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Dancing for Peace

26 Jun 2024

A company of displaced Ukrainian ballet dancers share their vision of peace with Aotearoa - and give a glimpse into the strength needed to shine bright in the darkest of times.

Written by

Leila Lois

“Love will always win, absolutely, over war and everything else…it’s the law… it will always come." 

Dancer Marta Kaliandruk's pure blue eyes sparkle as I interview her in the wings, during dress rehearsal at the majestic Civic Theatre for The Grand Kyiv Ballet’s Auckland performance. 

They have been touring Australia and New Zealand over the past month - and plan to return with some regularity - due to the danger of performing “at home” since 2022, against the backdrop of armed conflict. 

Theirs is a seemingly relentless world tour of necessity, not choice, but creates an opportunity to welcome such an international act onto our shores and into our theatres. 

As I arrive through The Civic stage door, the scene is already set for a performance that will engage deeply with memory, resilience and freedom through the sublimity of ballet - an artform that Kaliandruk says gives her “power” and “joy” like nothing else,  in the face of adversity and war. 

While we are talking, the company dancers perform effortless relevées and pliés at the barre, an elegant adagio playing on a portable speaker, to prepare for that evening's show. 

The Grand Kyiv Ballet in rehearsal at the Civic. Photo: Deep Chahal.

“It can feel endless”, Kaliandruk sighs, on being almost constantly on tour or based out of hotel rooms for their brief training weeks in Poland. “Of course we hope everything will be okay, that the war will end,” she says.

Despite reduced media coverage since the Russian invasion in 2022, Kyiv is still a dangerous warzone - and the heaviness of this ongoing conflict is subtly perceptible watching the dancers rehearse and perform. I can’t help but feel tired for them—as an ex-ballet dancer myself, I know how gruelling their schedule is—but the added uncertainty and darkness of war feels palpable. 

Yet there is an inspiring off-guard spiritedness in this ballet company - which the dancers describe as “like a family” - from the unassuming smiles in rehearsal, the heart-shaped gesture Kaliandruk makes with her hands for photographs, and the prideful unfurling of the Ukrainian flag at the end of the show.

The fortitude and camaraderie of the dancers remind me of the often-quoted Brechtian line : “In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” 

Bravo for bravery

Their most striking ballet, The Forest Song - based on Ukrainian legend - engages nostalgia and mythology in powerful ways, provoking audiences to consider the critical urgency of peace in a troubled contemporary world. 

Similarly, other Ukrainian artists of different media are engaging allegory and ancient stories to locate their grief and advocate for peace. Contemporary visual artist Stanislava Pinchuk interlaces Homer’s The Iliad through her recent video work and Ilya Kaminsky wrote an award-winning poetry collection Deaf Republic, structured as a classical tragedy and steeped in folkloric allusion.  

All that is musical in us is memory

~ Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic 

The arts - perhaps especially an artform so uniquely celestial as classical ballet - have the power to prompt us to dream of evocative pasts, and more hopeful realities, to move towards freedom in times of war. 

Of course, ballet has been a huge cultural-political force for Russia for over a century, and so by using this artform to create a national Ukrainian ballet of solidarity against the invasion, the dancers are necessarily engaging in a radical act.  

“We have the possibility to perform, through the touring company,” Kaliandruk tells The Big Idea. “This is how I can support my country, to show people Ukrainian strength through ballet.” 

A 'one night only' (like all of their performances in cities on the ballet company’s tour), the Auckland performance is a double-bill, showing the second act of the famous ballet, Don Quixote, alongside the lesser-known choreography, The Forest Song, based on a poetic 1911 play by writer Lesya Ukrainka, which took inspiration from old tales of Ukrainian culture. 

The score by composer Mikhail Skorulskyi is a whimsical feast for the ears, guiding the audience along with the romantic epic force of the ballet, which blends classical ballet and agile Ukrainian folk dances like the hopak

Kaliandruk dances the leading role of a forest maiden named Marvka, a first name not too distant from her own. She tells me she has a great affinity with the role: “What I feel while dancing this ballet is love, passion for life,” she begins. 

“Dancing for Peace”, a short film filmed by Deep Chahal. Interviews and art direction by Leila Lois. 

“It’s emblematic of Ukrainian culture”, she continues, describing the romantic pas de deux between her and her dance partner, Daniil Kish, who plays her lover, Lukash, a young carpenter and flutist. 

There are moments of sublimity in the repertoire, where Lukash lifts her weightless, spritely frame towards the soft auric stage lights, her sage gossamer flower-strewn dress eddying around them, their eyes locked amorously. The setting is a radiantly painted backdrop of wheatfields in golden hour, an allegorical Ukrainian pastoral landscape, alluding to the golden, pre-conflict years, which, we sense, each of the dancers might yearn to return to. 

Marta Kaliandruk. Photo: Deep Chahal.

Kaliandruk tells me of her upbringing in Ivano-Frankivsk, a small city in Western Ukraine, at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. She spent many holidays and weekends growing up walking in the lush alpine scenery of the surrounding countryside and swimming in the lakes and rivers. 

This raising is reminiscent of the backdrop of The Forest Song, and Kaliandruk’s face lights up with pride as she tells me how much she loves the ballet. 

“It feels like a very special part of Ukrainian culture,” she says, “with magic and power woven through.”

In stark contrast to her picturesque upbringing, she now worries from afar as she receives WhatsApp correspondence from her family situated in Ukraine about the war. 

“Only today I heard they were bombing our city,” she tells me, and we pause mid-interview for a moment at the gravity, I hardly know what to ask her next. 

“I send pictures to my family in Ukraine every day, in rehearsal and performance,” she says, “they tell me they are proud of me… I am so lucky to be able to perform.” There is a rosy sheen to her visage that warms the heart, both in interview and performance. 

Deeper meaning

The Grand Kyiv Ballet in rehearsal at the Civic. Photo: Deep Chahal.

The dreamlike setting of Auckland’s Civic Theatre accentuates the whimsical beauty of the performance, the star-studded ceiling and bronze sculptures amplify this world of phantasmagorical forest perfectly. The audience for Auckland’s sellout show hums with an air of both enchantment and sympathy, making for an intoxicating atmosphere.

Containing mystical forest sprites and enchanted trees, the story of this ballet delves deeper than bucolic nostalgia; it explores the powerful theme of light conquering darkness. Marvka stops Lukash from axing a birch tree to build his new house - sensing spirits in the forest - and refuses to reap wheat when she has visions of the plants as forest nymphs, dancing and alive. 

What entails is the painful decision to abandon their matrimony for oneness with nature, or to live a mortal life where she abandons her forest nymph calling. Both lovers eventually morph magically into the forest with bliss and union as they reject the agrarian life, against the forceful wishes of their parents and village. 

“I love this about ballet,” Kaliandruk ponders, “I can dance different roles, a Princess, a nymph, a fairy… it allows me to dream. However sad the backdrop of our struggle in Ukraine, it permits me to dream.” 

It is perhaps this recourse to dreaming, of a brighter future and immersion in the world of grace and harmony, that can be a source of boundless inspiration in “dark times”. 


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