“The moment of the full-scale Russian invasion, I was in Kharkiv,” recalls Aleksey Knyazkov, principal dancer with the United Ukrainian Ballet.
The company, making its U.S. debut on Feb. 1 at the Kennedy Center, consists of 60 dancers displaced by the war at home, and currently based in the Hague, inside a refugee center for Ukrainians.
Before the bombs started falling, Knyazkov was a principal dancer with the National Opera House in Kharkiv, a city in the east of Ukraine, next to the Russian border.
“It’s really close,” says Knyazkov. “And the 24th of February, early in the morning, I woke up, as many Ukrainians, from explosions. I heard explosions outside of my window. And in the beginning, you can’t recognize what’s going on, you can’t understand what’s happened. But my good friend called me maybe 15 minutes after I woke up, and told me that the war began.”
Of course, the war continues. “And because our city is really close to the border, and these shells can drop really fast to the city, we can’t work in [the] theater,” Knyazkov explains. “We can’t perform, or do anything. So I don’t have any work there.”
The one option for him at home was to join the Army. “But if I will go to Army, I could say goodbye to ballet. Because when you don’t work out around three months or half a year, you lose your professional skills almost.” Knyazkov wanted to put his skills to use for his country, if not necessarily in combat.
“So I did this choice to fight [using] ballet outside of the country.” A good friend, one of the managers of the nascent United Ukraine Ballet, invited Knyazkov to join the UUB in the Hague. After being granted permission by the Ukrainian government to cross the border, he joined the company in July. Living, training, and performing in exile, the company has become like a family for him.
“Actually, I like to [say] it’s like a small Ukraine,” Knyazkov says. “Because all of the dancers in this company are from different regions and different companies, from almost every region of Ukraine. And in this perspective, it’s some small model of Ukraine. We have different characters, like different sides of our country in our small company. And when we perform onstage, you can see all Ukraine on the stage.”
They represent their country through culture, according to Knyazkov. “Everyone does what they can do the best — so we dance, and we try to use the stage as our battlefield. Try to speak about Ukraine, try to represent Ukraine, show our culture, show our ballet, our character, and of course, try to support our country with donations. We support different foundations, and try to be as useful as possible for our country.”
Under the artistic direction of Dutch ballet star Igone de Jongh, the UUB has taken its message to cities throughout the Netherlands, and, in the fall of 2022, danced a highly acclaimed season at the London Coliseum Theatre in the West End.
The company’s debut at the Kennedy Center — its sole engagement in the States — also marks the U.S. premiere of renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Giselle, a work specifically created for the United Ukrainian Ballet.
Russian-born Ratmansky, for many years a citizen of Ukraine, has stated the UUB’s mission is “to preserve Ukraine’s long history of ballet culture, to give meaningful employment to dancers till the war is won, to entertain the public, and to keep public support for Ukraine through giving a personal emotional experience.”
Knyazkov, who will dance the lead role of Albrecht in this classic romance (joined in some performances by Ukrainian-American ballerina Christine Shevchenko, principal dancer with ABT), says the mission is to communicate with people through dance: “We want to share good art, good emotions, make the audience fall in love with Ukraine, with Ukrainian people.”
“We want to, in some way, embrace people, and feel that we are all together. I think it’s what we want from these tours and especially from Washington. I know that there are many Ukrainians in the U.S.A., and I’m sure there will be many Ukrainians in the audience who will come. And I think they also want to see part of Ukraine. It’s always touching when you see something from your country, from your land. Something that’s close to you.”
The United Ukrainian Ballet’s Giselle runs Feb. 1 through Feb. 5 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $29 to $159. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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