60 dancers who fled the war now take the stage — as The United Ukrainian Ballet
Updated February 4, 2023 at 10:31 AM ET
When Russia invaded Ukraine, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky was in Moscow working with both the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, historically two of the most revered ballet companies in the world.
"My wife called me at 5:00 am from New York and said: Kyiv has been bombed," he remembers. He and his wife both have family in Ukraine, "so I had to leave right away," he says.
Ratmansky is a highly sought-after choreographer and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. He choreographed The United Ukrainian Ballet's production of Giselle, which just began its run at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His mother is Russian. His father is Ukrainian. But he isn't giving anyone in Russia a pass for not speaking out, including his fellow artists.
"It's a huge failure of Russian culture, I think, the fact that millions didn't come out the first week and didn't stop it," he says before the dress rehearsal for Giselle at The Kennedy Center. "It breaks my heart to see that the world of today cannot stop this horror."
Some 60 dancers who fled the war make up The United Ukrainian Ballet. With help from local dance professionals and city officials, the company is based in The Hague.
A ballet dancer's career is short, and interrupting rigorous daily classes can be a setback. Despite the dire circumstances under which the company was formed, it has also allowed these dancers to continue their profession.
For principal dancer Elizaveta Gogidze, the chance to work with Ratmansky was "a dream." Gogidze, who performs the lead in Giselle, was a soloist with the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv when the war began. Along with her mother, her grandmothers and "all the women of our family," Gogidze fled to Germany, where her aunt was living.
When a dancer friend told her about the formation of The United Ukrainian Ballet in the Netherlands and Ratmansky's involvement, she was on her way to The Hague.
"It's a chance to do something new and to learn something new," she beams, "He's a gorgeous choreographer. He's a true patriot of our country."
Gogidze says she's in constant contact with her fellow dancers back in Kyiv. Her company, The National Opera of Ukraine, has reopened, but it's been a challenge. "They have no light. They have no hot water. Sirens and rockets sometimes. It's really hard," she says.
It's not lost on the Ukrainian government that the audience for this event includes decision-makers. The Kennedy Center and the U.S. State Department recently hosted a 60th anniversary celebration of the Art in Embassies program. One of the dancers with The United Ukrainian Ballet performed a solo piece called The Dying Swan.
Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova told members of the Washington establishment that she and others at the embassy have had "very difficult discussions" about whether, "during a full-fledged war, to continue our events ... with art, with songs, with art exhibitions." She said they decided that not to continue would be "exactly what Russians wanted us to do."
"They wanted us to be destroyed, cry and die. And we will not do that," said Ambassador Markarova, "We will not give up. We will not surrender. We will fight bravely on the battlefield. But we will also celebrate our culture."
Ratmansky proudly shares a bit of his conversation with the Ambassador: "She said the Ukrainian ballet operates as our secret weapon. And I like that."
When the performance of Giselle ended, the orchestra played the Ukrainian national anthem. The dancers, joined by Ratmansky, sang and held up banners that said "Stand With Ukraine."
Edited by: Rose Friedman Produced by: Beth Novey Audio story produced by: Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento contributed to this story
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