What Does a Dancing Body Feel Like in Ukraine? ‘I Am a Gun.’
Anna Vinogradova, an independent dance artist living in Kyiv, doesn’t carry a gun. She’s not even particularly patriotic, she said. Her body, though, is speaking up. “It’s like, I am a gun,” she said, “and I am staying here to protect the city.”
She knows that she can’t actually defend people. She knows the army is in charge of that. “But with my presence, with my energy,” she said, “I’m fighting.”
Before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, Vinogradova helped to run a small movement school for children. She had also become enamored of pole dancing, which led to a satirical work, combining standup and pole dancing, that she performed in a strip club. Vinogradova dressed as a miner — a homage to her hometown, Donetsk, which has been in conflict with Russia since 2014.
“I tried to to look at my culture through pole dancing,” she said.
Times have changed. Now there is little opportunity for that kind of artistic reflection or for dance making. “This is life and death, and there are many things that need to be done,” said Larissa Babij, a Ukrainian American dancer who has lived in Ukraine since 2005 and now works at the foundation Heroes Ukraine to support a unit of the country’s Special Operations Forces.
Viktor Ruban, a dance artist, scholar and activist, third from left, rehearsing in Lviv. “It’s really hard to find the movement and dance language to speak about the situation,” he said.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
Stories of Ukrainian ballet dancers have made headlines in the United States and Europe, but I was curious about Ukraine’s lesser-known contingent of independent dance artists and contemporary choreographers. Over the past few months, I have spoken to more than a dozen independent and experimental dance artists living in Ukraine, in video interviews and on WhatsApp, to discover more about what the scene was — small and underfunded, yet a network of people all the same — and what it has become.
Many dancers have left Ukraine to live and work elsewhere — most going to other parts of Europe. And many who have remained understandably don’t have dancing on their minds. There’s too much else to contend with, even when bombs aren’t dropping.
Some are using their knowledge of bodies and dance in practical ways to help the military (and themselves) contend with the mental stress and physical strain of war. Others are finding solace in the simple yet essential routines that hold the body together — sleeping and showering, stretching and breathing. Viktor Ruban, a dance artist, scholar and activist, said he views these as a somatic practice that comes “from the impulse of the body.”
He also spoke about crying. He is not a crier. But when tears come, he lets them flow.
“The amplitude of the emotions is so, so huge on a daily basis,” he said. “I experience from my body the tension in the chest and also some muscle spasms and trembling feet or trembling arms, palms. Just noticing what’s happening in the body is also helping a lot.”
Beyond securing Ukraine’s freedom, there isn’t a theme tying the stories of these artists together. How could there be? This is a war and they are individuals, reacting to it and to their own altered reality in different ways.
The war and the body
Dance artists have a particular sensitivity to the way trauma inhabits the body. Many I spoke to have experience in somatic work, which places a spotlight on the internal experience of moving: feeling sensations within the body. It’s less about changing your outward physicality and more about how movement affects you from the inside out. It can be robust or slow and methodical; it tends to be calming and centering. An aim is to unearth a greater awareness of and insight into the mind-body connection.
Mykyta Bay-Kravchenko, a dancer and teacher who lives in Lviv, has started to teach somatic classes focusing on what he called “static movement,” which facilitates connections among people, in part because of how he feels in his own body: At times, frantic.
“I feel like something is drumming inside,” he said, likening the sensation to Steve Reich’s minimalist, propulsive composition “Drumming.” “It’s not a good feeling of energy. We have terrible news every day. Every day something is bombed, and always you have it in your mind that today can be your last day.”
Other artists are volunteering in humanitarian and military efforts. After the Russian invasion began, Krystyna Shyshkarova, whose Totem Dance School in Kyiv is a prominent space for contemporary dance, left for a small town in theVinnytsia area in west-central Ukraine, where she used her skills as a teacher and a choreographer to direct volunteers. Around that time, she described the way she felt as having a “cold anger inside — I’m like a machine a little bit.”
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
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- A Brazen Bombing: A car bombing in a Moscow suburb that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist has injected new uncertainty into the war and rattled Russia’s elite.
- On the Ground: Analysts say that a new Ukrainian strategy of attacking logistical targets in Russian-held territory is proving successful — symbolically as well as militarily.
- Crimea: With the drumbeat of Ukrainian strikes inside the strategically and symbolically important Kremlin-held territory, the reality of war is becoming increasingly apparent to Russians.
Since early May, Shyshkarova has been back in Kyiv, where she is teaching and choreographing at her school, although with a much smaller group of students. One of her studios is deep in the building. There are no windows. “It’s completely defended, like in a capsule,” she said, so when the alarms sound, “We are like, What can we do? Let the rockets fly and we’ll dance. It’s a strange feeling.”
She still does volunteer work, locating drones, thermal vision goggles and vests. One part of her studio is essentially a storage facility. But recently she has started to think about how she could help in a more specific, perhaps even lasting way.
“I start to see how many traumas the soldiers have,” Shyshkarova said, “and it’s not about the bullet, not about bombs. It’s because they run too much and something goes wrong with the back. Or they turn, and something is wrong with the knees.”
She and her husband, Yaroslav Kaynar, also a dancer, choreographer and teacher, began to take courses in tactical training. And she studied YouTube videos about how to manage weapons and to move with greater efficiency. “There are mechanical and good body patterns or healthy body patterns,” Shyshkarova said. “This is what we have in contemporary dance — we learn this from childhood.”
To better train those in the military, Shyshkarova is creating a system that she calls “tactical choreography” and is developing it with Andrii Polyarush, a soldier who lost a hand in March.
“He wants to be useful,” she said. “He wants to go back to the battlefield. I said, ‘Come on, you don’t have a hand. How you can do it?’ Stay here. Help me.”
Using a combination of modern dance techniques and tactical training, the program will feature preparatory exercises for civilians and military personnel to create healthy movement habits. Sitting down, standing up, rolling over — without injuring any joints — are not as simple as they sound. And try adding to that body armor and ammunition.
“How to fall quickly,” she said. “How to move parallel to the floor or change the position of the body without letting go of the weapon and without losing focus on the enemy.”
Building on a progressive past
Reading Lynn Garafola’s recent biography of Bronislava Nijinska, I sensed a connection between the grit of these contemporary dance artists and the innovative spirit of Nijinska, who developed her progressive ideas about movement and dance working in Kyiv, starting in 1915. The sister of the brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, Nijinska was a member of Diaghilev’s groundbreaking Ballets Russes. But it was in Kyiv, away from her former ballet life in Russia, that her radical movement theories were formed. She and her experimental colleagues were ahead of their time: For her, the arts could let go of narrative. Dance didn’t need music; the body could exist on its own.
Nijinska formed her School of Movement in Kyiv, but left the country in 1921 because of political pressures. (Ukraine’s prolific avant-garde period — of which theater was always more prominent than dance — came to an end in the 1930s, suppressed by Stalin.)
Ruban is invested in preserving Ukrainian dance and theater heritage; his work grows out of the embers not just of Nijinska — with Svitlana Oleksiuk, another dance artist, he created a lecture-performance about the choreographer — but also of that experimental period more broadly.
For Ruban, who recently presented a version of an older piece — he said he finds it easier to look at past work and adapt it to the current climate — now it is not the time to delve into a deep creative process. “It’s really hard to find the movement and dance language to speak about the situation,” he said. “We do things that are more vital at this point.”
One thing he has done is start the Ukrainian Emergency Performing Arts Fund to provide financial assistance to artists. He has also begun working with Liudmyla Mova, a choreographer, psychologist and professor, on a new program that helps people in the military cope with physical and mental stress. “We’ll be giving work on body structure and centering,” he said, as well as on grounding, balancing and “many other applicable things from somatic work.”
Somatic methods are not alien to the military. Katja Kolcio, a somatic movement educator and a professor of dance at Wesleyan University, helped to develop a program in somatic resiliency during war and has worked closely with Ukrainian war-relief workers, the Ukrainian National Guard, Ukrainian Armed Forces and veterans.
“Somatic practices combine movement exploration with reflection in order to deepen awareness by drawing on our own inner wisdom and resilience,” Kolcio said.
The lived experiences, memories and the culture of participants matter. Those practices, she continued, “are particularly effective in the context of this war on Ukraine because they draw on the very resources that Putin is aiming to eradicate — Ukrainian cultural history and knowledge, passed down through generations of Ukrainian experience.”
It is through the arts, she said, that Ukrainians have been able to maintain a sense of selfhood, even when books and language were banned, and performances and artwork censored by the Soviets (as well as by Russia, long before Soviet times):“It was such an explicit attempt to erase a sense of Ukrainian-ness,” she said, and yet that was preserved “through the embroidery, through the chants and songs and movements.”
She added, “And so I think being able to finally feel one’s selfhood, it’s a physical act.”
At Soma, an independent space for movement exploration in Lviv, led by Olha Marusyn, somatic classes are offered, including a morning preparation. The word preparation is intentional. “You really prepare yourself for something, for anything,” she said. “And then we try to work with the body-mind connection, with attention, with knowing where you’re situated and what you’re looking at and what’s happening around.”
But dancing as an art continues in Ukraine, too. This month, the All-Ukrainian Association Contemporary Dance Platform presents “Let the Body Speak,” featuring dance videos by Ukrainian choreographers. Anton Ovchinnikov, a founder of the platform and an established Ukrainian choreographer and festival organizer, said it is “a kind of archive of, as we say, body memory. The idea is to edit these videos until the end of the war.”
Ovchinnikov estimates that 70 percent to 75 percent of Ukrainian choreographers have left the country for other parts of Europe. “Let the Body Speak” features their voices, too. (It is supported by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute, and created in collaboration with the Place, a London organization for dance.) “Our idea is not about presenting it in Ukraine, but abroad,” Ovchinnikov said, as a way to “represent Ukrainian contemporary dance.”
Not everyone thought it was a good idea. “There were a group of dancers who told us that now is not the time to present dance or dance videos,” he said.
But Ovchinnikov said everyone must decide for themselves whether to make dances now. “It’s very, very private,” he said. “It’s important that this decision should be outside of any of the opinions or restrictions.”
There is also the question of what Ukrainian contemporary dance is. Especially in this moment. Of course, there is still ballet and folk dance. (At the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv, ballet performances have resumed, though at a smaller scale until more dancers become available.) There are street dancers in Kyiv who raise money for war efforts. The contact improvisation scene in Kyiv was described to me as being strong and well organized — as much of a social club as a dancing community. Yet what some see as contemporary work is not avant-garde, but commercial dance more aligned to what you might see on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
What can dance, as an art form, mean under these circumstances? For the young choreographer Danylo Zubkov, who leads a group in Kyiv, Ukrainian contemporary dance can only be created now by dance artists living in the country since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. And that means starting from scratch. As he sees it, now is the time for the birth of authentic, essential Ukrainian contemporary dance. To be an independent artist, he says, is about trying to create something new. “When you do not question yourself,” he said, “you cannot find it.”
He works regularly with his dancers, but it’s early days: He said he doesn’t have the words to describe his work now. But what he does know is that it has nothing to do with generating choreographic material for a show. He wants to usher in a new era of dance; to him, that’s what being an independent artist is all about. “And this new is not connected with anything,” he said. “Me and my friends are not making dance just as a way to forget about the reality. We are trying to save it as something more.”