Dispatch From Kyiv: Ballet in a Time of War

Dispatch From Kyiv: Ballet in a Time of War

Dispatch From Kyiv: Ballet in a Time of War

While Ukraine’s capital has mostly returned to normal, reminders of the brutal fighting are everywhere.


Kyiv—We sat in red velvet seats under the Kyiv opera house’s soaring dome decorated with baroque flourishes of black and gold, and we waited for a ballet adaptation of one of Ukraine’s most celebrated literary works to begin. It was February 23, the eve of the first anniversary of the invasion, and I was not surprised that much of the building was empty.

Kyiv was full of rumors about what Putin would do the next day. Would he launch a barrage of missiles? Or maybe direct his attacks at some previously undamaged infrastructure? Perhaps there would be a new ground offensive. Schools had been closed for the week, and many NGOs and aid organizations suspended operations. The federal and city governments advised the public to seek appropriate shelter if they heard air alarms blaring across the city—and not to ignore them, as many had started to do after a year of war.

My friend and translator Yuliia Kasianova explained that in the event of an air raid during the performance, the ballet would pause, and the cast and audience alike would head to the bomb shelter below the building to wait it out.

Yuliia and I were there to see a ballet adaptation of The Forest Song, a 1911 play written by Lesya Ukrainka. An ardent believer in Ukrainian independence, Ukrainka opposed Russian czarism and was a member of Ukrainian Marxist organizations—she even translated the Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian in 1902. The author’s name is a pseudonym she used when writing in Ukrainian, as the language was banned in the Russian Empire. Her poems were published in the western city of Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and smuggled into Kyiv.

The original Forest Song is a fantasy depicting the ill-fated love between Mavka, the forest spirit of Volyn, and the young man Lukash. The play is rife with symbolism about love of land and country, and those who are cruel and mistreat nature meet tragic ends.

In the dimly lit theater, set against hand-painted wooden set pieces, the story traversed four seasons in the forest. During scenes of passion, there were soaring leaps across the stage, and in quieter moments, tense, precise footwork evoked the ethereal nature of the forest spirit’s world. In one composition, Mavka leaps into the air scythe in hand, as she has been instructed by Lukash’s mother to reap the wheat fields. But as rows of dancers balance en pointe and wave in unison like long stalks in the wind, she cannot bring herself to harm nature.

At the first intermission, a medic on temporary leave from Bakhmut, the bitterly embattled eastern front town where fighting has been concentrated since August, checked his phone for news from the front. Some friends had invited him out while he was home for a few days in Kyiv. Dressed in his military uniform consisting of a pair of camouflage pants and a military-green fleece jacket with a Ukrainian flag velcroed to his arm, he gave his name only as Kristian. “Seeing this production brings a strange mix of emotions. Right now is around the time when we begin bringing boys in from the battlefield to treat their wounds. But it is as much my duty to support Ukrainian culture as it is to treat soldiers. This is a war for our identity,” he said. “And besides, it’s also beautiful.”

Kristian also remarked on the injustice of Russian ballet fame. “Our ballet should tour the world, not Russia’s,” he said.

At the beginning of the war, cultural institutions like galleries, theatres and clubs became makeshift aid centers, shelters or volunteer hubs. By summer, most had returned to their intended uses. When I visited Ukraine in March of last year, the Philharmonic building in Lviv had been transformed into a medical warehouse to sort through medical supplies that would be sent to hospitals across the country. (You could still hear the violinists practicing upstairs.)

Kyiv has mostly returned to normal. Bars and restaurants are stocked and lively, except that most close at around 9 pm to accommodate the 11 pm curfew. Power blackouts, while frequent just a few months ago, are rare in Kyiv, even as Russian missiles continue to target the country’s power infrastructure. The first week I arrived in Kyiv, the lights in Vladimiro Kalva Park, which overlooks a wide stretch of the Dniepr River, were kept off to conserve electricity. A week later, the lampposts lit up the park after dark for the first time in months.

My landlord assured me that the power in my apartment is rarely cut, since it is located on the same block as the subway, which has prioritized access to electricity. But there were large jugs of water next to the toilet to flush in case the power did go out and the water pumps stopped working, as they had for three days in December. My landlord also explained that the apartment’s location was particularly safe due to its proximity to numerous embassies, the security service headquarters, the home of President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the penthouse of Kyiv’s mayor, the former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko. I wasn’t sure if this made it the safest place to be or the most desirable target. She told me I should go to the subway around the corner to shelter during air alarms.

To stay safe, I downloaded an air-alarm app that blares even before anything is heard from the city’s loudspeakers. The English version is voiced by Mark Hamill, who instructs you to proceed to the nearest air-raid shelter and warns, “Your overconfidence is your weakness.” The conclusion of danger is announced with a solemn, “May the Force be with you.”

While city life goes on, reminders of the war are everywhere. Anti-tank obstacles of angled metal beams soldered together like three-dimensional asterisks, called “Czech hedgehogs,” line the streets. At the beginning of the war, museum curators reportedly brought out some Czech hedgehogs from a WWII museum to be used around the city. If windows are not covered in plywood and sandbags, they are often crisscrossed with tape “X”s to muffle the blowback from missile strikes, which can cause windows to explode in a hail of glass.

In the square in front of Mikhailovsky Cathedral, an imposing periwinkle orthodox church topped with gleaming golden domes, there is an exhibition of vehicles destroyed in the war. Soviet forces demolished the church in 1935, and it wasn’t rebuilt until 1999. People climb over rusted, blown-apart tanks and inspect passenger vehicles with burnt interiors and twisted metal. At one corner of the square is a statue of Olga of Kyiv, a medieval Ukrainian queen. She is currently covered in sandbags, and messages on banners stretched across her implore, “World—Help Us,” and “All nations: We need your military equipment and personnel please.”

Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian soldiers have looted and destroyed cultural institutions. On March 16, Russians bombed the Mariupol opera house. As many as 1,200 civilians hid in its air-raid shelter. The word “CHILDREN” had been written on the pavement outside the building. The total number of deaths is still unknown, with some sources estimating that the attack killed as many as 600 people. Russia looted the Kherson art museum after a collaborator revealed the secret location of thousands of stored artifacts. UNESCO estimates that 253 cultural institutions have been damaged or destroyed, and more than 15,000 items have been looted.

But Ukraine has resolved to fight back against Russia’s cultural war. On June 19, the Ukrainian Parliament voted for a package of laws aimed at limiting the dissemination of the Russian language and the literary or musical productions of citizens of the Federation of Russia. “De-Russification” has been a policy since 2015, when new legislation required the instruction of Ukrainian in schools and that elected officials speak Ukrainian or else receive a fine. These laws were often the subject of public controversy and debate, fueled by Russian propaganda that accused western Ukraine of oppressing eastern Russian speakers. Russia has also used these laws to claim “genocide” against Russian speakers and thus justify the invasion.

But with Putin’s war, de-Russification is accelerating. Even traditionally Russian-speaking areas are undergoing de-Russification efforts. On December 28, a monument to Catherine the Great was quietly dismantled overnight in the southern port town of Odessa, even though the mayor was resistant to its removal as late as September of last year. The town of Kharkiv officially changed the name on its city gates from “Kharkov,” the Russian spelling, to the Ukrainian spelling just a few weeks ago.

I heard again and again in casual conversation, “Few people have united the Ukrainian people as much as Vladimir Putin.”

There were no air-raid sirens that night at the opera house, nor the following day on the anniversary of the invasion. The ballet went on, uninterrupted, as the dancers presented a story of peace triumphing over destruction. But two days after the opera, when the sirens screamed again, some residents filed slowly, calmly, and casually into the deep heart of the subway, prepared with snacks and collapsible stools to sit comfortably. But as some proceeded underground, most others carried on in the streets above, undeterred.

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