At Auditorium, Kyiv City Ballet brings youthful zest to the grand Russian classical style

Not just a salute to a war-torn nation, the troupe’s sampler program showcases precise movement and Ukraine’s dance traditions.

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The Ukrainian dancers of Kyiv City Ballet have not been in their homeland since war broke out in February.

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The Auditorium Theatre was packed Saturday night for the first of two performances by Ukraine’s Kyiv City Ballet. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still raging, gold and blue Ukrainian flags hung in the lobby and the colonnade leading to the Auditorium.

But inside the theater itself, the atmosphere paid the highest compliment possible to a visiting ensemble. It was the first night of the Auditorium’s 2022-23 season, and the audience included devoted Auditorium and ballet fans as well as fervent Ukrainian Americans. Since opening in 1889, the Auditorium has welcomed the world’s finest artists, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before it moved to the newly built Orchestra Hall in 1904.Saturday’s program, repeated Sunday afternoon, was not a sentimental, rally-round-the-flag salute to beleaguered dancers stranded in Paris since war broke out Feb. 24 in their homeland. It was an evening showcasing a young ballet troupe, founded in 2012, that deserves attention. Chicago is its fourth stop on a U.S. tour running through late October.

The evening’s sampler program, performed to recorded music, was a Ukrainian-style dance smorgasbord. A contemporary ensemble piece, “Thoughts,” by company member Vladyslav Dobshynskyi, opened the performance. Next came “Tribute to Peace,” a lighthearted work set to snippets of familiar music by Edward Elgar. Its two choreographers — Ivan Kozlov, Kyiv City Ballet’s founder and general director, and his wife, Ekaterina Kozlova, associate director — created it for the U.S. tour.

The company showed off its 19th century classical style in “Classical Suite,”flashy, familiar pas de deux from three story ballets: “Paquita,” “La Bayadere” and “Don Quixote.” “Men in Kyiv,” a rambunctious finale added as a last-minute surprise, set the audience cheering.

Kyiv City Ballet is young in more ways than one. Many of its 30-plus dancers are in their late teens and early 20s, just beginning their careers. Since Feb. 24, they have found a temporary home for ballet classes and rehearsals at Paris’ fabled Theatre du Chatelet. (The company had expected to be in France for two weeks, touring the country with “The Nutcracker” before moving on.)

But it is obvious the young dancers have thoroughly absorbed the grand Russian classical style, brightening it with youthful zest and buoyancy. Ballet has deep roots in Ukraine; the National Ballet of Ukraine celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018. Despite the current hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, Russian ballet style is justly revered around the world. Any young ballet company should be proud to channel it.

In “Classical Suite,” the effort behind those endless, whipping fouetté turns and flashy, racing leaps occasionally showed. But throughout the evening, the dancers displayed something equally important as rock-solid technique. They looked at home and relaxed on the Auditorium’s vast stage, dancing with fierce precision and elan. From the corps’ gently curved, fluid arms in “Classical Suite” to their insect-like bent legs in “Thoughts,” they filled the air with sharply etched movement.

Though heartfelt, the choreography in “Tribute to Peace” was a trifle, a series of cliched vignettes of everyday life. Young couples danced happily, and haughty ladies spurned would-be lovers. But the Kyiv dancers know how to create vivid characters, and we couldn’t help but chuckle as the dandy wooed his indifferent lady with increasingly valuable gifts. Flowers? No. Bonbons? Oh, please. Diamond necklace? Now you’re talking.

The most intriguing work was “Thoughts,” danced to a largely electronic score by various composers. Depicting a man (Dobshynskyi) hounded by unwelcome thoughts (the corps as an ever-shifting, aggressive mass), it had its own share of dance cliches. An elusive woman (Maryna Apanasenko) represented the man’s salvation, and the corps and Dobshynskyi spent a lot of time in agonized lunges and anguished twists. But every gesture, often frozen for a second in space, was powerful. Creating indelible images, they cut against the deep black backdrop like an artist’s X-Acto blade.

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Kyiv City Ballet member Vladyslav Dobshynskyi opened the Auditorium Program with his piece “Thoughts.”

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The performance ended on just the right feel-good note with “Men in Kyiv,” an unabashed tribute to Ukraine’s centuries-old folk dance tradition. Sporting the colors of the Ukrainian flag, two teams of the troupe’s men — one in blue T-shirts, the other in gold — tore through the acrobatic runs, hops and spins of the Gopak.

Dating back to Ukraine’s 16th century Cossacks, the dance is familiar around the world thanks to folk troupes like Russia’s Moiseyev Dance Company and countless versions of the Russian Dance from “The Nutcracker.” But the Gopak was born in Ukraine, and its high-spirited, lightning-fast faceoff between friendly competitors is considered the country’s national dance. In choreographer Pavlo Virsky’s version, it was a showcase for the Kyiv City Ballet’s men, every one of them brimming with exuberance, skill and sheer joy in dancing. Propelled by rousing folk tunes familiar to any Ukrainian, they made it clear that Ukraine is indeed a distinctive nation, proud of itself and confident of its place in the world. The cheering audience heartily agreed.

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