Dance for Ukraine

London Coliseum
March 19, 2022

Less than twelve months ago, on September 7, 2021, Sadler’s Wells hosted a one-off Ukrainian Ballet Gala. Put together by Ukrainian dancer Ivan Putrov and British-Ukrainian theatre director Olga Danylyuk, it celebrated 30 years of Ukraine’s independence as it brought together some of the best British and Ukrainian dancers for the very first time. How times change.

Now, as many of that country’s cities lay in ruins thanks to the Russian invasion, Putrov has united with Romanian dancer Alina Cojocaru (they trained together in Kyiv) to present another evening of ballet, but one with a very different backdrop to most, that sees the world of ballet come together as part of the humanitarian appeal to raise funds for Ukraine and to send a message of peace.

The London Coliseum decked with the Ukrainian flag for the Dance for Ukraine gala
Photo Elliott Franks

In the programme, Cojocaru and Putrov write, “We are united in our belief that art can and must stand up for humanity. So many of our fellow artists believe the same and have joined us today to show their support for the people of Ukraine in this moment of need.”

Some may question whether art is appropriate in such circumstances but as Putrov said in an interview, “Of course it is, because it gives hope, it gives inspiration. We as artists have talent and we need to use this talent to say what we believe in. Art has a voice and is the voice that we use.” And who knows, some Russians may hear and raise their own voices, as difficult as that is.

Javier Torres in Michel Descombey’s The Dying Swan
Photo Elliott Franks

It was quite naturally an emotion-laden evening that opened with perfectly pitched short speeches from Cojocaru, who clearly struggled to hold back her emotions, and Putrov, who revealed that the evening had already raised over £140,000.

That was followed by the stirring Ukrainian national anthem sung by The Royal Opera’s Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Kseniia Nikolaieva. It’s first verse could hardly be more pertinent:

The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,
and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.

Luca Acri in Lacrymosa by Edward Stierle
Photo Elliott Franks

There was a sense of hope too in the show’s closing number, the orchestra playing ‘The Triumph of Love’ from Alexander Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda as the dancers stood on stage and listened.

The evening also featured more Russian music, from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, choreography by Petipa, and included Natalia Osipova was among the dancers. Of course, there are challenges and issues to confront, there are some works that should not be aired, there are companies and individuals close to, representative of, or seen as ambassadors for the Russian state that should not be invited to perform, but this is not a time to cancel dancers, composers or anyone else, past or present, solely because of their nationality, despite the rush by a few to do so.

The dance itself was, of course, secondary to everything else that the evening stood for, but in between those opening and closing items came thirteen solos and duets, many of them laden with symbolism, none more so than a pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land danced by Ukrainian Katja Khaniukova (who fled Kyiv during the 2014 conflict) and Aitor Arrieta; and Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem, danced by Khaniukova’s fellow countrywoman, Marianna Tsembenhoi. In their duet, which sees a lost soldier return in spirit, the eloquent Khaniukova and Aitor gave a performance of great emotional intensity; grief, pain and loss etched deeply on her face. In her solo from Requiem, Tsembenhoi was a picture of calm in this troubled world.

Natalia Osipova in Ashes by Jason Kittelberger
Photo Elliott Franks

There were two beautiful male solos. Javier Torres was powerful and strong Michel Descombey’s version of The Dying Swan, which is about a paraplegic who loses one of his limbs and fighting for what has been lost. But even that paled alongside Luca Acri in Hungarian choreographer Edward Stierle’s Lacrymosa, an incredibly moving dance about facing the reality of death, performed to the mournful music of the same title from Mozart’s Requiem. Utterly captivating, it brought one of the biggest ovations of the evening from the audience.

Equally emotional was Osipova in Jason Kittelberger’s Ashes to Nigel Kennedy and The Kroke Band equally sorrowful sounding interpretation of the Balkan folk melody, ‘Ederlezi’. Every moment of her dramatic solo seemed to come from deep inside, her face and body showing what she felt.

Miki Mizutani and Mathias Dingman in the Grand pas de deux from Don Quixote
Photo Elliott Franks

But there were brighter offerings too. Mayara Magri and Francesco Gabriele Frola pulled out all the stops in the Ali and Medora pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Frola in particular let rip from the off, achieving magnificent height on his leaps. There were more fireworks in the second half from Miki Mizutani and Mathias Dingman in the Grand pas de deux from Carlos Acosta’s Birmingham version of Don Quixote. For pas de deux elegance, though, the winners were undoubtedly Marianela Núñez and Reece Clarke in George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Fast, neat and precise, they were all you could wish for.

Marianela Núñez and Reece Clarke
in George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux
Photo Elliott Franks

Elsewhere in the fine evening, the nimble and light on their feet Alison McWhinney and Fernando Carratalá Coloma danced a pas de deux from August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, and Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Salvatore De Simone performed a duet from Wayne McGregor’s FAR. Emma Hawes and Junor Souza were all neoclassical cool in the first of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes.

Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell in Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake
Photo Elliott Franks

Pas de deux often struggle out of context, but there were no such issues for Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell in the White Swan pas de deux from Scarlett’s Swan Lake. Both oozed character, Bracewell making it very clear he was in love, she expressing her despair at her predicament and melting oh so gorgeously into his arms. And finally, Cojocaru and Mathieu Ganio were divine in a long pas de deux from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, the Chopin played by Ukrainian pianist Sasha Grynyuk.

Alina Cojocaru and Mathieu Ganio in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias
Photo Elliott Franks

In the programme, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, wrote how the event highlighted the unity of the world in its desire for peace. “I firmly believe that one day we will welcome all performers of Dance for Ukraine to share their art on the best stages of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol and other free and peaceful Ukrainian cities.” Let us hope he is correct.

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