Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Hard basis of lightness

Why is the Ukrainian ballet school unique and interesting throughout the world?
21 April, 2015 - 13:45

When Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus was recently shown with full houses (which, however, has been happening for 28 years, since Anatolii Shekera’s production premiered at the National Opera), I caught myself thinking that several generations of performers and real lovers of ballet have grown up over this time. The main idea – to die in freedom is better than to live in slavery – goes in unison with our time. In Spartacus there are complicated parts both for the soloists, and the corps de ballet. The ballet is built with precision in terms of psychology, it is dynamic and requires the performers to be masterful actors, virtuoso dancers, and work with devotion. This is a production of European scale. The fact that this is a living and topical ballet which is very interesting to the audience and the dancers stand in a line to perform in the gem of choreography is largely a merit of Eleonora Stebliak, former ballet dancer, currently the teacher of the theater, who preserves the creative oeuvre of her late husband, the legendary Ukrainian choreographer Anatolii Shekera.

“Ballet is above all colossal work. Since Soviet time Yurii Vizbor’s lines ‘in the field of ballet we are ahead in the entire planet’ have been very popular. It was very prestigious to enter a choreography school,” says Eleonora STEBLIAK, “Today many children dream to get into ballet, but often this choice is made for children by their parents (because children start to dance at the age of five). Currently the choreographic education can be obtained at the choreography school, the Serge Lifar Aca­demy of Dance, and the Kyianochka School. Odesa School of Culture Education has a choreographic department, and there are ballet schools in all the opera houses – in Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv, Kharkiv, and Do­netsk (unfortunately, we cannot say that full-fledged studies are taking place in Pysariev’s school today, when it is war in the east).

“It is important to understand that certain physical abilities are needed for ballet, you must train every day, and if you love ballet, even great loads, diets, and everyday rehearsals will be perceived as perfection of your soul and body. If a child understands their aim, it will get joy from the stage. Today we can speak about a Ukrainian choreo­graphy school that is known and appreciated in the world. There are many systems and schools, but I think that classics should be the basic for a dancer. It is important to absorb as much as possible knowledge about music theater, dramaturgy, the characters, the styles, the historical periods, the composers during your studies – this will be very useful for the artist in his/her further career.


“Ballet is the art of young people. Dancers usually leave the stage at the age of 40, it is important to leave the stage of performing to something else in time, like teaching, tutoring or re-qualify and become a choreographer, director, or take up produ­cing. With creative people such change of activity is almost painless, and for those who have a serious ‘star disease’ this step may be quite difficult. For at the rehearsals you see with your own eyes the fact that you are not as flexible as your young colleagues anymore, but sometimes it is hard to leave the stage.”

In your opinion, how the atmosphere in society, which is used to easy money, pompous and glamorous shows, spoiled with one-day stars on television, should be changed in order to bring the audience to real high values that are the groundwork of the ballet art? What should be done in the first place?

“A person who is not used to classical music since childhood and when the family switches the channel if an opera singer or a ballet show appears on screen will hardly love classics. However, there can be exceptions: people from such families themselves want to take up music or ballet, and parents put no obstacles. If a person does not understand something, in particular, the classical works, it is not the fault of the classical work, rather it means that the person is immature to understand it. You should probably start with some light things – fairytales for children (The Nutcracker, Coppelia) and with one-act productions for the adults. You can explain to children that dance is the groundwork of ballet. It consists of separate pas, pi­­rouettes, which can be compared to letters, combinations of letters, and words. And like words can be used to create melodious sentences and wise phrases in a literature piece, with the result being interesting stories, historical poems, love stories, and lyrical verse, in a ballet miniatures are created with the help of certain moves and they create a ballet show. This show can tell about diffe­rent events to the audience, and different states of the characters. I would recommend the adults to watch Romeo and Juliet or Legend of Love. I am sure these ballets won’t leave anyone indifferent.

“It seems to me that not always pompous dancing action, which demands colossal financial recourses, a huge team of performers, will give the efficiency factor that was expected by the producers. It is important what the idea of the play is, and not the amount of money earned on the so-called pro­ject. Today television in its chase for ‘picture’ gets rid of the idea, and there is a huge problem about it. Anatolii Shekera considered that a play is successful when the audience is empathizing and thinking. The television should not entertain the audience, but inform, tell and show the best examples that have emerged in Ukraine and the world.”

Why is it fashionable to be glamorous rather than well-cultured today? How can the trend for high art be brought back?

“I think that the external glare and lu­xury must give way to elegance and natio­nal originality. I won’t reveal a terrible mystery by saying that the former power did not have much respect for the National Opera and se­veral state officials came to the theater only several times for protocol events and to see foreign performers. You know, during the Maidan events the hall was full, people were striving to the high art, deriving strength from it. When the confrontation became more acute and the subway didn’t work, a part of our employees even stayed for the night in the theater. It seems to me that the Maidan has changed not only people, Ukraine, but the entire world. I live near Khre­shcha­tyk, I brought to the activists food every day, and I was impressed by the spiritual power of the people from different cities and towns. During that period Anatolii Shekera’s student Vadym Fedotov, former resident of Kyiv, currently a successful choreographer and pedagogue came from Canada. He was recording the barricades on the phone and kept saying proudly, ‘I am happy! Ukraine has woken up! Our people cannot be defeated!’

“Today, when our country has been attacked by the enemy, Crimea has been annexed, and the war in the east is underway, we must keep our chief advanced post, the culture. No money for festivals and new productions? But the television can record the famous productions of the previous years, and this will broaden the audience. It is important for everyone to feel that they are doing the right thing and become a volunteer of the cultural sotnia.”

Why is modern choreography lacking plots, shows a number of gymnastic rather than dancing numbers, and if you don’t read the libretto, the audience won’t understand what the play is about?

“Unfortunately, today ballet becomes more like sport. It is losing everything the audience have always loved it for – soul, nobility in every movement. Dance may convey the tinniest nuance, the smallest movement of feeling, the light hint, look, touch, emotion, brought to the limit, the tension of passion, which often makes the audience cry. It is enchanting, like, for example, Romeo and Juliet, Spartacus, and Bolero. Beautiful music, beautiful moves, the virtuoso control of the body – this is what real ballet is. Unfortunately, in its chase for the show, a circus attack, the ballet is disappearing as a dramatic art, and this is saddening.

“I will remind that Modern started to develop in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. The development of modern dance becomes an opportunity for well-known choreographers to show their masterfulness. Modern ballet refuses from complicated turn of legs, high jumps, stretching of arms and legs. Many dancers begin to perform barefoot, refusing from the points and tutus. Modern masters of choreography, such as Maurice Bejart, Mats Ek, John Neumeier, Boris Eifman, et al., show interesting works.”

What is the secret of longevity of such ballets as Bolero (47 years on stage), Romeo and Juliet (44 years), Spartacus (28 years), and five years ago you restored Legend of Love (choreography by Anatolii Shekera), which are the calling cards of the capital’s Opera?

“Philosophical deepness is typical of all Shekera’s productions. Choreography there is more than actually a dance, rather it is a reflection of life itself. Anatolii Shekera’s plays broach the important topics of relationships between people, between man and nature, between man and God.

“Shekera succeeded in broadening the frameworks of ballet. He proved with his artistic work that the language of dance can do many things. He worked with every actor individually, helping him with all means to reveal the character of the hero. He showed much himself, and, what’s the most important thing, he stirred the imagination of dancers, demanded to listen attentively to the music and use it as the basis. He considered that an actor must know the material perfectly and give his attitude to the deeds of the hero. He inspired the individuality, which is why every performer, without breaking the choreographic integrity of the production, made every show unique. Taking up a new production, Shekera set the main question before himself – why does the audience need this ply today? And only when he found the ans­wer, he started the rehearsals. Perhaps, this is the phenomenon of their freshness, and the interest of the audience to them not as to some archaic pieces, museum rarity, but as to ballets that are wonderfully in unison with the beat of our time.”

On April 25 the legendary Romeo and Juliet will be shown at the National Opera. The actors will dedicate it to Eleonora Stebliak, who is celebrating an anniversary this year.

“Ukrainian, in particular Kyiv, choreography school has been famous long ago,” Oleksandr CHEPALOV, Doctor of Art History, Chief Editor of the magazine Dance in Ukraine and the world, emphasizes, “we can recall such stars as former Kyiv residents Vaslav Nijinsky, Serge Lifar, Ivan Putrov, Kryvy Rih resident Volodymyr Malakhov, Svitlana Zakharova from Luhansk, et al., but at first the imperial, and later the Soviet brands seemed to shade and bring our masters to the same level, performing with huge success abroad. Nijinsky and Lifar were the etoiles of Sergey Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet. Putrov became famous as the solo dancer of the Royal Ballet of the United Kingdom, Zakharova – as the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater, Malakhov – as the director of ballet and leading soloist of the ballet company of the Berlin State Opera. Currently Ukrainians make nearly one-third of the company of the Boris Eifman Ballet Theater! And there are many examples like this.

Opera and ballet are normative. They cannot be brought to the level of a cabaret, like many directors do in their chase for modern ideas. We are being regularly pushed to some styles and streams and are persuaded that this is avant-garde – a new word in ballet,” Anatolii SHEKERA writes in his diary. These words of the choreographer can be considered an instruction for those who decided to connect their destiny with the ballet: “I think that our choreography school is strong due to traditions, and this is namely the reason why it is interesting to the entire world. At the modern stage the range of the ballet theater is marked with broad amplitude. It absorbs the folk forms of dance, music hall, folkways, and even acrobatic elements of the so-called free plasticity, etc. The classical ballet assimilates all this versatility, uses it as the means of enrichment and developing of its internal laws, and the ballet theater, anatomizing its whole, gets divided into numerous directions, trends, and styles. Every play requires hard work. You need to    fuel the flame. For a dancer this fuel is professional erudition. You cannot start a rehearsal without necessary knowledge.

“We have a wonderful school, but the problem remains that till the performer does not become famous abroad, s/he is not considered as star at home. It shouldn’t be like this. Our teachers are zealots, but the current authorities do not notice their colossal work. And the art of ballet is passed from leg to leg, in order to lay the groundwork, the performer and the teacher work as a team. For a dancer to achieve lightness he must rehearse a lot – only in such a way they can achieve virtuosity and tell in the language of dance and plasticity practically about everything.”


Anatolii SHEKERA (1935-2000), People’s Artist of Ukraine, choreographer, since 1966 work­ed as the staging choreographer and chief choreographer (1975-77 and 1994-2000) at the National opera of Ukraine.

Shekera was born on May 17, 1935 in Vladivostok, Russia. He graduated from the Perm School of Choreography in 1956 and was hired by the Perm-based Tchaikovsky Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, where he performed the leading parts of classical and modern repertoire. In 1964 he graduated from the choreography department of Moscow-based Luna­charsky Theater Institute. In 1964-66 he was the choreographer of the Lviv-based Ivan Franko Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet.

Since 1966 the artistic life of the choreographer was tightly connected with the National Shevchenko Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet of Ukraine.

A legendary ballet in the repertoire of the Kyiv theater was his production of Sergei Prokofiev’s multilayer philosophical tragedy ballet Romeo and Juliet, which has not left the stage of the capital since the premiere in 1971. In 1991 Anatolii Shekera’s production was recognized by the UNESCO Worldwide Council of Dance an outstanding achievement of the European choreography culture and he was awarded a medal to the 110th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev.

His significant productions are Legend of Love by Arif Malikov (1967, second edition of 1992, restored in 2010 by choreographer Eleonora Stebliak), Bolero by Maurice Ravel, Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian, Swan’s Lake by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Coppelia by Leo Delibes, Masons by Myroslav Skoryk, Stone Master by Vitalii Huba­renko, Nutcracker by Pyotr Tchai­kovsky, Lileia by Kostiantyn Dan­kevych, Olha and Prometheus by Yevhen Stankovych, Fantastical Symphony by Hector Berlioz, etc.

Shekera also staged ballets in other theaters.

Eleonora STEBLIAK, People’s Artist of Ukraine, pe­dagogue and cho­reographer at the National Opera of Uk­raine.

She was born in Zhytomyr, graduated from the Kyiv Choreography School (1959), cho­reo­graphy department of Moscow Thea­ter Institute (1981).

In 1959-82 she performed at Kyiv-based Shevchenko Theater of Opera and Ballet. Since 1982 she has been working as a choreographer of the National Opera.

Eleonora Stebliak is a lyrical-dramatic ballerina with a brightly expressed dramatic talent. The images she created were full of expression, inner dynamics, and psychologism. Her parts include: Odette-Odile, Raymonda, Kitri, Masha, Juliet, Donna Anna, Mehmene Banu, Aegina, Aysha, Sirin, Phrygia, Carmen, Laurencia, Water Mermaid, etc.; broad concert repertoire.

She has toured Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Germany, and other countries.

As a teacher and choreographer she has been teaching the plays in choreo­graphy of Anatolii Shekera, prepares parts with the young performers. She restored Shekera’s production Legend of Love by Arif Malikov in 2010.

By Tetiana POLISHCHUK, The Day