Grand Kyiv Ballet’s Oleksandr Stoianov and Kateryna Kukhar

June 10, 2024

The Grand Kyiv Ballet’s current Giselle tour across the United States isn’t just a series of breathtaking performances; it’s a testament to the indomitable spirit and exceptional talent of Ukrainian artists amidst the turmoil of an ongoing invasion.

At the helm of this endeavor is the dynamic husband and wife team of Oleksandr Stoianov and Kateryna Kukhar.  Oleksandr is Grand Kyiv Ballet’s Artistic Director, Kateryna leads the Kyiv State Ballet College in Ukraine, and on the ballet stage they share the spotlight as principal dancers. Both their Pas de Deux and their collaborative leadership reflect their dedication to uplifting Ukrainian culture, supporting fellow artists, and securing a legacy for future generations.

 Join us for this exclusive interview with Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov as we learn about their story, ongoing U.S. tour, and how we as readers can support Ukrainian ballet.

Alanna: Oleksandr, in 2014 you founded the Grand Kyiv Ballet, a company devoted to organizing the touring activities of Ukraniana ballet artists. What first inspired the company’s inception and how has it grown since? 

 Oleksandr: I was born in Crimea, in the beautiful coastal city of Yalta. At the age of 11, my parents sent me to Kyiv to enter the best ballet school in Ukraine. Now it’s called Kyiv State Ballet College, KSBC.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and in response to this, I came up with the idea of annexing their ballet market on the world stage. I assembled a troupe of professional ballet dancers and found a place for rehearsals. There was enough money to do only 2 backdrops. The props were made with our own hands, and the rest were rented from the National Opera of Ukraine. Because I had a large number of tours, as a soloist, I also had many impresario acquaintances around the world.

 At that time there were 30 of us, including the crew. Today there are 120 of us and we continue to grow every day. We have more than 20 of our own performances (costumes, sets) and more than 300 performances a year around the world. 

Alanna: Both of you now live in Seattle with your two children, a move necessitated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Can you share your story of that heart-wrenching time of change and transition? 

Kateryna & Oleksandr: On February 24th, at 5 in the morning, our children’s nanny called, crying out: “Kyiv is being bombed!” Three thousand kilometers separated me and my children when I should have been there beside them, to protect and reassure them. These were the most terrifying days of our lives.

 We started our lives from scratch not by choice; moving wasn’t in our plans. Currently, we live in Seattle with our two children, who are also forced to start anew – making new friends at school, learning the language, acquiring new habits… But we remain optimistic. The main thing is that our children are safe and we are together. On February 24, our children were in Ukraine without us. At that time, we were on tour in France. These were truly terrifying days when you can’t be with your children when they need you the most.

Alanna: We can’t image how difficult those days must have been. However despite all these struggles, Kateryna, you are still fearlessly leading the Kyiv State Ballet College. Can you share the significance of maintaining the school’s operations during these uncertain times?

Kateryna: I became the director of the college during the Covid-19 period. At that time it seemed like the worst thing that could happen for a ballet dancer. Online classes at home, closure of entire classes due to a local illness. But my team and I managed. We prepared children for international competitions, final exams, and employment in theaters.

The next task was to restore the technical condition of our buildings. And this is more than 10 thousand square meters that have never been renovated for the past 80 years. I completed all the paperwork, went through hundreds of meetings and bureaucratic moments, and received government funding. We started doing design and renovation work. In addition to this, some friends and philanthropists began to restore rooms for children. But the war began…..

 All the funding was transferred to the needs of the army, leaving the college one-third way through restoration in a condition semi-suitable for living and studying. This is an extremely difficult time for the children who study there. Constant air alarms, trips to bomb shelters… all trauma for the children’s psyche. This college has produced many of the best dancers in the world, who at different times glorified the best theaters. This is my Alma Mater too. Now I live in 2 countries. A month in Ukraine and 2 months in America. We recently returned from the Berlin International Competition, where we received two silver and bronze medals. Now we are trying to complete all the repairs ourselves.

Alanna: Through all these experiences you are partners both on and off the stage, what is it like dancing through both ballets and through life together?

Kateryna & Oleksandr: We are one of those inseparable pairs who can spend 24 hours a day together. And that’s exactly what we do. It’s our advantage – we know each other inside out, we sense each other’s moods. We can rehearse at home, and discuss nuances while lying in bed or flying on a plane while on tours. We don’t even think about the technical side of the duet dance, which allows us to experiment and perform very complex supports that other pairs wouldn’t even dare to try, even during rehearsals.

Alanna: The Grand Kyiv Ballet is currently on a tour of the United States with a production of Giselle. What unique elements do you believe your company brings to this timeless ballet, and what do you hope American audiences will take away from your performances?

Kateryna & Oleksandr: Each artist brings something unique, something of their own into any role they dance. For example, speaking of Katya – she possesses an incredible acting ability, aside from ballet technique, of course. Sometimes, the audience even shed tears, so deeply they empathize with the grief of Giselle portrayed by Katya. Additionally, we have beautiful and stylish costumes designed by the Ukrainian designer Malva Verbicka for the 180th anniversary of the ballet. As for what the audience will take away from our performances: inspiration, the opportunity to immerse themselves in another dimension for a few hours, to distract themselves from problems, and to absorb the energy of art.

Alanna: How has your artistic expression evolved in response to the current geopolitical landscape, and do you find that these events have influenced the thematic or emotional aspects of your performances?

Kateryna: During the first month of the war, I was solely involved in rescuing people. I hardly danced and even thought that I wouldn’t return to the stage. It felt like something inside me broke… Perhaps my career would have ended like that, but fate intervened – Alex and I were invited to participate in charity performances in France, where we raised funds to purchase ambulances. Then we danced at a gala concert in support of Ukraine at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, which raised 300 thousand euros for the Alliance Urgences Ukraine fund. Of course, when I first stepped on stage after a month of war, it felt terrifying. I wanted to cry during the performance, and every movement felt like a silent scream. But at the same time, a new meaning of life on stage emerged – thus began our struggle and diplomatic mission in different parts of the world for victory.

Alanna: How is the tour supporting displaced Ukranian artists and giving back to the community? 

Oleksandr: In 2022, when most theaters were either not working or working partially, artists had the opportunity to dance. For a ballet artist, every missed day of practice is a step backwards. After missing entire months, the artist may not be able to return on stage at all after such a long break. Artists also had the opportunity to help and support their relatives financially, donate to the army, and use their art to tell about Ukraine. We organized charity tours together and donated proceeds to support Ukraine and Ukrainians.

 Alanna: For our readers eager to support your work beyond attending performances, what are some ways they can contribute to the Grand Kyiv Ballet and its mission to uplift Ukrainian ballet and its artists during these trying times?

Kateryna & Oleksandr: We have created a charitable fund Renaissance of the Ballet Art. All funds are currently being used to insulate the dormitories for the students of the choreographic college. Our aim is to ensure warmth for the children and decent living and studying conditions. They are young emerging artists, conditions they live in now will influence their whole career. Dancers rely on healthy bodies and we need to do everything possible to keep our students healthy.

Donations can be made here. Despite the war, Kyiv State  Ballet College continues to educate 210 children. We need to finish renovations started before the war to provide a suitable environment and healthy living conditions for the young dancers.

See Kateryna Kukhar & Oleksandr Stoianov on their next U.S. tour stop of Giselle here

by Alanna Love