From bombs to ballet: Russian choreographer leads Ukraine dancers in 'Giselle'

Ratmansky, who was born in Russia and lived in Ukraine, has worked with the refugee dancers in a new interpretation of the classic ballet

Ben MakoriReuters
Published : 14 Sept 2022, 11:11 AM
Updated : 14 Sept 2022, 11:11 AM

At the London Coliseum theatre, a cast of Ukrainian dancers rehearse a new production of "Giselle", as Russian choreographer and former Bolshoi Ballet director Alexei Ratmansky watches from the sidelines.

The performers are part of The United Ukrainian Ballet, a company of 60 refugee Ukrainian dancers, technicians and creatives who fled their home country after Moscow launched its invasion in February.

"The company was formed to give these dancers... a job, to give them something to do and to rehearse, to dance, to receive money," Ratmansky told Reuters. "And to tell the world that Ukraine is strong, Ukrainian culture lives on."

Formed in the spring, the company is based in the Netherlands and draws dancers from all over Ukraine. Ratmansky, who was born in Russia and lived in Ukraine, has worked with them in a new interpretation of the classic ballet.

"'Giselle' is a dramatic story about love and death and forgiveness and it is relevant. It's a beautiful story to show the strength of these dancers," Ratmansky said.

"Each of these dancers has their own quite dramatic stories, how they left home. Many of them have relatives who fight in the military. They're constantly checking the news."

Ratmansky, a former principal dancer with the Ukrainian National Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet, was director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 before joining the American Ballet Theatre in 2009 as an artist in residence.

He was working with the Bolshoi on a new production when the conflict began.

"I got a call from my wife from New York saying that Kyiv, the city where my family lives and my wife's family lives, is being bombed by Russia," said Ratmansky, whose mother is Russian and father is Ukrainian.

"I felt the world crushing and I had no choice. I had to leave the country that commits such a crime right away."

Russia denies targeting civilians, saying what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine aims to degrade its southern neighbour's military capabilities. Kyiv and the West say it is an unprovoked war of aggression.

"We all hope that as soon as war stops, these dancers will return to their home companies," Ratmansky said.

One of the dancers is Oleksii Kniazkov, principal dancer of Kharkiv National Opera House.

Rehearsals have allowed him to think of something other than the war. "I can prepare for my performance... it takes a lot off your mind," he said.

The United Ukrainian Ballet is performing "Giselle" at the Coliseum until Sept 17 with ticket profits going to the DEC Ukraine Appeal and United Ukrainian Ballet Foundation.

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