Theatre of war: Olha Kifiak on how Ukrainian ballet is created during air raids

All theatres now have the same genre, and it is a tragedy. 

Art today is not only about keeping stable mental health but also about trying to distract people from the news. Art is always a powerful weapon.

Since the beginning of the war, Ukrainian theatres have become not only centres of culture but also the heart of the volunteer movement and, for some people, a refuge.

Ukrainian Moment spoke to Olha Kifiak, Honored Artist of Ukraine and prima ballerina of the National Opera, and found out how the most challenging season is going for Ukrainian theatre.

– Please remember the morning of February 24; how did you feel then? 

– I was out of the country before the full-scale invasion; on February 6, I left for a tour abroad. I remember waking up on February 24 and seeing messages from my parents and friends. My parents don’t live in Kyiv, but on February 22, they came there on business, so when I found out they were there, I was scared. In March, they evacuated to Kamianets-Podilskyi, and later I took them to the Chernivtsi region. The evacuation was complicated. 

– In 2022, many theatre and ballet artists had to change their profession and fight to the front. For instance, your colleague, ballet soloist Oleksandr Shapoval, was killed near Maiorsk, Donetsk region. How is the National Opera dealing with the deaths of its artists today? 

– When we were working together, Oleksandr told me a lot about his grandfather, who fought during the Second World War, and he was very proud of him, so this also had its impact. For the Opera, this is a vast loss because artists like Oleksandr are born once every hundred years. It was fascinating to work with him: I never heard anything wrong from him, and he was always positive.

Olha Kifiak and Oleksandr Shapoval

– In addition, in 2022, you had to endure three personal tragedies: losing your uncle, father, and brother. You dedicated the performance ‘Viennese Waltz’ to your father and brother. Why did you choose this particular ballet? 

– Yes, as I said, we had a tough time evacuating my parents, and on March 21, my father’s heart stopped. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fly to say goodbye to him. Only my older brother Dmytro, who was released from the Armed Forces for this purpose, was at the funeral.

Three months later, he was killed near Bakhmut. Later, I dedicated the play The ‘Viennese Waltz’ to my brother and father. I chose it because they had once been to this ballet, but to be honest. I dedicate every performance I do to them. 

When I performed the ‘Waltz’ for the first time, I felt devastated because I didn’t understand why it happened.

In addition, I did one performance in memory of those who died in the war. I got the idea when my brother was buried. Where my mother lives, there is a tradition that when a person is buried, the body must spend the night in the house beforehand. Sitting by Dmytro’s body in the evening, I went into the yard and asked: ‘What can I do for you?’. And I devised this idea to make a performance in their honour. I asked the choreographer Ksenia Ivanenko to help me, and we choreographed this ballet together. It is called ‘Wings of Ukraine’ because our defenders are our wings, the wings of our country. And at the same time, when we were already working on ‘Wings’, we learned that Oleksandr Shapoval had died.

Ольга про свого брата Дмитра

– In 2022, the National Opera resumed its work on May 21. What was it like to return to the opera after such a long break? 

– It was tough to return because we had no idea what to do. We were faced with the fact that all Russian composers were removed from the repertoire, and I agree with this decision because we cannot now perform performances of the terrorist country or appear on the same stage with Russian artists. They (Russians – ed.) are killing our people every day. 

When we first resumed our work, there were very few soloists. It was hard to organise anything; the audience was afraid to go… In May, we gave a lot of gala concerts, but there was no cardinal ballet, and few artists returned. Since the beginning of the war, 70 people have left the ballet. Despite this, we still have a whole house at every performance. 

– What Ukrainian performances should every viewer see? 

– Every month, the National Opera performs ‘The Forest Song’, and I also love ‘Lila’. More people should see these performances to realise once again that love always wins.

– How does the National Opera cope with the problems with power supply and blackouts?

– The opera does not have power cuts, so when there is no electricity at home, we go to the theatre and charge our power banks there (laughs). However, when there was shelling on December 31, there was no water in the theatre, and we didn’’t go to work.

The forest song

– What do you think was the most crucial mission of the theatre during the war? 

– To work and help our military. Sometimes our team holds fundraisers to help the Armed Forces, and we always join in. Of course, I would like the theatre to travel abroad more and give charity performances supporting the Armed Forces, but unfortunately, we don’t have this opportunity now. However, if artists are invited to gala concerts in Europe or America, we can always introduce Ukrainian classics to foreign audiences.

– What is keeping you from losing heart and breaking down now? 

– Faith in our victory in the Armed Forces. Even during the war, I can give the audience joy.  I believe that Ukraine will win because love always conquers any evil. 

Contemporary Ukrainian theatre is experiencing many new challenges, changing, adapting, defending and fighting.

So we hope that despite the sounds of explosions, changes in repertoire, and the painful loss of its employees, contemporary Ukrainian theatre will be able to build a brighter and brighter future for our culture.

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