Wednesday, March 22, 2023 | Sha'ban 29, 1444 H
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A Leading Choreographer Joins the War Effort, With Classical Ballet

Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky was leading a newly formed ballet company of Ukrainian dancers who have fled the war in a run-through of “Giselle,” a 19th-century classic, in a repurposed conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands, where the dancers have been rehearsing, and some living, since April.

He seemed to be everywhere at once, fine-tuning the corps de ballet (“Feel the geometry between the hand and the leg”), correcting a soloist (“That jump was not very good — you have to push into the floor”), and honing the acting of a male lead (“Imagine that you are in a dark forest, and then run because you see something, not because you are supposed to run at that moment”). He was working to turn this ad hoc group of dancers of varying skill into a first-class company that could project Ukrainian excellence to the world.

“I want people to see them as artists, not as refugees or victims,” Ratmansky said after a rehearsal. “There is so much history and drama behind these performances. It colours everything we do.”

Ratmansky, one of the greatest living choreographers and most important figures in ballet, has thrown himself into supporting Ukraine, where he spent his childhood, with an intensity matched by few other artists. When the Russian war began, he was in Moscow working at the Bolshoi Ballet, where he was once the artistic director; he left immediately and later said he was unlikely to return while President Vladimir Putin remained in power in Russia.

“It was exactly like the world was crashing down,” he said of that first morning of the war. “The fact that Russia was bombing Kyiv, where my parents and sister live, and that my family’s life was in danger was just too overwhelming.”

On social media, he has marshaled expressions of solidarity with Ukraine from across the ballet world, a world in which Russia has historically played a towering role. And he and his wife, Tatiana, a former dancer, spent two months in The Hague, helping build the new United Ukrainian Ballet Company, which toured the Netherlands and will perform in London next month.

It is a major shift for Ratmansky, who has said in the past that he did not see himself as a political artist. But since Russia attacked Ukraine, he has begun to see things differently. “The situation brings art and politics together in such an obvious way, in a way I’ve never experienced before,” he said.

The choice of “Giselle,” a French ballet, reflects this. “We picked it because it is something that they know and that requires a large number of dancers,” Ratmansky said, “but also because it is not Russian.”

Ratmansky’s life and career reflect the long, intertwined relationship between Russia and Ukraine. With a mother from St. Petersburg, Russia, and a father from Kyiv, Ukraine, Ratmansky grew up in Kyiv, trained in Moscow and began his dancing career at the National Ballet of Ukraine. As a student in Moscow, he was often referred to as “the boy from Kyiv.” After stints in Canada and Denmark, he became a choreographer and rose to the heights of Russian ballet, becoming the director of the Bolshoi, before leaving in 2008 to become artist in residence at American Ballet Theater in New York and to focus on his increasingly busy international career.

Since the war, he said, he has heard from few of his Russian friends and colleagues, though many know he has family in Ukraine. “It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “It is very painful.”

In The Hague, Ratmansky — who, like many Ukrainians, grew up speaking Russian — reluctantly led rehearsals in Russian. “I was hoping to switch to Ukrainian while I was here, but when I tried, I made so many mistakes, the dancers were all laughing,” he said.

Ratmansky’s parents, Osip and Valentina, both in their 80s, were able to leave Ukraine to visit him briefly in The Hague, taking a long bus ride to Warsaw, Poland, and then a flight to Amsterdam; they hadn’t seen their son since the war. “My parents were their usual selves,” he said. “Apart from just being bubbly and hugging us, they were like professional tourists, trying to see as much as possible.” After a week, they returned to Ukraine. “We had one or two more serious talks,” he said. “Of course it hasn’t been easy.” They insisted that they would be fine.

The new company was formed through the efforts of Igone de Jongh, a former star of the Dutch National Ballet, who was on tour with two dancers from the National Ballet of Ukraine, Alexis Tutunnique and Stanislav Olshanskyi, when the war began. With the help of the Dutch theatrical management and production company Senf and city officials, she became the leading force behind the establishment of the Dutch Center for Ukrainian Dancers here and began working to create the United Ukrainian Ballet Company. Word of the new company spread quickly, via social media, among the Ukrainian ballet diaspora.

De Jongh knew Ratmansky from her time at Dutch National, where she danced several of his ballets, including “On the Dnieper” and “Russian Seasons,” but did not know his background until she began to see his full-throated support for the Ukrainian war effort.

“Honestly, I had no idea he was Ukrainian before now,” she said. When she invited him to help the new ensemble, he jumped at the chance, agreeing to donate his time. In less than two months, a company was born.

Ratmansky arrived in June to begin rehearsing his “Giselle,” which is based on archival documents, including 19th-century notations. (He used the same sources when he staged the ballet for the Bolshoi in 2019.) Sets and costumes were lent by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, with the second-act backdrop, a nocturnal forest, borrowed from Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream.” When the company tours London, the English National Opera will provide an orchestra, to be led by Viktor Oliynyk, who conducts the orchestra of the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv, where the Ukrainian ballet also performs. (In the Netherlands, the performances were to recorded music.)

During a recent visit to the former conservatory, small groups of dancers, who come from the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Odesa, Donetsk, Dnipro and Kharkiv, and range in age from 18 to their late 30s, went about their business with a quiet sense of purpose. A few huddled on couches, speaking in soft voices in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. The children of several dancers (there are 63 dancers in all) and of some of the nearly 200 other Ukrainian refugees living in a separate wing of the building ran through the hallways, making up games. — NYT

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