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Ad-hoc Ukrainian ballet troupe settles in The Hague

“My soul is really bleeding, because of the house, because of everything,” Ksenia Novikova, a dancer from Kyiv, who now lives and works in The Hague, said in a recent phone interview. “But now we’re sort of established here – we have jobs, tours and our kids have more or less normal lives.”

Almost a year ago, 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 rocked from bed by a deafening noise: a military plane had crashed near her home on the outskirts of Kyiv.

“My previous life ended then,” she told me last summer in The Hague, a beautiful, tidy town near the coast where I had gone to report on life. dancers from the United Ukrainian Ballet, an ad hoc assembly of refugee dancers. of this whole country.

The company began to take shape last March through the efforts of Dutch dancer Igone de Jongh, and has toured the Netherlands, and traveled to London, Australia and Singapore. This week, starting Wednesday, he will make his US 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 learn about American culture. “I would of course like to show a Ukrainian ballet to the American public,” she said. “And remind them, with the help of Ukrainian ballet art, of the terrible war that has been going on for almost a year.”

On the eve of their trip to the United States, I caught up 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 Russian and Ukrainian descent and grew up in Kyiv, has worked with the company on and off in The Hague since June, both as a choreographer and as an advisor to de Jongh, with whom he had worked when was a star of the Dutch National Ballet.

It was a powerful experience for Ratmansky, who lives in New York and who it was recently announced will become choreographer-in-residence at New York City Ballet. Working with Ukrainian dancers is part of what he sees as a mission to “demonstrate that Ukrainians are fighting in all areas, including cultural,” he said in a recent interview.

“I support them with all my heart,” he said of the dancers. “I just feel like I have to.”

Ratmansky’s version of the “Giselle” ghost story is both familiar and unfamiliar, with startling nuances he gleaned from archival sources, the most striking being a hopeful ending instead. the usual dark.

In addition to “Giselle”, he authorized the company to perform his recent dance for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Wartime Elegy”, set to music by contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, himself forced to flee Ukraine by war, and Ukrainian folk music. The company will perform it in March as part of a triple program that also includes ballets by Jiri Kylian and the duo Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, who have rehearsed with the company.

For many of these dancers, this is their first introduction to collaborating with internationally renowned contemporary choreographers, an experience that Gogidze said would help enrich Ukrainian ballet culture back home. “When I heard that I could work with Alexei Ratmansky, I said, of course, I want to be part of it. It made me a better dancer. I want to bring something new to Ukrainian ballet since the Europe.

Gogidze, who joined the company in June, plans, despite the dangers, to return to Kyiv and to her home company, the National Ballet of Ukraine – where Ratmansky also began her career as a dancer – after the Washington tour .

The National Ballet is active again, though performances are often interrupted by sirens that send patrons and performers rushing into underground bomb shelters. “Of course, it’s not easy,” Gogidze said, “but this is my theater, and they have a lot of work to do now.”

“I’m really proud of the people working there now,” said Veronika Rakitina, a former dancer with the national company. “People really want to see ballet, even if there are scares. It’s like a little light in the dark for them.

Some, like Gogidze, have returned or plan to do so soon; others, like dancer Stanislav Olshanskyi, found work elsewhere. In November, Olshanskyi joined Miami City Ballet, where he recently made his debut 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, Kyiv Modern Ballet dancer Vladyslav Detiuchenko, have chosen to stay in The Hague, at least for now. She arrived in April, along with the couple’s cat, Boston. Detiuchenko came a few months later, having received a special permit from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to leave the country in order to promote Ukrainian culture abroad. (Men of fighting age are generally not allowed to travel overseas.)

The couple and the other dancers have settled in the former music conservatory in The Hague. Headquarters of the company since its founding, the conservatory serves as a dormitory, kitchen, laundry room and rehearsal room. It has all the basics, but few comforts. Most of the sleeping areas, carved out of former classrooms, are shared, as are the bathrooms. The floors are cement and the donated furniture is worn out. “If you’re only here for a few days, it’s fine,” Gogidze said, “but for a long time it’s difficult.”

The conservatory building was to be demolished before being converted into a house for the dancers. As the demolition date approaches, the company will move to a newer space, a former rehabilitation center in the Kijkduin district, close to the sea.

Odessa-born Christine Shevchenko, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater who will also dance Giselle in Washington, spent time at the conservatory last year. “It was a bit 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 feeling of happiness that I was there with these people from my country who are like me, standing with them.

And then there were the children. Several of the dancers had arrived in The Hague with children who played in the hallways while their parents rehearsed. Matvei, then 7, the son of Volodymyr Tkachenko, who gives company lessons a few times a week, seemed to be everywhere at once, including at rehearsals and on stage with the dancers.

Now Matvei and the other children go to school in The Hague. “He goes to school, then after school we play football, do homework and spend time together,” Tkachenko said. “I think he’s happy.”

Like the others, Tkachenko expressed his gratitude that he and his son were safe, that they had been warmly welcomed by the people of The Hague, and that he was working. And like all of them, he worries about his relatives and friends back home, including his parents, whose home was destroyed by a missile last year but who refuse to leave.

When asked what his hopes were, Tkachenko replied: “I don’t think about tomorrow. I think of today.

Performances and tours, such as the shows in Washington, give meaning to the daily rituals of dancing life. “The world shouldn’t get used to this war,” Novikova said. “We must remind everyone in the world that we are a peaceful nation, that we have our culture and that we deserve the right to exist. Nobody deserves to be killed for that.”

nytimes Gt

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