Two Kyiv City Ballet Dancers Set to Tour U.S. Returned to Ukraine to Fight

It was a sad, fortuitous and possibly not accidental bit of timing. The Kyiv City Ballet company flew out of its home city for a long-planned two-week residence in Paris, to perform The Nutcracker, on February 23; Russia's invasion of Ukraine commenced on February 24.

"The National Ballet, The Kyiv City Ballet and the [KCB] orchestra were all in European countries, not Ukraine, within a few weeks before the war broke out," Kristopher McDowell, co-founder of Rhizome Arts Consulting, which is producing the company's upcoming U.S. tour, tells Newsweek. "We knew it was coming and I think they did something to save the artists, which is remarkable."

Ever since, the ballet troupe has made Paris its home-away-from-home base, taking occasional trips within Europe to perform, including at a fundraising gala at England's York Theatre Royale in June. In May, it locked in its first-ever visit to the United States, with a 15-stop tour, but that didn't mean the dancers weren't mentally still in their home country.

"Two of the male dancers, about six, seven weeks ago, they did decide to go back," McDowell said. There are 40 dancers involved in the U.S. tour. "They went back thinking that they would fight, but those days are over. The guerrilla days are over, it's all military. So they've gone back and it's a very tough situation. Because of course now they want to come back and it's not possible."

Kyiv City Ballet
Above, dancers from the Kyiv City Ballet get ready to perform at York Theatre Royal on June 14 in York, England. Since the start Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the ballet troupe has made Paris its home-away-from-home base, taking occasional trips within Europe to perform. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images Europe

McDowell also said the company, while rehearsing and preparing for its tour, is constantly on edge for the possibility of bad news. "We'll have a meeting and someone can't make it because someone's family member just died....It's horrifying and I'm quite sure [the dancers] are sparing us from a lot of [it]." He added that there has been strain particularly on some of the younger dancers in the company, who have been beset by "some of the less-professional journalists who have been kind of all over them."

The company will travel the States starting in Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 16 and wrap up in Minneapolis on October 26. In between, they'll hit locales all over the map, from Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas, and Mountain Home, Arkansas, to New York.

The desire to come to the States, says McDowell, was the dancers'. "They came to us because they literally felt like, 'Okay, we've played all these [French] venues twice. Like, we just feel guilty staying here.'"

As McDowell tells it, someone at the Kyiv City Ballet found Rhizome on Google and emailed multiple times before they could get anyone's ear. "We're getting emails from, you know, so many people, we're looking at this going, 'There's no way.' And then for some reason, they started chasing me through WhatsApp and we finally did a big call with everybody and instantly fell in love with them," McDowell tells Newsweek. "They said, 'Look, the French government is subsidizing us and this cannot go on any longer. Can you take us to China?' Because you don't need a work visa to go into China as a Ukrainian passport holder." But McDowell—along with Rhizome senior partner Francine Sheffield and strategic partner Ping Pong Productions—had a better, if very ambitious, idea: "Typically we start planning tours of this scale two, maybe three, years in advance."

The tour is meant not only to expose the Ukrainian dancers to the U.S. but to bring dance to places in the States where it may seem unexpected. "Yes, they will do Swan Lake in the deep South, and they will do a mixed repertoire in more urban areas, so that we're satisfying our audiences," says McDowell.

"We are honored to share the beauty of ballet with U.S. audiences through Ukranian artists" artistic director Ivan Kozlov, who founded the company in 2012, said in a statement. "Touring the States for the first time with a range of ballets makes an important global statement. It demonstrates the resilience of the Ukrainian people."

After their tour of the U.S., says McDowell, the company will reunite with its orchestra for a season of The Nutcracker in Belgium.

As the first U.S. performance approaches, McDowell's main concern is raising that final bit of funding. He says that being just $35,000 short is "phenomenal, considering that the budget is very high. So we're that close, and now it's up to the philanthropists and corporations. It's a very low number in the scheme of things."