The United Ukrainian Ballet: Swan Lake

AAR-Swans-The-United-Ukrainian-Ballet-Swan-LakeFor Australian audiences, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is culturally significant to a degree: the opening oboe refrains and the danse des petit cygnes melody are eminently recognizable; the work has inspired mothers and fathers to wake early on weekend mornings to ship youngsters in tutus or tights to ballet classes.

The masterpiece, which pre-dates the Russian Revolution by four decades, became an all-pervasive portent, though, for Ukrainians in the Soviet era.

It played on state television when Brezhnev and his successors died and, it aired one last time, on loop, when tanks rolled into Moscow in 1991 during the failed coup that precipitated the end of the USSR.

The tanks, tragically, are rolling again, but the United Ukrainian Ballet’s production aims to transform Swan Lake from a dark signal of doom to a golden promise of liberation.

On February 24th, the day that Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, Igone De Jongh, the most renowned Dutch ballerina of her generation, found two Ukrainian co-stars distraught in their dressing rooms.

It was the impetus for a humanitarian project of remarkable scale and import; The Hague’s Conservatory was repurposed into a refugee centre, with 15 female dancers arriving in March, then, a few months later, the men arrived, having received presidential approval to leave.

In just half a year, ballet dancers from companies across Ukraine, united in grief, joined together as one to embark on a global tour, to spread hope, awareness, and to ensure that the careers of a generation of young dancers are not another needless casualty of Russia’s cruel and unsanctioned actions.

Given the circumstances and the timeline of production, the United Ukrainian Ballet’s Swan Lake, unsurprisingly does not have the Swiss watch precision of The Royal Ballet; sometimes, particularly in Act 1, there was a half a beat discrepancy between some dancers and the recording of Tchaikovsky’s score; the corps de ballet was not always mesmerizingly in synch.

You cannot replicate, though, the emotional heft, the historical and cultural weight of this production. Behind every dancer’s theatrical smile is a story of resilience. Kateryna Chebykina’s, Odette/Odile, is a triumph, with her pirouettes in the Black Swan pas de deux eliciting spirited cheers from the crowd. Pavlo Zurnadzhi’s Jester was also a favourite, as were the quartet of Little Swans: Anastasia Bakum, Polina Dzurha, Alvina Krout and Daria Manolio.

For a tale already rich in symbolism, this Swan Lake takes on an even deeper meaning. When the evil sorcerer Rothbart, played by Oleksiy Gritshun takes to the stage in Scene II, there is an incursion of red lighting on the borders of the set.

In the battle between the forces of dark and light, the white swan and the black swan are physically identical; a plot point laden with meaning during a war between former compatriots, between nations with a shared cultural heritage.

The show concludes with a less customary happy ending, with Oleksii Kniakov’s Prince Siegfried defeating Rothbart in battle, breaking the curse so that the cast of swans is bathed in a glorious, gilded light.

For the bows, the production’s lush sets are hidden by a black wall, and members of the cast emerged onto the stage with Ukrainian flags, one emblazoned with “make dance, not war” for a chill inducing rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem.

As the crowd cheered and shouted their support, the performance masks slipped as some performers, with hands on hearts, broke into sobs.

The United Ukrainian Ballet’s Swan Lake is a humanity affirming production, a testament to the capacity that nations have to band together, to display fortitude and to find beauty, even amidst the deepest darkness.

The United Ukrainian Ballet: Swan Lake
Festival Theatre – Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Performance: Wednesday 9 November 2022
Season continues to 13 November 2022

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: The United Ukrainian Ballet presents Swan Lake (supplied)

Review: James Murphy