REVIEW: Grand Kyiv Ballet of Ukraine

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The Glasshouse, Port Macquarie
Reviewed May 11

Grand Kyiv Ballet 2023

Following on from a season in New Zealand, the Grand Kyiv Ballet of Ukraine (GKB) gave the first Australian performance of its double bill, Forest Song and Don Quixote, in the NSW coastal city of Port Macquarie.

Both the works on the program are condensed versions of evening-length ballets and, in order to ensure that the full storyline in each case is easily understood, both works are accompanied by spoken interludes that fill out the narrative — an essential accompaniment to Forest Song, which has never previously been seen in Australia.

Forest Song is adapted from the 1911 poetic play of the same name by Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka and was first staged as a ballet in the 1940s. It tells the story of a clash between humans and the spirits of the forest as exemplified by a young musician, Lukash, and his relationship first with Mavka, spirit of the forest, and then with a scheming peasant woman, Kylyna, who is pushed along in her quest for Lukash by her conniving mother.

In many respects, much of the choreography is quite static: one pose follows another without much "joining" movement and I suspect this relates back to the fact that it was created 80 or so years ago. A showy end where fouettés and grand allegro seem there for effect rather than for any other reason similarly seems to date back several years. But a highlight is the wedding scene where the hero, Lukash, having given up his love for Mavka, has just married Kylyna. It is filled with Ukrainian-style folk dancing with much clapping from the bystanders and solo acts from various male cast members.

In this wedding scene the standout performers were Margaryta Kuznietsova as the Mother and Veronika Stepanenko as her daughter, Kylyna. Kuznietsova maintained her characterisation strongly throughout as did Stepanenko. It was a thrill to see their emotions so plainly exhibited and to see the physicality they drew on to give continuity to their portrayals.

Forest Song is not like any other ballet I have seen. In many respects it reminded me of an old-fashioned pantomime where overacting was always evident and where the dance segments were popped in between text and acting. But I think it is important to see this work for what it is and not wish it looked more like what we know of ballet today. For me it was simply entertaining and made me look back on shows I have seen in the past.

As far as entertainment is concerned, Don Quixote, which in this case consists of parts of the Prologue and parts of Acts 1 and 3, is quite fascinating. In particular it was a surprise to see such a different depiction of Gamache, Kitri’s rich suitor. We usually see him as an overdressed dandy. But with GKB he is an ageing man without a fancy hat and with a wig that shows a balding head - no hat, no long curly wig, just an old man with limbs that aren’t working well. He is dressed in a decorative violet and white suit but without the lace and frills we usually see, although his acting is well-tuned enough for us to see his interest in Kitri. It is actually a welcome change from the overkill associated with the usual Gamache. As for Sancho Panza, the scene where he was thrown in the air by the people in the square was breathtaking. He was thrown so high he just about reached the fly system.

But the absolute highlight of this performance of Don Quixote was the dancing and overall performance of Mie Nagasawa as Kitri. She has such a presence onstage and she involves herself in every moment in a very personal way - never really losing the character she is portraying. And as for that moment in the Act I pas de deux where Basilio (Victor Tomashek) lifts Kitri up high and holds her there with one hand as the music pauses, I gasped because not only did he do that, he also walked backwards for several steps while holding her there. Stepanenko as the Street Dancer and Kuznietsova as the leading Spanish dancer also impressed me (again) with their beautifully fluid upper body movements and their powerful stage presence.

I enjoyed these two works, for different reasons in each case. Despite the condensed aspects of each work, and a few technical issues, they were entertaining theatre such as you don’t often see. But the program needs to be seen without preconceived ideas of what we might think ballet should be and do. Ballet can be and do many things, including be straight out entertainment.

The evening ended with a request for the audience to stand for the singing of the Ukrainian National Anthem, an emotional ending to an unusual evening.


 The Grand Kyiv Ballet of Ukraine tour of Australia continues through 20 centres in Qld, NSW, Vic and Tasmania, finishing at the Albury Entertainment Centre on June 30. For details go here.



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