced, is to become choreographer in residence at New York City Ballet. Working with the Ukrainian dancers is part of what he feels is a mission to “demonstrate that Ukrainians are fighting on all fields including cultural,” he said in a recent interview.
“I am supporting them with all my heart,” he said of the dancers. “I just feel I need to do it.”
Ratmansky’s version of the ghost story “Giselle” is both familiar and unfamiliar, with surprising nuances he has gleaned from archival sources, most strikingly, a hopeful ending in place of the usual bleak one.
In addition to “Giselle,” he has given the company permission to perform his recent dance for Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Wartime Elegy,” set to music by the contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, who was himself forced to flee Ukraine by the war, and Ukrainian folk music. The company will perform it in March as part of a triple bill that also includes ballets by Jiri Kylian and the duo Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, who have been rehearsing with the company.
For many of these dancers, it is their first introduction to collaborating with internationally recognized contemporary choreographers, an experience that Gogidze said would help to enrich Ukrainian ballet culture once they return home. “When I heard I would be able to work with Alexei Ratmansky, I said, of course I want to be part of it. It has made me a better dancer. I want to bring something new to Ukrainian ballet from Europe.”
Gogidze, who joined the company in June, is planning, despite the dangers, to return to Kyiv, and to her home company, the National Ballet of Ukraine — where Ratmansky too began his dancing career — after the tour to Washington.
The National Ballet is active again, though performances are often interrupted by sirens that send patrons and performers scurrying into bomb shelters below ground. “Of course it’s not easy,” Gogidze said, “but it’s my theater, and they have a lot of work now.”
“I’m really proud of the people who are working there now,” Veronika Rakitina, a former dancer in the national company, said. “People really want to see ballet, even if there are alarms. It’s like a small light in the dark for them.”
Some, like Gogidze, have returned or plan to do soon; others, like the dancer Stanislav Olshanskyi, have found work elsewhere. In November, Olshanskyi joined Miami City Ballet, where he recently debuted in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” On Instagram, he posts avidly about both the war and his new life in Miami.
But most, like Rakitina and her boyfriend, Vladyslav Detiuchenko, a dancer with the Kyiv Modern Ballet, have opted to stay, at least for now. She arrived in April, with the couple’s cat, Boston. Detiuchenko came a few months later, after receiving a special permit from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to leave the country to promote Ukrainian culture abroad. (Men of fighting age are generally not allowed to go abroad.)
The pair, along with the other dancers, have settled in The Hague’s former music conservatory. The company’s home since its founding, the conservatory serves as dormitory, kitchen, laundromat and rehearsal space. It has all the basics, but few comforts. Most sleeping areas, carved out of former classrooms, are shared, as are bathrooms. The floors are cement, and the donated furniture is worn. “If you’re just here for a few days, it’s all right,” Gogidze said, “but for a long time, it’s hard.”
The conservatory building had been slated for demolition before it was repurposed as a home for the dancers. With the demolition date drawing near, the company will move to a newer space, a former rehabilitation center in the district of Kijkduin, close to the sea.
The Odessa-born Christine Shevchenko, a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater who also will dance Giselle in Washington, spent time at the conservatory last year. “It was a little overwhelming,” she said, “but at the same time as soon as I started rehearsals, I felt like I was pretty much at home. I had this sense of happiness that I was there with these people from my country who are just like me, standing with them.”
And then there were the children. Several of the dancers had arrived in The Hague with kids who played in the halls while their parents rehearsed. Matvei, then 7, the son of Volodymyr Tkachenko, who teaches company class a few times a week, seemed to be everywhere at once, including in rehearsals and onstage with the dancers.
Now Matvei and the other children are attending school in The Hague. “He goes to school, and then after school we play football, work on his homework, and spend time together,” Tkachenko said. “I think he is happy.”
Like the others, Tkachenko expressed gratitude that he and his son were safe, that they had been received warmly by the residents of The Hague, and that he was working. And like all of them, he worries about relatives and friends back home, including his parents, whose house was destroyed by a missile last year but who refuse to leave.
When asked what his hopes were, Tkachenko said, “I don’t think about tomorrow. I think about today.”
Performances and tours, like the shows in Washington,give the daily rituals of dancing life a sense of purpose. “The world should not get used to this war,” Novikova said. “We must remind everyone around the world that we are a peaceful nation, that we have our culture and we deserve a right to exist. No one deserves to be killed for that.”