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BY BLAIR A. RUBLE

On March 10, a dozen artists from the Kyiv Modern Ballet Theater (KMBT)joined together to post a powerful video on Facebook and other social media urging their Russian theater colleagues to speak out against the carnage being carried out in their name in Ukraine. Speaking in Russian, their chiseled dancer faces rendered haggard by exhaustion and stress—the artists spoke quietly and passionately directly into the camera. They forcefully urged colleagues with whom they have shared stages, practice halls, the intimacies of dance, and sweat to acknowledge the horrors being inflicted on their city and country, and not to hide from them. Their heartfelt appeals were punctuated by gruesome images of the terror being inflicted on Ukraine.

Only a few weeks before, these same dancers were celebrating their superb performance in the company’s strikingly modern production of Swan Lake. Like millions of their compatriots, KMBT artists were living through the abrupt transition from peacetime to war.

Renowned choreographer Radu Poklitaru founded the KMBT in December 2005. KMBT has become an important presence on the Kyiv and international dance scene ever since. The company of some two dozen dancers has presented a mixed repertoire of new works—including Women in D-Moll, Long Christmas Dinner, and The Little Prince—and more traditional ballets, such as Carmen, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty, recast in a sleek, stripped-down contemporary setting. The company has provided numerous opportunities for young Ukrainian choreographers to hone their skills. Both the company and its dancers have enjoyed considerable success while touring throughout Europe and Asia. Like performing arts organizations worldwide, KMBT drew on the realities of COVID to launch a vibrant virtual presence online.

Born a half-century ago in Chişinău, Moldova, to a family of ballet dancers, Poklitaru trained in his hometown as well as in Odesa, Moscow, and Perm. He landed his first performance opportunities in Minsk. Poklitaru eventually settled on Kyiv as his professional home and formed his new company together with several other young dance artists who were making the city their home. In addition to talented dancers, he teamed up with scenographer Andriy Zlobin, costume artist Hanna Ipatieva, lighting designer Olena Antokhina, and others to create a dynamic, all-Ukrainian company dedicated to innovation.

Kyiv-born Canadian American choreographer Stephanie Noll’s 2021 one-woman performance at the Miystetskyi Arsenal celebrating the art of the twentieth-century avant-gardist Oleksandra Ekster exemplifies the Kyiv dance community’s groundbreaking approach to performance. Ekster was a leading figure in both in the Russian/Ukrainian and Parisian avant-garde communities, helping to invent Cubo-Futurism and Art Deco. Her Kyiv studio on Funduklievskaa (now Khmelnytsky) Street became a gathering place for the writers and artists who would come to define the new art of the twentieth century’s first quarter century. Her influence grew after she relocated from Kyiv to Paris in 1924. Legendary twentieth-century Broadway set designer Boris Aronson, son of the chief rabbi of Kyiv, was among her many influential protégés.

Noll’s work combines materials in archives in New York and elsewhere with Kyivan sources to celebrate Ekster’s aesthetic influence on twentieth-century dance. Her recreation of Ekster’s once revolutionary sets and costumes connects the vitality of early twenty-first-century Kyiv with the city’s artistic dynamism during the early twentieth century.

Dancer-choreographer Bronislava Nijinska was among the protean artists sharing Kyiv’s artistic scene with Ekster. In 1910, Nijinska joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, together with her brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. Born in Warsaw into a prominent dance family, both Bronislava and Vaslav toured the Russian Empire with their family’s troupe as children. Both signed on to Diaghilev’s celebrated company and left following the impresario’s jealous fury that led to Vaslav’s dismissal in 1913. Bronislava and her new husband, Alexandre Kochetovsky, relocated from London to Kyiv following the outbreak of World War I.

Soldiers representing Bolshevik, White, German, and Ukrainian armies occupied Kyiv sixteen times in succession between late 1918 and August 1920. Remarkably, this was the precise moment when Nijinska opened her L’Ecole de Mouvement (School of Movement) extolling the flowing movement, the free use of the torso, and a quickness of step that introduced her pathbreaking approaches to movement. Despite the battles raging in and around Kyiv at the time, she managed to stage solo performances of her new works, which now are recognized as among the first “plotless” and “abstract” ballets of the twentieth century.

The Soviet secret police eventually forced Nijinska and her children to leave the country in 1921, sending her to wander among Paris, Monte Carlo, London, and Buenos Aires before landing in Los Angeles in 1940 (where she died in 1972). During these years, she helped invent a new twentieth-century ballet and modern dance, while her cutting-edge aesthetic and kinetic philosophies transformed Hollywood film.

Nijinska’s story offers strong parallels to those of Poklitaru and his KMBT colleagues. In both instances, Kyiv provided a congenial home to innovators and their pioneering artistic forms. In both instances, neither the drums of war nor authoritarian invaders could squelch the power of their ideas. Perhaps both, tempered by war, will cast a similarly profound influence over the dance world at large.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more