A picture of war, resilience and hope: United Ukrainian Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Wartime Elegy

Taipei Music Center
April 29, 2023

The United Ukrainian Ballet’s visit to Taipei saw them present a gala-style programme that included Alexei Ratmansky’s new tribute to that country’s people, Wartime Elegy (also the title of the whole evening), alongside twelve dances and excerpts from other works, classical and modern, including a few less well known.

While it was an evening where reminding everyone that war continues to ravage the Ukraine was, in many ways, more important than the ballet itself, it also proved a fine show, with excellent performances almost wherever you looked.

Not unexpectedly, the highlight was Alexei Ratmansky’s new 20-minute title work that opened the second half of the evening. Although he is openly opposed to the war, the ballet is not overtly political. Danced to piano and string music by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, and traditional folk music, it’s a picture of the people behind the headlines. It reflects the consequences of war while also expressing the joyful aspects of Ukrainian culture, paying tribute to the people’s resilience and strength, and praying for the arrival of peace and a hopeful future.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Wartime Elegy
Photo Altin Kaftira

Wartime Elegy comes in three parts, two elegiac sections to lyrical music by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, bookending a pair of bright and upbeat Ukrainian folk dances. The transitions, the sudden shifts between darkness and light and back again, do jar, but the production is surprisingly moving.

The first and third sections are backed by melancholy paintings and sketches by Matvei Vaisberg. Images of what could be destroyed statue or a destroyed body sit above stark, impressionist landscapes. In contrast, the folksy middle of the ballet is danced against colourful, floral, folk images by Maria Prymachenko.

The opening section for the ballet’s four men and four women is quiet and thoughtful. There’s a sense of vulnerability and sadness. There’s no narrative, just a feeling of inescapable fate. An image of the whole cast seated on the floor, reaching out, is particularly striking, and is repeated later. Structurally, it’s fluid, the men. The men’s simple black, sleeved leotards somehow disguise their human-ness.

United Ukrainian Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Wartime Elegy
Photo courtesy UDN Fun Life

There are individual moments but Wartime Elegy very much has the collective to the fore. The dancers lean on and help one another up from the floor repeatedly. In the opening, the men and women do often appear as a separate groups, perhaps noting the apartness and separation of the wartime situation, however.

But Ratmansky’s message is that the people’s spirit cannot and will not be dimmed. In Ukrainian, a voice shouts, “Hey! Play it like our glorious Dovbush” (a folk hero often compared to Robin Hood). Suddenly, all is festive, the men (Nikita Potapchuk, Maxim Bilokrinitskyi, Pavlo Zurnadzhi and Oleksii Hohidze) now in white shirts and grey tights with coloured belts. It shouts camaraderie, friendship. There’s no Russian-style bravura, just guys playing around, being a little silly, having fun. It’s jokey, bright and sunny.

The following dance for the women (Vladysalva Ihnatenko, Vasilisa Nykyforova, Daria Monoilo and Olena Mykhailova) in bright dresses and floral headbands, is a clever marriage of folk and ballet steps with folk music. It’s quite joyous and works a treat before the two groups come together.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Wartime Elegy
Photo courtesy UDN Fun Life

Another abrupt change sees the backdrop shifts to an impressionist picture of a big grey sky and yellow field below, presumably sunflowers. On it, a sketch of the Nike of Paionios by Vaisberg. Face erased, arm missing, we are back to fragility. But, as the dance comes full circle and Ratmansky reminds us of the opening, there is hope of a brighter future as colour returns, that sky turning azure blue.

The programme opened with the Grand pas d’action La Bayadère. It was neatly danced by Elizaveta Gogidze and Oleksii Kniazkov, and there were some powerful lifts from him, but it did feel a but tepid. Did that have something to do with getting used to the enormous venue’s unusual sightlines, however?

Daria Monoilo and Fedir Zarodyshev in Giselle
Photo courtesy UDN Fun Life

Things shifted up several notches with the Act II Adagio from Ratmanksy’s Giselle, the company’s first production. Daria Monoilo, United Ukrainian Ballet’s stand-out solo dancer of the night, was beautifully delicate and ethereal, her face incredibly expressive. A strong presence too, Fedir Zarodyshev was a considerate partner.

Guest artists Katja Khaniukova and Aitor Arrieta from English National Ballet then gave wonderful cut-glass performances in the Act II Pas de deux from Le Corsaire, her is fabulous icy dress. Both oozed character. Dances from the classics continued apace with another second act pas de deux, this time from La Sylphide, with Maria Shupilova and Zurnadzhi. He looked very at home with the choreography, his ballon and batterie truly excellent in his fiendish variation.

Oleksii Kniazkov and Iryna Zhalovska in Spartacus
Photo courtesy UDN Fun Life

Perhaps surprisingly, Spartacus doesn’t appear much on gala programmes, so it was a delight to see the Act II Adagio. A what a view! In a shiny black number, Iryna Zhalovska was slinky, sexy and everything between. Kniazkov was strong, macho and testosterone-fuelled. Performed against a fiery backdrop, it just got better and better.

Much of the pre-show publicity centred on the presence of husband and wife guest dancers Anastasia and Denis Matvienko. Unfortunately, they did rather draw the short straw with Roland Petit’s Carmen. As Don José, Denis strutted purposefully but the over-the-top stereotyping and stylisation doesn’t convince. The choreography for Carmen herself is better, and it’s at its best when they come together but, as a narrative excerpt, it didn’t convince.

Anastasia and Denis Matvienko in Carmen
Photo courtesy UDN Fun Life

Save the closing number, Act II eschewed showpiece pas de deux. But, if anything, that only served to make it far more interesting, it’s duets all very appealing.

Following Ratmansky’s Wartime Elegy, a lovely light duet from Closer than Love by Artem Shoshyn, which premiered in 2015, is about a young couple very much in love. It was beautifully danced by Shupilova and Zarodyshev. The complete ballet actually depicts two further stages of love, break-up and that after break-up or loss. It left me wanting to see the whole work.

Zhalovska did all that is expected with Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan. Her arms were especially fluid. A swan in a white tutu may be many people’s idea of classical ballet but the solo has almost become a pastiche of itself and gets far too many outings in my book.

After Petit’s Carmen proved a bit of a dud, the Matvienkos came up trumps with a duet from Edward Clug’s super modernist take on familiar Shakespeare, Radio and Juliet. As rock music and the literary masterpiece collide, it’s romantic without being soppy. Both were as sharp and streamlined as should be.

After Jörg Mannes’ March with Kniazkov and Gogidze, the lovely and light Monoilo would shine again in Forest Song, choreography by Vakhtang Vronsky. It’s helps having such an attentive partner as Bilokrinitskyi, of course. Danced in front of a cascading waterfall, it’s subtle and beautiful.

Katja Khaniukova in Don Quixote
Photo courtesy UDN Fun Life

Closing fireworks came with the return of Khaniukova and Arrieta for the Grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. They wowed throughout, the undoubted highlight being Khaniukova’s absolutely on-the-spot, warp-speed fouttées (they needed to be, the recorded music was seriously fast), although Arrieta almost matched her with his turns à la seconde.

While I’m sure the cavernous Taipei Music Centre is an excellent concert venue, it certainly has its issues as a venue for proscenium stage productions. The biggest is that the whole of the first level (stalls) is on the flat. That’s fine for a standing audience for popular music, but the lack of a rake is a serious problem when it comes to dance. The height of the stage mitigates things a little but seeing feet was difficult. It was a super evening, though. Organisers UDN Fun Life should be congratulated for bringing the company to the city.