Ballet training centers of Ukraine successfully resist co-optation by both neo-imperial and nationalist ideologies, forming robust and inclusive dancing communities that in many ways mirror structures of modern Ukrainian society, according to research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
The signature Vaganova style of Soviet ballet can be described in a number of ways: exacting, athletic, classical, Russian. It’s also uniform across post-Soviet training academies, including those based in now-independent Ukraine.
Training shapes bodies, and post-Soviet dancers still begin training young; students at the Kyiv State Choreographic College in Ukraine range from 10 to 17 years old. But if you’re imagining an authoritarian structure with humorless, disciplinarian teachers, you’d be wrong.
During research at the Kyiv school, Binghamton University Research Assistant Professor Ania Nikulina heard instructors crack jokes, often with a touch of dark humor. Students smiled, laughed and even impersonated faculty during a silly end-of-year theatrical performance.
“There’s a very warm, family-like atmosphere at the school, and teachers are always there to help their students in a multitude of ways,” recalled Nikulina, who spent the spring and summer of 2018 at the school for the ethnographic portion of her doctoral research. “The teachers buy water for everyone and make dance shoes, things like that. People care about each other, especially in difficult times.”
And they were tough times indeed: Ukraine was already several years into its “hybrid” conflict with Russia, which began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2013 and flamed into open warfare in 2022. Nikulina, a dance historian working with Binghamton’s Theatre and German and Russian Studies departments, explores the intersection of art and nation in “Ballet in Ukraine: From Uncertainty to Defiance and Independence,” recently published in Dance Research Journal. She has an extensive background in dance herself; she trained and performed with different dance companies in various dance styles, including ballet, classical and lyrical jazz, and modern dance, in her Siberian hometown of Novosibirsk.
While classical art often transcends national identity, decisions about which productions to stage are shaped by the realities of funding, Nikulina noted. In places where the main funding authority is the state, performances may incorporate nationalistic themes and explore ideas of nation. Ballet dancers, in a sense, are already sacrificing their bodies for the state; they sustain physical injuries in the course of the art’s long and grueling training.
“Dance historians for at least the past two decades have found deep connections between political regimes and tensions and different dance cultures,” she said. “Dancers, of course, are cultural agents.”
In the Soviet Union, the Ministry of Culture sponsored classical dance and decided which productions would receive state support. That arrangement continued in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine throughout the 1990s and early 2000s despite salary cuts and delays. When state funding lapses, as it has increasingly in Ukraine, then private institutions begin to fill the gap.
In addition to classical ballets, Ukrainian productions have relied on folk dance and narratives. Nikulina offered one example: the Ukrainian ballet Lileya. While it takes place in Imperial times, its protagonist is a girl whose rural community suffers from Russian aggression.
“There is a very deep coupling of subjectivity with different kinds of nationalistic stories that often feature resistance to Russian authorities,” Nikulina said. “When you’re dancing on stage, you will explore these scenarios. It might feel natural, when the time comes, to defend or criticize these narratives.”
Some ballet dancers have done just that: In the first days of the Russian invasion, they answered their nation’s call to arms and enlisted in military service to defend the homeland.
A tough time for artists
Even before the 2022 invasion, ballet dancers felt the strain of conflict. After all, working in a state-sponsored atmosphere, artists know where the funding comes from — and when funding doesn’t come through because the government needs to give priority to the Ministry of Defense.
National divisions aside, both Ukrainian and Russian dancers study the Vaganova method, which is highly sought-after in international ballet companies. During her interviews and observations at the Kyiv school, however, Nikulina realized that the Ukrainian approach has diverged from its Soviet predecessor. Individual attention and adaptation to student needs are the norm these days, as is humor.
“Students laugh out loud in classes and it seems like it relieves a lot of tension and pressure,” she said.
Teachers and students felt free to criticize state authorities, as funding deficits sometimes left the school without heating during the winter. And while teachers may have some nostalgia for the funding and extensive professional networks of the Soviet period, they don’t miss the Soviet regime or look to Russia as its successor state or as a new cultural capital, Nikulina observed.
Following the 2022 open invasion, many Ukrainian dancers evacuated to countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany to find work; during her ethnographic study, teachers highlighted their connections with international theaters and encouraged their students to head abroad.
“Successful students find jobs elsewhere, partially because of political instability, but also because Russian theaters are not as accessible or desirable to them as they were prior to the war,” Nikulina said. “Because of the revolutions in post-Soviet Ukraine and the hybrid warfare period that began in 2014 until the full-scale invasion, dancers became extra motivated to find positions elsewhere where it’s safe and where they can possibly bring their families.”
Working abroad, however, often means a reliance on short-term contracts with a dance company that can expire after three to six months. While that can be beneficial for dancers looking to escape war, it also leads to a different kind of stress when they consider their longer-term future, Nikulina said.
“For these dancers, instability is doubled: You have political influences such as hybrid warfare, revolution, and full-scale war, but also the particularities of the dance industry and its short-term contracts,” she said. “It’s very hard for artists right now.”