On February 23, 2022, Ukraine’s Kyiv City Ballet arrived in Paris to begin a two-week national tour of The Nutcracker. Russia invaded Ukraine the next day, stranding the company in the French city indefinitely. Since then, the troupe has been relying on the generosity of others while organizing short tours in Europe and actively fundraising to keep itself going.
Now, Kyiv City Ballet is preparing to cross the Atlantic for its first-ever U.S. tour. From September 16 to October 26 the 38-member company will perform in 15 cities across the country, including a stop at the acclaimed Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center. “I am looking forward to showing good performances, to making the audience happy, and to starting a good relationship with the United States,” said artistic director Ivan Kozlov in a video interview in early August. Kozlov founded Kyiv City Ballet in 2012.
Rhizome Arts Consulting founder Kristopher McDowell, who is producing the American tour, underscored the lengths U.S. presenters have gone to in order to help the company. For example, New York City Center is providing an additional contribution towards KCB’s international travel costs, and the University of Tennessee is organizing a one-week residency for the company with Chattanooga Ballet. “Every day, we’re learning about the tenderness of the human condition,” says McDowell, who hopes that the tour will attract new audiences to dance and ballet. He also wants to achieve a financial stopgap to support the company’s future tours and provide some stability until they can return home.
The Never-Ending Tour
When the dancers left for Paris in February, they were unprepared for an extended stay. But those company members not on the tour had a bigger problem back in Ukraine. As violence spread across the country, they faced the heart-wrenching decision to escape for safety and join their colleagues abroad.
Principal dancer Oksana Bondarenko was home in Kyiv with her family when the bombing began in February. “I was scared,” she told Pointe via Zoom, with Kozlov interpreting for her. Her young son ran in and out of view, and she gently reprimanded him in Ukrainian before embracing him with a smile. “You don’t know what to do. You’re helpless…You just grab your kids and run away as far as possible.”
Companh member Maryna Apanasenko in class. Photo courtesy Kyiv City Ballet.
Bondarenko and her family fled to Lviv, in western Ukraine, eventually leaving for Germany when explosions struck the city. She tried to keep in shape until she could eventually rejoin KCB in Paris weeks later. Although Bondarenko has returned to Kyiv for a brief visit, Kozlov noted that other dancers feel it’s too risky to return.
Fortunately, the company has found a warm welcome and overwhelming support in France, said Kozlov, who shared stories of generosity and support from strangers around the world. The Théâtre du Châtelet, Palais Garnier and other Parisian venues offered their rehearsal spaces and support to the stranded company, while ballet companies have donated dancewear, pointe shoes and other supplies to the KCB dancers, who had only packed for two weeks.
Performing for Peace
Unable to return home, the company instead scheduled intermittent tours throughout Europe to raise money for Ukrainian humanitarian efforts and ensure employment for its dancers. On June 14, they took part in a charity concert at England’s York Theatre Royal, raising nearly £27,000 for UNICEF. The next day, they performed in Biarritz, France, to fundraise for Fondation de France’s refugee support.
“You think that artists are used to travel, used to touring,” Kozlov says, “but now it feels like an infinity tour.” While they are grateful for work and support in the interim, Kozlov says, “everybody [in the company has] hope for the best, and we’re hoping that everything will finish and life will come back.”
Dancer Olga Posternak. Photo courtesy Kyiv City Ballet.
For its U.S. debut, KCB is bringing a full-length Swan Lake and a few mixed-repertoire programs. Included among the rep is Tribute to Peace, a neoclassical work choreographed by Kozlov and his wife, associate director Ekaterina Kozlova; Vladyslav Dobshynskyi’s contemporary ballet Thoughts; and Pavlo Virsky’s Ukrainian folk dance Men of Kyiv. KCB will also present classical suites of selected pas de deux from Don Quixote, La Bayadère, Paquita and more.
“It’s so nice, so good to hear about people’s hearts, open minds and souls,” Kozlov says of those who’ve made the U.S. tour possible. “We’re really thankful and looking forward to seeing them.”