Two-year old Oleksandra Kuleshyna with her father Igor Kuleshyn (third right) and other members of the Freedom Ballet of Ukraine (Jane Barlow/PA)
24 August 2022

Ukraine is about more than war, says Fringe Ballet Freedom performer

24 August 2022

Performers in the Ukrainian Ballet Freedom say they want people to see the country is about “more than war” as the show comes to the end of its Fringe run.

Ballet dancer Igor Kuleshyn has been “dreaming” of coming to Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe for years, but busy work schedules in Ukraine have not allowed for it in past years.

After Russia invaded the country in February, however, cultural life stopped in Ukraine, Mr Kuleshyn said.

He has received special permission from the Ukrainian government to perform in the show which has been running at the Pleasance in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre since August 4.

Two-year old Oleksandra Kuleshyna with her father Igor Kuleshyn, alongside MS Victoria in the Port of Leith, Edinburgh, which has provided temporary accommodation for Ukrainian refugees (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)

When the Fringe comes to a formal close on Sunday, Mr Kuleshyn must return to Ukraine.

“This year, the war has come and we don’t have any work in Ukraine or any cultural life in Ukraine. For the first five months – it didn’t exist,” he said.

“There is a huge, huge interest in our culture and all things that are Ukrainian. Ukraine is the point right now. We have a lot of ancient culture,” he said.

Oleksandra Kuleshyna with her father Igor Kuleshyn (third right) and other members of the Freedom Ballet of Ukraine (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)

Ballet Freedom is performed around a large wardrobe – something to act as a metaphor to show “everybody has secrets” and it is not just about what can be seen, but what can be felt.

“We are not like (an) ordinary dance company. We are more like theatre, but without words. It touches hearts and souls of the people in the room,” Mr Kuleshyn said.

“You know, it’s like my friend said there are no dry eyes in the room,” he said.

Much of the audiences have been filled with Ukrainians – around 2,000 refugees have settled in Edinburgh since war broke out in February.

“They are just pleased to see the show, people from Ukraine. It’s just to see people that speak the same language.

“They appreciate that we are coming. One girl said, ‘I can’t come to your show in Kyiv, but I can come here in Edinburgh’.”

“She came to our show and it’s like ‘Oh my god, I’m here’.”

As well as performing in one of the world’s largest arts festivals, Mr Kuleshyn’s trip to Scotland was a family reunion after his wife, Daria Bondarenko, and two young daughters relocated to Scotland following the outbreak of war.

Daria Bondarenko with her daughter Oleksandra Kuleshyna and members of the Freedom Ballet (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)

Ms Bondarenko said her husband’s arrival in Edinburgh has been “like the previous life”.

“The last five months have been hard and not normal. We have been separate,” she said.

“We have just been trying to take calls and videos so that we don’t forget. I have been saying ‘Here’s Daddy, say hello to Daddy’ again and again.

“The Festival has been like a present to spend this month together.”

The family had no set plans to come to Scotland and left Ukraine quickly after the Russian invasion to get the children out.

“We had a family meeting and decided that we needed to take (the) kids out,” Ms Bondarenko said.

“Every month we planned to come back home, we weren’t planning to stay anywhere for half a year, a year or anything like that.

“But then we understood Igor is coming to Scotland and we made a decision for us. It was a possibility to spend a month together.”

They spent two weeks in Bulgaria and four months in Cyprus and travelled to Scotland when they found out Mr Kuleshyn would be performing in the Fringe.

Mr Kuleshyn’s performance schedule has been rigid so the family have not been able to enjoy as much of Edinburgh as they had hoped but they have managed to see some other shows at the Fringe.

After arriving in Edinburgh at the beginning of July, Ms Bondarenko said Scotland is a “lovely country” and they want to stay here to give their children an education.

She added: “I love it and we want to stay here if possible.”

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