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Simon Crofts | Autumn 2009

Ukraine is one of the world’s great exporters of star dancers. The Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru, Ivan Putrov and Sergei Polunin were all trained in Kiev, although the poetry of their dancing is pure St Petersburg. “It’s our cradle,” says Sergei Najenko, principal dancer and choreographer with the Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Lviv. “We are all, all, all children of the Russian ballet.”

In Lviv, regarded as Ukraine’s most independent and pro-Western city, an effusive admission of a debt to Russia comes as a surprise. (Lviv’s name in Russian—Lvov—is still resented by some as a reminder of Soviet rule.) But Simon Crofts, who took the photographs on these pages, found that attitudes to both Russia and Europe had relaxed in the past few years. “Before, when I was taking photographs in Ukraine, most people—even my friends—assumed that I was some kind of spy. It was a legacy from Soviet days. People are much more open now and seem to have lost that traditional paranoia towards foreigners.” 

A ballet company, incorporating different nationalities and styles, has to rise above xenophobia. Lviv gathers its dancers from all over Ukraine and Russia. It has its own school—“our kitchen, so to speak,” says Najenko—but not the resources of the famous vocational academies in Kiev or St Petersburg. “There isn’t the chance to grow our own real stars, so we wait until talented students come from outside and then we develop them. Very many move on to bigger cities and bigger theatres.” 

Crofts, who was an Oxford-educated lawyer before he turned to photography, has a passion for Ukraine. He made it his mission to observe the dancers at work and to follow their lives outside the theatre. “It was the people not the performance that interested me,” says Crofts. “And although they were a little reluctant at first to be photographed at home, they soon began to tune in to what I wanted.” The result is a beguiling portfolio capturing the lumpishness of swans on dry land alongside flashes of kingfisher-wing transcendence. Like ballet itself, the pictures combine earthbound reality with a glimpse of heaven. ~ JULIE KAVANAGH

BAROQUE EXTRAVAGANCE
A design for Verdi’s opera “A Masked Ball” by Tadey Ryndzak, a disciple of the late Eugene Lysyk, whose ideas helped shape the Lviv ballet. Lysyk’s sets combine baroque gorgeousness with kitschy surrealism and reflect the extravagance of Lviv itself. The Washington Post called Lysyk’s decor for “Parsifal” “a mix of magically beautiful and truly hideous”, and that tradition lives on here 

A BEJEWELED DANCER
A costume for “Don Quixote” by Lysyk’s widow, Oksana Zinchenko, pays homage to Lysyk’s taste for jewel-encrusted, gilt-tasselled, Russian Orthodox excess

TRADITIONAL VALUES
“Swan Lake” is the backbone of any ballet repertory, but there is even more of an obligation in Lviv to stage traditional fare. This is a Hapsburg jewel of a city with an opera house to rival the Palais Garnier, and the public—especially the tourists who flock from nearby Poland—expect to see beauty and elegance on stage

STUCK WITH THE PAST
Despite the expectation for Lviv to stage traditional fare, the dancers are hungry for more challenging choreography. Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” was recently mounted by Sergei Najenko, but he says Lviv can’t afford to import modern classics by, say, Balanchine or MacMillan: “We can only watch them in the performances of other companies” 

SERGEI NAJENKO
The company’s principal dancer and choreographer, at home in his flat—“like something out of Dostoyevsky”—in the run-down Zamarstyniv district of Lviv. Since the photograph was taken, a fire caused by an electrical fault has destroyed the sofa, wallpaper and portrait of the dancer as a young man 

IN THE WINGS
A member of the corps de ballet waiting to perform

A PRE-SHOW CIGARETTE
Najenko in his dressing room, wearing the costume of the foppish Gamache from "Don Quixote". Europe's (and Russia's) smoking ban has yet to filter through to Lviv: among the dancers, Simon Crofts noticed, "smoking is almost compulsory"

DANCERS OFF-POINTE
Degas with added denim, and a tracksuit

THE CHILL OF IT ALL
A dancer keeps warm in the wings 

A TEACHERS CORRECTION
Galina Kleshchova corrects a pupil’s arabesque line. This action would now be frowned on in Britain, where political correctness is driving out physical contact

SERGEI KACHURA
A soloist waits his turn as a toreador in "Don Quixote"

A STAMPEDE OF SWANS
The corps de ballet must return their pachki—their tutus—to the costume department to allow the staff to get home on time

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