DAY IN THE LIFE OF DANCE: Ukrainian Ballet Stars

September 26, 2023

Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandyr Stoianov, Fight for Peace and the Soul of Ukraine

Christine Jowers/Follow @cmmjowers on Instagram

By Christine Jowers/Follow @cmmjowers on Instagram
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Published on September 23, 2023
Kateryna Kukhar & Oleksandyr Stoianov

“Our English is not perfect, but we will tell you everything from our heart,” — Kateryna Kukhar, Prima Ballerina and People’s Artist of Ukraine, at the beginning of our Zoom interview.

On the morning of September 20th, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the United Nations. Adamantly, he reproached the UN Security Council for doing nothing to help his country since the Russian assault of February 24, 2022.

On that very same afternoon, I took to Zoom to speak with two of Zelensky’s fellow citizens, husband and wife ballet dancers, Oleksandyr Stoianov and Kateryna Kukhar. The couple and their children escaped the hostilities in their homeland and currently reside in Bellevue, Washington, USA. From their new home, through their art and artistic connections, they are doing everything they can to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and demonstrate to the world the indestructible spirit of Ukraine.

As Kateryna Kukhar states, “This is our culture war….”

Kukhar, an esteemed prima ballerina with the National Opera of Ukraine, also the director of the Kyiv State Choreographic College, and Stoianov, a premier danseur with the National Opera, as well as the creator, artistic director and producer of his own company, the Grand Kyiv Ballet, were on the road dancing before Russia’s attacks. Kukhar had just returned from a ballet competition in Berlin where her students excelled, winning gold and silver medals. She then traveled to Menton, France to dance Giselle with Stoianov. For the first time in ten years of touring, they were happy to be able to enjoy the famous Fête du Citron, Menton’s renowned Lemon Festival, one of the largest winter events on the French Riviera.

“It was perfect, sunshine, and everything, and the smell of lemons.…” says Kukhar, in melodic, halting  English. “Until the 24th. On the 24th of February, we had a flight to Kyiv at five o’clock in the afternoon. But our babysitter called us at five in the morning with with our daughter, Anastasia, crying.” Kyiv was under attack. “It was the most terrible day in our lives.”  

With all airports in Ukraine closed, eight-year-old Anastasia in Kyiv, and 13-year-old Timur, skiing with a family friend in the Carpathian mountains, the couple frantically wondered what to do. “Hell. We were living in hell,” says Kukhar.

To rescue Anastasia, they drove an incredibly long trek from the south of France to the Ukrainian-Polish border. Their babysitter drove from Kyiv to meet them there, but traffic was horrendous. Masses were fleeing to escape and many simply abandoned their cars deciding it faster to walk to the border.  It took two and a half days for the sitter to make a trip that would’ve normally taken 10 hours. Along their frightening sojourn she and Anastasia were forced to sleep in an abandoned house with neither heat or electricity, and then spend another evening in a refugee camp.  “It was a very difficult, scary situation,” remembers Stoianov. Eventually, they reunited with their youngest.  Sadly, months later, their babysitter died, it seems, from the stress of it all.

Timur walked for eight hours to make it to the Ukraine-Hungarian border. There, his parents met him on the 26th of February, his birthday. “I was crying and hug him, and he didn’t understand…” Kukhar remembers. Stoianov adds, “He just ask, ‘Can I, can I celebrate my birthday maybe tomorrow, or day after tomorrow when the war ends?’”

Kateryna Kukhar with students of the Kyiv State Choreographic College; photo courtesy of the artist

After a few months in France, the family relocated to their American home, graciously invited by close friends who run the International Ballet Academy in Bellevue. Though far from the war, Kukhar and Stoianov are deeply involved with Ukraine — and busy. Ever since the missiles hit, Stoianov has been operating non-stop to help dancing children find homes and places in ballet academies around the world.

“When war started,” he says, “I think we helped more than 200 ballet children. Many parents call us because Kateryna is the director of the national school and I am the director of a ballet company…[they say] ‘Help me, help us please, with apartments, with work with, schools.’”

Kateryna Kukhar with students of the Kyiv State Choreographic College; photo courtesy of the artist
“Because many children literally have no home now… and they must leave their families who are really afraid for their lives.” Kukhar adds, “Olek is like a father of ballet in Ukraine now.”
Stoianov’s company, fortunately safe on tour when the atrocities started, has continued dancing as the war rages on. Stoianov immediately created a “Solidarity Tour” to support Ukraine, and so far, the Grand Kyiv Ballet has performed in France, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The company has been visited by royal families, diplomats, and politicians.

And now, on September 26th, Stoianov, Kukhar and the Grand Kyiv Ballet will come to New York for the first time to perform the timeless, fairytale ballet Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs at the historic Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. Dancers from the National Opera of Ukraine, many of whom spent the initial days of the war living in basements with their families, will perform. Kukhar will dance the titular role of Snow White and, for her, it is a time — at least while onstage — for her troubles to disappear.

She enjoys when people react to the beauty and humor of the ballet, and especially delights in the laughter of children in the audience. Her face lights up just speaking about it.

“Your brain, your mind, your soul, like air, start to fly. And when you go back home, you feel a new inspiration and an excitement to create.”

In times when war and economic and political upheaval dominate our lives, the fight for beauty, creativity, truth, and human dignity is more necessary than ever. Stoianov and Kukhar, artistic warriors and peacemakers, brilliantly lead the way.