A group of Ukrainian ballet dancers who fled the war in their homeland and brought their talents together under the name United Ukrainian Ballet, based in The Hague, will perform at the Kennedy Center Feb. 1-5, the center announced Thursday. The group’s five-day run will mark its debut in the United States and its only U.S. appearances.
The company of more than 60 dancers, professionals from the national theaters of Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, will perform the U.S. premiere of a new version of the beloved romantic ballet “Giselle.” World-renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, a native of Ukraine and an ardent supporter of its artists, recently created the full-length production especially for this group. The Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra will accompany the ballet, led by Ukrainian conductor Victor Oliynik.
Principal casting will include guest artist Christine Shevchenko, a Ukrainian-born principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, and other guests will be announced later, said Jane Raleigh, the Kennedy Center’s director of dance programming.
“Dancing, performing and representing Ukraine feels important to do — that’s how we say we are strong, we’re alive and we’re continuing our fight, and that victory will be ours,” Ratmansky said in a recent interview. “That’s what the dancers feel and think when they dance.”
Yet forming a touring organization so quickly, with dancers of different technical levels who hadn’t worked together, has been “logistically a huge undertaking,” the choreographer said from his home in New York City. (In addition to creating works for companies around the world, Ratmansky is artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre.)
“Some of these dancers hadn’t taken [ballet] class for months or a year or more,” he said. “It’s been very challenging for all of us, but also inspiring.”
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The exiled dancers have been working together for only about six months. In March, Dutch ballerina Igone de Jongh began organizing them, and she serves as artistic director. At first, the group numbered just a few female dancers, children in tow. Gradually, Ratmansky said, men were able to join them, after receiving permission from Ukraine’s ministry of culture.
The dancers have been living, training and rehearsing at the former Royal Conservatoire building in The Hague, which has been converted into a center for Ukrainian refugees. They performed the new “Giselle” in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities in August, and at the London Coliseum theater last month.
For Ratmansky, working with this group goes far beyond an artistic opportunity. Throughout his career, he has been widely identified as a Russian choreographer — but the war has complicated that, he said. He was born in Soviet Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), trained at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet and, later, became director of that famed Moscow company. But his father is from Kyiv, and Ratmansky grew up there and danced with the Ukrainian National Ballet early in his career. His family, and his wife’s family, still live in Kyiv.
“Since the war started,” Ratmansky said, “I am absolutely Ukrainian with all my soul, because that is where my heart is.”
Daily phone calls home have been “very scary and very dramatic,” he said.
“You don’t know what to expect, especially with the recent escalation. It’s constant shelling. It’s hard to explain the feelings when you call and hear air sirens. It’s surreal. It’s not supposed to happen.”
The dancers are experiencing the same anxiety. Which is what made retooling “Giselle” for them a good choice, Ratmansky said: The original ballet was French — not Russian.
“We can’t blame Russian ballets for what is going on now,” he said, “but there is a sensitivity there that’s hard to put into words.”
The ballet’s themes of love, guilt and forgiveness are especially meaningful for these self-exiled dancers, living far from home and loved ones, Ratmansky said. The ballet’s title character is a peasant girl in love with a prince in disguise; when his identity is revealed, and his betrothal to another royal discovered, Giselle dies of a broken heart. Ratmansky’s version “ends as the original ballet intended,” he said, “with Giselle forgiving the prince and telling him to go back to his fiancee and live his life.”
“You can’t see this ending anywhere in the world anymore. I guess the male stars all want to be alone and suffering at the end,” he added with a laugh, “and covered in flowers.”
The United Ukrainian Ballet’s February engagement at the Kennedy Center replaces the National Ballet of China, which pulled out of those dates after encountering touring problems.
“It was a miracle that the dates lined up,” said Raleigh, the dance programming director. “And the opportunity to bring them to the United States and to Washington was too good to pass up.”
Tickets to the United Ukrainian Ballet performances go on sale Nov. 1 for Kennedy Center members and Nov. 9 widely.