The Ukrainian Classical Ballet company holds up the Ukrainian flag onstage during curtain call while the Ukrainian national anthem plays as part of a performance in Bucharest, Ukraine.

Ukrainian ballet dancers displaced by war find a home on international stages

The Ukrainian Classical Ballet has been on a charity tour in Italy and Romania. Last weekend, the company was in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, for a performance of “Giselle.”

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The Ukrainian Classical Ballet company holds up the Ukrainian flag onstage during curtain call while the Ukrainian national anthem plays as part of a performance in Bucharest, Ukraine.

Elena Graham/The World

Daria Kostenko, a dancer with the Kyiv municipal theater, which is closed indefinitely, said that after the war in Ukraine broke out, ballet was far from her mind.

All she could think about, she said, was keeping herself and her family safe. She fled to Slovakia. But now, nearly three months into the war, she said that she’s glad to be working.

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Kostenko is dancing with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet, which is doing a charity tour in Italy and Romania. Last weekend, the company was in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, for a performance of “Giselle.”

“We need the work, we need the money,” she said.

Ukrainian Classical Ballet dancers apply makeup in dressing room backstage before the performance in Bucharest, Romania.

Ukrainian Classical Ballet dancers apply makeup in dressing room backstage before the performance in Bucharest, Romania.

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Elena Graham/The World

Theaters and performance venues all over Ukraine shut down when Russia invaded, leaving numerous musicians, artists and dancers out of work as they scrambled for safer ground or left the country.

“Dancers [now] have nothing because a lot of people from our art [left] with one suitcase.”

Ivan Zhuravlov, dancer and Ukrainian Classical Ballet artistic director

“Dancers [now] have nothing because a lot of people from our art [left] with one suitcase,” said dancer and the Ukrainian Classical Ballet's artistic director, Ivan Zhuravlov.

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Some have found homes on stages alongside dancers from other countries with companies across Europe.

Zhuravlov himself said that he is uncertain where he’ll land after the tour ends. He used to live in Bucha, Ukraine, which has been devastated by the war.

Dancers backstage

Daria Kostenko, Mariia Heichuk and Stella Fedorovich are shown backstage preparing to perform in “Giselle” with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania.

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In five days, Zhuravlov said, he gathered up about 30 dancers from national theaters and companies all over Ukraine, many of whom had already fled the country, to rehearse for four days in Poland before performing a 12-show tour in Italy in April. Afterward, the company embarked on a six-show tour that included the Bucharest performance.

Related: The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra fights on the war's 'cultural front'

Summer is the low season for the ballet, and without a tour this spring, Zhuravlov said his dancers would be out of work for at least six months. That would mean a financial hit, and an especially long break for dancers who start training at age 5.

dancers warming up in auditorium

Dancers with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet warm up in Sala Palatului theater, Bucharest, Romania.

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Elena Graham/The World

“For ballet dancers, ballet takes up 90% of their brains,” Zhuravlov said before a performance of “Giselle” in Bucharest on Saturday. “And now, the war canceled their professional life. It’s too difficult because it’s not just about work. It’s about your love, about your soul, about your spirit. It’s like oxygen.” 

‘If we stopped, Russia would win’

It’s an experience that Kostenko knows all too well.

Related: 'Their lives collided with war': Ukrainian refugees in Poland open their own schools

Careers in ballet are competitive and short. To stay employable, there has to be somewhere to dance, she said.

Ukrainian Classical Ballet Dancer Ilona Kravchenko rests and stretches during rehearsal.

Ukrainian Classical Ballet dancer Ilona Kravchenko rests and stretches during rehearsal.

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Elena Graham/The World

“Every artist, every dancer, needs to do classes every day because we lose our form, we lose our shape when we rest [even] three days,” she said.

A pause during a rehearsal from the Ukrainian Classical Ballet at Sala Palatului theater, Bucharest, Romania.

A pause during a rehearsal from the Ukrainian Classical Ballet at Sala Palatului theater, Bucharest, Romania.

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Elena Graham/The World

Kostenko said it’s hard to keep a smile on her face and perform in character while she’s worried about her family members in Kharkiv, whom she only hears from a few times a month.

“But these tours help us forget about this situation for a little bit,” she said.

A scene from the performance of “Giselle” with Mariia Heichuk (front center) and Stella Fedorovich (back right) with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania.

A scene from the performance of “Giselle” with Mariia Heichuk (front center) and Stella Fedorovich (back right) with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania.

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Elena Graham/The World

Dancer Mariia Heichuk, who was already with the company before the war started, agreed that it’s a challenge to concentrate on stage, but she said that performing helps show how strong Ukrainians are.

“If we stopped, Russia [would] win. We must continue our lives, our culture — because Russia has bombed our museums and [other] important places, and we can’t stop it.”

Ilona Kravchenko and Jan Vana perform in “Giselle” with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania.

Ilona Kravchenko and Jan Vana perform in “Giselle” with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania.

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Elena Graham/The World

Stella Fedorovich, who used to dance at the Dnipro Opera and Ballet Theatre, said the tour has helped her support her family financially and reassures them that she’s safe.

two dancers onstage

Ukrainian Classical Ballet dancers Kostiantyn Maiorov and Daria Kostenko rehearse onstage in Bucharest, Romania.

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She said she has neverending hope that she'll dance in Ukraine next season. But if she can’t, she doesn’t know whether she’ll leave her country behind to continue dancing in another country.

dancers rehearse onstage with a backdrop

Daria Kostenko rehearses onstage with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania. 

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Elena Graham/The World

“It’s a hard question,” she said. “It’s very hard. I don’t know.”

During Saturday’s performance of “Giselle” at the Palace Hall in Bucharest, the dancers played tormented lovers and a grieving mother.

The Ukrainian Classical Ballet company bows with the Ukrainian flag following the playing of the Ukrainian national anthem in Bucharest, Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Classical Ballet company bows with the Ukrainian flag following the playing of the Ukrainian national anthem in Bucharest, Ukraine.

Credit:

Elena Graham/The World

But the staged emotions were no match for the real ones on display at the end of the show — when the dancers unfurled the Ukrainian flag and sang along to the national anthem. The tears then were real.