The show goes on for National Ballet of Ukraine

The National Ballet of Ukraine has enchanted audiences in Japan with its first full-scale overseas performances since the Russian invasion. Though the conflict has presented the 120-year-old dance company with its greatest crisis to date, the dancers and orchestra have pulled together under the leadership of newly appointed artistic director Terada Nobuhiro.

Winter 2022-23 Japan Tour

The National Ballet of Ukraine gave 14 performances in cities including Tokyo and Yokohama during December and January. The dancers enjoyed thunderous applause and standing ovations from audiences impressed not only by their performances, but also their resilience. Some attendees brought Ukrainian flags to wave in support.

For many of the dancers, the tour was the first time they had left home since the invasion began one year ago. Terada, who is Japanese, says that made the tour especially meaningful.

Terada Nobuhiro, the National Ballet of Ukraine Artistic Director

"Rehearsing or performing on stage, I find the energy among the dancers greater than ever, in every little move of their hands and their feet. I see the difference in their eyes. Everyone's gaze looks more passionate and has more power to appeal to people. I think the hardship they are enduring has generated special energy in them," he notes.

As artistic director, Terada is responsible for casting and repertoire. The tour's main program was Don Quixote, with music composed by Austrian Ludwig Minkus. The story is set in Spain and features upbeat choreography. It was a careful choice.

The National Ballet of Ukraine performs Don Quixote.

In the past, the dance company would stage Swan Lake and other pieces composed by Russian Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but not under current circumstances, Terada explains.

"Some Ukrainians have endured more than half a year without food, water or electricity. Russians tried to supply them with food and water. But the Ukrainians living there wouldn't take them. So our dancers decided to go without Tchaikovsky, and I think it was the right decision," he says.

"Don Quixote is heart-warming and humorous and fits with the character of the Ukrainians. The symbol of Ukraine is sunflowers. They brighten up people's hearts. Don Quixote can do the same with its heart-lifting music. We are pleased to perform such a delightful piece in Japan."

Terada's ties to Ukraine

Terada took the helm of the ballet company in December. He is the first Japanese person to hold the role. Born in Kyoto in 1976, he grew up in a ballet family. His parents, both dancers, established one of Kyoto's first ballet schools in 1960.

The Teradas forged strong ties between the two countries. Nobuhiro's mother Michiko used to take her students to Kyiv every year. When Ukrainian dancers toured Japan, they enjoyed a hosted Kyoto experience.

Michiko sent her son to study dance in the Ukraine capital Kyiv at the age of 11. It was during the Soviet era. He followed a strict regime, graduated at the top of his class, joined the National Ballet of Ukraine, and worked his way up to become a soloist.

Terada joined the National Ballet of Ukraine in 1995.

After retiring as a dancer, Terada helped to raise the company's global profile by organizing overseas tours and hosting international ballet competitions in Ukraine.

Terada says Russia's aggression has beset people in Ukraine with psychological harm and division. His dancers are no exception.

"At one time, less than half of the company's members remain in Ukraine, while the others fled the country. Those remaining in the country say, 'We are the real artists who protect the nation and its art'," he says.

"Having lived there for so long, I feel like I'm 50 percent Ukrainian and 50 percent Japanese. I want to do whatever I can do to restore the unity that we had in peacetime."

Terada and his mother Michiko in June 2022

A wartime footing

The company is based at the prestigious National Theater in Kyiv. The venue was shut for four straight months after the invasion began. Two former star dancers of the company have been killed during the conflict.

Performances resumed at the theater in June, but the audience is capped at 400, around a quarter of its full capacity, to match the number of seats with space in an underground shelter in case of an air-raid siren.

An underground room in the National Theater in Kyiv serves as an air-raid shelter for the audience, dancers and theater staff.

Terada says tickets are selling out for almost every performance and he is determined that the show must go on. "Ukraine is a country of art," he says. "It experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and now it is at war.

"Despite all that, art is kept alive. Art has the power to convey the beauty of the body and the heart. Our role is to let people forget about the war, even just for a short period of time with the power of art. We are tasked with giving people dreams and hopes even greater than before."