For Ukrainian ballet dancer Vladyslava Ihnatenko, dance now means duty.
“It feels like a resistance and a release – I want to share our story,” she says.
The 19-year-old is part of The United Ukrainian Ballet, which comprises leading dancers from Ukrainian ballet houses such as the National Opera of Ukraine, Kharkiv Opera Theatre, and Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The 50 displaced performers are touring the world following Russia’s brutal invasion of their homeland, and will perform Swan Lake in Adelaide from November 9 to 13.
Each dancer has a story of how they escaped Ukraine in the opening act of the invasion, before regrouping in western Europe and joining the company.
Ihnatenko – who began ballet classes at just three and went on to be accepted into the Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre – tells InReview she was in the city of Odesa the day Russia invaded.
“I think I was there for about two weeks after it [the invasion]; I didn’t count because it was a nightmare. The first day was huge. I felt like I was lost in time.”
Ihnatenko says the apartment she was living in at the time overlooked the Black Sea, and she had a front-row seat to the beginning of Russia’s invasion – seeing bombs and rockets rain down on her homeland.
“There were explosions in every Ukrainian city that day. I could hear a lot of big explosions. I was very frightened when I saw a tank on our street – it was Ukrainian but still quite scary.
“It’s hard to believe people have been in that situation for seven months.”
Ihnatenko’s family remain in Ukraine in the country’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border.
“Of course, I’m really worried about them. I’m always keeping in touch and calling them all the time,” she says.
An increasing number of blackouts in the city is limiting her contact with relatives, following a spate of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid.
“It’s hard when they are not on the phone on time. I just don’t know what’s happening, so of course you just imagine the worst.”
Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky in 1875-76, is described by The United Ukrainian Ballet as a classic tale of good triumphing over evil and has also become a symbol of protest in Russia since the invasion of the Ukraine, making it a fitting work for the touring company.
Ihnatenko says ballet is an opportunity to show Ukrainians’ culture and strength to the world, while also demonstrating “that beauty and love are still powerful”.
Under the artistic direction of Igone de Jonge, former prima ballerina of the Dutch National Ballet, The United Ukrainian Ballet dancers have been living and rehearsing together in The Hague since fleeing Ukraine. Ihnatenko says they have bonded through a shared sense of fear and grief over what is happening back home.
“We all understand each other and what we are all going through. We all have family and people back in Ukraine,” she says.
Ihnatenko’s mother has encouraged her to take every opportunity to speak to international media about the impacts the war is having on everyday Ukrainians.
“I am just a 19-year-old girl, so I don’t feel it is right for me to be talking about this, but my mother has said I have to share our stories,” she says, adding that she finds it very helpful to dance.
“I find it is good to help me stop thinking about bad things, particularly as it is physical. For me, it’s a way to express everything I went through personally and all the emotions – I think also anger, maybe.”
Ihnatenko says the performances show the world the “power of Ukrainians”.
“It shows hope and that we will keep fighting.”
The United Ukrainian Ballet will perform Swan Lake at the Festival Theatre from November 9-13. Part proceeds of each ticket sale will go towards The United Ukrainian Ballet Foundation to support Ukrainian artists and help rebuild the country’s cultural heritage
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