While Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, a group of refugees in The Hague, Netherlands, have used their talents to help preserve Ukrainian culture and raise awareness for the dire situation in their country.
The United Ukrainian Ballet was formed soon after Russia invaded Ukraine just over one year ago. At the time, two Ukrainian dancers, Stanislav Olshanskyi and Alexis Tuttunique, were touring with Dutch prima ballerina Igone de Jongh and the pair sought refuge in The Hague with the help of fellow dancers, according to the non-profit ballet company’s website.
With aid from organizations like the Salvation Army and Senf Theaterpartners, a Dutch production company, provisions were made for a group of Ukrainian dancers and their families to find refuge and training in the Netherlands, Stefan Stolk, producer and managing director of operations of the United Ukrainian Ballet, told CNN.
Stolk, who works for Senf Theatepartners, said the company had connections to ballet companies in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Lviv, and were able to get in touch with dancers and let them know about the safe haven.
The ballet company and its partners, including mayor of The Hague, Jan van Zanen, were able to temporarily secure and renovate the former Hague Conservatory — which was set to be demolished — as a location to house refugees and allow them to continue ballet training.
Initially the conservatory housed only women dancers and their families, due to Ukraine restricting men ages 18 to 65 from traveling out of the country. By the middle of April 2022, they had about 35 to 40 women, Stolk told CNN.
At its peak, the conservatory housed more than 200 refugees, 70 to 75 of which were dancers, he added. Today, the company still is home to more than 60 dancers.
An outlet in a dark time: Stolk said many dancers came with a heavy weight on their hearts, but once they began training again, “you could see everyone forget all the sorrow and trouble.”
“I thought, ‘This is what we’re working at, this is what we do.’ It was really breathtaking,” he told CNN.
Later in 2022, the company received special permission from the Ukrainian government, with help from Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, to allow some young men to join the company. Stolk said the government sanctioned the exception in an effort “to keep the story alive of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture.”
As the number of refugees grew, a foundation was formed to help support and sustain the project’s efforts.
Bringing Ukraine to the world: Since last March, the company has performed around the world, a feat that would take an average company years to organize. With the help of renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, dancers have performed “Gisele” in the Netherlands, London, Singapore and the United States, with plans to perform a new show in Taiwan and other countries later this year.
“Bringing the story of Ukraine, and that is really what the mission statement is,” Stolk said. “We know one thing: When we come perform there in a certain country, we are front page, and this helps to keep this all alive.”
Stolk said it’s important to show the world that Ukraine is more than just the war.
The company is also trying to make sure that a generation of Ukrainian dancers aren’t forgotten, given that a dancer’s career is usually only about 10 years, and many were already stifled by Covid-19 shutdowns before the war broke out.
“It would be a complete forgotten generation of dancers, and now we give them wings,” Stolk said.
A painful anniversary: While the group’s triumphs hearten the refugees, the war still weighs heavy on the dancers as they have daily reminders of the war through contact with loved ones back in Ukraine. Last week brought the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, and the ballet company dancers requested use of the old conservatory’s main stage area, to perform and be with one another as a form of support.
They said “we want to have a day with each other,” Stolk said. They performed Ukrainian folk dances, song and read poems, and “no one could keep dry eyes.”
The company’s latest show, “Dancing in Defiance,” is more catered to the Ukrainian dancers and features three performances. The first performance “Wartime Elegy” is described as a celebration of Ukrainian culture. Stolk said it’s the choreographer, Kamansty’s, response to the war. The music composed for the show also has influence of Ukrainian folk music.
“It’s tribute to joy,” Stolk told CNN. “How people are still there. They are resilient.”