Ukrainian dancers find refuge abroad as war rages at home

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PARIS — When Ivan Kozlov arrives in France with the Kyiv City Ballet on February 23, the drumbeat of a possible Russian attack on Ukraine grew louder and louder. But he still didn’t think President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces would invade.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe this would happen,” said Mr. Kozlov, 39, who has run the company since its inception in 2012. border, that’s all.”

But the day after the company arrived in Paris, hours before its first performance, the troupe’s 30-odd dancers awoke before dawn to news of airstrikes and troop movements on their phones. The war had broken out.

This made it almost impossible for the company to return to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, after its French tour ended in mid-March.

“All of us were in shock,” Daniil Podhrushko, 21, one of the dancers, said through an interpreter. “We were in disbelief.”

Two million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, according to the United Nations. Like their compatriots, Ukrainian ballet dancers have found themselves caught in the middle of the conflict – trying to flee or being stranded abroad on tour or forced to stay in Ukraine. Now theaters and opera houses across Europe are scrambling to offer help, shelter or work.

In Paris, the town hall has stepped in to help the stranded Kyiv City Ballet by offering it a temporary residence at the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of the city’s most famous stages, where dancers will have access to dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces. and will even be able to put on the shows.

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris and socialist candidate in the upcoming French presidential election, said Ukraine needed weapons to fight and diplomatic support from the international community. But Ukrainian artists also need help, she says.

“You can only create when you are free, and we need to hear what they express, so that is what we are offering them today,” Ms Hidalgo told reporters at the Théâtre du Châtelet on Saturday after chatting with members of the ballet company. on stage. “They will be here as long as it takes; I set absolutely no deadline.

Officials from the Ukrainian Embassy, ​​Paris City Hall and Théâtre du Châtelet are still working out the financial and practical details of the residency, although Kozlov said most of the dancers have already found a form of temporary accommodation.

In Warsaw, the Polish National Ballet offers shelter to around 30 Ukrainian dancers in its opera house and the possibility of joining the ballet company class.

“At the moment we have around 10 dancers taking lessons with the company, but we expect more every day,” said Iwona Borucka, the ballet director’s assistant, in a statement. email, adding that the company had received dozens of audition requests from runaway Ukrainian dancers.

“We don’t have enough vacancies and the budget to hire them, but hopefully soon we can offer work to at least some of them,” she said.

In Budapest, the Hungarian State Opera Ballet is in talks to offer positions to Ukrainian dancers, a spokesperson said. His school hosted two students from the Kyiv State Choreographic School; and Anna Mária Steiner-Isky, chair of the Board of Directors of the Hungarian State Opera’s Ballet Student Fund, traveled 190 miles to the border to pick up two students she is now hosting in her home .

In Prague, Philippe Barankiewiczthe artistic director of the Czech National Ballet, said his company wanted to “provide a safe place to practice and offer ballet studios to at least give hope to Ukrainian dancers”.

“Requests come in every day,” he said in an email.

But in Kiev, the Taras Shevchenko National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of Ukraine, an ornate building that stands a block from the city’s famous medieval Golden Gate, has been closed since the Russian invasion. and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law. So far, it has remained unscathed, unlike the Kharkiv Opera House, which suffered damage during the Russian assault on this city.

The only people left in the building are the security guards protecting it, as the opera house and the national ballet company have dispersed. Some of the 170 dancers have left Kyiv, taking trains west, while others are taking refuge with their families in the city.

At least two dancers from the Kyiv Opera-based National Ballet company, principal Oleksiy Potyomkin and soloist Lesya Vorotnyk, took up arms, said Serge Bondur, a former dancer who holds the honorary title “People’s Artist of Ukraine” and works as a rehearsal director and teacher with the company. Mr Bondur said he last saw Mr Potyomkin in early March at Kiev station, where the two were putting their families on a westbound train.

In a telephone interview from Kiev, Mr Bondur, who is in his 50s, said he was still in his apartment not far from the opera house. Speaking through a translator into Russian – the language he grew up in in the Soviet Union – he said his wife and 14-year-old son were now in Italy.

He stayed behind to look after a friend, Olga Drozdova, a former Kyiv City Ballet dancer who has Covid-19 and relies on an oxygen machine. His nurse left Kiev, so Mr. Bondur took her home.

Its electricity, gas and internet are still working, even as explosions and air raid sirens become increasingly common. “If it gets worse,” he said, “I’ll have to take her to the hospital where at least they have a generator.”

Back in Paris, Ekaterina Kozlova, rehearsal and deputy director of Kyiv City Ballet, said she felt overwhelmed with a mixture of relief and anxiety. “But we’re so happy to be here because it feels like we’re with friends,” she said. “It’s overwhelming how wonderful everyone has been.”

“We are among the luckiest people to be in Paris,” she added, gesturing from the stage to the red velvet-covered seats and ornate decorations in the main Châtelet auditorium. “To be safe, in this beautiful theater.”

On Tuesday, the company performed a special performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet, alongside dancers from the Paris Opera, which included a public rehearsal led by Mr. Kozlov and Aurelie Dupont, the Paris Opera’s ballet director. All proceeds from ticket sales should be donated to Acted and the Red Cross to support Ukrainian civilians.

Dancers from Kyiv City Ballet said they felt shaken by the war but also charged with a mission to perform and safeguard Ukrainian ballet as conflict rages at home.

“Before the music starts, all of our thoughts revolve around the situation in Ukraine,” 19-year-old Oleksandr Moroz said through an interpreter. “But when the music starts, we’re professionals and our thoughts turn to the performance at hand.”

In the already tight-knit world of ballet, Ukrainian and Russian dancers are closely linked, having often trained and performed together in the same schools and cities. This made the war even more heartbreaking. Mr Kozlov, who danced with the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg from 2007 to 2010, said he still had many friends in Russia.

“They tell me they would like to say or do something, but they can’t because they are afraid,” he said, referring to the Kremlin’s intense crackdown on free speech.

But in Kiev, Mr Bondur said he received no messages of support from former Russian colleagues. These days, instead of teaching classes and leading rehearsals, he provides neighbors with food and medicine and keeps in touch with other dancers on WhatsApp.

“We just take care of our loved ones and try not to panic and be in total control,” he said. “The only thing we hope for is that the bombs don’t fall from our skies.”

Aurelien Breeden reported from Paris, and Marina Harss from Sarasota, Florida.

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