Ukrainian ballet dancers pour out their hearts in NJPAC performance before returning to war-torn country

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Ballerina Olena Pedan danced at New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Jan. 15 in the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine’s production of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’

NEWARK, NJ — In “The Nutcracker,” she was a snowflake. In “Sleeping Beauty,” she was a fairy. Both roles, among others portrayed by English-speaking ballerina Olena Pedan, were performed in a recently concluded North American tour by the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine. The 55-member troupe’s final show, a performance of “Sleeping Beauty,” was presented for one evening at NJPAC on Jan. 15. The next day, the company was scheduled to return home and to their country’s devastating war with Russia. Speaking at the Newark venue about an hour before going onstage, Pedan said she could not believe her country still endures the war or that the 21st century could be like this.

“We woke up Feb. 24 with the sounds of bombs,” she said, citing the first day of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, including areas near Kyiv, the capital and where she resides, in 2022. “Here in the United States, we have a safe life and have some fun. It’s always sad for us to think about our families, mothers, fathers, husbands, kids, over there in the Ukraine. They’re not safe.”

These thoughts do not leave the performers, she said, and they are difficult to have on your mind when you want to make an audience happy with your best performance.

“But inside your soul, you’re so sad,” she said. “Sometimes, you feel nothing. It’s very hard. And this war is changing people, changing our minds, changing everything. It’s just awful, and we’ll never forgive Russia for this.” 

Pedan began ballet training at age 10, which was “about 20 years ago,” she said, and trained in Kyiv. In addition to performing, she teaches master classes in ballet.

“I always wanted to be an actress when I was very small,” she said. “Pretty much, the ballet dancer is also an actress. We try to speak with our body language, so it’s been my dream always.”

She said she likes to be in the public eye.

“When people look at me, I try to send happiness to them,” she said. “It also makes me happy because I can bring a little bit of joy and some positive emotions to the people. It’s important to do something for other people.”

The libretto for a ballet is not always a story about a happy occurrence; it can be a sad one, she acknowledged. She gave as an example “Giselle.” In this story, Giselle, a peasant girl, returns from the dead to remove a curse from Albrecht, the nobleman she loves, only to return to her grave.

“She is dying because of love,” Pedan said. “But it shows that love can win in everything. It’s a little bit sad, but everybody at the end understands that love will save our world. There’ll always be sunshine after the dark time.”

Discussing her profession, Pedan said there is something inside dancers that makes them persist.

“Not everybody can be a dancer,” she said. “Not because of body shape or their legs. I can’t explain this, but if you don’t have these feelings, you’ll never dance and never do this job. It’s very hard to be a ballerina. You push yourself to exercise, stretch and not eat a lot. You train six to seven hours a day. If you don’t have that feeling inside, maybe you’ll do it for a year and that will be enough.”

Being on tour is difficult, too, but Pedan said the company was happy to be in America. It performed in 23 cities in eight states, as well as in Canada. She has danced in other companies and this was her first year with the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine, which was founded in 2018. Its annual North American tours are hosted by Classical Arts Entertainment, which is located in Brooklyn. Pedan said the troupe would be returning home after being away for three months. Her parents and a sister live five hours from Kyiv, in Dnipro. Just the night before, she said during this interview, an apartment building in Dnipro was bombed. 

According to preliminary news accounts, at least 40 people died, many more were injured and dozens were missing, after a Russian missile hit a nine-floor apartment building. Russia was insane, Pedan said, and its president, Vladimir Putin, was crazy, killing civilians “because of nothing.”

She said her country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “is the best.”

“He’s just a hero for us,” Pedan said. “And also his wife, Olena Kiyashko. She’s traveling, talking to people and telling our stories, and trying to show people it can’t be like this.”

And now it was time to return.

“Everybody wants to go home,” she said of the dancers. “We want to see our families and hug our husbands and kids. Yes, it’s dangerous; yes, we understand that. There’s no lights, sometimes no heating in apartments, no water, but still we want to be with our families.”