The company of more than 60 dancers, professionals from the national theaters of Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, will present the American premiere of a new version of the beloved romantic ballet “Giselle”. World-renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, originally from Ukraine and a strong supporter of his artists, recently created the full production especially for this group. The Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra will accompany the ballet, conducted by Ukrainian conductor Victor Oliynik.
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The main cast will include a guest artist Christine Shevchenkoa Ukrainian-born principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theater, and other guests will be announced later, said Jane Raleigh, director of dance programming at the Kennedy Center.
“Dancing, performing and representing Ukraine is important to do – this is how we say we are strong, we are alive and we are fighting on, and the victory will be ours,” Ratmansky said in a recent interview. “That’s what dancers feel and think when they dance.”
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Still, forming a touring organization so quickly, with dancers of varying technical levels who hadn’t worked together, was “logistically a huge undertaking,” the choreographer said from his home in New York. (In addition to creating work 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 only been working together for about six months. In March, Dutch ballerina Igone de Jongh started organizing them and she is the artistic director. At the beginning, the group consisted of only a few dancers, accompanied by children. Gradually, Ratmansky said, the men were able to join them, after receiving permission from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture.
The dancers live, train and rehearse in the former building of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, which has been converted into a center for Ukrainian refugees. They performed the short story “Giselle” in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities in August, as well as at the London Coliseum theater last month.
For Ratmansky, working with this group goes far beyond an artistic opportunity. Throughout his career he was widely identified as a Russian choreographer – but the war complicated that, he said. He was born in Soviet Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), trained at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet and later became the director of this famous 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 start of the war,” Ratmansky said, “I have been absolutely Ukrainian with all my soul, because that is where my heart is.”
The daily phone calls home were “very scary and very dramatic”, he said.
“You don’t know what to expect, especially with the recent escalation. It’s constant bombing. 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 experience the same anguish. That’s what made retooling “Giselle” a good fit for them, Ratmansky said: The original ballet was French – not Russian.
“We can’t blame the Ballets Russes for what’s happening right now,” he said, “but there’s a sensitivity there that’s hard to put into words.”
The ballet’s themes of love, guilt and forgiveness are particularly meaningful for these self-exiled dancers, living far from home and loved ones, Ratmansky said. The main character of the ballet is a peasant girl in love with a prince in disguise; When her identity is revealed and her engagement to another royal is 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 return to his fiancee and live his life”.
“You can’t see that ending anywhere in the world anymore. I guess male stars all want to be alone and hurt in the end,” he added with a laugh, “and covered in flowers.”
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 issues.
“It was a miracle 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 for United Ukrainian Ballet performances go on sale Nov. 1 for Kennedy Center members and Nov. 9 for the rest.