SUFFOLK — On Feb. 23, the Kyiv City Ballet flew to Paris for a tour of France that was supposed to last two weeks.
They never went home.
The next day, Russia invaded Ukraine with troops and bombs, launching a war that seemed possible yet unbelievable when the dance company left the country. Most of its members still don’t feel safe returning.
Until they can, they will continue dancing.
For four days in September, 45 dancers from the world-class troupe will be in residency at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, a stop on a quickly-assembled American tour. They will give two performances in the center’s 530-seat Birdsong Theater and host master classes and field trips for children and adults.
“It’s been very tough, very hard,” said Ivan Kozlov, Kyiv City Ballet’s artistic director, speaking via Zoom from a Middle Eastern tour stop. “We want to keep working and smiling and dancing no matter what. It is a way to fight for our country. We show our culture and our strength and power from the stage, and nothing can beat us.”
Dancers with Ukraine's Kyiv City Ballet stretch before performing at the Theatre du Chatelet, in Paris, on March 8. The ballet danced to a full house for the last show of a French tour that began as Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving the company stranded away from home. They described being physically and emotionally exhausted. Being given the opportunity to train and dance was for many a chance to focus on something other than the war. (Thibault Camus/AP)
The U.S. tour will be the first for the company, which is based in Ukraine’s capital city. An evolving schedule calls for 14 or 15 stops from mid-September to late October, including Chicago, New York and Detroit.
After that, no one is sure where they’ll go. Home, they hope, but they can’t know.
Since February, the dancers have been based at a hotel in Paris, leaning on one another for support and relying on donations and grants to cover living expenses and new tights, leotards and costumes. They have performed sold-out charity concerts in France to benefit Ukrainian civilians and have traveled elsewhere in Europe, as well as in the United Kingdom and the Middle East.
Suffolk Center leaders reached out to the troupe’s booking agency after hearing it had planned a show in North Carolina.
“It’s an incredible opportunity under terrible, traumatic circumstances,” said Lorelei Costa Morrow, Suffolk Center’s executive director. “We’re grateful that we can give these world-class dancers a home, make them feel valued and provide a stage to tell their stories.”
The dancers will stay at the Hilton Garden Inn on the Nansemond River near downtown Suffolk, which has offered discounted room rates. They will perform three short Ukrainian pieces one night and a full-length “Swan Lake” ballet on the second.
The Suffolk Center also will host two days of interactive events for students from schools and dance companies. A “Backstage Pass” event, for late-elementary grades, will let students watch a rehearsal and ask the dancers questions about their experiences and current events.
When the dancers learned of the invasion only hours before their performance of “The Nutcracker” in Paris, they were in total shock, according to Kozlov. Many had believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces to the border simply as a scare tactic.
Performing at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, on March 8. (Thibault Camus/AP)
Fighting panic, dancers carried their cell phones on stage in case family or friends tried to contact them. Waves of intense emotions — sadness, fear, anger, determination, pride and, on stage, joy — have hit them ever since.
“It’s like being in two places,” Kozlov explained. “There is a subconscious thing where you’re not quite there on tour, even though you are on tour. We always think of the people we love at home. We must cheer each other up as much as possible.”
A few dancers have decided to go home, although men who cross back into Ukraine in wartime are required to stay to defend their country. In many cases, loved ones have encouraged the performers to stay safe and maintain a voice by remaining abroad.
Kyiv City Ballet performs both classical ballet and traditional Ukrainian dances, including one planned for Suffolk in which the men go to battle wearing the colors of the country’s flag. “It’s going to be very moving and powerful given the world events,” Morrow said.
“Swan Lake,” meanwhile, is one of the most famous ballets in the world. The Tchaikovsky composition, which premiered in 1877 in Moscow, tells the love story of a princess turned into a swan by a sorcerer’s curse. For complex historical reasons, it also has become a coded form of protest in Russia against the war in Ukraine.
After Suffolk, dancers are scheduled to fly from Norfolk to Chicago. They are doing their best to live in the moment and not think too far ahead, Kozlov said.
“We are grateful that we still have the chance to dance, to live, to think,” he said. “We will have to flow the way that life will take us. There is no choice.”
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When: 7 p.m. Sept. 21 and 22. First night features Ukrainian ballets “Thoughts” (contemporary), “Tribute to Peace” (neoclassical) and “Men of Kyiv” (folk). Second night is the full-length “Swan Lake,” with a finale reception for limited guests from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Where: Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, 110 W. Finney Ave.
Tickets: $45 to $75; $25 for children to age 15; free for ages 2 and younger. Finale reception is an added $25.
Details: suffolkcenter.org; 757-923-2900