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Ukrainian ballet dancers in exile serve as cultural ambassadors as war rages on at home
Geoff Bennett: During the past 12 months of war, Ukrainians have demonstrated their courage and resilience in countless ways.
One group of artists is responding the best way they know how, through dance, bringing their work and their stories to world stages.
Jeffrey Brown profiles the United Ukrainian Ballet for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: "Giselle," one of the most beloved ballets in the classical repertoire, gorgeous music and movement, a story of romance and loss.
But this production performed recently at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, had its own added story, one dancers like Oleksii Kniazkov brought to the stage.
Oleksii Kniazkov, United Ukrainian Ballet: All dancers or maybe all of Ukrainians have this floating on the waves all the time with the emotions with everything. We don't know how it will end. We don't know, will we have our homes when we will come back?
Jeffrey Brown: Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kniazkov, 30, was a principal dancer with the Kharkiv National Opera and Ballet in Ukraine's second largest city.
The war put a stop to his career, as to so much else. More important, it has threatened his homeland and the lives of his loved ones, most of whom remain in Donetsk, where he grew up. Now he is of more than 60 professional dancers from theaters throughout Ukraine living in exile in The Hague in the Netherlands, joined as the United Ukrainian Ballet.
Woman: My soul is, like, broken.
Jeffrey Brown: Several of them danced amid the rubble at home to highlight the mission of the new group.
Woman: The only thing that could save me, it's dancing.
Jeffrey Brown: Kniazkov and the other male dancers were given special permission by the government to leave Ukraine to take part in this project, an acknowledgement of their importance as cultural ambassadors.
Oleksii Kniazkov: People see us, like, bones and, like, blood.
Jeffrey Brown: Like real flesh-and-blood human beings.
Oleksii Kniazkov: Yes, not on screen on some -- when they watch news. But when you see these real people on the stage, you can maybe understand them, feel their emotions and in some way united with them, some way connect with them.
Jeffrey Brown: Twenty-year-old Vladyslava Ihnatenko grew up in Kharkiv, where her family remains. She had just begun her dancing career in Odessa when the war broke out.
Vladyslava Ihnatenko, United Ukrainian Ballet: We are really trying to help each other, and we understand each other more than everyone else at this time. So I, think its really powerful community for us to share our, Well,, emotions and to help each other to work on the same project.
Jeffrey Brown: Sharing emotions. Everybody has difficult, painful emotions now.
Vladyslava Ihnatenko: Yes, that's right. But, also, it's really nice when people, after a performance, think about how to help our country or maybe check on something what happened there much more, to donate, to help, to ask Ukrainian people how it is. It's really nice to communicate like this.
Igone de Jongh, Artistic Director, United Ukrainian Ballet: When we had this idea, we never thought it would be this, it would never become this big.
Jeffrey Brown: The United Ukrainian Ballet was begun last year by Dutch ballerina Igone de Jongh, who serves as the company's artistic director.
Woman: This is my room.
Jeffrey Brown: She helped find lodging and studio space in The Hague and gradually brought more dancers into the fold.
This is unlike anything she or the dancers have ever done. For one thing, ballet requires enormous discipline and focus. But these dancers necessarily have their minds on their families and friends back home.
Igone de Jongh: I try to have conversations with them where I said to them, maybe just 10 minutes or just 15 minutes during class, just focus on you, focus on what you are doing with your body and give yourself a little break.
It's, of course, a very difficult question to ask. But after a few months, I could feel that they were getting a little bit more comfortable and a little bit more at ease with just dancing.
Jeffrey Brown: There is a psychology to this project that you probably have never experienced yourself.
Igone de Jongh: No, no. And I don't think there's a rule book for it.
Alexei Ratmansky, Guest Choreographer, United Ukrainian Ballet: If you have any sense of fairness, of what's right, what's wrong, I think that's the only choice. Ukraine is fighting for freedom and democracy.
Jeffrey Brown: The biggest name involved with the United Ukrainian Ballet is Alexei Ratmansky, a one-time director of Moscow's famed Bolshoi Ballet, today one of the world's most renowned choreographers.
The company is performing his version of "Giselle," which restores some of the movement and other features of the original 19th century French ballet. And he brings his own unusually personal story to this project. His mother is Russian, his father Ukrainian. He was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia, but raised in Kyiv.
On the day Russia attacked Ukraine, he was actually in Moscow working with the Bolshoi, and his world changed too.
Alexei Ratmansky: When my wife called me from New York saying Kyiv is bound, it was 5:00 a.m. I didn't have any choice. I just left right away. I grabbed my team, and I felt that this door is shut for me, because I can't split. I can't sit on two chairs. I have to make a decision.
Jeffrey Brown: And the decision is Ukrainian identity and the country must be supported?
Alexei Ratmansky: Right, right.
Jeffrey Brown: That support is now evident in his work with the United Ukrainian Ballet, also in his public criticism of prominent Russian artists for not speaking out.
He understands why some Russians, fearing for their families, might stay silent, but, he says:
Alexei Ratmansky: You can't pretend that nothing is going on. You can't say, life continues, we are happy, we are dancing. You know, there is something that just -- it doesn't work that way. You are selling yourself to the wrong person. You are on the wrong side.
Jeffrey Brown: For the Ukrainian dancers, of course, there is also no question of the right and wrong side.
And, for them, being able to dance is part of their identity, stripped away by the war.
Oleksii Kniazkov: In some way, when I came on stage in Netherlands the first time, it was almost half-year past after beginning of the war. It was in August. I felt that my life came back to me, that I begin to live again.
Jeffrey Brown: Are you worried that the rest of the world isn't paying as much attention anymore?
Vladyslava Ihnatenko: Sometimes, it's doubts about it. But then you came to another country, and you see people keep interested in news about Ukraine.
So, our mission to make it...
Oleksii Kniazkov: Remind them.
Vladyslava Ihnatenko: Yes, more people to keep it in mind.
Jeffrey Brown: The group ends each performance by singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Jeffrey Brown at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Amna Nawaz: And you can watch more of our stories on the war in Ukraine over the past year on our YouTube page.