The United Ukrainian Ballet performs in Darling Harbour Sydney
‘Make Dance not War’ in Swan Lake
‘Make dance not war’ read the words on a Ukrainian national flag held in the left hand of Pavlo Zurnadzhi, the jester in the United Ukrainian Ballet’s moving performance of Swan Lake. His right hand rested on his heart as he and the entire cast of the ballet sang the Ukrainian national anthem to a standing ovation from the audience.
If you only go to one ballet this year, make it this one. Nothing more perfectly encapsulates the tragedy of Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine than watching these brilliant young refugees dancing to keep the spirit of their country alive as Ukraine fights for its right to exist as an independent, democratic state.
Zurnadzhi puts on a star performance full of warmth and humour and thrilling leaps and turns. Kateryna Chebykina provides a wonderful contrast between the shy fluttering white swan that becomes the enchanting innocent Odette and the thrilling Odile who sparkles wickedly in the court, bewitching the prince into choosing to marry her. Oleksii Kniazkov is a drop-dead gorgeous Siegfried who dances effortlessly in pursuit of his swan queen.
The glory of the ballet in Saint Petersburg is evoked
The beautifully painted sets and elegant costumes evoke the glory of ballet in Saint Petersburg in the late 19th century. The scenes at the mysterious lake are the highlights. The pas de deux of Siegfried and Odile, of course, but also the dances of the beautiful swans and of the charming cygnets.
Ballet was on the frontline line during the Cold War, used by the Soviet Union to showcase the brilliance of its dancers. With the defection of Rudolf Nureyev in 1961, ballet also became a standard bearer for freedom. The United Ukrainian Ballet follows that proud tradition. The company was formed by Ukrainian soloists Stanislav Olshanski and Alexander Tutunique who were performing in Holland with Igone de Jongh, former principal ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet when Russia invaded. They persuaded the Mayor of The Hague to repurpose an old conservatory that had four ballet studios and was going to be demolished to be converted into a home for the refugee dancers. Shortly after, the United Ukrainian Ballet company was formed with De Jongh as its artistic director. It has grown in only eight months to 70 people. Dancers came from the National Opera of Ukraine based in Kyiv, the Kharkiv Opera Theatre, and the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theatre. The men all have a special dispensation to dance as they would otherwise have been needed fighting on the frontline. Some dancers are still on the frontline and the danger is real. Oleksandr Shapoval, a ballet soloist with the National Opera, volunteered to fight and served as a grenade launcher. He was killed in combat on 12 September in the Donetsk region and was commemorated in a service at the National Opera.
Ukrainian Alexei Ratmansky
After only existing for six months, the company has already performed a new Giselle, choreographed by Ukrainian Alexei Ratmansky, who is artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre. The company performed it in Amsterdam and other cities in Holland before taking it to the London Coliseum and will take it to the Kennedy Center next February for its US debut.
The choice of Swan Lake to take to Australia resonated with the dancers. Although Tchaikovsky was born in Russia, his grandfather was from Ukraine and he loved spending time in the country. Indeed, when he was 24, he stayed in a villa in Trostyanets in northeast Ukraine, where he composed his first symphonic work – an overture called ’The Storm’ – in 1864. There is also a Tchaikovsky museum in the town and next door, a Tchaikovsky Music School for Children. Tragically, the villa was destroyed by the Russian army which occupied the city for a month in March.
The alternative endings of Swan Lake
Swan Lake has had many alternative endings. The best known in the West is a tragedy. Prince Siegfried and his beloved swan queen both die. But this was considered unacceptable in the Soviet Union and in 1950, the ending was rewritten so that Odette and Siegfried live happily ever after and only the evil sorcerer Rothbart perishes. This is the version that is danced to this day in Russia and Eastern Europe. With so much at stake in their homeland, no doubt the dancers hope that life will imitate art and there will be a happy ending to the tragedy in Ukraine and that ballet will triumph over bombs.