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Dancing for Peace

Love will always win, absolutely, over war and everything else” says dancer Marta Kaliandruk keenly, her pure blue eyes sparkling as she speaks to me in the wings of the theatre, during dress rehearsal for the Grand Kyiv Ballet’s Australian and New Zealand tour.

Grand Kyiv Ballet on tour in Australia and New Zealand. Photograph by Deep Chahal

The scene is set for a performance that will engage deeply with memory, resilience and freedom, through the sublimity of ballet, an artform that, in the face of war, gives Kaliandruk power and joy, she says, like nothing else. While we are talking, the company dancers do their relevés and pliés at the barre, an elegant adagio playing on a portable speaker, to prepare for the evening’s show.

“It can feel endless,” Kaliandruk sighs, on being almost constantly on tour, and based in hotel rooms during their brief training weeks in Poland. I can’t help but feel tired for them—as an ex-ballet dancer, I know how grueling their schedule is—even without the added uncertainty and darkness of war. “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. The ongoing conflict weighs on the dancers—this is palpable as they rehearse and perform.

Yet there is an inspiring spiritedness in this ballet company, too, which the dancers describe as “like a family.” It’s evident in the unassuming smiles between the dancers 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 reminds me of the Brechtian line: “In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.”

Grand Kyiv Ballet on tour in Australia and New Zealand. Photograph by Deep Chahal

Based on Ukrainian legend, the company’s most striking ballet, “The Forest Song,” engages nostalgia and mythology in powerful ways, provoking audiences to consider the critical urgency of peace in a troubled contemporary world. Ukrainian artists in other media are also engaging allegory and ancient stories to locate their grief and advocate for peace. These artists include Stanislava Pinchuk, who weaves Homer’s The Iliad into her recent video work, and Ilya Kaminsky, who structured his award-winning poetry collection Deaf Republic as a classical tragedy and steeped it in folkloric allusion. The arts, perhaps especially an artform so uniquely celestial as classical ballet, have the power to prompt dreams of evocative pasts and more hopeful futures, to move us towards freedom in times of war.

Of course, ballet has been a huge cultural-political force for Russia for more than a century; 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 me. “This is how I can support my country, to show people Ukrainian strength through ballet.”

A “one night only,” as with all of their performances on the tour, this evening’s performance is a double-bill. It consists of the second act of “Don Quixote” alongside the lesser known “The Forest Song,” based on Lesya Ukrainka’s poetic 1911 play, which took inspiration, in turn, from old Ukrainian tales. Early twentieth-century composer Mikhail Skorulskyi’s score—a whimsical treat for the ears— guides the audience, as does the epic force of the ballet, which blends the classical with agile Ukrainian folk dances such as the hopak.

Grand Kyiv Ballet on tour in Australia and New Zealand. Photograph by Deep Chahal

Kaliandruk dances the leading role, the forest maiden 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. “It’s emblematic of Ukrainian culture,” she says of the pas de deux between her and Daniil Kish, who plays Maryka’s lover, Lukash, a young carpenter and flautist.

There are moments of sublimity in the ballet, such as when Kish lifts her weightless, spritely frame towards the soft glowing stage lights, her gossamer, flower-strewn dress eddying around them, their eyes locked amorously. The backdrop is radiantly painted wheatfields during the golden hour, an allegorical Ukrainian pastoral landscape alluding to the golden, pre-conflict years, to which the dancers likely yearn to return. 

This setting is reminiscent of Kaliandruk’s childhood in Ivano-Frankivsk, a small city in western Ukraine at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Growing up, she spent many holidays and weekends walking in the lush alpine countryside and swimming in the lakes and rivers. In stark contrast to her picturesque upbringing is the worrisome news she regularly receives on WhatsApp from her family, still in Ukraine. “Only today I heard they were bombing our city,” she tells me, and we pause at the gravity. I hardly know what to ask her next. “I send pictures to my family 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.

With its phantasmagorical forest sprites and enchanted trees, “The Forest Song” seems to Kaliandruk “like a very special part of Ukrainian culture, with magic and power woven through.” Marvka stops Lukash from axing a birch tree to build his new house, sensing spirits in the forest, and she refuses to reap wheat when she has visions of the plants as forest nymphs, dancing and alive. What ensues is the painful choice between abandoning marriage for oneness with nature or abandoning her calling as forest nymph for a mortal love. Both lovers eventually morph magically into the forest blissfully and together. They reject the agrarian life, against the forceful wishes of their parents and village. The ballet ventures beyond bucolic nostalgia. It explores the powerful theme of light conquering darkness.

“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 a world of grace and harmony, that serves as boundless inspiration in dark times.

Leila Lois


Leila Lois is a dance educator and writer based in Australia, and has published regular critical pieces and features on dance and the arts for The Age, The Saturday Paper, ArtsHub, Stuff NZ, et al.

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Dancing for Peace

Love will always win, absolutely, over war and everything else” says dancer Marta Kaliandruk keenly, her pure blue eyes sparkling as she speaks to me in the wings of the theatre, during dress rehearsal for the Grand Kyiv Ballet’s Australian and New Zealand tour.

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