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Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky: ‘I don’t want my ballet to be staged in Russia ever again’

When the Ukrainian invasion began, the ballet great left a show at the Bolshoi in protest. Here he reconsiders his past ties with Russia and the silence of the cultural elite in the country of his birth

One night in July, the curtain closed on the United Ukrainian Ballet’s performance of Giselle at the Segerstrom Center in Orange County, California, and then it opened again. On stage was the Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Budko, who lost both his legs in the war. “He was sitting on stage, without his prosthetics, and he started to dance,” says Alexei Ratmansky, who choreographed Giselle. “It was silence – 3,000 people as one, not breathing,” he remembers. The dancers joined in, lifting him high in the air. “It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had,” says Ratmansky. “The response was tremendous.”

The two worlds of ballet and the battlefield seem so remote, but in the Ukraine war they have collided. Dancers turned soldiers are dying on the frontline (including Ratmansky’s former colleagues from the National Opera of Ukraine, Oleksandr Shapoval and Artem Datsyshyn) in Ukraine; and here a soldier became a dancer, bringing the harsh reality of the Russian invasion to an American theatre, alongside a company of exiled dancers.

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