The Grand Kyiv Ballet Dances Giselle Across America: A Conversation With Principal Dancers Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov

March 12, 2024

On February 23, 2022, Grand Kyiv Ballet principals Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov were away from home, working in Western Europe. The company was preparing for its final performance before returning to Kyiv. But early the next morning, Kukhar and Stoianov (who are partners both on and off the stage, and parents to two young children) received a frantic call from their babysitter telling them that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and that the airport—where they were supposed to land later that day—was closed. “We couldn’t breathe,” Kukhar remembers, “and we couldn’t eat. We couldn’t imagine how we would get our children. Those were the most terrible days of our lives.”

With the help of family and friends, Kukhar and Stoianov managed to get their children safely across the border. They remained in Europe for three months, helping evacuate hundreds of ballet students and artists, and organizing charity tours to raise funds for Ukrainian children and medical supplies. They then moved to Seattle, where colleagues from the International Ballet Academy offered to give their family refuge.

Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov  perform as Giselle and Albrecht in <i>Giselle</i>.
Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov in Giselle. Photo by Ksenia Orlova, courtesy Grand Kyiv Ballet.

The couple first met in 2006 at the National Opera of Ukraine, where they were principal dancers. They have both been awarded the prestigious title of People’s Artist of Ukraine. Kukhar is also head of the Kyiv State Ballet College (which they both attended), and Stoianov serves as the artistic director of Grand Kyiv Ballet, which he founded in 2014 to bring Ukrainian ballet to international audiences. The company has performed throughout Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and Latin America. Now, it has embarked on its second tour in the U.S. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, touring has provided shelter, income, and purpose for nearly 100 displaced artists.

The company’s spring 2024 tour, running from February 23 to May 6, includes 55 performances of Giselle across America and one performance of Swan Lake, in Portland, Oregon (as the company already performed Giselle there in November 2023). Kukhar and Stoianov will dance the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht.

The couple recently discussed their upcoming tour and the importance of art in wartime.

Oleksandr Stoianov does a dramatic sauté arabesque as Albrecht in <i>Giselle</i>.
Oleksandr Stoianov in Giselle. Photo by Ksenia Orlova, courtesy Grand Kyiv Ballet.

Why did you choose Giselle as your primary program?

Kateryna Kukhar: Giselle is a classic. For me, it’s like Shakespeare. Like Frank Sinatra. It is full of mysticism, full of love, full of drama. And at the end of the performance, we have a sunrise. All darkness, all bad things, all danger, all your fears disappear. For us, and for all Ukrainian people, it’s like a symbol of faith. A symbol of the children having a future.

Could you speak on the significance of this tour now, and how it may be personally meaningful to you?

KK: We would like to share with people our hearts, our souls, our feelings, and to bring them a little piece of Ukrainian culture. For me, theater is a little bit like a church, because you come into the theater and bring all of your thoughts and heavy things on your shoulders, and you just sit and live, a little bit, another life. And after, people can go home with some new experience. Somebody will find an answer to a question, somebody will create something new, and somebody will be excited.  

Kateryna Kukhar performs as the titular character in <i>Giselle</i>.
Kateryna Kukhar in Giselle. Photo by Ksenia Orlova, courtesy Grand Kyiv Ballet.

How have you been rehearsing and preparing for Giselle?

Oleksandr Stoianov: We had a full cast rehearsal for just three days [in Ukraine]. But all these dancers have already danced Giselle. We have a lot of tours in different countries—it’s not always the same group [in each place, due to visas]. Before the war, it was easier because we all stayed in Kyiv; we’d have a lot of rehearsals and then get on the bus or plane and go. Now it’s more difficult to coordinate everything.

Have you been back to Ukraine since the Russian invasion?

KK: I’m living now in two countries. I’m the head of Ballet State College, so I live one month in Ukraine and two months in the U.S. with my children. The last time I was in Kyiv, in December, I had a performance—La Sylphide—for the National Opera of Ukraine. It was terrible because there were six air alarms during the day. When we started the performance, 20 minutes into the first act, there was another air alarm. Everybody had to go to the bomb shelter. We waited for one hour and 30 minutes, and then started again.

Do you feel nervous when you’re in Ukraine?

KK: No. I feel more nervous when I’m in another country because I can’t feel what’s really happening there. But when you decide to go to Ukraine now, it’s like you change something in your mind. I was not afraid, to be honest. It’s like you accept it.

OS: It’s the new reality.

How are the dancers feeling about this tour? 

OS: We have danced all over the world. The artists want to get to know the culture and see how audiences react to Ukrainian ballet. Each country has its own mentality, character, and habits, and expresses emotions differently. We want our country to be associated not only with war but also with beautifully developed art.

Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov perform the Act 2 pas de deux in <i>Giselle</i>.
Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov in Giselle. Photo by Ksenia Orlova, courtesy Grand Kyiv Ballet.