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When Another Minute of War Becomes One Minute Before Christmas, through Dance

Blair A. Ruble
Kyiv nutcracker ballet
Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine - Dec. 7, 2013: Members of the Kyiv Modern Ballet perform Nutcracker at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre

The Kyiv Modern Ballet Theater has invited Kyiv’s children and their parents to be transported for an hour to a holiday fantasyland through a new ballet, One Minute Before Christmas. Set to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns and Mykola Leontovych’s famous “Carol of the Bells” (“Shchedryk”), the show launches the audience onto a journey from the reality of the moment into a world of illusions, in which truth becomes intertwined with fiction. The story traces a boy’s search for reality within his world of imagination and vivid dreams. How can he overcome a world of tangled illusions to thwart imaginary obstacles and discover what is true in life? How can he learn a truth filled with faith in miracles, inspiration, and a love for Christmas? How can he do all this with just a minute left before Christmas?

Staged by Serhii Kon and based on a libretto by Oksana Taranenko, One Minute Before Christmas draws on beautiful music, exciting choreography, and innovative use of video to lift its young audiences out of the harsh realities of war to a dreamland of beauty and magic, before bringing them back to the present infused with a new sense of wonder and awe. The performance inspires viewers to engage with the real world of challenges with enhanced energy and love. An hour on stage—and an imaginary minute—mobilizes the Yuletide lessons of love, fellowship, and family to safeguard its viewers (and performers) against the cynicism of war.

The Kyiv Modern Ballet Theater, under the leadership of choreographer Radu Poklitaru, has striven to use dance to lift spirits throughout the past two years. Long a leader of the Ukrainian dance scene, Poklitaru has turned to pioneering artistic forms to ensure that neither the drums of war nor authoritarian invaders squelch the power of the arts and of beauty to inspire (see post from April 8, 2022). The company moved forward with stunning productions as soon as performances were able to begin, following the initial Russian full-scale invasion. Poklitaru and his colleagues have mixed traditional ballet repertoire with works such as One Minute Before Christmas—and a fresh take on Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (see post from July 21, 2023)—to engage youthful audiences in the beauty and enchantment of dance at a time when gorgeousness and loveliness seem out of reach.

Dance companies also acknowledge that an audience yearns for the comfort of the familiar. In just the past month, the National Ballet of Ukraine has performed Giselle, The Magic Flute, and an evening of Strauss waltzes at the National Opera House across town. Poklitaru’s company has offered up Carmen and Oleksandr Rodin’s Vii, based on a Hogol novel. Odesa’s opera house has staged the classics La Bayadère and Les Sylphides. The holiday season offers the opportunity to extend hope through the creation of new classics. One Minute Before Christmas might well become a classic too.

Most amazingly, Ukraine’s major dance companies and theaters are staging full programs throughout the holiday season as if there was no war. All of the performing arts are stepping up to bring a touch of cheer to the country’s second wartime holiday season. Ballet and opera companies, music ensembles, and puppet companies are staging holiday performances in large venues (opera houses) and small (bomb shelters and cellars) to bring cheer and goodwill to their war-weary audiences. Productions such as One Minute Before Christmas offer reminders of life before and hopes for life after this horrific war. Like the young hero in Kon’s ballet, Ukrainians are being asked to search out beauty and magic within a daunting reality. The country’s dance companies are leading the way.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author 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