Ballet stars from Ukraine, now living in Issaquah, dance for a cause

December 14, 2023

By Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times arts critic.

A story ballet can create an ethereal world, one seemingly made up of lightness and magic, where real-world troubles and the laws of gravity seem to vanish. For married dancers Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov, both stars of the Grand Kyiv Ballet who have been honored as People’s Artists of Ukraine, upcoming local performances of “Snow White” at the Paramount and the Edmonds Center for the Arts will be a source of art and joy in lives that have seen more than their share of turmoil.

Both from Ukraine, the two found themselves separated from their children at the time the war broke out in their homeland in early 2022. Kukhar and Stoianov were touring with the company in France; their teenage son was on a ski trip and their young daughter home with a babysitter. With borders closed, the couple were unable to reenter the country, and had to frantically coordinate plans to extricate their children from afar. It was, Kukhar said quietly in an interview at Bellevue’s International Ballet Academy last month, “the most terrible days of our lives.”

After many harrowing days, the family was reunited — and, thanks to a longtime connection with the International Ballet Academy and its artistic director Vera Altunina, were able to settle here in the Pacific Northwest. The couple have been “part of our artistic family for 10 years,” said Altunina, who has frequently booked them as guest artists with her company — and who is herself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, having arrived here in 1993. Kukhar and Stoianov now live in Issaquah with their children, and speak warmly of the kindness with which they have been met. “We have found a community here,” Kukhar said.

But their thoughts are never far from their homeland — and from the Kyiv State Choreographic College, the legendary ballet school in Ukraine that has produced numerous ballet stars, including Kukhar and Stoianov (who met while students there). Kukhar, who has been head of the school since 2020, worries about her students and the deteriorating condition of the school, located in a crumbling 80-year-old building. Classes, said Kukhar, are routinely interrupted by bomb sirens, and by the necessity of evacuating to a shelter. She and Stoianov have long worked to raise money to help the school, with gala performances and fundraisers around the world.

The latest of these is “Snow White,” proceeds from which will go toward renovations for the school. Choreographed by Genrikh Mayorov and set to recorded music by Polish composer Bogdan Pavlovsky, it’s a two-act, family-friendly ballet version of the beloved fairy tale. Kukhar and Stoianov will dance the leading roles of Snow White and the Prince, supported by a cast of about 30 professional dancers (Grand Kyiv Ballet members, most of them from Ukraine) and a number of children from local ballet schools.

Stoianov says he’ll soon retire from ballet performance, the better to focus on his busy career as an international ballet impresario: booking performances, fundraising, and hatching ideas for bringing ballet to small communities and making the art form more accessible to all. But the couple are looking forward to once again dancing and storytelling together, the latest step in a long partnership. “When you dance with your partner for so long, you can add interesting things from inside of you,” Stoianov said. Both described dancing together as becoming one person. “Dancing with him, it’s my soul, he’s my body,” said Kukhar.

They’re excited to conclude the “Snow White” tour, which began in New York in September, here in their newfound home. And they hope their performances will be a gift to local audiences. “It’s important to touch the soul of the audience,” Kukhar said. “Theater is like church. When you go home, you’re pure, you’re so inspired.”