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Ballet dancers from the Kyiv City Ballet, stranded in France since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, have made the Théâtre du Châtelet their de facto home

Kyiv City Ballet rehearses Swan Lake inside a rehearsal room at Théâtre du Châtele on May 16, 2022. Photography by Giulia Frigieri/The Globe and Mail

At the famous Théâtre du Châtelet on the banks of the river Seine in Paris, music from one of the rehearsal rooms drifts down a corridor. It’s a hot May afternoon, three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and ballet dancers from the Kyiv City Ballet are busy rehearsing.

Eighteen young female ballet dancers stand poised in a V shape, as two principal dancers move with each other in the centre of the studio, their eyes trained on one another. The female dancer spins en pointe, before the male dancer gracefully lifts her up above his head in one swift movement. They repeat this several times at the direction of Ivan Kozlov, the company’s founder and director, while his wife and deputy director, Ekaterina Kozlov, stops the music and makes sure each dancer is in the correct position. Together they hone each movement; every spin, every lift, every arabesque. Everything has to be perfect.

The dance is from Swan Lake, which they will be performing in an upcoming concert in Lyon, France. They’ve been training seven or eight hours a day, six days a week for this, Ivan says.

“Before the war started we danced for our company and each dancer felt like they danced for themselves,” he says, “But now we are motivated to dance for our country. Before we were dancing for Kyiv City Ballet, now we have become something bigger.”

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Ekaterina Kozlov, deputy director of Kyiv City Ballet, directs the rehearsals with her husband and founder of the company, Ivan Kozlov. Together they hone each movement, striving for perfection.

The entire group of 32 dancers unexpectedly became refugees in Paris after arriving for their French tour on Feb. 23. The next day Vladimir Putin launched an attack on their country. The company quickly realized they would not be able to return home as planned in mid-March. Soon after, Paris officials offered them a residency at the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of the city’s most iconic stages. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, announced it at one of their first performances, saying the arrangement will last “for as long as it takes.”

Ekaterina explains that at first she thought she had misunderstood the offer. “Ivan asked me ‘What is she saying?’ and I said ‘I’m sure I didn’t understand her correctly,’” she says. “Everything was moving so fast. We had no idea what we were going to do in terms of future plans.” It was only later when they were being shown around the theatre that they understood. “I have so much gratitude for being able to have a place to continue to work and to continue to produce art, because in these horrible, dark times, art becomes especially relevant to the world.”

It’s not just the Théâtre du Châtelet that’s opened its doors to the company. The Paris Opera, one of the world’s greatest ballet houses (as Ekaterina says, “Catholics have the Vatican; in ballet you have the Paris Opera”), has allowed Kyiv City Ballet to use their studio space and take classes with their own dancers, and is donating costumes. “When I told the ballet dancers that we’re going to be doing some classes at the Paris Opera, they started laughing because they were sure I was joking,” she says, adding that their dancers have “improved so much in such a short time.”

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Dancers from Kyiv City Ballet take a break during rehearsals at Théâtre du Châtelet.

The atmosphere immediately changes when the dancers switch from practicing Swan Lake to a dance called “Boys from Kyiv,” a traditional Ukrainian folk dance that usually closes their program. The male dancers bound on to the floor, jumping and stomping and kicking their legs (while keeping their toes exquisitely pointed). Ivan explains that there are two groups engaged in a battle: “One group in blue coloured shirts and one group in yellow coloured shirts, one is made up of taller guys, and the other shorter guys. They fight, but at the end they are friends and they dance together – the yellow and blue coming together like the Ukrainian flag.”

At a time when Ukrainian culture is under threat, Kyiv City Ballet is hoping to not “just share Ukrainian culture, but the Ukrainian soul,” Ivan says.

One of the dancers, Danyil Podhrushko, from Chernihiv, says “Boys from Kyiv” is one of his favourites to perform. “I feel honoured to represent my country through dance,” he says, during a break from rehearsals. The 21-year-old adds that dancing helps to keep his mind off the war: “When we are on stage you’ve got to think about your work and keep in character.”

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Top, the entire group of 32 Kyiv City Ballet dancers unexpectedly became refugees in Paris after arriving for their French in February. Bottom, Mykola Chebotarov dances on Pont au Change, a famous bridge next to Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

But home is never far from their thoughts. Ivan says they are all missing their family and friends and speak to them every day to ask what is going on.

Ilona Moskalenko, one of the other dancers, is from Donetsk in the east, which sits on the border with Russia and where fighting has recently intensified. “My family has lived there for eight years and they can’t leave because they have elderly relatives so they’re staying there to take care of them,” the 23-year-old says.

She started dancing when she was six, as it was always her grandmother’s dream for Moskalenko to be a ballet dancer.

“I think about my family when I’m dancing, especially my grandmother,” she says. Despite feeling nervous before she goes on stage, after every performance she wants to do it again. “It’s like an addiction.” She believes everyone has their part to play, and hers is to “show the beauty of the country, the beauty of the culture and the beauty of the people.”

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Dancer Ilona Moskalenko is from Donetsk in the east, where fighting has recently intensified. When she dances, she thinks about her family that stayed behind in Ukraine.

In fact, the company is set to take that beauty beyond France to the U.S. this September, with its first tour there, which will include 13 cities.

For Kyiv City Ballet, dance is a form of resistance – Ivan calls them “troops for the stage.” Not only are they ambassadors for Ukraine, bringing the country’s now renowned fighting spirit to the stage, but their work is also aiding the war effort. He explains that from the 10 performances they’ve given since arriving in Paris, they’ve raised more than €100,000 ($135,000) for charities in their country. “This is what we are working for. This is the best way we can help,” he says, before heading back to rehearsals.

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