In Ukraine, a dancing body can feel as powerful as a gun

Dancing as an art continues in Ukraine. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Anna Vinogradova, an independent dance artist living in Kyiv, Ukraine, does not carry a gun. She is 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 she cannot 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 enamoured of pole dancing - which led to a satirical work, combining stand-up and pole dancing, that she performed in a strip club.

Vinogradova dressed as a miner: a homage to her home town, Donetsk, which has been in conflict with Russia since 2014. "I tried 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 dance making.

"This is life and death, and there are many things that need to be done," said Ukrainian-American dancer Larissa Babij, 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.

Stories of Ukrainian ballet dancers have made headlines in the United States and Europe, but there is also a lesser-known contingent of independent dance artists and contemporary choreographers.

Many dancers have left Ukraine to live and work elsewhere - most going to other parts of Europe. And many who have remained, understandably, do not have dancing on their minds. There is too much else to contend with, even when bombs are not 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".

Viktor Ruban (third from left) rehearses with other dancers for Lviv Drama Theater in Lviv, Ukraine, on May 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The war and the body

Dance artists have a particular sensitivity to the way trauma inhabits the body. Many have experience in somatic work, which places a spotlight on the internal experience of moving: feeling sensations within the body. It is 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 centring. 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, Ukraine, 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 the Vinnytsia area in west-central Ukraine, where she used her skills as a teacher and a choreographer to direct volunteers.

To better train those in the military, Shyshkarova is creating a system that she calls "tactical choreography" and is developing it with soldier Andrii Polyarush, 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 programme will feature preparatory exercises for civilians and military personnel to create healthy movement habits.

Krystyna Shyshkarova at her dance school which also stores military uniforms and equipment in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Aug 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Dance as art

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 organiser, 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 to 75 per cent of Ukrainian choreographers have left the country for other parts of Europe. Let The Body Speak features their voices too.

"Our idea is not about presenting it in Ukraine, but abroad," Ovchinnikov said, as a way to "represent Ukrainian contemporary dance."

There is also the question of what Ukrainian contemporary dance is, especially in this moment. What can dance, as an art form, mean under these circumstances?

For young choreographer Danylo Zubkov, who leads a group in Kyiv, Ukrainian contemporary dance can be created only by dance artists living in the country since the Russian invasion. 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 said, 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 is early days. He does not yet have the words to describe his work. 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 is what being an independent artist is all about. "This 'new' is not connected with anything. Me and my friends are not making dance just as a way to forget about reality. We are trying to save it as something more."

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